Art in an Area of Conflict: Kosovo
Susan Goetz Zwirn
UNICEF, during a discussion organized by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) reported in June, 2018, that children living in conflict areas has increased by 74% (UNICEF, 2018, June 26). This site notes that in 2020 fifty-nine million children will require humanitarian assistance, the largest number since UNICEF began record keeping, with conflict the major driver (UNICEF, 2020, Jan. 25) . Basic services like water, health and education are all impacted. Even when actual conflict has abated, children are impacted by the toll caused by missing and dead relatives, physical destruction, and economic deprivation. The cultural genocide (a term to be explored) that often occurs prior to actual genocidal conflict is devastating. A report by Save the Children in 2019 provided even more staggering statistics. The organization reports that 1 in 5, almost 420 million children, were in conflict affected areas in 2017, constituting a rise of 30 million from 2016 (Chen, 2019).
The uprooted and traumatized children referred to in these statistics have contributed to what is, undoubtedly, the worst refugee crisis in modern history. The refugee ‘issue’ impacts most of the world and is an engine driving national and international policy by nations in turmoil, inflicting increased suffering of these children. Although attention is focused on a few global hotspots where journalists are permitted, these tragedies are escalating and developing in dozens of places, for a myriad of reasons. Aggression promoted by intolerance is internalized in children and adolescents who have lived with insecurity born of a history of violence, often separated from loved ones, and grown up in exile or in displacement camps. This ongoing tragedy is unfolding in the United States as well. As of September 2018, the New York Times reported that there are 12,800 children in federally contracted shelters and 1,500 unaccounted for. The current administration is canceling English classes and recreational activities (Romo, 2019). According to a joint investigation by The Associated Press and the PBS series, Frontline: “The nearly-70,000 migrant children who were held in government custody this year—up 42 percent in the fiscal year 2018-2019—spent more time in shelters and away from their families than in prior years (Aljazeera,2019). Can activist art educators provide consequential results for children impacted by such conflict?
This study was completed in Kosovo with the nonprofit arts organization ArtsAction Group (AAG). AAG is an international community-based collective with over a decade of commitment to socially engaged arts initiatives with youth in conflict-affected environments. Informing this study is a week-long participatory observation experience in Kosovo with AAG as well as oral history interview data and research prior to the trip.
Their multifaceted mission statement is elaborated on their website: https://www.artsaction.org. AAG is focused on both the individual child and the group: developing capacity for empathy, aesthetic awareness, creativity, problem solving, curiosity, engagement with community, the development of self-esteem, and encouraging empowerment to participate in a democratic society. Of equal significance to AAG is the role of the arts to connect young people to the knowledge and skills required for the 21st century. A keen focus on teaching contemporary art and design, particularly STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) via an inquiry-based approach further aides individual and group survival in today’s economy. An emphasis on contemporary art not only connects young people to global movements, it also encourages personal connection and individual mean making.
Kosovo: Historical context in the struggle for independence
In 1999, after a prolonged conflict, the United States and NATO allies acted to end ‘ethnic cleansing,’ a euphemism for genocide, perpetrated by Milosevic’s forces, and characterized by murder, looting and intimidation orchestrated against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population. Milosevic directed his forces inside Kosovo to drive the bulk of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population out of the territory or annihilate them. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and obtained diplomatic recognition as a sovereign state by 113 UN members. Many countries, notably Russia, China, India and Serbia, do not recognize Kosovo’s independence and it is not a part of the UN. Due to the lack of universal acceptance of Kosovo’s statehood and ongoing tension with Serbia, NATO troops maintains a presence in the region.
The violence in Kosovo is not unique. In the 20th century, self-determination inspired peoples on several continents to overthrow oppressive rule. Once gaining independence, newly seated leaders in many of these nations, however, often denied the same freedoms for ethnic and religious minorities within their borders– perpetuating oppression and civil unrest. As of 2013, Sambanis writes that there were at least 125 civil wars in progress (as cited in Welhengama, 2013).
Kosovo province succeeded from Serbia in 2008. Gurr notes that except for Central and West Africa and South and Southeast Asia, most secessionist movements have subsided. Despite this reduction, current initiatives to justify secession have focused on the idea that self-determination is a human right (Welhengama, 2013). What happens to the cultural, religious, and/or political groups that are engaged in these conflicts?
In 1948, the United Nations defined genocide at the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide Article II, as acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group (United Nations Human Rights, 2018). The idea that genocide starts, but is not confined to killing, was elaborated on by Raphael Lemkin who first conceptualized ‘cultural genocide’ (as cited in Novic, 2015). Although Article II limited the legal definition of genocide to the physical and excluded the destruction of tangible cultural heritage and the prohibition of the use of the language of a group in their definition of genocide, the debate has continued. For Lemkin and others, cultural genocide came to be a form of genocide per se because the destruction of a culture could engender the destruction of the group over time. Anthropologists Jaulins and Clastres used the term ‘ethnocide’, which they claim is the systematic destruction of the modes of life and thought of people who are different. Clastres added that, genocide kills their bodies, “…while ethnocide kills their spirit” (as cited in Novic, 2015, p. 64).
The cultural dimension of genocide broadens a definition of genocide from a sole focus on the action of physical genocide to intention. Coined ‘ethnic cleansing,’ physical and cultural acts of genocide constituted mass attacks against people as well as their cultural heritage (United Nations Security Council, 1992). Whether the intention was to destroy or replace ethnic Albanians, the results impacted thousands of people in what is today called Kosovo. Since 1999, the region has been in a state of flux, beginning after the war with the presence of a military-humanitarian apparatus (Pandolfi, 2003) in which governmental and non-governmental relief agencies exist in a prolonged state of emergency and temporary relief.
Twenty years after the war, Kosovo is the economically poorest nation in Europe; the median family income is under 10K. Rebuilding from a war and genocide that impacted every community, the traumatic effects are still very much a part of Kosovar citizens’ lives and the rebuilding process is fraught with tension (Shtuni, 2015). Recent statements made by the US Ambassador to Pristina indicate a possible shift in US policy towards Kosovo which contradicts the stance taken in 1999 to end the war. Discussions against the partition of Kosovo from Serbia indicates that the sovereignty of Kosovo is perhaps now more fragile than before (2018, August 13, Mujanovic). According to Serbia’s foreign minister, as of August, 2019, 15 countries have revoked their recognition of Kosovo who stated it falls below 100 countries. However, Kosovo claims to have 114 recognize it (Palickova, 2019). Kosovo is not a member of the UN and Russia and Serbia’s opposition is a cloud hanging over Kosovo’s efforts to join the EU.
Working towards self-determination, Kosovars work to rebuild the economy. Kosovars are re-envisioning their culture and spirit as they choose to identify– through processes of becoming, mapping their own future– not wholly as victims, survivors, soldiers, or descendants (Biehl & Locke, 2010)..
Fellbach Haus Centre for Creative Education
Fellbach Haus is a community cultural center in the town of Suhareka, directed by a team from the community which includes artist and educator, Refki Gollopeni. Gollopeni experienced the war firsthand, when the Serbian government shut down the schools and the Albanian language was disallowed. After the war, Gollopeni focused on active involvement with the youth in the community for healing and rebuilding through art. He saw the need for art projects aimed at meaning making and creative expression, as well as innovative, entrepreneurial knowledge, and skills.
Gollopeni’s ten years of collaboration with AAG began with a meeting at a peace education conference. Wariness of non-governmental organizations and UN groups that aren’t grounded in community resulted in a two-year vetting process before AAG met Gollopeni. This relationship, over time, has been enhanced by local and international arts partners, local businesses, as well as the families of the young people who participate in the art programs. Gollopeni wanted to bring contemporary art education practices to Fellbach Haus. He describes the relationship with AAG: “Together we are working to establish a better future for humanity, while simultaneously maintaining human identity through peace, love, and art” (R. Gollopeni, interview, March 2018).
In Suhareka’s schools, art education focuses on traditional media and skills. Through collaboration, AAG designs projects that honor the local leaders’ expertise, and introduces new methods and materials at Gollopeni’s request. Each site is specific. Starting in 2008, with the request from Gollopeni to bring contemporary art practices to the center, AAG introduced installation art and artists which helped model teaching and the production of art that was collaborative and ephemeral vs the individual artist making a permanent object. Materials were locally sourced or transported on site by AAG.
In following years, AAG introduced stop motion animation stimulated by the work of contemporary artists. The content of the work was grounded in community, identity, and history, particularly documenting war stories from the community. Expanding upon the animation workshops, Gollopeni organized an international animation festival the following year which highlighted student work alongside work by international artists. Gollopeni continues to develop curriculum, building on the yearly experiences with AAG in ways that are meaningful for student expression and the future goals of the community.
Gollopeni’s interest in introducing contemporary art practice and collaboration for Kosovar youth corresponds to a recent research shift in scholarly and pedagogical activity regarding creativity. A new generation of research has begun to examine creativity as an outcome of collaborative activity rather than as a phenomenon that occurs entirely within the individual. Glaveanu’s culturally based definition of creativity refers to it as “a complex socio-cultural-psychological process. (Zwirn & VandeZande, 2015, p. 11). This understanding of creativity has salience for our discussion. Creativity is understood as a “generative process; it is connected to previous knowledge and cultural repertoires and in a dialogical relationship with the old or the already-there” (p. 11). In this conception, “tradition and previous knowledge are part and parcel of the creative process,” and “creativity and tradition are interpenetrated” (p. 13).
Week at the Fellbach Haus
Children’s projects focused on the theme of identity in an imaginative way, exploring the question: If you could have a secret super power, what would it be? The teens project, titled Utopia/Dystopia was developed in collaboration with Gollopeni and his discussions with his students during the planning stage before the visit. The theme asked students to explore the questions: What does ‘utopia’ mean to you? What does dystopia mean to you? Where do they overlap? Students viewed images by contemporary artists who have explored the themes of utopia and dystopia to generate dialogue around societal and personal issues. The students discussed what they considered characteristics of utopian and dystopian society.
The discussion was facilitated with Gollopeni and students fluent in English translating. The inspiration to tackle these subjects evolved from discussions with Kosovar teens via skype prior to our arrival. The youngest nation in Europe, Kosovo has a youth unemployment rate of around 57%. Young people are keenly aware of the disparity in access to opportunities and experiences that most other European youth enjoy (McCarthy & Wagoneer, December 14, 2017). Discussing utopia as a form of empowerment in envisioning a brighter future for the country and dystopia as a critical analysis of their daily experience hit close to home.
STEAM approach through contemporary art
Both the children’s workshops and the teen workshops focused on integrating technology into the art making as a means for creative expression. Kosovar youth come from a long artistic and cultural tradition. Their appreciation for art, along with their motivation to learn about new technologies was quite evident in what they accomplished in the space of the week with AAG.
The children created artworks working with circuitry for lights and sound recordings of their voice, describing their desired superpower. The elementary students also used circuit boards. The teens similarly worked with conductive materials as well as how to make an image into a 3D print file. They learned about Bare Conductive Touch Boards for adding sound to a symbol that they had created to identify their idea. The Touch Board makes projects interactive through a microcontroller based platform that allows one to turn almost any material or surface into a sensor. Thick graphite sticks served as both conductive material for sound and for ’drawing utopia and dystopia themed murals. Students chose a symbol on their work for emphasis and created the symbol into a 3D printed object.
Community Focused Alliances
Strategies employed by AAG bolster the impact of SEAE. Analysis of documentation, interviews, video, photos, observations and experiences highlight key curricular concepts: a valuing of alliances, empowerment through self-determination, curriculum co-created and based on participants stated requests that meets individual and group goals (such as current design and STEAM projects for 21st century skills, and a pedagogy focused on hope and personal and community meaning making. The arts foster dialogue towards individual and community development.
Building alliances with local groups through long-term cooperation lay the groundwork for AAG’s success in Kosovo. AAG forms community alliances through student-led engagement in the form of interactive and participatory exhibition design, which culminates their workshops. The public exhibitions extend their focus on engaging community with young people, artists and art educators, by networking with family and community members. Collaboration is fundamental as students decide how to showcase their art to the community. The turnout of several hundred parents, youth and municipal personnel at the workshops’ end confirmed the value of the workshops to community members.
Transformational, socially engaged education via the arts gains vitality when it is youth focused with a recognition that the future of Kosovo and its sovereignty is linked to the voices of generations to come. As Dukagjin Lipa, father of Kosovar’s first international pop star, Dua Lipa, explained in August 2018, regarding his creation of the first major music festival in Kosovo, “We have our troubles, but we have one of the most wonderful youths in this part of the world. They are intelligent, they’re creative. They have something to say.” (Marshall, A., 2018)
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