Blank spaces, opportunities and healing

Faton Mazreku in conversation with Anne-Christin Bielig

I would like to start with the overall current topic: Covid-19. Your home country Kosovo has just been in the news here in Italy this weekend as it was added to the list of risk states. Now people passing through or having been to Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia are not allowed anymore to enter Italy, flights are being cancelled. While the situation in Italy has relaxed, the crisis seems just starting in the Balkans. So, how are you right now? How is the situation? How has the pandemic affected your work?

When I work in the studio on big paintings, I close off entirely for a few days. Sometimes, I feel overstrained by the various noises of everyday life, so I feel the need to close off and that works well for me in front of the canvas with brushes and paint. When we were in lockdown due to Covid-19, it was not very difficult for me because I am used to that kind of enclosure. Nonetheless, it was not the same. I had collected some new ideas for my work but my inspiration mainly derives from everyday life. However, that reality had entirely changed under those circumstances which in return changed the idea I primarily had. For that reason, I am unable to realize them in the same way. So, that was an unfamiliar, yet interesting impact.
The crisis in the Balkans has always been present in everyday life which means now that a new crisis has been declared, people don’t seem to take it very seriously. In the absence of a historically established culture, our society is not fully constituted yet in some aspects. In fact, the pandemic has seriously damaged the socio-economic situation here in Kosovo which apart from that has not actually been good before either. You mention that the flights have been cancelled. Actually, we have had a restriction on flights even before the time of the pandemic. As an artist for example I am not granted the full freedom to travel for my work because Kosovar citizens have no visa liberalization which I personally regard as a failure of the Kosovar government. Some doors were already closed for us, and now new closed doors have been added and I consider that a really surreal situation for people living here.

When you say “you do not have liberalization” you mean that you have travel restrictions? Which are those? No, we do not have the right to free movement. Currently, we can only go to a few neighbouring countries.

It is almost impossible for Kosovans to travel to Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, etc., because we do not have a visa liberalization. It is only possible to visit most other countries with a special invitation e.g. an invitation for an exhibition, residence or project. It limits you as an artist in getting to know new exhibition spaces or international artists.

Could you say a little bit more about the difference it makes for you personally between the voluntary lockdown to be productive and paint versus the forced lockdown? What changed in the reality you are experiencing?

While I am voluntarily locked in my studio, I know that the reality outside is completely normal, I can rely on it and do not experience any mental barriers when painting. In that sense, I am free in the expression of my ideas to reality. When everyone is in mandatory confinement, a very mysterious and undefined empty space begins to appear.

That is an interesting aspect because of course as an artist you are responding to the world surrounding you and all of a sudden it changed into a world you don’t know anymore and maybe have not found ways to respond artistically yet. Could this lack of a definition mean a chance also? Of creating a new idea of a reality?

Of course, we as artist can adapt a new routine, we can seal ourselves off and spend more time at home or in the studio. The peculiarity of this is that we can be more productive and ideas can be added.

Your paintings indeed show an inspiration by, or maybe even an analyzation of, public space (the market) and how humans move and behave in there. There is the strong opposite of the gathering and those big blank areas on your canvases. It seems to me you take away all context of those people you depict. Would you like to comment on that?

Yes, actually, in regard to how I approach painting, I consider the figures depicted in my painting like a sort of wound. I am very attached to my reality and still have a lot to say in my work the way I do already. But sometimes I am considering to adapt another progress by, instead of thinking hard only about the figures themselves, adding new realities that affect those figures.

Could you specify, if possible, what you mean with “wound”? The wound requires recovery to heal.

The depiction of my reality in my paintings serve as a metaphorical wound which stands for the social and political problems of our everyday lives. If we as citizens of a country have ideals in any field and want to progress towards those, we first must strive for our well-being, for the “healing of the wounds”.

So, the blank parts of your paintings serve more as a possibility than a reduction? To make clear, that there is the possibility to add something, e.g. another reality?

Sometimes the blank parts in a painting make a lot of noise, or vice versa: sometimes a very crowded image can be entirely silent. With this I need to be very careful. The blank spaces in my paintings need to be treated diligently so that viewers know that they are intentional. If in the process I would add imaginary figures to the real ones depicted, I do not think it would add up. I use the blank space in itself as an added layer: although there are many people it still can mean that there is a sort of emptiness like on the market there are many empty words being spoken, many young people are not able to see the emptiness as an opportunity. Additionally, I also treat the blank spaces currently present in my art as a way to make the viewers think up mysterious spaces.

About the people you portray in the market scenes you say in your artist’s statement that they rather stay silent, keep their hands in their pockets or behind their backs, they come with no particular intention. I understand it as a certain passivity in people. Is that a critical standpoint you take?

Of course, I am critical of the figures that I explore in my work. The hands in the pockets can be seen as a metaphor which characterizes the people here. The hands behind the back stand for the past time which still weighs heavily on people.

You said you have very good memories of your time at Villa Romana? Is there a specific moment which you remember?

My time at the Villa Romana in Florence remain the best memories I have. It was my first visit to Italy and even Europe. In my home country, I do not have the comfort as an artist which Villa Romana offered me. It was great to meet the artists who were there for a longer stay. Discussions we had during dinner affected my artistic practice and my thinking in search of an artistic identity. Similar effect had the exhibitions and presentations at the time. It is a house in which artists work in every room, in which you can be inspired and influenced by the art itself. You get filled with art. That is what happened to me at that time.

We are very glad to hear your time here has been so important and influential! Thanks for the conversation!