A Displaced Artist Finds Freedom in Flight

MEXICO CITY — Runik, titled after a neolithic settlement in Kosovo, is an ode to history, memory, war, displacement, and the concept of home. The exhibition at Museo Tamayo is the first Latin American survey of work by Petrit Halilaj, an ethnic Albanian artist form Kosovo now living in Berlin. The artist, born in 1986, works from splinters of thought and material substance. He forms birds from cloth or attaches metal avian legs to clay vessels in memory of his time in a refugee camp during the Kosovo War, when the sight of birds and thought of migration gave him hope. Halilaj started to draw in the camp as a 13-year-old boy and gained media recognition through the support of a psychologist. His intricate, sophisticated, brightly colored felt-marker pictures depict war: tanks, soldiers, burning buildings. 

Halilaj continues to mine this source material. Out of dirt and manure, he sculpts animals that seem to watch over the chaos wrought by humans. The animals were symbolically displaced by war when the Kosovo Natural History Museum closed. Halilaj had witnessed the neglect and destruction of many displays, recalling decomposing butterflies and birds. A giant wooden structure straddles two rooms above visitors’ heads, interacting with the museum’s multiple concrete and stone levels and ample windows. It obliquely suggests his rebuilt family home after the original was burned in the war. He titles it poetically, and perhaps desperately, “The places I’m looking for, my dear, are utopian places, they are boring and I don’t know how to make them real” (2010/2023).

Nearby, giant flowers bloom and kite-like birds’ plumage drapes onto the floor, along with bits of wood, a pile of feathers, and two little earth-hewn turtles. The overall feeling is irresolution, fragmentary twists and turns in an art-making process that, although it is biographical, does not solidify but rather unspools like a passage strewn with the debris of the artist’s hopes, memories, and joys. One of the most effective means of processing trauma, as Halilaj learned as a child, is to find and share its expressive equivalents, to connect the personal with universal themes. And this is what he does, moving from small gestures of intimacy to grand, theatrical exuberance, shifting the mood from feelings of displacement to a soaring, childlike embrace of freedom. 

In addition to the installation at Tamayo, the artist painted a chicken on a functioning AeroMexico 737 Boeing plane for the museum, as a commentary on borders and restricted travel between Kosovo and Mexico. The complex permissions required to achieve this feat underscore his desire to resist containment, to not be limited or held by museum walls or political partition. 

Petrit Halilaj: Runik continues at Museo Tamayo (Paseo de la Reforma 51, Polanco, Bosque de Chapultepec I Secc, Miguel Hidalgo, Mexico City) through April 7. The exhibition was curated by José Esparza Chong Cuy with curatorial assistant Ana Sampietro Brosa.

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