Interview with Shkëlzen Maliqi

Dear viewers and listeners, welcome to the Balkan Perspectives podcast!

Today, I have in my studio Mr. Shkëlzen Maliqi. He is a rare and long-time art critic. Within the framework of the 23rd edition of Balkan Perspectives we have chosen him to talk about a topic that is not so easy. We will talk about art, culture, and dealing with the past. As you know, in the 90s, when Kosovo society started to organize its life in parallel way, just as it was organized like that in many social spheres, it was likewise unavoidable for art and culture to be thus organized within their realm. Today we will have a conversation with him, as he is the most deserving tracker and most critical eye of all those events to date, so that we elicit from him some perspective, either historical, critical, or paradigmatic while we stand stay at the edge of a probable reconciliation between the two peoples.

L. Mustafa: Mr. Shkëlzen, welcome to our studio!

Sh. Maliqi: It is good to be here!

L. Mustafa: Do you still believe that art may change the world?

Sh. Maliqi: Yes, I have not entirely given up but I stand corrected, because as a young man, I was a follower of a larger movement – planetary and revolutionary – and we thought there existed continuous progress. Especially in art, literature, and philosophy, the breakthrough of which bring the society forward. Since it was different during the XIX and XX centuries, and since it was the century of revolutions, we thought that especially art and literature played an extraordinary role in driving forward these revolutions. However, with the counter-revolutions of XX century, like the one in Iran, or others, modernism started to wane and fall into counter-modernism and counter-revolution, so I started to doubt whether art could change the world. Yet, I still think art is important to reflect the world and change the world. The role of art is not Messianic, because belief in Messianic movements has been counter-productive and has led us to totalitarianisms. Therefore, at this point we need to be careful. Art in society is necessary and may drive progress or argue to improve people’s lives.

L. Mustafa: In 1989-1991 Kosovo was annexed by Serbia, and as I mentioned earlier, the Kosovo society – namely the Albanian society, started to organize their life in parallel, similar as in many fields, did art too? How was art possible then?

Sh. Maliqi: Look, in Yugoslavia we had a pretty lenient autonomy. Institutions were part of the federation. We were represented at all levels of the federation with almost equal rights. Serbia wanted to cancel that system and return a commanding system to join it again with Serbia. Vojvodina too had the same status as Kosovo. When such situation was created (the attempts by Serbia to occupy the other parts) we had the premonition of statehood, the organization was ready: schools, there were 420 thousand professors and students, the university, all those structures existed. So we had that ready, more or less. We only added that element of pluralism in 1990 by establishing 5-6 or 7 parties, we even had some bodies that represented us, like the Coordination Council of the Kosovo parties, the Council of Albanian Parties in Yugoslavia. I was member of that council too, and we worked with other members of the Social-Democratic Party. There were voices saying there should be no parallel organization because they (Serbia) would return us to institutions and schools. After six months, organization started spontaneously but also under directives. We learned a lesson from two similar cases. In South Africa and Israel, the apartheid system prohibited people of colour to attend schools; they did not react or self-organize and the system was dissolved. In Palestina, it was a different case. When Palestinians were taken out of schools, they organized classes in fields, wherever they could. We followed the role of the Palestinians. That was the spontaneous intention of people too. Parents were sent away from their jobs, especially in the cities it was hard. We also organized ourselves and each went to their own school and we found ways to organize ourselves in private homes and garages. With regards to financing, it was obtained, as self-financing from our private organizations, companies, and the 3% fund, a type of a formal system where people her and in the West contributed, and in fact, more money was collected here than in the West. Because sometimes there is this impression that only those in the West collected money. Even in the sphere of culture we started to get organized in this parallel system. But it was not easy. Everything started when some artists began exhibiting their paintings in cafeterias, whereas renowned artists started to say it was not a dignified presentation.

L. Mustafa: In the theorization that you do about dividing the stages of art in Kosovo in the beginning of the ‘90s, you speak about the art of resistance, which you have shaped as a concept. Against who did this art invite people to resist?

Sh. Maliqi: I wrote a review about an exhibition by Iliriana Loxha at “Koha” café, across from Rilindja, which I entitled: “The Resistance of Art.” We had already entered the fourth year of the apartheid and someone had taken the courage. Earlier in the same year, there was another exhibition by Maksut Vezgishi, at a café-gallery in Prizren, which remained open for a month or two, it did not receive a lot of promotion, but since I worked for “Zëri” we wrote about that exhibition too. Later, that concept expanded. Then other artists and professors agreed to exhibit their works in cafeterias, at “Roma” and some other places that existed, “Hani i 2 Robertëve”, used to have exhibitions even before, once it was a cafeteria, then a restaurant, and it went on in continuity. In 1996 – 1997 we succeeded in obtaining some funds from the Soros foundation, and we established a semi-official gallery, or a professional one, thanks to the fact that “Dodona” theatre was covered because Faruk Begolli had a company registered in Belgrade, and rented “Dodona”, which was a theatre for children and youth, and he indeed organized there the activity of the Academy of Arts; there were shows on every night, and managed the finances thanks to tickets and organizations. In ‘92-93 I was at the Soros Foundation office and helped “Dodona” to manage the cultural life. In 1996 they were awarded a project, with a nearby newly-constructed building. We liked it. We inquired about the premises and took it. Great artists like Tahir Emra, Rexhep Ferri and young students exhibited there and we started to promote new art.

L. Mustafa: In 1997 you organized the exhibition “Beyond” in Belgrade. How did you come up with the idea, why did you have to go to Belgrade to organize an exhibition?

Sh. Maliqi: The Soros Foundation called me in 1993 to work with them in Prishtina, although I was member of their board in Belgrade. In 1994 I became part of them to help media, education, and culture. Given such activities, although calls were not public, I reviewed and supported ideas regardless who submitted those. I started to support some artists who would happen to have invitations for Germany or elsewhere. During a meeting at the Soros Foundation I told them, since we have four centres, each of our artists can exhibit in a specific centre, like in Montenegro, Vojvodina, Serbia, and so on. They included this proposal in their program. The director of the centre at that time was my friend from my studies, and she said I should be the curator. I accepted and brought the artists together. I asked them where they wanted to go: Budva, Subotica, Novi Sad or Belgrade. Sokol, Memet and Maks said, if we go somewhere, let us go to Belgrade. They will understand what we are working on. Because their work was not understood here, what they were doing. I also tried to write and interpret their work for newspapers and magazines. Even Sokol Beqiri used to write with explanations about the work that was being done at the studio which back then was called “Multimedia”. My intention was to send them abroad, to see and face that world. All the works they had done were works of resistance. I also invited Ilir Bajri, who at that time worked a lot in combining jazz and our local folk tradition, and asked him to do something with regards to the exhibition. He made a very interesting spatial instalment which they followed and liked a lot. Mehmet Beluli had some very classical instalments but one was more direct, entitled “6 April 1992”, the day when the bombing and curfew in Sarajevo began. Sokol Beqiri had very original works, for example the cheese barrels that looked like bullets. They were very much impressed by that.

L. Mustafa: Can we think today about a “Beyond 2”?

Sh. Maliqi: We talked about “Beyond 2” for the 20th anniversary that we organized with Borka Pavičević. Let me go back to what I said earlier. Why did we organize that in Belgrade? Another moment why Belgrade was that at that time, one year before the organization, namely in 1995, Borka Pavičević, another colleague from my studies, found a vacant space in Belgrade, where the building of the Eastern Germany Embassy in Belgrade used to be. Germany had united and the space was usable, and was given to her to use for cultural activities. It still operates under the name Centre for Cultural Decontamination. In other words, it used to be and continues to be an anti-fascist, anti-Milošević, and anti-nationalist centre and I thought that place was very good for the presentation. People who came there understood the message. Our idea was that resistance art should go where it is understood, even if someone attacks you, again it means that something was understood, and we showed them we were not people with t ails, as they have portrayed us through the nationalistic Serbian propaganda.

L.Mustafa: In the ‘90s, there used to be productions, like “Labia” which also produced tapes, skits, humour, and movies. How do you see the role of such productions, like “Labia”, during the time they made pop-culture to keep up the spirits during such times of turmoil?

Shkëlzen Maliqi: There used to be tape productions even earlier by Radio Television Prishtina – RTP. At that time, music was distributed via tapes and later, video tapes. If you remember, TV sets, maybe you have no idea. Satellite dishes mushroomed all over Prishtina and Kosovo. We would watch the channels in Albanian from Tirana, it sufficed to rotate the dishes in that direction, because they were analogous. At that time, TV sets had the video player integrated so we could also watch the tapes on them. We saw entertainment and skits on them. RTP started the popularization of humour, albeit a more controlled one. When production started they started by tapes that one could find in video stores. There were video stores everywhere, in every neighbourhood. They produced films; in other words, since we could not watch the world movie premieres they obtained them two-three weeks later. Even before the premiere. That was easy, that part of entrepreneurial creativity that existed, and there were people who were very popular and who did not use to be before. For example, one would not see Dani on RTP, but he was the main star of the ‘90s thanks to small tapes and videotapes later. “Labia” even started to make films, and with those resources they hired the famous actors and the humour actors too. For example, Leci and Cima were popular both in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

There is no resistance without humour. Popular culture should not be underappreciated. It is like folklore. Now it adapts to the conditions. Sometimes we say it contained a lot of kitsch or something similar. In those situations, even the kitsch played its role and at certain moments touched people in a sentimental manner; it will always exist and one cannot stop it.

L. Mustafa: There are many initiatives from various organizations in Kosovo and Serbia nowadays centred on the idea of harmony, reconciliation, and bringing the peoples together. Do you believe that there is hope art can help us and are there many untapped and unused spaces where we can use art, pop-culture, and other aspects of culture, where we can showcase positions of people who are similar?

SH. Maliqi: Yes, this is a very lengthy process and is taking shape in another aspect; I mean that by the mediation of international factors to achieve reconciliation or a historical agreement between the two peoples. The problem is that since the ‘80s it has been intensive. There used to be prejudices even before but since 1981 and onwards there has been a permanent denigrating campaign against Albanians, with the claims that they are criminals, murderers who have usurped Serbian lands, and that has created a public opinion and mood that continues nowadays and it seems that a long-term reconciliation cannot be achieved. However, this happened with the German Fascism too and that caused catastrophes across the continent. Fascism should be conquered through adequate means. In the ‘90s Serbia perpetrated genocide to achieve Greater Serbia and was not punished accordingly. There was the intervention in Kosovo but the best proposal was not only intervention by air but also intervention by land forces to occupy Serbia and make the Serbian people aware, like the German one, that fascism was detrimental to its own people. There is no such sentiment in Serbia. I am not saying there are no people who think this, indeed that are opposition voices who opposed and documented Serbian crimes but the main media outlets are controlled by the regime, which is a continuation of Milošević’s regime and it is hard to believe that they will change course. Perhaps now is his moment to play with both chairs: on the one hand the regime plays the role to become part of the European Union, and on the other hand, keeps close ties with Russia. Even though Russia came out of the imperial phase of the Soviet Union it has gone back to a certain type of fascism and is demonstrating aggression just like Serbia has demonstrated aggression against former Yugoslav countries. It is almost the same scenario. We should have hope that this will end and this is a global conflict and things need to be clarified. It may be that special sectors emerge, or new agreements, like the Ohrid Agreement, and no matter how long we have waited for, things may take a turn.

L. Mustafa: I hope for the best and let it be the best for the good of both peoples, it was my pleasure to have you today in the studio…

Sh. Maliqi: We did not say everything, but….

L. Mustafa: Yes, we did not say everything, it would have been more useful perhaps if we had talked about what should precede, because taste cannot be controlled but calculating politics is more attractive. In this respect I believe that art is a better option than politics but the latter takes the grand decisions.

Sh. Maliqi: Even earlier, even during the ‘90s, with the exhibition we organized in Belgrade and the “Multimedia” centre and the other activities we tried to create a platform to bring people together, even by publishing anthologies of Albanian literature in Serbian, we did organize and there were many activities but always the extreme forces took more space or stopped the process. However, there is a lot to be done so that fascism does not triumph.

L. Mustafa: Thank you for being with me today.

Sh. Maliqi: Thank you for the invitation and the opportunity.

L. Mustafa: Honoured viewers and listeners, I thank you for being with me today as part of the forum ZFD and Balkan Perspectives podcast, and I invite you to watch the forum’s podcasts and see you next time. Good-bye and have a nice day!

Latif Mustafa has graduated from philosophy studies at the University of Prishtina. He was the author of the philosophical show PikëPamje, author and publicist of socio-political analysis published in the regional media. He was engaged as a lecturer at the Department of Social Sciences of the Nënë Tereza University – UNT in SKopje. He lives and works in Prishtina, more specifically, he is engaged as a theater critic and author of Çelnaja show of Sbunker.