An Invisible Enemy

By Artan Hajrullahu

I live with my wife and two children. I have my father and mother, we live as a family in a house. I am a teacher, and when they made the decision to close down the school, to stop every activity, when we discussed it with my family and colleagues, we understood it as something that wouldn’t last long, as we thought in the beginning that it would only last for two weeks, until March 27. But, while staying at home, from the way the virus was spreading, we figured that the lockdown would last.

The lockdown and these outings to the supermarket to buy things for the family, gave me the feeling of another life. As a person who experienced war twenty years ago, the lockdown reminded me of how close we grew within the family because of the circumstances. We gathered, we decided, we discussed, we hung out, we made jokes as a way to overcome the difficulties. But, the pandemic is something else, the fact that you cannot meet your extended family, signals the necessity of physical distancing.

In this period I had three projects that I was supposed to produce, either collective or solo exhibitions. Due to the pandemic, these activities were canceled. As a person, as an artist, I need to communicate with people, I need to visit galleries, exhibitions of other artists. The impossibility to do this has affected me negatively. But, during the lockdown, you have to be creative and find yourself, and isolation was suppression of self, which bothered me.

Every artist needs to go out, to meet people, and get inspired. Simply, this was what I needed. You stay home, you think, and what? Inspiration comes from walking around, seeing, meeting, and hearing different stories from people. When you start bringing them together as compositions, this process is a creative process for me.

During the lockdown, I have thought about my artistic and creative side of my work one hundred percent. Though, personally, I did not step out of what I always do, so I did not create artworks that are out of my work cycle. However, I had more time to work on them. But, this period was damaging for artists that produce work in collaboration, because they couldn’t develop their work in collaboration.

However, during the lockdown, I mostly dealt with my family. So, with my children, their homework, the guidance I had to give them. Sometimes I would watch television, different news, and, from the evening until late at night, I would dedicate myself to my profession, creating something new.

My son is in first grade, this time was a waste for him, too. In the first grade, children need to socialize, so that experience isn’t only about learning. It’s not only the learning, a big percentage of the time children learn with each other. While criticizing each other, asking each other, they learn. For my child, the pandemic was a huge disadvantage, because he started socializing with his friends, making new friends, and in an instant, they went into lockdown.

This was a huge problem for parents also. In the online learning process, they had to play the role of the teacher, to work with their children. Online learning had its good things, but on the other hand, as a society, we weren’t prepared for this kind of learning. The school curriculum foresees this form of online learning, but the way it became a necessity was a strong blow, especially to the education system, which was found unprepared. We were able to have lessons on different platforms, but there was a lack of socializing among children, my children and other children missed socializing.

Before, teachers were always criticized, now, we have understood their importance. From my perspective as a teacher, it was always thought about our work that, “You go there for two—three hours and come back.” Each family and parent understood how hard it is to educate and teach a child. As teachers, we work with twenty, thirty students, parents work with one, two or three and can’t do it without getting mad. Now, everyone understands how hard it really is.

Our daughter is two years old and during the time our son was learning online, she often wouldn’t let him learn, she would take his things, notebooks. We always had to create distance between them, one of us would deal with our son, the other with the daughter. Their age difference made it impossible for the two of them to be together in the same room.

My father worked in education, and he was a teacher for a long time, he retired three or four years ago. My mother also is a retired housewife, she did not have a specific profession. My father, he is used to going out to walk. Older people have a different way of thinking, “It’s just a regular flu.” This isn’t a regular flu, exactly this flu endangered you mostly. You have to know that you always have accompanying diseases, like blood pressure, heart diseases, this, that.

If something happens to them tomorrow, the family will be in a bad position, because everyone will feel guilty that they got infected. We reached an understanding, we kept our distance, our masks, in the beginning, there were also the gloves. When my father would go to the store to buy things, we would make jokes, “Look, you’re going to war, you have an invisible enemy.”

During this time, communication with our family members, cousins, aunts, was harder. As Albanians, we have a tradition, whatever happens we visit each other. These visits were always frequent. In my family, ninety—nine percent of the time we were isolated. We communicated through online platforms where we discussed, “What happened there? What’s new?” Luckily, there wasn’t anyone infected in our immediate family.

Me and others only leave the house for our necessities. We don’t go out unless we need to, we go out for our families and personal needs. Especially when you have children, you always need something. When I leave the house, I leave 50/50, you never know how, when, what, even though you wear a mask. For example, yesterday, even though I was wearing my mask, while I was paying, two—three people came near me, they tried to pay faster, because they were in a rush. Even though the information is very clear and stores encourage people to keep physical distance. The saleswoman said, “Sir, be careful and keep your distance,” but these are unexpected situations and you don’t know who comes near you, who… this is everyone’s problem, we aren’t safe.

It happened to me, at the end of March, I met a person a few times who tried to talk to me, to hug me. Interestingly, he told me, “There’s nothing, there’s no virus! Artan, this is something people are saying, politics.” Two weeks ago or so that person was infected with COVID—19, and he has been quarantined for two weeks. Now I heard that he is recommending others, “No, be careful.” They are accepting their fault, they’re accepting that coronavirus exits, there’s a virus. Before it happened, he hugged people, extended his hand to them, and didn’t respect the preventive measures that were recommended by the Health Institute.

In our circle, there were some cases, but they self—isolated, it did not become a huge problem. I was talking to a friend of mine one day, he lives in Pristina, “I am isolated.” I asked, “Are you positive?” This negative, positive thing has confused us. He said, “I am positive, but haven’t gone out.” And I know that he is a very quiet person who follows the rules. The fact that he got infected is interesting.

A good thing is that I don’t mind the lockdown, I don’t mind not going out often. Maybe as a joke, but during this time, me and my family members communicated more. Often me and my wife would say, “Wow, our children’s eyes are like this, we never looked at them before.” It’s not that in regular circumstances you don’t support and take care of your family, but obligations take you away. Obligations give you another direction, when you’re out of the house, you can’t commit as much as you want.

For more than a decade, I have drawn, and the way I approach my work is quite delicate, because I use recycled materials, cardboard, or paper bags. I always use them and experiment with them, to make collages, to work on the format in which I will develop the concept of the artwork. In this way of working, I feel so much better, even though easier, I have worked with videos and installations also.

Online platforms and social media even before offered a degree of visibility, but especially during the pandemic. Facebook, Instagram, always sharing and posting my work, so this in a way communicated with others. During the fall, I have an exhibit in one of Pristina’s galleries, in those 360—degree photography formats because of the measures. The new measures don’t allow people to be in physical spaces, so the only way is to present them in 360 degrees.

These days, in the offices of the European Union in Pristina, there’s an exhibit, “Artists in quarantine,” where the work that the Gallery of Kosovo shared with the public during the lockdown is presented. I was one of those artists, and all that work that was gathered will be turned into an exhibit. Due to the new measures, they have realized that the display in the 360—degree format will be simpler, then it will be promoted online so that everyone can see it and have the opportunity to visit it.

However, even though artists promote their work online and on social media, it isn’t the same as when it is exhibited in a physical space and is experienced. In my case, when you see my work in a picture on social media, it’s very different from real life, this happens because of the materials that I use. Art admirers asked me this question, “What I’ve seen from social media, now that I see it [live], it’s not how I imagined it. You use various materials, structure, it is entirely another approach.”

If this lockdown and isolation continue as they’re saying until 2022, I believe this will change how we approach art, not just here, but around the world. This is because, in the future, people will be reluctant to go or gather somewhere. When art is being presented online, it is perceived as more comfortable, a more private experience, and that work is being consumed more easily. However, art is in crisis. I don’t judge art based on a format, but sometimes even the minimal aspects of the work influence how it is perceived. My work, my artistic process, has gone from a large format to a minimal format. My works are in centimeters.

My work process for the moment isn’t visible to the public. This aspect of my work is disappearing, and it is worrisome for me personally. We are thinking that within a year, two, the pandemic will go away, that there will be a cure for it and we don’t have to go to lockdown. But what if, after two years, we will change our way of living completely? We will adapt and continue living in this form. We will adapt and think this way of life is easier because everything is online. This is worrisome.

Artan Hajrullahu (b. 1979) is a Gjilan—based visual artist. Hajrullahu’s work focuses on ordinary life and nostalgia. His drawings depict everyday scenes and memories from the artist’s childhood, where the relationship between human beings and household objects tell poetic stories. Hajrullahu’s work has been on display at solo and group exhibitions in Kosovo and in the region, as well as Berlin and New York. In 2013, Hajrullahu earned the Artists of Tomorrow Award and was named Gjilan’s Artist of the Year. In 2018, he earned the Muslim Mulliqi Prize. Hajrullahu teaches painting at the Visual Arts High School in Gjilan.