The Prishtina Creative Duo Encouraging Artistic Experimentation In Kosovo
In 2017, when Prishtina-based duo Nita Zeqiri and Ajete Kërqeli were talking about creating an independent cultural institution, they decided to start on the outskirts of the city. Having just finished their first experimental art video – A Constellation Of The Self, which explores youth identity – they circled the periphery of the city, screening their film on the walls of buildings.
“We were discussing the lack of spaces where you can just enter and do something; experience something,” says Kërqeli. “Everything was being centralised. Maybe it also started as a need of ours to have different spaces, which then reflected the need of the community as well,” adds Zeqiri.
The duo are now in their fifth year of running Foundation 17 (Shtatëmbëdhjetë), an umbrella arts organisation for three interconnected spaces: Project Space 17, Galeria 17 and Rezidenca 17. What unites the projects is a desire to use the arts as a tool to advocate for cultural engagement, urban renewal and community building, all while engaging with issues such as gender equality and environmental stewardship.
Their goal is to encourage courageous artistic experimentation. “Courageous in the sense that you give a chance to something that was never tried, as well as courageous in the themes tackled,” Kërqeli says.
A common thread remains, involving different groups and communities. For example, the signature Foundation 17 programme Metamorphosis sees artists curate exhibitions in abandoned spaces, accompanied by research-heavy publications that document the history and collective memory of the site. This commitment to revitalising forsaken public space led the Prishtina municipality to invite them to design a residency programme in a municipal-owned building: the Hivzi Sylejmani house situated in the garden of the old public library. They launched Rezidenca 17 there this year, where local and international artists participate in thematic residencies and exchanges.
But Project Space 17, a cozy converted storefront in the middle of a neglected part of the old historic part of the capital, is the heart of the operation. A coworking space by day, at night it transforms into a lecture hall for bracing feminist talks, a go-to spot for Prishtina’s poets, a safe space for queer activism and a showroom for musicians and visual artists. The shelves are full of indie publications, such as zines by Erni, a local non-binary writer who explores gender identities and what it means to be non-binary.
“Offering space for someone like Erni means more than the world because finally they can identify with their chosen name, be represented and be offered a new platform to reach to audiences that otherwise they wouldn’t be able to,” says Kërqeli.
That’s the whole point of Foundation 17: to provide a safe space where people feel comfortable to “put themselves out there”.
“Project Space has predominantly developed its spirit from poetry nights, and it usually brings in teenagers and youth,” says Zeqiri. “But then neighbours from the area have joined us for feminist talks, which really made us happy.”
Many up-and-coming musicians have their first public performances at Project Space. “When they go onstage, they’ll say things like, ‘It’s my first time, I’m taking a risk, don’t judge me,’” says Kërqeli of the different open mics they’ve organised for poetry or music. “It’s that feeling they have that they can do it here. It’s a space we have created to make mistakes and learn from mistakes. And it seems it has had an effect on people to see it as a ‘trial-error space’, whether it functions or not.”
Besa Luci is a Prishtina-based journalist. She is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Kosovo 2.0 magazine