This series of interviews documents the lives of artists and art professionals who worked in Kosovo and were part of the art scene in the 1970s, and steadily gained recognition in the Yugoslav art space over two decades. The political context that gave rise to the visual arts came to represent Kosovo’s golden age in Yugoslavia. This period of great prosperity seemed to be at the core of institutional memory, including that of cultural institutions. It is no wonder that the Gallery of Arts in Pristina, today the National Gallery of Kosovo, was established in 1979, becoming the first arts institution to define how works of art would be displayed and communicated to the public.
The oral history project with Kosovo modernist artists was initiated in late 2016 by the Oral History Initiative in collaboration with the National Gallery of Kosovo.
We founded the University in 1970, that was an extraordinary, big event. Then three-four years after that we established the Faculty of Arts, which was called the Arts Academy, and started with the department of painting, graphics and graphic design. […] The generations in which Kosovo had invested, returned, my generations and a generation older than me started returning to Kosovo which was a very good thing. And then the Kosovo institutions started being established. You know which ones? The theatre… even though there had been some of that before, but it started to get a strong character and get better established, the Kosova Filmi [Kosovo Cinematographic Center] started being constructed, then the Gallery of Arts, then Shota [Folk Dance Ensemble] and so on. I mean, Kosovo started taking the shape of a state, I mean which had to be so, be it by peace or by war even though the latter happened.
This is the master who was driving his horse car and when I saw him, I stopped him and said, ‘Can you come to my atelier so I can make a portrait of you?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. And I worked, and these hands, I mean he is tired, and his plis, the color of his plis is not pure white, but I did it like this because he had worked and he is tired, and the color is like that because of the dust. And when Jusuf Kelmendi saw this in my exhibition, he said, ‘You can see it in this painting, these hands, tired… a really, really good portrait.
…I had a preoccupation, how to understand living nature, the human figure, limbs, the physiognomy of the human head… I would walk around in Peja’s markets with a purse on my shoulders, some typewriting machine paper and some other helpful tools. I mostly went to the Green Market. From the villages on market days they would bring the agricultural products in some big baskets and small full of agricultural items.
Owners themselves were wearing traditional clothes quite usual for the ‘50s, ‘60s. And I, quickly filled with joy started drawing quickly that beautiful view. Then I often went to the bus station, it was more difficult for me to draw there because the travellers would always move. But, a little based on my memory and a little based on nature, the drawings I did were a sort of croquis figures.
My house was across from the Paper Factory which was called Lepenka. Since they processed paper, I would find various books in their trash, and one day, by accident, I found a book on art. And I would collect all those books without being aware of or knowing anyone at those early times, that period. Then I fell in love with art, I mean, as I was studying its visual forms. My art teacher, she had finished exactly at that Arts High School in Peja. And so, in conversations with her, she said, ‘You could go there. I see that you are talented.’
I wrote to him, ‘I heard you are very popular, I’m a student studying art. I’m from Pristina.’ I told him everything. And he answered, he answered after two weeks or so. He answered in a way that I thought he didn’t even finish elementary school, he didn’t even speak proper Albanian, he could not write and the letters were like doodles, you know I thought so that’s how artists write. And now I had a dilemma if I should write back or not, he was not worthy (laughs). The mind of a young man! I said I’ll answer out of courtesy. When I answered, within five, six days he sent me a package with exhibition catalogues. Catalogues that showed that he had exhibited with Picasso, with Matisse, then I realized who he was.
…Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s president, he had a place, Brione in Croatia, it was there that he took all the artists. Even the big artists had their studios, this Zdenko Kalin had his studio there, whenever he wanted he went there. He was a great man, I’ve learned a lot, he was, now I know, Neoclassic, old Neoclassic with old standards. When I went there he, he went, he started to get ready for retirement, he was in that age, he smoked Yugoslavia cigarettes […] I’ve learned a lot from him, I’ve learned things you can’t learn in art, you can’t learn some things, there are some things that are not written in a book. Some things are written, in art they don’t write, you have to see it. You had to see him when he went to make a sculpture, Zdenko Kalin, when he was immersed in his work. I’ve learned more from that minute, I’ve learned more than from other things, more than from books I’ve read and art is… it has its secrets.