Artist withdraws after biennial refuses to recognise nationality

The artist Petrit Halilaj has withdrawn from the Belgrade Biennial after the organizers of the exhibition dithered over how to present his nationality in accompanying materials.

Halilaj is from Kosovo, and the biennial is organized and hosted by the Cultural Centre of Belgrade in Serbia, a country that does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state. He pulled out of the show after he was unable to agree with the organizers about how his country of origin would be named in the list of participating artists.

Halilaj, who is based in Berlin, has written an open letter detailing his experience with the exhibition, which is officially called the 58th October Salon: Belgrade Biennial.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and there is a fraught history between the two nations. During the Kosovo War of 1998–99, fought between the two nations, Halilaj himself was displaced and spent more than two years living in refugee camps. In his letter, Halilaj recalls how his and his family’s passports were destroyed, and refers to the conflict as genocide.

“When I received the invitation to the Belgrade Biennial I was internally conflicted, but I also saw it as an opportunity to create a bridge, to open up a dialogue and to explore new paths of reconciliation through art,” Halilaj writes.

Curated by Ilaria Marotta and Andrea Baccin, this iteration was called “The Dreamers,” and Halilaj had planned to show a video called Shkrepetima (Flash of Light) resulting from a theater performance he staged in his home city of Runik in Kosovo, inside the ruins of the city’s House of Culture, which was destroyed during the conflict.

Organizers first omitted his country of origin from a document released in May. After he requested a correction, organizers introduced it with an asterisk, which Halilaj says “reiterates the refusal of Serbia to recognize Kosovo as an independent country.”

“The asterisk does not even begin to repair a century of oppression and genocide that Serbia has inflicted on Kosovo and it is painful to witness in the context of an art institution that may have a different understanding of the issue,” Halilaj writes.

Later, the institution ended up removing all mentions of the participating artists’ countries of origin, but Halilaj withdrew anyway out of fear that his work, which grapples with the plight of Kosovo’s multiethnic society, risked “being miscommunicated and misinterpreted, or even politically instrumentalized.”

The biennial is slated to open on October 16. Contacted by Artnet News, a spokesperson for the Cultural Center of Belgrade explained that as a public institution, it was obliged to follow Serbia’s official policy on Kosovo.

“As you know the official policy of the Republic of Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo as [an] independent country, so we as [a] public institution could not write [it] differently,” the spokesperson said.

“From the beginning of this unpleasant situation for Petrit Halilaj we were open for dialogue with the artist,” the show’s organizers said in a statement, adding that they hope he changes his mind and rejoins the exhibition.

They declined to elaborate on how they would deal with artists from Kosovo in the future.

Following Halilaj’s withdrawal, the organizers removed all cities and countries from the list of participating artists, which Halilaj says he hopes will be the biennial’s policy for future editions.