Panic. Panic. Panic.

By Renea Begolli

I live with my family in an apartment in Pristina. I have a sister who is two years younger than me and a brother, he is in the fourth grade, so he is the youngest. The week when lockdown started, it was unclear to me, because there was panic in the family. Especially my father, he started worrying, “What if they close down everything, we will not have any food.” He was in panic over flour. This seemed strange to me, I couldn’t accept it. The moment it was decided there would be a lockdown, I was out, I went out and everything was normal. When I came back home, my parents said, “Where have you been? The schools, the university will close down tomorrow, we don’t know what’s happening.”

This situation seemed strange to me. It was hard to think that, “Okay, they’re closing down, but they will open after a week.” It was a bigger responsibility for my parents, because they were worried about food shortage. They often told us, “You didn’t experience war, you don’t know what it’s like to not have anything. What are we gonna do now that the stores are closing?” This was some sort of panic. When the university closed, it was a little strange because it all happened so fast, one day we were there and the next day they said, “Don’t come!” While my parents panicked over food, I panicked over my working materials, I left them all in the university.

I went to the university to see if I could get my things. The security said, “We’re closing it now, we don’t know when it’s going to open again.” And I remember that I panicked for ten minutes in the classroom, I took everything I could. Some empty canvas fabrics, some paint, some brushes, a bag, just so I could function. I didn’t have many things in the apartment, just some basic things. I have painted only in the university the last three years, so the idea of not having them, I started to panic, what now? This was the beginning, not knowing what was happening we didn’t even know how to react, what now? It seemed brief, that it will only last for a few days and it will be over. But that wasn’t the case, the lockdown kept getting extended.

In the beginning, it seemed like a long weekend. My mother doesn’t work, my father does. It seemed like a vacation to him, in the beginning it seemed like some sort of vacation to all of us. Then I started panicking, how long will this last? Panicking due to passivity, and I didn’t like not doing anything. Then we started to keep ourselves active within the family. We have that kind of relationship that we constantly do things together. Especially my brother, he always organizes family events. He has his own ideas, he says, “Let’s do something.” He organized some quizzes. We have family concerts just so we can get together for his sake, but also so we get to spend some time together.

The moment online activities started, we started to notice the stress. The pressure was higher in general, the life we had outside started to concentrate inside. The dynamics between us changed. For example, there was an issue with space, because everybody needed a personal space. The space in the apartment wasn’t enough for everyone to have a quiet place, because it was a living space, not a space to have lectures and work. A very different dynamic started immediately. I began to like the online method, because I could attend more lectures. The professors got more involved. There were courses that we never held until that moment due to the lack of classrooms, professors, or organization. We conducted lectures as they should be, but that we lacked until then. This motivated me to be more productive, because, aside from doing things for fun, now, I had specific work I had to submit. I began to like it because I was learning a lot from them. I had the opportunity Zoom, the class would meet there. Interesting, for example, they would celebrate someone’s birthday and all the children would sing and have different activities on Zoom. It was good for my brother, but then homework was also problematic, it affected us in a bad way.

Simply, he wasn’t interested at all in what they were learning, he didn’t like the homework, he wasn’t interested. Then he had deadlines for submitting the homework, which created panic for us as well. We would tell him, “Do your homework!” He would refuse. I remember because it would affect us in general, it was an unpleasant situation. We were forcing him to do his homework, he didn’t want to. Now, we were collectively engaged to do his homework, this made him lazy. So, everyday around 19:00, there was a moment of panic to submit his homework at 18:59, before the deadline, because the teacher would not accept them later.

I couldn’t always use the one hour and a half we were allowed to go out, because I had commitments, homework, or lectures. This affected me badly, I need to disconnect from the inside environment. And if I went out for a walk, the walk would give me a bad feeling, a feeling of emptiness. I am used to always seeing Pristina full, with people passing by. For example, the view from my balcony is always filled with cars, now it was empty, as if I was seeing a completely different place. I needed to walk but, on the other hand, it felt like a different city with no people, while some spaces like the boulevard were blocked, lined with tape. So, it was just to say, “OK, I went out!” There was still the feeling of isolation, because the city itself was in quarantine.

When the political drama took place, we followed it constantly, we were well—informed. The protest from the balcony happened then. In the beginning, I followed politics a lot, because you couldn’t help but be interested in what was happening. But, it became too much, the government fell, some sort of instability. I noticed this tired me, it seemed like I was watching some sort of telenovela. I didn’t understand what was happening, there was more unnecessary drama rather than some sort of concrete solution.

Then I started to listen to more general news. How is the situation? How many people are infected? Did they find a vaccine, do they know, are there any developments? This interested me more than, “He said this, he did this.” This seemed like a waste of time, totally unnecessary, and it didn’t help in any way. I started to put a distance with the living room, because some analysts were speaking, and I would just get mad at what was being discussed. So, I would just tell my parents. “Okay, watch, let me know when it’s over.” I couldn’t, it gave me unnecessary stress. They were having nonsense debates, not listening to each other, wouldn’t offer any kind of solutions, just pointless words.

In my room, there’s the balcony space which we have isolated. Before I started university that was my work space, but then I moved to the university’s atelier. It was like storage space. When we were in lockdown, I went back. I used it as much as I could because it is very small, now it is filled with stuff, there was not a lot of space. I painted there all the time. Usually, I would paint on Saturdays and did work only for myself. Other days, I was dealing more with university work. The balcony was a space that helped me see life outside, if I wanted to go outside, it was a small space where I could breathe outside air. It helped, I needed a break from the other part of the apartment.

Usually, my sketches and drawings are similar to one another. Instinctively, the paintings are created in a slightly different style from sketches. I made sketches all the time, but usually the sketches that I start for painting change completely. I started extracting elements from the sketches and then I continued working on those elements. My process earlier was that I would start a few paintings at the same time. The space where I worked was important for me, because I would spread out my works in the classroom, and I would start one, work on it, go back to the other until that one dried, and I liked it like that. I tried to make those shapes, experimenting with colors.

I missed this during the lockdown, because from a big atelier, I went to space where I could only take a step back to see the whole painting. This bothered me a lot. I couldn’t see it completely because the painting cloth was big, I didn’t have enough space. That’s why I started working more on paper. I liked that. I worked in some cycle, around five works, a reflection of my dreams. I was having some very intensive dreams at that time, I tried to define them and made sketches. Then I turned those sketches into drawings, because the sketches I turned into paintings didn’t help, I didn’t like how they were reflected.

At that time, I would dream about the university spaces, but they were a little different, some very long hallways, I saw people who I hadn’t seen in a very long time. I dreamed of a figure with a black hand and this stuck with me. From that period of time, I started drawing a figure with a black hand that continued to be part of my drawings. I dreamed of cabinets, hallways. The motives were repeated. I noticed that the interiors were developing in my dreams.

Usually, my dreams inspire me because they’re a deeper reflection of everyday life. I see everyday things, and I try to interpret what I remember. I thought that through them I could reflect what I was going through, this isolation, so it would give me a little meaning. Lockdown affected me, it happened very fast, and I didn’t have to process the situation, because it seemed impossible until it happened. Then, I tried to give it meaning through my work.

The sketches helped me a lot to develop ideas, also, spend my time on my own on the balcony, listening to music, and trying to sketch shapes. Around March, April, I took photographs, I would shoot videos inside the house, for example, someone was learning, someone was in the kitchen. I didn’t think of it as documentation, “Okay, this will be something,” but photos of balconies that impressed me, especially some that are in front of my apartment. There’s one that caught my eye, it’s empty, and it seems like no one lives there, but there’s always a piece of clothing that changes during the day. For a period of time, I looked at that balcony, it seemed like a ghost house to me.

I had some ideas, but again, at that time, you were very conscious about what you’re going through. You were aware that you’re living in a moment that maybe will pass by fast. You didn’t know, it was today for today, but it would just get repeated. This was a repetition of time, but, at the same time, it lost all meaning. You would forget what day of the week it was, what month it was, a waste of time that was noticing while being inside. In this way, we tried to shoot videos, take pictures inside the house. We took a lot of them in the beginning, but then the activities also faded because this period lasted for a long time.

During this time, I started doing online projects to keep myself active. We had this project with a professor, together with him and other students, we started writing a book. It was quite an interesting process which started at the end of April and continued until July. So, every night, a group of students would gather for about one hour and a half, as a project, it wasn’t in the realm of university. This was something we started for fun and would suggest topics. Someone would start and someone else would continue that thought.

It was an interesting process, because none of us writes and we didn’t know each other very well. We developed, we began knowing each other’s thoughts, because we had to follow the process of how those thoughts were created. Aside from university, the homework which, at the start, did not make sense some of it started making sense, this was something completely new to us. Especially with that professor that none of the students had met before due to administrative problems, we started that project not knowing each other, but all of it developed in online communication.

Definitely, it came out as something very abstract. Sometimes it wouldn’t make sense because someone would continue with something completely different from the previous thought. But there was a connection between students in the sense of topics that were being talked about, because they were reflected differently apart from visual art. Now we started writing about the experiences we were living. Someone would write two or three sentences, a paragraph, up to five minutes and someone else would say, “I will continue.” So in this way, continuing each other’s sentences, a text would be created. Every day for almost two months, we did this process.

Now that we’re not in quarantine, it’s a bigger responsibility, we all have to go out, we try to be careful. We are aware that it isn’t the same as when we were in lockdown. I feel more responsible for my parents rather than myself. Many people their age passed away, it was very hard for me to see that. I heard that many of my father’s friends were in the hospital in bad conditions. Maybe not only from coronavirus, but it connected to other illnesses. I notice the fear of my parents. Maybe this was some sort of responsibility for me to be even more careful for them. For myself, maybe I would defeat it or not, but I know that my health is stronger to cope with the virus.

Fortunately, we didn’t have contact with members of our family who were infected. We were scared for the members of our family who were infected, there was an older one who passed away. Of course, we knew that the moment he got infected, the chances were poor that he would survive. But it’s different when you’re aware of life experience that a person has and then a virus comes and beats them. This increased our responsibility. However, it was easier for me to cope with it since we started going out a little, because I couldn’t take being inside anymore.

Definitely, it wasn’t an easy period. But, generally, it was productive. I had the opportunity to learn more things and see more things, but, at the same time, isolation was much more emphasized. I have never felt more isolated than in this period, also in relation with Kosovo. I was supposed to go to America during this time, for a long time, I wanted a change and to experience something new, to visit museums and galleries. Now this blockage, everything happens online. This affected me because I was more aware that I will be here for a period of time. I really needed to see something new, to experience something that helps me as an artist, to have personal growth, to develop as a person.

Renea Begolli (b. 1998) is a visual artist based in Pristina. In her paintings, drawing, and video art inspired by memories and everyday life, objects, and dreams, Begolli explores questions about isolation and lack of freedom of movement in mental and physical spaces. She recently produced video art entitled “Waiting Game” for the Blerta Hoçia—curated exhibition Additions and Infrared organized by the 17 Foundation in Pristina and Mitrovica in February 2020. In the  past two years, Begolli’s work was shown in different places of the region. She currently studies painting at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Prishtina and works as a cameraperson and video editor.