PRINT May 2001


Italy is the destination of choice for many Albanian immigrants. It is the closest Western nation geographically and, thanks to Italian TV, the one they know best. Since the collapse of the Communist regime in the early ’90s, Albanians have been streaming into the country both legally and otherwise—even, in some cases, entering surreptiously on mafiosi motorboats. In the Italian national imagination, those who sneak into the country are scapegoats for criminal activity, convenient targets for the widespread xenophobia directed at immigrants from the east.

Sislej Xhafa’s work is marked by such experiences of hostility, though his initial difficulties came at the hands of the Serbs rather than the Italians. In his native Kosovo, well before the province became the staging ground for geopolitical conflict, the now thirty-year-old artist created street installations and staged performances to protest the “Balkan apartheid” under which he and his fellow Kosovo Albanians were living. In 1991, after an abbreviated stay in London, Xhafa relocated to Italy, which he now considers his second homeland (even if he currently lives in the Bronx). Studying at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence largely in order to obtain a residency permit, he embarked on a full-time career as an artist.

The nomadic life—a life not always entered into by choice—and its attendant associations and expectations weigh heavily on Xhafa’s work. His earliest productions were simple and to the point: a photograph of Xhafa picking the pocket of an Arab boy; a video in which the artist walks around the center of Florence wearing dark glasses and looking suspicious. In 1997, his beat was the gardens of the Venice Biennale. Wearing cleats, shorts, and a backpack and holding a ball in his hand, Xhafa listened to a soccer match on a radio, wandering through the foreign pavilions and asking anyone who seemed interested if they would play soccer with him. One might say the artist, whose torso was painted red, became the living embodiment of the Albanian Pavilion—absent from Venice—represented by the little flag stuck on his backpack.

The theme of clandestine activity recurs in much of Xhafa’s work, but it has become increasingly nuanced and allegorical. However much the artist sympathized with the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) during the war, this identification is never the be-all and end-all of his interventions. His presence at the Biennale was less a display of nationalism than a recognition of the many countries and cultural traditions excluded from Western institutions. Earlier this year, in his first solo exhibition in Italy, at Milan’s Galleria Laura Pecci, Xhafa exhibited a large color photograph depicting an Albanian friend who had returned to Kosovo from New York to join the UCK. But the image includes all the telltale signs of the delinquent—gaudy rings and bracelets, white suit—conflating the picture of the young hero with the stereotype of the Albanian pimp or cigarette bootlegger doing his best Italian mob shtick. In the end the piece is a perfect icon of kitsch, “salvaged” by the irony of a triple-gilded frame. In the video that gives the show its title, Hooligans in Heaven, 2001, three Albanian boys run along the track of a sporting arena in Milan toting a tree trunk. A symbol of life, the trunk-cum-battering ram also alludes to the uncontainable energy of those who are seeking a new identity through life in a foreign land. Even if integration were denied them, the influx of immigrants would not be stopped. In Sweet Invasion, 2000, Xhafa, in a crowning irony, presented a wall gilded and studded with jewels (stolen loot!) on which were displayed portraits of known criminals.

Secrecy and crime thus become ciphers for opposition and resistance, for deviant behaviors that are all the more powerful in that they escape our usual ideological schemes. For the recent exhibition “Over the Edges,” in Ghent, where artists were invited to work outside museum spaces, Xhafa chose the police station, an environment he is unhappily familiar with both in Kosovo and in Italy, thanks to the authorities’ piece addressing the site of the exhibition, Ljubljana, Slovenia, a crossroads for migrants fleeing the impoverished East for the wealthy and civilized West. Dressed as a commodities trader, Xhafa went to the railroad station of the Slovene capital and, gesturing like a broker on the floor of the exchange, shouted the schedules and destinations of departing and arriving trains to the public—underscoring the relationship between the ebb and flow of “human resources” and the oscillations of the international financial system. And last year in Biella, Italy, within the framework of a Fondazione Pistoletto exhibition where artists were asked to invite others to collaborate on a common work, Xhafa extended his invitation to seven veterans of the World War II antifascist resistance in the city, who met at a round table entirely covered with peanuts and outfitted with nonfunctioning microphones. The action consisted of the elderly men’s attempts to be understood (i.e., shouting) as they responded to the questions of the artist, who was seeking advice on how to organize boycotts against the Italian national electric company.

Until recently Xhafa’s work had been seen only in European venues, generally along the biennial and group-show circuit, but a current show at the Swiss Institute in New York has provided the artist with his first significant exposure in the United States. Here, a casino filled with slot machines has been set up in a locale whose entrance from the Swiss Institute is hidden. While the Empire State has recently discussed allowing casinos in the Catskills, they’re still prohibited by law. The installation is dark and dirty, illuminated only by the colored lights of the one-armed bandits. Is it incongruous to associate the clean and orderly country of Switzerland with the illicit image of an abandoned and deteriorating site, or for that matter with the very idea of a game of chance? Yes, but only if we ignore the underlying theme of the installation: dirty money recycled in the grand and famous Swiss banks—and in all the great centers where wealth has been accumulated throughout the opulent West.

Giorgio Verzotti is a Milan-based contributor to Artforum.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.