An artist from Kosovo is on a plane

The New York Times

When the Kosovar artist Petrit Halilaj received an invitation for his biggest project ever in the United States, he knew just where to go: back to school.
Serbian forces burned down the Halilaj family home in 1999, at the height of the Kosovo war, one of the most brutal chapters of a decade-long nightmare of ethnic and religious conflicts in the Balkans.
The project you’ve done for the Met roof continues one that began more than a decade ago, when you went back to your elementary school in Kosovo.
My old school — which had actually survived the war — was being torn down to build a new one.
Some of them knew me, that I’m an artist, and they were like, “You have to go in.
And then I see the pile of these green school desks there since before the war.
There’s one with the letters “KFOR,” a reference to the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo.
But to me the stars against the blue Pristina sky were also the stars of the flag of the European Union.


When the Kosovar artist Petrit Halilaj received an invitation for his biggest project ever in the United States, he knew just where to go: back to school.

The 38-year-old Halilaj visited elementary schools throughout Southeast Europe to gather inspiration for “Abetare,” his simple, astute, and utterly charming sculpture that is located on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He took pictures of the notes that previous generations of students had made on their walls and desks. Halilaj learned the alphabet from an ABC book in Albanian, which is referenced in the project’s title. Balkan children’s drawings served as models for the witty, occasionally vulgar bronze and steel sculptures that now adorn New York’s skyline. In addition to the large pieces, there are smaller ones that hide behind cocktail bars and nestle among topiaries, as well as sculptures of flowers, birds, and graffiti.

Kosterrc, a tiny village outside of Runik, is where Halilaj was born in 1986. (One year at Art Basel, he provided an eternal response to the question, “Where are you from?” by filling the white cube of the art fair with 60 tons of Kosterrc soil. During the worst of the European fighting between World War II and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, he attended school. At the height of the Kosovo War in 1999, Serbian forces set fire to the Halilaj family home, marking one of the most horrific episodes in a ten-year nightmare of ethnic and religious strife throughout the Balkans. After the family fled to Albania, the boy was encouraged to start drawing by psychologists working in a camp for refugees. Reporters covering the conflict at the time described a young prodigy who could draw peacocks and chickens with both hands.

You started working on this project for the Met roof over ten years ago when you returned to your Kosovo elementary school. What was the experience like going back to the village you had to leave when you were a kid?

I spent a vacation back in Runik in 2010. They were demolishing my old school in order to construct a new one, even though it had survived the war. During my time at the school, all these kids showed up. The town had been burned by the Serbian army, and this was one of the few buildings left. Despite this, it was going to be replaced with new, cheap construction. Others were tiny devils, perhaps eight or nine years old, but some were teenagers. A typical small-town gathering of mischievous children. They were great.

Some of them knew that I was an artist, so they insisted that I come in. Once inside, I began to record. They began engaging in reckless fun, which is exactly what you are not supposed to do in a school.

These children would have been born post-conflict, post-2000.

Right on. As a child, I never would have had the bravery to paint over images of national heroes and poets, but they did it.

After that, one of the children led me into a classroom. There, since before the war, is a pile of green school desks that I then notice. The desks outdated me by a significant amount. And because it has everything, this child says to me, “Come see the drawings.”. These desks hold forty years’ worth of crazy, unconscious secrets. There are layers upon layers of generations, an encyclopedic quality. You can also see, though, how humorous and both local and global these things are.

The language of drawing simply moved me, and I suddenly realized that I was losing something else, not from the war, but from the postwar madness that made everyone want new things. I requested permission from the principal to salvage the desks in at least one classroom. “Yes, if you finance new desks,” he replied. We struck a bargain. Hopefully, he actually bought them with the money.

In 2015, you displayed the workstations from your hometown in a Cologne exhibition. What motivated you to travel farther for the Met project, throughout the Balkans?

That trip was intimate. As a refugee in Albania, I began traveling to Kukes three years ago. Next, to Rozaje, a vacation spot in Montenegro where we used to go before the war. Very small towns—very, very small towns. I visited every country that was once part of Yugoslavia, with the exception of Serbia, where I received pictures from friends.

I was astounded to discover how connected I felt to everyone while I was traveling to the schools. I just understand the language these drawings speak to me. I was always accompanied by professionals in the field of education, artists from the area, or representatives of museums. Otherwise, it would be difficult to persuade the superintendent of schools that you are not a lunatic. “May I visit your classrooms to view the children’s drawings?” [laughs] Establishing trust requires a significant amount of time.

The Balkans are explicitly mentioned in a few sculptures on the Met roof. One bears the initials “KFOR,” denoting the NATO peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. However, there are also stars and birds, Lionel Messi, the Chanel emblem, and the same crude illustrations of bodily parts that you could find on an American school desk.

Looking at history through all these politically incorrect drawings is a really funny way. However, I like these secrets’ queer quality. These are not names. Yugoslavia is being screwed by the euro sign, as you can see.

The sculpture that reads “IDGAF,” which stands for “I don’t give a [expletive],” is a small gay joke that I happened upon on the roof. It also happens to be a song by Dua Lipa, who is the unofficial president of Kosovo.

Why do birds hold such a special place in your work? You transformed antiques from your hometown—many of which are currently housed in museums in Serbia—into bird-like figures with spindly claws for your 2017–18 New Museum exhibition. In your show in Madrid, there were enormous brass bird claws and a performer decked out in white raven clothing.

I always think of the Albanian ABC book, the Abetare, when I see the birds and the chickens. Petrit is the name of the boy in the letter P lesson. “Et et titit. Petrit along with the hens. It took me years to understand that when people asked me, “What’s your name?” when I was younger and I replied, “Petrit.” They then said, “Ah, Petrit with the chickens!”. I just knew we had hens in our garden, so why am I Petrit with the chickens?

I discovered later that all of these adults had gone through the Abetare and had gained this knowledge.

The conflicts of the 1990s featured language politics as a major flashpoint.

Students were allowed to learn in Albanian until 1989, with the ending of autonomy. The tale of the hidden universities and classrooms follows. The school evolved into a forum for discussion where we could observe future developments. When the house was set on fire in 1999, my Abetare was destroyed.

Previously, you have included drawings of flowers and birds from your childhood in previous shows. Is there a connection between those repurposings of your drawings from your time as a refugee and the sketches you discovered for the Met project?

The least frightening approach for me to make sense of the world around me is to challenge adulthood or accepted norms by revisiting a formative period. Via the desks and schools, a counternarrative could be constructed using a network of drawings, symbols, and alphabets that arrive at the Metropolitan Museum and combine to create a virtual collaborative landscape.

Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, has a magnificent Grand Hotel roof that you completed two years ago. The hotel used to be a five-star establishment, but as it deteriorated during the war years, each star on the roof sign was removed. After the sun set, a Kosovar child’s statement, “When the sun goes away, we paint the sky,” took the place of the “Grand Hotel” sign. You also added dozens of new stars. “.

I ultimately gave this piece of art to the people of Pristina through donation. The hotel where Tito was going to sleep is the exact location we are discussing. There was once so much glamour, and you can still feel it. After all, you had this amazing piece about it in The New York Times.

The Kosovo president at the time said to our reporter, “I don’t think it is the worst hotel in the world, but that is because the world is very big.”. “.

And it occurred to me to return to Kosovo and rekindle the fire there. converting a decaying structure into a 28-star hotel. There is a theoretical possibility that your dreams could surpass the accommodations in Dubai.

However, I also saw the stars of the EU flag against the blue sky of Pristina. The installation focuses equally on Kosovo’s ongoing quest for full European statehood.

The idea was to introduce a language that is uncommon in public areas. Additionally, about perceiving in these fallen stars a fallen ideology sculpturally. A generation lived in Yugoslavia and was extremely proud of this hotel, even though they were unable to afford to stay there.

scroll to top