Wonders, and Horrors, Drawn From Boyhood in a War Zone

ST. IVES, England — When Petrit Halilaj was 13 and a refugee from the brutal war in Kosovo, a group of Italian psychologists arrived at his camp in Albania and gave him some felt-tip pens.

Halilaj was soon drawing dozens of bright, childish pictures. But their subjects were far from colorful: In one, he depicted tanks blowing up a family’s home; in another, a mass grave. Other pictures showed soldiers standing over dead bodies, with guns or bloody knives apparently raised in celebration.

The psychologists spent two weeks in the camp, in 1999, trying to help the children there process the traumas they had experienced during the war, in which ethnic Albanian rebels fought against Serbian troops. For Halilaj, an ethnic Albanian, those traumas were many. Serbian forces burned down his home and captured his father. His family fled from place to place, until they ended up in the refuge in Albania.

Halilaj’s vivid pictures impressed the psychologists — and not only them: Reporters visiting the camp interviewed him for international news bulletins. Halilaj told a Swedish broadcaster at the time that his sleep was broken by nightmares. “I feel happier when I spend time like this,” Halilaj said of the drawings.

Now, more than 20 years later, Halilaj (pronounced Ha-lee-LYE) is a rising figure in Europe’s art world whose work has been displayed at the Venice Biennale and in museums across the continent. In his latest exhibition, at Tate St. Ives, an outpost of the British museum group in Cornwall, England, Halilaj has returned to the shocking pictures he drew as a child who had seen too much. (The show, “Very Volcanic Over This Green Feather,” runs until Jan. 16.)

On a recent tour of the exhibition, Halilaj, 35, said he revisited the pictures last year and was surprised by what he’d drawn. Among the violence, he said, “I saw all these birds — peacocks and doves — and they were as big as the soldiers, as happy and proud.”

“I’d taken the space to draw landscapes that made me feel good,” he added. “It was like I was saying, ‘Yes, it was awful, but I can dream and love, too.’”

In the show, segments of Halilaj’s boyhood drawings have been reproduced at huge scale and hung from the gallery ceiling, so that when visitors enter, they are met with a fantasy landscape of exotic birds and palm trees. But when they reach the other side of the room and turn around, they find that some of the suspended forms have been printed on the reverse with a more macabre selection of Halilaj’s doodles: soldiers, tanks, wailing, figures, burning houses. The tranquil scene becomes one of horror.

Halilaj said he hoped the exhibition would make people think about how politicians and the news media portrayed the conflict. Even today, he added, some Balkan lawmakers twisted the reality of the war in Kosovo to bolster their nationalist agendas. But making the show had also helped him come to terms with his own memories, he said.

Christine Macel, the chief curator of the Pompidou Center in Paris who featured Halilaj’s work in the 2017 Venice Biennale, said Halilaj “was both original as a person and artist — very open, and creative, and resilient, and full of imagination.”

His work tackles serious subjects like nationalism and exile, she said, yet “there is always a note of fantasy and joy underpinning them.” The Tate exhibition showed his early promise as an artist was being met, Macel added.

Erzen Shkololli, a former head of the National Gallery of Kosovo, who showed Halilaj’s work there during his tenure, said the artist always used the country’s history as a starting point in his work, “but his art is about so much more,” and anyone can connect with it.

In some works, Halilaj’s messages are clear. In 2011, he dug 66 tons of soil from his family’s land in Kosovo, then piled it into a booth at Art Basel, the art fair, offering it for sale. Jennifer Chert, one of his gallerists, said that work “was obviously about attachment to soil, the idea of homeland, and exile, but there was also the more cynical side of, ‘What is the value of land?’”

Other pieces are more elusive. For another work, “Poisoned by Men in Need of Some Love,” Halilaj recreated displays of moths and butterflies that had once been on display at Kosovo’s Museum of Natural History, but were left to decay during the war. Holland Cotter, a New York Times art critic, said in a 2014 review of that piece that Halilaj’s art “makes much current New York art look like fluff.”

Halilaj said he was prompted to make the Tate exhibition by a series of events that made him feel as if politics in Kosovo and Serbia were still stuck in the 1990s. Last October, he was scheduled to present work at an art biennial in Belgrade, Serbia — a country that does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Halilaj said he was excited by the opportunity, but disappointed when the event’s organizers omitted his nationality from the official list of participants published online.

After he complained, biennial administrators added that Halilaj was from Kosovo on the biennial’s website, but put an asterisk by the country’s name, as used by some international bodies to denote a contested status. Halilaj withdrew from the event in protest.

Around the same time, Halilaj said, he heard news reports saying that Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s president, had described a massacre that occurred during the Kosovo War as “staged.” If nationalist politicians were inventing fantasies about the conflict, he would respond with his truth: “I felt as a citizen, and an artist, I want to stand and counter-narrate something,” Halilaj said.

Yet he said he didn’t want visitors in St. Ives to focus solely on the show’s dark side. Visitors have to walk back to the start of the exhibition when they leave, Halilaj said, and if they happen to look back, they’ll again be met by the fantasy landscape of exotic birds and trees. Did that desired ending reflect his views about Kosovo today?

“Totally!” Halilaj said, smiling broadly. He was “very, very positive” about the country’s future, he added. Halilaj recently staged a joint show there with Alvaro Urbano, his husband and artistic collaborator, in which the couple hung huge fabric flowers under the dome of Kosovo’s National Library during Pride Week. Those included a replica of a lily that had been part of the couple’s engagement bouquet.

Kosovo is still a macho society, Halilaj said, yet no one had “thrown tomatoes” or protested against the artists’ celebration of gay love.

“When this happened, under the flowers, I felt home for the first time in my life,” Halilaj said. There was no need to imagine peacocks and parrots anymore.

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