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Kosovar artists hope that long-promised visa liberalisation with the European Union will help end their enforced isolation from European culture. Kosovo’s unofficial status as Europe’s “ghetto” is a source of huge frustration for the country’s artists some of whom can’t even attend their own foreign exhibitions because of visa requirements.
Travel for citizens of the country that declared independence from Serbia in February 2008 remains difficult. Unlike nationals from neighbouring countries, Kosovars need a visa to travel to European Union countries and are unable to visit some destinations because their passports are not accepted there.
Graphic designer Rrezeart Galica has twice had a visa application rejected as a result of which he had to pull out of exhibitions where his work was due to be displayed.
“In late 2009 I received an invitation from a cultural association in Paris to open an exhibition there,” he recalled.
“I started completing the required documentation to apply for a French visa. As the visit was related to a cultural activity, I thought it would to easy. “I prepared almost all my 30 works, printed about 200 posters and catalogues and was convinced that the visa would be given easily, but I was rejected,” he added.
“I never thought that France, as a cradle of European culture, would be able to refuse me.” Director Blerta Zeqiri, whose film last month won a prize at the prestigious US Sundance Festival, was unable to travel to a film festival in Egypt in 2003 because she could not get a visa.
This problem means that Kosovar artists are often effectively barred from participating in international festivals or exhibitions, she says. “There are places where it is very difficult to travel to, not only because of the visa but because they don’t recognise the passport of Kosovo – like Bosnia or Argentina,” Zeqiri adds.
She describes the procedure for obtaining visas for artistic reasons as complicated and time-consuming, involving collection of “millions of documents.“ The work of the artist can often be introduced without the artist being present, but being present is important because it often gives rise to new contacts and projects in which Kosovo can participate,” she continues.
Playwright Doruntina Basha said she has found the visa application process insulting. “The visa application process is very offensive. Dozens of documents have to be submitted proving that the applicant is not a liar, and, more importantly, that he plans to return home after the trip,” Basha said. “What artist is not going to return home?” she asked.
Arian Krasniqi, a playwright and cultural critic, believes Kosovo’s isolation has impoverished cultural life. “Visa facilitation would promote the cultural and artistic life of our country,” Krasniqi said. “Artists are not able to develop in these conditions.” Albert Heta, co-founder and artistic director of the Stacion Center for Contemporary Art, in Pristina, agrees; Kosovo’s isolation and the absence of free movement have impacted on cultural life.
“The greatest impact is… Kosovo’s feeling of isolation, which results from our inability to communicate with the world,” Heta said. Alban Muja, a well-known Kosovar artist, has not himself faced difficulties in securing visas, but fears that others have been deprived of an important learning experience.
“For people dealing with creativity it’s almost impossible to aim to do something if freedom of movement is missing because you don’t have the opportunity to see what is happening around the world,” he said.
“Unfortunately, many of our young artists do not have the opportunities that their peers in any normal country have, and as a result they have very little information,” Muja added.
Turning frustration into inspiration
But some artists are turning this theory on its head, using Kosovo’s isolation as a paradoxical source of inspiration. When Galica was unable to travel to Paris for his exhibition, he decided to turn the experience and his feelings about it into an art work.
“I began thinking about a concept based on remembering the French rejection that had ruined my exhibition. Many other artists had suffered the same fate, so given these facts and others related to Kosovo citizens, I decided my next concept in Berlin would touch on the visa liberalisation issue,” he said.
“I asked others who had applied for visas to scan the rejection part, thinking of doing something called “JO MË” [No More].
“The concept was in a form that aimed to appeal to Europe to lift visas [on Kosovars],” he added. “Coincidentally, the exhibition opened two days before the EU started the dialogue on easing visas [for Kosovo],” Galica noted.
Other artists have worked on the same theme. A 2010 exhibition called “White Wedding”, featuring six Kosovar artists – Arta Agani, Artan Balaj, Arzana Kraja, Dafina Hajra, Lorik Sylejmani and Majlinda Lekmendi – was a deliberate reference to the so-called “White” Schengen list.
It is membership of this list that allows the nationals of a country to enter Europe without visas. Balaj, one of the artists involved, told Balkan Insight that the message had been aimed at Brussels bureaucrats – and appeared to work. “The exhibition was received with great interest by the public,” he noted.
“The audience was largely composed of decision-makers on Kosovo, European Parliamentarians and representatives of the diplomatic corps in Brussels.”
Ghetto door cracks open?
Artists may not have to target EU officials in such a deliberate manner in future.
On January 19, Cecilia Malmstrom, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, visited Kosovo to announce the start of a dialogue on a visa liberalisation process. If Kosovo meets a series of standards it will eventually become part of the EU’s visa-free zone, Malmstrom confirmed.
Heta says the change cannot come soon enough. “Imagine that we’d seen all the changes that have happened around the world; instead we have been in a ghetto all this time.
“We could have developed new ideas, won new prizes and made a difference,” Heta added. Muja says the process already has taken too long and there is no end in sight.
“The extension of this dialogue has damaged Kosovo artists and their progress. “Our youngsters will be stuck for years to come.”
But others feel more optimistic. Photographer Jetmir Idrizi says if the visa dialogue process succeeds, it will change the whole perspective of Kosovo artists.“Of course if this happens, it will be a beneficial change,” he said.
“I hate the bureaucracy of the embassies. “We will have the chance to explore new cultures, see the works of others and integrate… and this is the most beautiful thing that can happen to a ghettoized artistic scene,” Idrizi added.
Trina Gojani, an author and translator, feels likewise. “I’ve never been to Paris but I love the story of Quasimodo in Notre Dame, and I’ve never been to the Netherlands but would love to see where Van Gogh came from,” she said.
“The only possibility for me to perceive the world right now is through books and movies,” she adds.
Arbër Selmani is a member of the External Writing Team at ThinkYoung, a Brussels-based think tank working to promote the youth’s interests n the European Union institutions.
This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme, and it was previously published in the Balkan Insight.