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History

A Sculpture in Kosovo That Tracks a Country’s Struggle

The “Newborn” monument in Pristina, Kosovo, was unveiled on Feb. 17, 2008, the day that the country declared independence from Serbia. The “B” has been changed to a 1 to mark the 10th anniversary.CreditCreditValerie Plesch for The New York Times

PRISTINA, Kosovo — A decade ago, Fisnik Ismaili designed a sculpture to celebrate Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia: It was a word, “Newborn,” in 10-foot letters, painted a garish yellow. He did not have the cash to pay the metalworkers who built it, so he left his car and house keys as a deposit.

On the evening that the sculpture was unveiled in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, more than 150,000 people signed it. “That moment felt larger than life,” Mr. Ismaili said recently, in a cafe just yards from the sculpture. “People kept coming, climbing it, writing on it. It went on for hours and hours.”

Mr. Ismaili, now 45, signed it for more than 30 friends who could not make the independence celebrations. He wrote a message to his girlfriend, too. Then he added, “Thank God it’s over” to the “B” — referring to both Kosovo’s long road to independence and to the sleepless nights Mr. Ismaili had endured while preparing the sculpture.

Fisnik Ismaili in the offices of the advertising agency in Pristina where he is the creative director.CreditValerie Plesch for The New York Times

“At that moment, we were extremely hopeful — everyone was,” Mr. Ismaili said. “You should have seen the faces of everyone: 99 percent were crying.”

But, Mr. Ismaili added, “The feeling didn’t last long.”

After the unveiling on Feb. 17, 2008, “Newborn” quickly became a symbol of Kosovo. It appeared on the front page of The New York Times the day after; in 2012, Rita Ora, the Kosovar-British pop star, danced on it in a music video.

But since the sculpture’s inauguration and Kosovo’s declaration of independence, economic and political progress has frustrated many in the country. Corruption is a major problem, and a border with Serbia still has not been agreed on.

Mr. Ismaili’s sculpture has tracked that history, good and bad.

In 2016, for instance, he covered it with clouds, but also painted barbed wire around the letters — a statement about the difficulty Kosovars had getting visas to enter most of the rest of Europe (Mr. Ismaili promised politicians he would paint scissors cutting the wires if the visa rules were relaxed. They weren’t).

Crowds celebrated Kosovo’s declaration of independence around the “Newborn” sculpture in February 2008.CreditVisar Kryeziu/Associated Press

 

The following year, he painted bricks on the letters, knocked the “N” and “W” over, then wrote the words “No walls” between them in a response to efforts to build a wall through Mitrovica, an ethnically divided town in the north of the country.

“Every time I paint it, I want to give it a message,” he said.

In its current form, that message is optimistic: The letter “B” has been replaced by the number “1,” making a 10 to celebrate the years since Kosovo’s declaration of independence. But Mr. Ismaili initially wanted even this to have a political message. “I wanted to make it a mirror — ‘Time to reflect’ — but I couldn’t find a single company here who paints chrome,” he said.

Mr. Ismaili is the creative director of an advertising agency and an opposition member of Kosovo’s Parliament. He does not seem to be afraid of expressing his views — his Twitter bio starts with the word “arrogant.” He grew up “slightly privileged” in Pristina when it was part of Yugoslavia, he said: His father ran Kosovo’s central bank and was president of Pristina’s soccer club.

In 1991, he left for London to avoid being recruited into the Yugoslav Army as the country split apart (there was fighting in Croatia after that country declared independence that year, and the war in Bosnia was on the horizon). “Police would stop you in the street and you’d find yourself on the front line. I had a friend who lost his life like that,” Mr. Ismaili said.

Volunteers painting the flags of countries that recognized Kosovo’s independence on the monument in 2013.CreditVisar Kryeziu/Associated Press

In London, he studied multimedia computing, then worked for some major advertising agencies, but when the war started in Kosovo in the late 1990s, he looked to join the rebels. Eventually, he went to Kosovo and served three months in the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Mr. Ismaili’s initial plan for “Newborn” was to preserve it with the graffiti from the night it was unveiled. But people kept on signing, so he decided to repaint it every year on the anniversary of the declaration of independence, starting by painting the flags of countries that had recognized Kosovo as a sovereign nation.

Mr. Ismaili’s plan did not initially succeed. The government refused to let him touch the sculpture, he said, claiming that it would destroy the authenticity of the artwork.

The sculpture went unchanged for five years, until it became so dirty that the city authorities had to repaint it. Mr. Ismaili was unimpressed. “Even the yellow they used was different,” he said. That night he went on Facebook and asked for volunteers to help paint the flags. Two days later, 150 people turned up to help. “At times, I thought they were going to arrest me for doing this without asking anyone, but when they saw how beautiful it was looking, no one bothered us,” he said.

Image

In 2016, “Newborn” was painted with clouds and barbed wire around the letters — a statement about the difficulty Kosovars had getting visas to enter most of the rest of Europe.Creditvia Karrota

With the help of volunteers, he has repainted it every year since. “There’s been times in the last few years — many times — that I just wanted to paint it black. Just to send a message that this situation is so bad,” he said. He once even bought the paint and loaded it into his car. “What stopped me was the fact it’s not mine. I don’t own this.”

The grievances that test the patience of Mr. Ismaili show no sign of letting up. In 2015, Kosovo reached a deal to give around 20,000 acres of land to neighbouring Montenegro to end a border dispute. Mr. Ismaili reacted by setting off tear gas in Parliament. He was jailed for 16 days, then held for two months under house arrest. A potential land swap with Serbia, which would be much bigger, has been discussed this year, much to Mr. Ismaili’s disgust.

Not everyone in Kosovo is happy about Mr. Ismaili’s control of the sculpture. “He should leave it to the public or street artists to do what they want with, to say what they need,” Dardan Zhegrova, a local artist, said.

Street artists once turned the “B” into a “P” so the sculpture read “Newporn,” Mr. Zhegrova pointed out. “It’s good to let things like that happen,” he said. “Don’t institutionalize it.”

Mr. Ismaili says he loves that people add graffiti to the sculpture — even if the messages can be rude: “I’m surprised there aren’t more,” he said, adding that he wanted to create a system to allow ordinary Kosovars to suggest ideas for repainting it.

But, for now, he said, he would do what he always does: sit down about five days before the independence anniversary, and hope an idea comes.

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