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Valentine's day photo by Agim Balaj
Photography Agim Balaj

The Kosovo sisters kissing in public to fight conservatism

Through artistic protest and performance, Haveit Collective is using the city centre as a stage to fight nationalism and LGBT and gender oppression despite fears for their safety

Kosovo isn’t big in the art world. Though deep set in its traditional and religious ideologies it offers a talking point for the day-to-day issues that often surround these beliefs. Just like many other parts of the world, the self-declared independent country has its fair share of disputes – from the oppression of women in an essentially Albanian society, to LGBT discrimination, nationalism, and a string of local controversies including water and power shortages. These topics have shown a lack of support when it comes to the government and organisations wanting to make a change.

In a hope to help tackle these problems are the all-female collective, Haveit. A group consisting of two sets of sisters from the country’s capital of Prishtina. Hana and Vesa Qena along with Lola and Alketa Sylaj make up this rebellious project. Using performance, protest and video installation as the backbone to their charged work, their artistic expression often poses frightening risks in what is still seen as a predominantly conservative society.

Faced with a strong public divide the group are often subject to death threats, conspiracy theories, and ridicule from parts of the community, but this hasn’t left a bad taste in their mouth and, if anything, feeds their creative hunger. “It makes us work harder because if we were afraid we wouldn’t do this in the first place – we know where we live,” say Haveit. Like any collective fighting for social justice and gender equality, there will always be people who disagree, and Haveit would be the first to tell you.

Out of all of their impulsive means and methods, the collective’s street set performances tend to push the most buttons, with one particular scenario springing to mind. “When we did the kiss on Valentine’s Day (a couple of years ago) for LGBT rights we photographed it and put it online – there were so many bad reactions. We were scared something might happen. But, in three days everybody forgets and they don’t actually do anything to you,” they explain. Coming together in 2011, after a mutual agreement on the artistic limitations in their university's art faculty they decided to really push their work on the streets. This allowed anyone who walked by to witness four young women raising questions surrounding LGBT rights, nationalism, and oppression – that many find too unpleasant to face.

“We would like to keep fighting. Our biggest challenge is that we are afraid that we will become silent like our country. We want to keep being loud!” – HaveIt Collective

“In galleries or theatres people have already decided on their thoughts”, the group tell us in regards to art, adding that these spaces don’t always confront these issues on a larger scale. So, the girls dabble in various dramatic mediums in order to prove their point. Mainly using the city centre as their stage has allowed them the artistic freedom to be spontaneous within their objectives and to capture this “honest audience” that definitely gets involved, whether it be positive or negative. “In our country things are good on the outside, people are trying to promote LGBT rights and working on situations within the law. But even so, NGO’s don’t really take action. They don't do anything that has an impact to make these changes – to take it that step further,” say Haveit. With this silence the foursome has become even louder, pushing boundaries in a way that many artists in Kosovo often shy away from. Their artistic involvement isn’t about raking in the cash or pleasing art connoisseurs, it’s about creating a platform for people to openly discuss these ongoing obstacles.

“The reason we started doing this was because we face these problems every day, and, of course, we want to change them. We want to make other people work together to help fix these issues,” they explain. Gradually Haveit collective is scratching away at the difficulties that have formed like a stubborn scab, not only in Kosovo but across many Balkan areas. Collaborating with fellow artists such as Dardan Zhegrova and Agim Balaj has aided in the fight, making for a power in numbers circumstance that will hopefully have a contagious effect on Kosovo’s art scene. “It’s like we were raised in a bubble with this artsy community, with friends that like good music, movies, and stuff but when you do something like this you know that you’re living. You get slapped with reality,” say Haveit.

“The reason we started doing this was because we face these problems every day, and, of course, we want to change them. We want to make other people work together to help fix these issues” – HaveIt Collective

Stepping out of their bubble, the collective has covered many areas of the Balkans and Europe with their work, from places like Tirana to Sweden, Skopje to Ljubljana, and Milan. Now, getting set to partake in a joint exhibition next month at The Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art in Budapest, they will join twenty-five other artists to showcase their artistic voice from Albania and Kosovo, encompassing different generations. The show is set to include their projects titled, “Use Your Mouth” and “When Father Wept”, a video installation whereby the girls each closely recorded Albanian men as they told them extremely personal things about themselves. “In our tradition most men are told to be tough, they are the leader of the family – we tried to make them cry by telling our stories,” say Haveit.

Taking a stand and creating a voice for the people who are too afraid to speak out is by no means an easy feat, and Haveit has struck a serious nerve. As they challenge ongoing gender, social and political implications in a controversial manner their work aims to lessen these troubles that often come from fear. This fear makes itself apparent in various forms; the need to preserve rich traditional and religious values along with that feeling of not wanting the neighbours to talk are by far at the top of the list. As Haveit continue to make its artistic mark and push their message to a global audience they are wary to “not to become oppressed by all this, we would like to keep fighting. Our biggest challenge is that we are afraid that we will become silent like our country. We want to keep being loud!”

Find out more about HaveIt here