If you go:
What: Art and pictures from Gjilan, Kosovo.
Where: Gallery 360, 111 W. Ninth St.
When: Through March 24.
There are a lot of empty walls in the many coffeehouses along the streets of Gjilan in Kosovo.
Locals don’t seem to notice much, but to a visitor used to Vancouver the lack of art is startling, said Drew Parsons, co-owner of Drew-Jones Studio Art.
“There’s only one gallery in the country, and it’s in the capital (city of Pristina),” Parsons said. “There’s a street in Gjilan with more than 15 cafes on it, and they have absolutely no art on the walls.”
Parsons recently went on a trip to the town of about 120,000 with Portland’s Mosaic Church.
The goal of the journey was to foster art in Gjilan -- but Parsons came back with more than that. He returned with an art show for Vancouver’s Gallery 360 and a strong desire to help the people of Kosovo.
“They want to add art and encourage it in Gjilan,” Parsons said. “But because people can’t really afford art yet, the cafes don’t really see why they should show it.”
Even though there’s no real market for art in the country yet, the people do seem to have a growing appreciation for it, said photographer Andrea Corrona Jenkins, who went on the trip with Parsons.
“I wasn’t sure what we were going to find, but the kids especially were incredibly interested in art,” Jenkins said. “The community -- there’s not a huge payback in art -- but there’s still interest.”
It’s been difficult to build a cultural identity in the country, populated by a majority of ethnic Albanians and a minority of ethnic Serbians. Different regions of Kosovo have been under control of both neighboring countries sporadically over the years, and the population has been subjected to several wars. In the 1990s, control by an oppressive Serbian force led to genocide and ethnic cleansing of many Albanians.
When Mosaic Church lead pastor Tim Osborn first went to the country in 2000, it was a vastly different scene than it is today, he said.
“When I was there about 12 years ago, right after the war, people had just one pair of clothes to wear, it was rare that houses had a roof, water was limited, electricity was limited, armed forces were everywhere just trying to maintain the peace,” Osborn said. “Now you see a lot fewer police, you see culture and style emerging -- students wear clothing you’d see in much of Europe, or at least they try to emulate it. And there’s been so much building.”
Many countries, including the U.S., now recognize Kosovo’s independence, but it still remains in somewhat of a political limbo that keeps citizens from traveling outside the immediate region, Parsons said.
“I think one of the biggest things to really help Kosovo would be to let its people develop an identity that’s separate from Serbia and even Albania,” Parsons said. “Just to give them an ability through art to develop their own culture is really important. That’s something they don’t have right now, and it’s something we want to help them do.”
The church sponsors missionaries and a community center in Gjilan, and Parsons went with a goal of adding some gallery space to it. He also wanted to work with a new arts high school of about 60 students that the town is putting together.
“They just opened a high school art school but they don’t even have a building yet,” Parsons said. “They just got funding to build one.”
During the trip, Parsons and Jenkins worked with some of the students to create mosaics and other art projects. The collection of Jenkins’ photographs and the art work by the students will be on display at Gallery 360 through March 24.
Some of the work is profoundly emotional -- especially considering several of the students are 16 or 17 years old.
One work, by Albesa Aliu, shows a young woman’s face behind a grid reminiscent of barbed wire. Beside her is a phrase that roughly translates into “I Want Freedom.”
“Her work is all about the role women play in Kosovo,” Parsons explained. “Even though there’s no more war, women play a subservient role. They’re expected to stay home and have babies.”
Despite cultural biases against women, though, the artist was surprisingly well-read, he said.
“She knows more about classic literature than I do -- and English is her second language,” Parsons said.
Another piece, by Shkurt Muji, called “Crazy Man For Art,” shows the black and white image of a person screaming inside a colorful background.
“The expression of the guy is very clear even with the marginal detail,” Parsons said. “There’s a lot here coming from this young artist.”
Despite all the problems and divisions amongst the population, Jenkins said she was surprised by the optimism of the people in Gjilan.
“It’s definitely an emergent culture,” Jenkins said. “We talked about art being a universal language. It speaks and joins us all in a base, elemental way. It’s a unifier. With an emphasis on art I think there’s more of a chance for people to see each other as people.”
While he was in Gjilan, Parsons started talking to cafe owners about letting artists show their work on the walls. There are still details to work out about commissions and payments, but Parsons said he thinks the owners are willing to work with the artists.
“One thing we’d like to do is bring the Art Walk idea over there from Vancouver and Portland,” Parsons said. “We’ll probably start out by setting up a gallery in the community center, but I hope the idea will grow and spread.”
He hopes to gather funds to set up the gallery -- with wiring to hang art, lighting and perhaps a little money for the artists -- through the show at Gallery 360.
“Even $500 would get us the material, shipping and startup costs to get the community center gallery going,” Parsons said.
He also hopes return to the country soon, he added.
“There’s another group from the church going in about six months, but I’m not sure if I’ll get to go with them,” he said. “If we can get the funds together I’d love to see how much we’ve been able to get going there by the fall. There’s a lot to do.”