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Ambitions with a Marked Look

Review Ambitions, National Gallery of Arts (Tirana, Albania), February 1- April 1 2021 By Alex Fisher

Ambitions, installation view at National Gallery of Arts, Tirana.

“We don’t have successful internationally-known women artists from Kosovo. This shows that they don’t have the balls to become artists and to use the art spaces.”

Back in 2007, this was the message told to Flaka Haliti by a person in a position of power in Kosovo’s cultural community. The provoking statement became an invitation to act for the Pristina-born artist. Soon after, she arrived at the opening of a prize exhibition at the National Gallery of Kosovo with a bag of cow testicles, a collection of balls which she proceeded to arrange in a corner of the gallery and present as a gift to exhibition-goers and museum authorities.

Haliti’s testicular response, aptly titled “My Balls” (2007-2008), is documented in a short two-channel video. This video is one of the first works that visitors encounter upon entering Ambitions, an exhibition convening forty women artists from Albania, Kosovo, and the diaspora, with the oldest, Androniqi Zengo Antoniu, born in 1913, and the youngest, Edona Kryeziu, born more than eighty years later, in 1994. Curated by Adela Demetja and Erëmirë Krasniqi, the show is co-organized by Albania’s National Gallery of Arts and the National Gallery of Kosovo, the same institution where Haliti made her response nearly fifteen years ago. Currently on view in the Albanian National Gallery’s stately building on Tirana’s main boulevard, Ambitions will travel to the latter later this spring. Impetus to tie together two national contexts, those of Albania and Kosovo, stems from the serious, albeit not wholly synchronous, interweaving of the two countries, especially with regards to culture. The majority of Kosovo’s population is ethnically Albanian and the Director of Albania’s National Gallery of Arts, Erzen Shkololli, himself an artist, previously held the same title at the National Gallery of Kosovo, from where he hails. The inclusion of artists from the diaspora underscores the significance of trans-regional mobility in the Albanian and Kosovar story, owing to strifes and successes varyingly imposed and awarded, particularly within the last quarter century.

Flaka Haliti, “My Balls” (2007-2008), video, 1’5’’. Courtesy LambdaLambdaLambda Gallery.

Going for the groin and getting beneath the skin, “My Balls” has assumed a vaunted status, vehemently debated in the arts press and in mainstream media, exhibited domestically and abroad, and informing subsequent shows. Haliti, who now lives and works in Munich, has gone on to become one of the most internationally-known artists from Kosovo. In Ambitions, “My Balls” is situated within Willful Anachronisms, one of four conceptual structures conceived by the curators; the others are Archives of the Body, Grammar of Memory, and Poetic Compendium. The syntax of ‘conceptual structures’ is sound, seeing as ‘structure’ implies a solidity stronger than scaffolding while simultaneously resisting complete containment. Demetja and Krasniqi construct in keeping with a code that ensures that one structure’s subjects are not closed off from those of another—a critical compositional strategy for compelling connection between artists of copious creeds and characters.

Matilda Odobashi, “Lines that Lie” (2018-), 380 x 430 cm, wallpaper, and “Untitled” (2014-2019), 7 drawings, 10.6 x 14.4 cm, rapid on paper, framed. Courtesy the artist.

The works in Ambitions stand, stack, and sing. In the case of Matilda Odobashi, they spread through stretching. Odobashi, who lives and works in Tirana, is represented in the exhibition by a wallpaper, “Lines that lie” (2014-2019), and an untitled set of seven drawings. Both, like Haliti’s “My Balls,” feature in Willful Anachronisms, a conceptual structure defined for artworks that bring forth “dissonant temporalities” in a “gesture of inconsistency toward authority, patriarchy, linearity and the imposed order.”

The works, which are conjoined in Ambitions, fill one of the gallery’s shallow recesses. The sketchbook drawings are sly and smile-inducing. With a few motions of her pen, Odobashi has conjured creatures from blooms and coils. They call to mind mantises, and their corpuses merge the warrens of utility wires that entangle today’s cities with the vines and brambles that also snarl blocks and buildings. Each creature has its own prerogative and presence. Kept behind glass in wood frames, the creatures are captive, yet persistently spirited and satisfied. Wires appear in Odobashi’s wallpaper as well, wherein trees, planks, dams, and fords cross, conspire, and combust. These alluded forms, which mingle with human forms, appear at falling angles; they spawn sooner than they settle. Their sprawl is unstable, prosaically so for city-dwellers in the Southern Balkans.

Ambitions, installation view at National Gallery of Arts, Tirana, including, at center, Diani Miziri, “Composition” (1996), 225 x 160 cm, weaving. Courtesy the artist.

The tension between calculable (seven framed drawings) and incalculable (a densely cast wallpaper) in Obobashi’s works speaks to an exhibition-wide tendency to stabilize imbalance then destabilize balance. That such an approach is not futile, but fruitful is apparent in the late Diana Miziri’s “Composition” (1996), a 160x225cm textile in shades of mauve, black, and white that perches prominently in Ambitions. In the work, ‘L’ figures flourish and flip—side-to-side and top-to-bottom—on a predominately washed pink surface that has been interlaced with stripes of wool and plastic yarn. There are squares too, which occasionally widen into squat rectangles. None of these shapes are sharply rendered. Rather, their bounds teeter, repelling perfect poise. Cumulatively, Miziri’s “Composition” has an absorbing optical allure, owing to its partial perturbing of precision and the ways in which the shapes share space without losing their sense of self. The piece is included in Poetic Compendium, Demetja and Krasniqi’s conceptual structure for works that “have been created from the perspective of the art producer: primarily not as a reaction to outside circumstances of their times, but as embodiments of subjectivity.”

Ambitions, installation view at National Gallery of Arts, Tirana, including, at left, Violeta Xhaferi, “Rrugëtimi” [The Journey] (2001), 180 x 260 cm, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy the artist.

Miziri’s “Composition” cues the consequential nature of clarity and definition, or the lack thereof. This connotation carries throughout Ambitions, pronounced in works such as Violeta Xhaferi’s “Rrugëtimi” [The Journey] (2001), a diptych addressing the static and stilt the artist felt while watching war consume her country through a television set, and Ledia Konstandini’s “Aftermoments” (2011), a vivid textile pixelation of a family photo. Perhaps the most stirring work in this vein is an untitled portrait of two women by Greta Pllana, who is of Albanian origin, is a 2020 graduate of the Venice Academy of Fine Arts, and lives and works in Treviso, Italy.

In Pllana’s 2015 portrait, paint patinas. The work takes as its source an image the artist found online of two Albanian women dressed in traditional clothes. Pllana’s painting subsumes the source image in seeping, rippling strokes; that which may have been distinct in the primary material has diffused in the artist’s secondary interpretation. The women’s chests have fused and the patterns of what they wear and where they are have puddled. Furthermore, their identities are not forwarded; Pllana says her priority is not to provide a name for the faces, but to “represent a large slice of faces that I often saw, with hard features and a marked look.”

Ambitions, installation view at National Gallery of Arts, Tirana, including Greta Pllana, “Untitled” (2015), 110 x 145 cm, oil on canvas; Edona Kryeziu, “Greetings from an Elsewhere” (2019), video, 5’14’’; and detail of Blerta Hoçia, “I Have Many Eyes, Beautiful Eyes” (2013), 8 photographs, 32x50cm, digital printing on aluminum plate. Each courtesy the artist.

The faces in Pllana’s arrestive portrait both rigidize and erode. This complexion is accentuated by the way the work is displayed. Johanna Meyer-Grohbrügge, the exhibition architect of Ambitions, has responded to the need for additional surfaces upon which to hang works by designing two temporary walls out of corrugated plastic (a material usually reserved for yard signs for contractors and political campaigns). Meyer-Grohbrügge chose a semi-translucent, silver-grey version of the material, a decision that impacts the way works are perceived. Fluorescent light does not rest flat on these walls, which bookend the gallery. Rather, the light is thrust into something turbid, something that continuously morphs pending perspective.

Liljana Çefa, “Fatosat në muze” [The children in the Museum] (1974), 133 x 158,3 cm, oil on canvas. Collection of the National Gallery of Arts.

Pllana’s portrait is presented in the ‘Grammar of Memory’ structure, which “brings together works that question, intervene and reimagine what is thought of as shared history,” thereby wrestling with the “histories of different scales that fail to include women.” Another standout work in this structure is Edona Kryeziu’s “Greetings from an Elsewhere” (2019), a 5’14’’ video-montage consisting of VHS tapes from the 1990s, a decade marred by atrocity in Kosovo and in much of the former Yugoslavia. According to the artist, who is based in Berlin and holds an MA in Migration and Diaspora Studies from SOAS University of London, VHS tapes were the principal means for the Kosovar diaspora “to document and share life elsewhere,” exchanged across borders by families and friends, giving “glimpses into how familiarity was kept in times of estrangement and distress.” Kryeziu has elliptically edited tapes inherited from this period. Her selected clips primarily show multi-generational gatherings—dinner parties, birthdays, etc. An embroidered pillow is passed around. Soda is drunk and candles are blown out after wishes are made. These scenes of simple pleasures in non-simple times are set to a twinkling, astral score by Liburn Jupolli, which unmoors these moments from landed limits and turns their odyssey skyward. Memories move in many planes. “Greetings from an Elsewhere” convinces that those at top of mind today can transcend tomorrow. And that ‘here’ can be Here if the will is there. Kryeziu is currently preparing an extended version of the film for the forthcoming third edition of the Austrostrada Biennale, scheduled to open in Prizren, Pristina, and Peja this July.

Ambitions, installation view at National Gallery of Arts, Tirana.

The ‘Grammar of Memory’ structure is likewise home to Liljana Çefa’s “Fatosat në muze” [The children in the Museum] (1974), an exemplary work of Albanian socialist realism from the National Gallery of Arts’ own collection. The painting depicts an elementary school group’s field trip to the National Liberation War pavilion at an imagined historical museum modeled after the National Historical Museum in Tirana and museums in Shkodra, the lakeside regional city where the artist lives and works. The work is semi-biographical; Çefa has painted her son and his friends as students in the class. There is a freneticism to the students’ split fixations and enthusiasms. A trio focuses on a vitrine filled with Albanian People’s Army uniforms. One student points a toy gun at a statue of a wounded fighter while a peer quizzically looks on. The majority have surged ahead of the teacher, suggesting that they are encountering history on their own terms, although, of course, the exhibition is official and thus offers a controlled account of events. The teacher appears content with the array of reactions to the exhibit, pleased to shepherd those who want guidance and let the rest rely on their own volition. While searching for souvenirs at Tirana’s New Bazaar, I came across a vintage postcard reproduction of the work, a serendipitous manifestation of the idea that certain artworks have their way of finding you and reinforcing their eminence.

To be sure, Ambitions has rhythms in abundance. In Tirana, visitors enter into the heart of the exhibition; the show is installed in a top floor exhibition hall, accessible by a staircase that arrives in the hall’s center. The introductory wall text appears to the rear right-hand side, beckoning attention, but without unilateral influence. The song sung by Nurhan Qehaja in her video work “The Flag” (2005) pulls museum-goers ahead to the left. Merita Selimi’s “Fashtija” [Wanes] (2002), a chalky, hallowed painting of a “head without a body and nowhere to fall,” coaxes from the front right. In other words, the design of the room ensures that each work retains its prerogative, resisting formulaic exponentiation and exalted pontification. There is no ‘this before that’ or ‘that before this’ in the Tirana iteration of Ambitions. The circumstances will change when the exhibition travels to Pristina; the National Gallery of Kosovo has a wholly different blueprint, with numerous small rooms rather than several large ones. It will be intriguing to witness how this shift in setting affects the extroversions, echoes, and calibrations of the artworks.

Blerta Hoçia, “I Have Many Eyes, Beautiful Eyes” (2013), 8 photographs, 32x50cm, digital printing on aluminum plate. Detail view. Courtesy the artist.

In response to a question about the poignancy and/or urgency of curating Ambitions now, Erëmirë Krasniqi emphasized that it “felt important to have an exhibition which brings to the forefront moments […] when we find it hard to place in context a work of art because it was never done justice to at the time it was produced.” Krasniqi continues, relating that “what became clear early on in the preparation of Ambitions is that once women enter the art world, they are not perceived beyond their gender and culturally-specific roles, but they remain tied to socially-constructed expectations, and this more often than not leads them to domestication and determines their degree of success. Though these expectations, patriarchal at their core, still hold social value, they create obstacles for women to succeed, and as much as it is possible, the young generation of women artists is changing this paradigm and taking control over their self-representation.” Owing to the fusion of “historical obscurity” and “the versatility and multiplicity present in women’s practice,” Krasniqi concludes that “at times, the exhibition feels like a cabinet of curiosity and a means of mapping art created by women.” To hear this tone of deference to the exhibition from one of the exhibition’s curators is striking, as it suggests that Ambitions has become its own being, refusing to sit, stay, or roll over at the command of any one ego or agenda.

Amplifying this attitude of self-determination, it is fitting that the only work included in all four of Ambitions’ conceptual structures is Blerta Hoçia’s “I Have Many Eyes, Beautiful Eyes” (2013), a series of photographs which takes inspiration from and whose title refers to Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, an opéra fantistique wherein the main character, Hoffmann, falls in love with Olympia, an automaton with the appearance of a young woman. Hoffmann enamors Olympia’s eyes, losing himself within them. However, everything is not as it seems. Olympia’s ‘eyes’ are painted enamel, and therefore Hoffmann has actually been entranced by the mirrored image of his own eyes. Hoçia uses the tale of this trick and the narcissism it screens in her series of photographs. For the series, Hoçia dissected the eyes from snapshots in her family archive. She then placed said eyes in the open, tacking them to branches and bushes and then documenting their installation. In the words of the artist, this became a gesture to explore “the possibility of memory to be transformed and multiplied.” In the exhibition, the series follows visitors, appearing in pairs at beginnings and ends and points in between. A portion of the eyes are conspicious, centered in the frame by Hoçia, and another are elusive, squinting out from the corner, as if to say, “I see you, but it’s not all about you.”

When everything is not all about a you, plurals reign—potentials and promises preside over potential and promise. Ambitions exudes the moxie of this moral.

Ambitions is on view at the National Gallery of Arts (Tirana, Albania) from February 1st to April 1st, 2021. It will then travel to the National Gallery of Kosovo, where it will be on view from April 30th to June 30th, 2021. The exhibition includes a program of performances and interventions.

Artists: Silva Agostini, Brigita Antoni, Bora Baboçi, Alma Bakiaj, Lumturi Blloshmi, Lirije Buliqi, Liljana Çefa, Donika Çina, Flaka Haliti, HAVEIT, Blerta Hoçia, Majlinda Hoxha, Shpresa Faqi, Fitore Isufi–Koja, Shelbatra Jashari, Ledia Kostandini, Edona Kryeziu, Hyrije Krypa, Iva Lulashi, Diana Miziri, Silvi Naçi, Matilda Odobashi, Greta Pllana, Edit Pula(j), Nurhan Qehaja, Alketa Ramaj, Miradije Ramiqi, Anila Rubiku, Merita Selimi, Marina Sula, Alije Vokshi, Eli Xoxa, Alketa Xhafa Mripa, Rudina Xhaferi, Violeta Xhaferi, Androniqi Zengo Antoniu, Sofia Zengo Papadhimitri, Valbona Zherka.

Adela Demetja is a curator and writer living between Frankfurt am Main, Germany and Tirana, Albania. She is the director of Tirana Art Lab - Center for Contemporary Art.

Erëmirë Krasniqi is a researcher and curator based in Pristina, Kosovo. She is the executive director of the Kosovo Oral History Intiative.

Alex Fisher is a curator and writer based in Kyiv, Ukraine.

All images via the National Gallery of Arts, photographer Ylli Bala.


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