WAR & PEACE
Wallpaper|November 2021
Petrit Halilaj looks back to his childhood drawings for a new exhibition at Tate St Ives
TF CHAN

In 1998, when Petrit Halilaj was 11, Serbian troops swept through his native Kosovo and forced him and his family to flee into nearby Albania. Destruction, displacement and loss came to define his youth, and eventually shaped his career as an artist. Now one of the foremost cultural figures to have emerged from his young homeland, he has explored these themes with poignant urgency. At the 2010 Berlin Biennale, he reconstructed the scaffolding of his family home, burned down in the village of Kostërc during the war, and later rebuilt in the capital city of Pristina; and let loose a flock of live chickens as symbols of rural life and recovered freedom. He subsequently meditated on migration and integration through large-scale recreations of the jewellery that his mother had buried in the soil as they prepared to escape, and by filling an Art Basel booth in 2011 with the same soil.

Contemplating wider themes of nationhood, he created a giant bird’s nest out of Kosovan soil and twigs for the country’s first pavilion at the Venice Biennale two years later and then resurrected specimens from the vanished Natural History Museum of Pristina for a solo show at the Wiels Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels. Adding to this more recent projects such as Ru, 2017, inspired by Neolithic artefacts from the town of Runik that wound up in Serbian hands; and Shkrepëtima, 2018, a performance presenting the collective memories of Runik’s citizens; and Halilaj’s ability to give widely resonant form to his personal histories becomes abundantly clear.

There is, however, one aspect of his biography that Halilaj was hesitant to mine for many years: his actual experience of the Kosovo War, which he is finally drawing on for a major installation at Tate St Ives, his first solo exhibition in the UK. ‘For a very long time, I preferred to not talk about it, or to not remember it in detail,’ he explains over Zoom from his Berlin studio. ‘I never went back to the conflict, and I was very annoyed by journalists who were interested in my experiences as a refugee.’

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