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

Halilaj soon drew dozens of bright and childish images. But their subjects were far from colorful: in one, he depicts tanks blowing up a family’s house; in another, a mass grave. Other images showed soldiers standing over corpses, with guns or bloodied knives seemingly raised in celebration.

Psychologists spent two weeks in the camp in 1999 trying to help the children overcome the trauma they had experienced during the war, during which Albanian rebels fought against Serb troops. For Halilaj, an ethnic Albanian, these traumas were numerous. Serbian forces burned down his house and captured his father. His family fled from one place to another, until they found themselves in the refuge in Albania.

Halilaj’s striking images impressed psychologists – and not just them: journalists visiting the camp interviewed him for international news reports. Halilaj told a Swedish broadcaster at the time that his sleep was interrupted by nightmares. “I feel happier when I spend time like this,” Halilaj said of the designs.

Today, over 20 years later, Halilaj (pronounced Ha-lee-LYE) is a rising figure in the European art world whose work has been exhibited at the Venice Biennale and in museums across the continent. . In his latest exhibition, at Tate St. Ives, an outpost of the British Museums Group in Cornwall, England, Halilaj looked back at the shocking pictures he drew as a child and had some too much seen. (The show “Very Volcanic Over This Green Feather” runs until January 16.)

On a recent tour of the exhibition, Halilaj, 35, said he revisited the images last year and was surprised by what he drew. Amidst 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 had 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 also dream and love.'”

In the exhibition, segments of Halilaj’s childhood drawings have been reproduced on a large scale and hung from the gallery ceiling, so that when visitors enter, they discover a fantastic 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 hanging shapes have been printed on the reverse side with a more gruesome selection of Halilaj’s scribbles: soldiers, tanks, wailing figures, burning houses. . The quiet scene becomes a scene of horror.

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

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

Her work touches on serious topics like nationalism and exile, she said, but “there is always a note of whimsy and joy behind them.” The Tate’s exhibition showed his early promises as an artist were being kept, Macel added.

Erzen Shkololli, former director of the National Gallery of Kosovo, who exhibited Halilaj’s work there during his tenure, said the artist always used the country’s history as a starting point for his work, “but his art goes way beyond “, and anyone can connect to it.

In some works, Halilaj’s messages are clear. In 2011, he dug 66 tons of earth on his family’s land in Kosovo, then crammed it into a stall at Art Basel, the art fair, and offered it for sale. Jennifer Chert, one of her gallery owners, said the work “was obviously about attachment to the land, the idea of ​​homeland and exile, but there was also the more cynical side of ‘What’s the value? of the earth ? “”

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

Halilaj said he was prompted to do the Tate exhibit by a series of events that left him with the impression that politics in Kosovo and Serbia were still stuck in the 1990s. Last October, he was to present works at an art biennial in Belgrade, Serbia – a country that does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Halilaj said he was excited about the opportunity, but disappointed when the event organizers omitted his nationality from the official list of participants posted online.

After complaining, the biennial administrators added that Halilaj was from Kosovo on the biennial website, but put an asterisk next to the name of the country, as used by some international bodies to designate a contested status. Halilaj withdrawn from the event in protest.

Around the same time, Halilaj said, he heard press reports saying that Aleksandar Vucic, the President of Serbia, described a massacre that occurred during the Kosovo war as ” scene”. If nationalist politicians invented fantasies about the conflict, he would respond with his truth: “I felt as a citizen and an artist, I want to stand up and counter-narrate something,” said Halilaj.

Still, he said he didn’t want visitors to St. Ives to focus solely on the dark side of the show. They must return to the start of the exhibit when they leave, said Halilaj, and if they look back they will once again be greeted by the fantastic landscape of exotic birds and trees. Did this desired end reflect his perspective on Kosovo today?

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

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

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

nytimes Gt

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