Contemporary art biennale

The Kosovar school that has become an icon of resistance against Serbia

The travelling biennale Manifesta, held this year in Pristina and coming to Barcelona in 2024, addresses major global issues

5 min
The former Hertica School burned for nine hours in 1999

PristinaThe Serbian authorities acted terribly when they took control of Kosovo in the late 1980s: in terms of education, they put an end to teaching in Albanian with measures such as the widespread dismissal of Albanian teachers and the closure of schools. One of the most bloody episodes of this persecution took place in March 1990 when between 4,000 and 8,000 students and teachers were poisoned throughout Kosovo. Those events provoked a wave of collective mobilisations. An icon of this is the ruins of the Hertica school, one of the 400 that were created in private homes in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, in order to be able to teach in Albanian, albeit clandestinely. Until October 30, this school opens its doors to the public as one of the twenty-five spaces of the 14th edition of Manifesta, the travelling biennale which will be held in Barcelona in 2024.

In Pristina the central theme is public space. The set of works on display and the visit to the Hertica school, a captivating experience, phagocytise the country's convulsive recent history and the ravages of war. "The police often came to pressure us to close, and my father put the whole family in front of them and told them they could kill us, but we would not close," says Azemine Aliu-Hertica, the daughter of the owner, Mehmet Aliu-Hertica, a mining entrepreneur who gave up the two-story house he was about to move into with his seventeen-member family. The family defended the school even with weapons, before taking refuge in a bunker they had camouflaged in a stable. Mehmet Aliu-Hertica has been kept out of the media for some time because he gave the house to the state to turn it into a museum, but this has not yet happened.

not a word [...]', by Ugo Rondinone

The Hertica school was a success: between 1990 and 1999, when it was burnt down after the outbreak of war, about a thousand students graduated each year. The students taught in huddles, often writing on each other's backs, as some former students explain in different videos, and even today they still remember the rancid smell inside those rooms. In total, there were about 2,000 schools throughout Kosovo. The Hertica school occupies a privileged position on the top of a hill on the outskirts of the city, while the other Manifesta spaces are located in emblematic buildings and places such as the Grand Hotel Pristina, built during Tito's dictatorship and where the great exhibition of this Manifesta is located, the brutalist National Library, the Palace of Youth and Sports, the university campus, the National Gallery of Kosovo and the former hammam.

Among the most emblematic interventions is the Monument to the Heroes of National Liberation, in Adem Jashari Square, which Ugo Rondidone has had covered with a fuzzy patina to turn it into a symbol of joy and hope. Also the cloud of intimate stories of Kosovar teenagers that the Japanese Chiharu Shiota has woven with her characteristic red thread inside the ancient hammam. And Lee Bul's silver globe inside the Palace of Youth, evocative of utopian dreams and the danger of the excesses of technology.

'Willing tone Be Vulnerable', by Lee Bul
'Tell me your Story', by Chiharu Shiota

Running parallel to public space and Kosovar history, dozens of works of art also address hot topics such as environmental issues and the LGTBI community. This is the case of a gigantic mural displayed on campus with the portraits of a pioneering transgender woman and an elderly gay man who lost his sight, well known in the city, and who decided to create a family and take care of each other. This work was vandalised a few days after the Manifesta was inaugurated and after recovering it, it has not been attacked again. Among the artists are four Catalans, who received the support of the Institut Ramon Llull. Núria Güell exhibits her work on expropriating money from banks, while Lua Coderch's videoart piece Gold reflects on the value of money. A shop which makes copies of keys hosts a piece by Luz Broto in which she proposes to exchange homes with a stranger. Finally, there is a selection of experimental LGTB publications by the Werker Collective, founded by Marc Roig Blesa and Rogier Delfos.

Limitations to visas to leave Kosovo stifle the aspirations of the country's artists and their possibilities of making themselves known internationally. That's why this Manifesta has included the most local artists, 40 out of the 102 participants, and for the first time in the trajectory of the biennale tickets to all the spaces are free. Another novelty of this Manifesta is that the institution will remain in Kosovo for at least four more years through a centre for narrative practice, located in a former library, equipped as a library and for exhibitions, cultural events and workshops.

One of the spaces of the 14th Manifiesta is an old brick factory
With 'Above Everyone' artist Alban Muja criticises the practice of illegally adding a storey to a house, widely spread in Pristina

The Copenhagen urban model

Kosovo's population is about 1.9 million people, and one of the pillars of the economy are transfers from the one million Kosovars living in the diaspora. All over Pristina you can see housing blocks under construction, even though many of them end up half empty. After the last municipal elections, it seems that urban planning policy may take a turn. The mayor of the city since November, the architect Përparim Rama, assures that Pristina is a city "under construction" and wants to be in power for eight years to contribute to transform it with a model that takes at the same time from Bilbao and Copenhagen and that wants to have culture and creative industries as one of its engines. Precisely, another of the spaces of this Manifesta is about two kilometres of the railway line that used to link Pristina and Belgrade. The local council wants to give it new life with actions reminiscent of Barcelona's tactical urbanism. One of the reasons for this is that it goes through the 3.3 hectare complex of a former brick factory the council wants to turn into a sustainable architectural icon, as Fabra i Coats is in Barcelona.

The Pristina Manifesta, which has a budget of €5m, kicked off on July 22, has so far received 75,000 visitors and is expecting between 122,000 and 147,000 by October 30. The Barcelona Manifesta will be held, as already announced, not only in the city of Barcelona, but also in ten other municipalities in the metropolitan area: l'Hospitalet de Llobregat, Terrassa, Badalona, Sabadell, Mataró, Sant Cugat del Vallès, Cornellà, El Prat de Llobregat, Granollers and Santa Coloma de Gramenet. Although there is still much work to be done, educational aspects will be key, with the renovation of the Escola del Mar undertaken by Francesc Ferrer Guàrdia as a source of inspiration, and boosting the connection between the different municipalities within the metropolitan area through a series of "nodes", as Manifesta's director, Hedwig Fijen, puts it. After Barcelona and the Ruhr area in 2026, Manifesta organisers want to hold the 2028 edition in Ukraine.