Petrit Halilaj: ‘I started to live with fear on a daily basis’ | Art

Petrit Halilaj was 12 years old when Serbian troops moved into his Kosovar village, forcing his family to flee and then burning their house to the ground. Piling as much as they could on to a tractor, they took off for his grandfather’s home. When that was also invaded they moved again, flitting from refuge to refuge until they arrived at a camp in Albania, where they sat out the rest of the 15-month war between Serbia and Kosovo.

It was there, in the spring of 1999, that Halilaj met up with the Italian psychologist who was to change his life. News reached the tent (in which he was living with his mother, grandfather and four siblings) that Giacomo “Angelo” Poli was giving out paper and felt-tip pens to any child who wanted to draw. Before long he was pouring out images so powerful that the then UN secretary general Kofi Annan asked to meet him during a visit to the camp.

“I’d grown up with Kofi Annan. He was bigger than Star Wars to me, so I said to my mum: ‘I can’t show him a little A4 picture,’” recalls Halilaj. Together they managed to liberate some of the cardboard used to floor the tents, so he could redraw one image of a massacre in a village. The original plan was to give the picture to Annan, but Halilaj’s mind was changed by his grandfather’s insistence that the visit was no more than a piece of political theatre. So, while the image was broadcast around the world, the picture itself stayed in Albania, where Halilaj only rediscovered it decades later.

A year after the war ended, the family returned to Kosovo. Halilaj was given a scholarship to art school in Italy, setting him on a course that now brings him to Tate St Ives for his first solo show in the UK. Though Angelo’s visit to the camp only lasted two weeks, it was the start of a lifelong friendship. The two worked together to find an adult sense in the 35 drawings produced during that fortnight, which are the basis of Halilaj’s Tate installation. One room documents his childhood: it not only includes a video of Annan patting Halilaj’s head as he is shown the picture, but an Andrew Testa photograph he discovered years later on the New York Times website, of his little figure, squashed between two plumply upholstered women, in a food queue at the camp. Their plumpness, he points out, is the result of many layers of coloured felt that protected them from the vicious cold, and now plays a signature role in his art.

The installation itself is an enchanted forest of images, where parrots and peacocks hover over the churned earth of mass graves and burn you into the mind of a 13-year-old boy who somehow managed to craft his own salvation from the trauma of war. As installers stitch the felt cut-outs to the threads attaching them to the ceiling, the artist runs around poking feathers in here and there – peacock, chicken, flamingo – “for those who care to look closely”.

“When we talk about the war in Kosovo, we are not talking about a historical situation that has been resolved,” says Halilaj. But it is the artist’s role to find an alternative to “boring diplomacy”. In the end, Halilaj says, “landscape is what remains and gives us dreams of the future. So to me this exhibition is not just fragments of 1999 but fragments of the future, too.”

Petrit Halilaj on his Tate installation

Petrit Halilaj. Tate St Ives. 2021The blanket
Photograph: Matt Greenwood/Tate

The blanket
“This red and yellow cover was over the body of a three-month-old baby who was killed in the village of Obri, very close to where we lived. I didn’t put the child in the picture, because for me it’s an image of a massacre. I didn’t want to show the victims, because we’re so bombarded by war images. At first we were told that the soldiers would never hurt children. The murder of this child and his entire family was the moment when I started to live with fear on a daily basis.”

The burning building, with red and yellow birds
Photograph: Kirstin Prisk

The burning house
“In another part of the installation you can see our yellow and red house before it all happened, but here it’s burning to the ground. There’s nothing left of it now. In the background you can see a soldier and a bulldozer, but in the foreground are birds in those first colours Angelo gave us. It’s a way of giving back to him what he gave to us as kids: paper and colour and space for our imaginations. That was such an amazing gift.”

The peacock with dove/ raptor and soldier in the background
Photograph: Kirstin Prisk

The peacock
“Birds represented to me the colour and joy of my imagination, even in the worst of places. Behind it you can see the shadow of a soldier with a knife. It’s up to you which way you turn: you have either the unfolding of war or the unfolding of dreams.”

The little boy
Photograph: Kirstin Prisk

The little boy
“This little boy is the one figure I have taken directly from the drawing I made for Kofi Annan. In that, he stands to one side, with a tank rolling in, watching a massacre. I didn’t want to put him in the middle because it’s not a self-portrait, but a picture of all of us.”

Petrit Halilaj: Very volcanic over this green feather is at Tate St Ives to 16 January.

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