At the beginning of the pandemic, there was no lockdown in Antwerp. There was only the obstacle of crossing the border, there were road checks, and service institutions were closed to prevent communication. These last couple of days, Antwerp started to become the center of the pandemic. For a moment the curfew started, and this is regional and is only applied in Antwerp. For example, the border with the Netherlands is very close, there are many people from the Netherlands here, and if they want to travel, it’s impossible to leave.
The curfew was last in place during World War II in 1944. People are a little frustrated by this, but it is a place that was built on the foundations of a socialist democracy for a very long time, and when it comes to bureaucracy and rules, everything becomes a big mess. There are different articles in the regulations, while when you meet police in the street, they ask you questions and have a different approach from the articles. Then there are three governments, three cantons. You have the Dutch, the French, and the Germans. Brussels, in fact, is completely self—governing and applies its own laws.
This part of the confusion is the most frustrating aspect for me, because I also work in a bar to survive, and you have to be very careful because the bar gets fined, I don’t get fined during working hours. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen people scared of one another, but this happens more during the lockdown. It was very special for me, because I am not a person who can stay inside much. I need to move and do something all the time.
Luckily I have a studio with a garden. The studio belongs to the Artists’ Association and ninety percent are Belgian. There is a large group of people working and creating for sixty years, a part of this community is older and a part is younger. At that time, I worked all day in the atelier, while in the evening, we played ping pong with a distance of two meters. Then we drank beer and we all went home.
During this time, I had friends, I had a circle of three, four people with whom I hung out day and night. They are from here and from different countries. In the Association is an old liberal generation that isn’t very interested in national questions. We have jokes about my nationality and their nationality. They are inside jokes, which I have initiated. For example, when I hit a ping pong ball wrongly, someone would say, “It doesn’t matter because you are traumatized by the war.”
I consider that I am accepted, because I made that joke myself, and I use their dark humor to mock them. This relationship for me is pretty good and important. Really, these jokes are made to free me from the burden of where I am from. We both understand this. Through humor, I notice a kind of liberation in people’s minds, a kind of acceptance.
I’m an immigrant, but this is my home at the moment. I have lived here for ten years. It’s hard when I go back to Kosovo for a visit, it’s not a good idea to stay more than a week. In a way, I’m a tourist when I go there because it is something I do in my spare time. I think I’m integrated in Antwerp, and it is a multicultural city. Antwerp is a kind of Babylon, where the integration system has never worked, and all the time they complain why foreign people do not speak Dutch, but at the same time, they haven’t done anything to integrate these people.
There are small ghettos, quote unquote, from different cultures that are pretty exotic. These people are immigrants who remain immigrants because they have their own connections, they have their own small cafes, their own shops, they speak their own language all the time in those districts. Especially this part of the culture is quite multiethnic, because Antwerp is one of the largest seaports in Europe. There are many people who visit it. Then, the Academy of Arts, the fashion department, that brings up to five hundred students from all over the world yearly. I feel at home, and I am treated as if I were from here.
So far none of the people I know personally are infected. I have heard of some people I know who are customers at the bar, but I haven’t had contact with them. The fear wasn’t that big, unlike now that the fear has increased all of a sudden. Before people went out without masks, they hugged when they talked to each other. Now all of a sudden everyone has to wear a mask, and it is very strange to have people close by. Right now, that fear is felt and the care has increased, which is better.
In the beginning, all businesses were closed down, everything was closed. Then, with strict control, they allowed the grocery stores, the bakeries to be opened, these basic things that we need to be supplied with. After about three weeks, the businesses that sell construction materials started working, because everyone started to renovate their houses, in some way to deal with their living environment, because they all had time, and it was necessary to open the shops.
My job was closed immediately and I started sensing some financial uncertainty. The state provides insurance for all those who lose their jobs. They have built a system called “Technically unemployed” and, during the period you are unemployed, you receive sixty, seventy percent of the salary. But realistically, I work two days a week. At other times, my work is in the studio, I paint or draw, or I’m in some exhibition space. Due to the system, even if you work an extra day, you are paid under the table.
In the meantime, when these construction shops started to open, I was given the opportunity to fix up a room and a bathroom, exactly like an art installation. I told them that I could do it and for financial reasons, I already started working. I don’t have a lot of experience. But it is a passion of mine to work with materials I don’t know well, and I have never refused a job saying, “I don’t know!” All the time I asked for an opportunity to see how I do it. Then, I did some research online, and I read something and I found the materials, and it turned out quite well.
There’s a big lie around you, but you built some kind of self—confidence to prove to the other person that you can do that job. I don’t know, that’s how I see it. It’s a little intriguing and it seems fun to me. Well, I worked for a couple of weeks on some kind of construction, I scraped the windows, I painted, then I insulated a bedroom. I worked alone or my employer helped me. When I finished, I went to play ping pong, drank two—three beers, and went home.
Throughout this time, I communicated with my mom and brother. We always tell each other, “Please, be careful.” There is fear on both sides. Once the conversation was pretty long, they said, “What if someone gets sick there, or what if I get sick here and the situation gets worse?” The possibility of traveling doesn’t exist, but even if there were a possibility to meet, it still doesn’t exist. There is still some kind of care that you can provide in some way through this online communication. And I know that fear exists, it is one of the reasons that made me take care of myself and be more careful.
We always talk about the number of cases of those infected in Gjilan and how the situation is there. My brother has a lot of contact with others because he plays football, so he is more exposed. Mom’s work, she also has to deal with customers all the time. I try to assure them that everything is fine and they try to assure me that everything is fine. There is this feeling that we do not articulate for the sake of optimism. We don’t say all things, we only talked about it once.
Due to my financial situation, I was scared and I posted something online to sell. The friends I have here, the people I love and love me started calling me for support. I would say, “No, no, I’m okay financially, but I’m scared of a harder future.” Some kind of move towards digitalization of jobs or digital communication started. The exhibitions stopped, everything stopped, and all of a sudden, the collectors started communicating with artists through social networks. The mediator or galleries were thrown out of the game, because of this work prices change all time.
When it comes to the visual part, I’m not very patient, I need to move all the time, even if I paint something, it might happen that I do four paintings a day, I might just as well do one painting. It’s a very fast process for me, that’s how I am, it isn’t about quality or speed. Usually speed doesn’t mean quality in painting, but the number of work has increased in some way. I’m not a studio artist, there are artists who are in the studio who paint on a regular eight—hour—a—day work schedule. I’m more dynamic and I treat everything in proportion to the space where a work is exhibited.
But, during the lockdown, I started to become a studio artist. I was isolated all the time and I was confronted with my materials that I had around. I was trying to work with things I had never worked with before. I started working with concrete, this is just before lockdown, with metal, with welding. I never welded, I even have the machine there. I just started trying, it really is the worst welding that anyone has ever seen. Meanwhile, the rest of the time, when I got bored of doing something new, I went back to painting and drawing.
In drawing, I try to visually bring the different elements in a space which becomes a room, even now during the lockdown, I took it to another level, very meta, meta… I was locked up, everyone was locked up, but every work I did seemed like I was so emotionally connected to the current situation, and I was still producing works with interiors. In these rooms, there are new elements added, but I continued the same line of thought.
When I start painting, my tendency is to create a mess. The canvas is white or whatever color it has. The tendency is to always create an enigma and then de—enigmatize it. What I draw at the moment are tables, chairs, carts, cigarette packs, or just small elements that I collect from drawing blocks. However, there is a lot of clutter in them. The situation always becomes quite problematic with them. When I look closer, it looks like a bomb exploded in the room. Then, I start working with rollers that houses are painted with, I paint with it all over the elements, scraping the last color I start to bring the objects back to life.
What I notice in the paintings is that, on flat monochrome surfaces, I try to create some space within a space in a charlatan way. I do this all the time. Then, some other furniture appears in the painting. Now, lately, the refrigerator and bread knife have started to appear, I think it’s because I have cooked more now, because I had time, I don’t know, maybe it is a mother figure in all this. A refrigerator, a cutting board, and a bread knife.
In this period, I am psychologically more stable, probably has to do with the isolation and not going out. Me and others haven’t gone dancing, which for me, it’s a suppressed energy. It’s likely that all these things are psychologically a little hard. Of course, now with the curfew, the days are shorter. I will go to work soon, and at 11:30, no one can be in town. The bar closes at 11:00, and I’m at home thinking about what I did today.
In the near future, we will think of this period as a short period. What we are dealing with now, we are treating it as a complex issue that changed our lives. Of course, it did, but I still hope to get back to normal. At the same time, there are laws which are changing where the freedom of movement and the freedom of speech are violated, where there are restrictions on how you should behave, how much distance you should keep, how you should sneeze, and what you should wear. In a way, these affect the whole political part of the system, and I don’t think that all people agree with so many changes.
About a great part of the artistic community will reflect on, regardless how much we agree with something among ourselves, but everyone is an individual when it comes to political rights. For example, now I’m completely against the curfew. It seems dangerous to me, because tomorrow or after a while, a terrorist attack could happen or something and the same method will be used. It’s an instant suppression, a very easy way to control a community.
Due to the pandemic, some projects were canceled because we didn’t know when it would end. Recently, some new things have started. Next week, I have an exhibition. Now there are no official openings, everything is organized, the exhibition opens, but people are invited to come in different time periods. There is less communication between artists. My artist friends are too close to themselves. It’s this closing off that is happening to everyone. I noticed this in the people around me who create.
In the meantime, I am applying to Hesselt as an assistant at the Academy of Arts. I convinced myself to do this, and I am trying. This is the result of the peace I feel, I’m not doing much, so I am updating my professional biography, and I come to understand that, “Okay, I can do something.”
Meriton Maloku (b. 1989) is a multimedia visual artist based in Antwerp, Belgium. Maloku earned his BA and his MA in Fine Arts at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp. In his prints, drawings, paintings, and installations, he explores politics, philosophy, and art history with repetition, playfulness, and humor. Outside of Kosovo and Belgium, Maloku’s work has appeared in places far and wide, ranging from London to Xi’an. The recipient of numerous prestigious prizes in Kosovo and Belgium, Maloku divides his time between Antwerp and Gjilan.