The national library is a miracle. Originally designed by a Croatian architect for Kuwait, the leaders of federal Yugoslavia thought it would be good idea to put it here, on the slope above the city centre of Prishtina. It is a true example of socialist imagination, simultaneously impressive and ridiculous. Covered by white glass domes on different levels, the whole building is wrapped in iron netting, making it look like some noble, giant insect.
Mehmet Behluli, whose father presided over the construction, tells me the city officials regarded the ironwork as a sophisticated device for the building phase, and were clearly puzzled when it wasn't removed on the day of the official opening. Mehmet is the maverick professor at the arts academy, an accomplished painter himself, and one of the team that set up the alternative arts centre Exit. With his rugged features, curls and sideburns, he looks like an Albanian Belmondo, but he is an infinitely kind and modest man. The kindness of survivors who were determined to keep their senses.
The arts academy is a sorry place. One of the legacies of socialism everywhere is the lack of pride the remaining staff puts into their daily surroundings. Underpaid and bored, they leave the walls and floors, classrooms and courtyards to rot. Graffiti is not removed, creaking doors are not fixed, tiles are barely swept. No wonder much of the art being made here, both sculptures and paintings, reflects the drab colors and muddy shapes of its environment. I am sure the guild of professors, often representative of the lost generation - men in their fifties and sixties who came out of occupation and war with no skills for the new global English-speaking art world, clinging on to their reputations established in the provincial, badly informed art scene of their youth - doesn't do much to lighten up the atmosphere. Mehmet teaches art history and theory. His classes are not obligatory but packed. The number of students milling around is a surprise. Surely, they cannot believe they will get rich being artists - or do they sense that art can be a way out, in the new world of international exhibitions, exchange programs, residencies and fellowships?
A single piece of art stands out. In photographic black and white, young Bekim Gllogu has painted himself into a group portrait of Coldplay, posing as their new guitar player, a small Kosovar with a goatee. Another example of wanting to belong - a theme which dominates the new scene here, as Mehmet will explain to me while showing me some recent local video works.
He does this at Exit, in the basement of a fresh office building around the corner, where he runs the local branch of this independent art space / alternative academy, which is linked to the Exit gallery in Peja, run by his friends and colleague artists Erzen Shkololli and Sokol Beqiri. His own office says IT Officer.
Inside, he keeps a number of his paintings stacked against the wall. Older, violently red work from his days as a student in Sarajevo just before the war, and more recent work: bright, delicate compositions of flowers and butterflies.
He sits me down in front of a monitor and shows me some of what the Kosovar video scene has produced since 1999. The first major work was Sokol Beqiri's heartwrenching 'Milka'. An advertisement for the chocolate brand made famous by its pink cow alternates with images of scuttling toy soldiers and rough, handheld images of a butcher delivering the fatal blow to cows ready for slaughter. Produced immediately after the war, when wild militia razed villages, it makes me cringe. Mehmet says quietly: 'I keep seeing people, not cows.'
In a later video called 'Superman', Beqiri features as the unlikely figure to be projected on the tummy of a Teletubby. Documentary footage from a visiting camera crew show him trying to explain the fear he experienced in his 'thinking room' during the war. 'The fear was terrible...', he whispers, tears in his eyes. A helpless gaze into the camera, he tries to regain his composure, but starts to cry again.
The work of Jakup Ferri comes as a relief. He too is desperate, but now the matter of life and death is that of the artist he wants to be. Young Ferri is obsessed by finding an entrance into the world of global arts. In 'An artist who cannot speak English is not an artist', he delivers a lengthy monologue into the camera. It sounds like English, he wants it to be in English, but the result is sadly and hilariously unintelligible. 'Save me, help me', fortunately, has subtitles: cynically, almost recklessly, he holds reproductions of his work up to the camera, one after the other, trying to persuade any curator happening to see this that he really, truly has enough work to fit any taste. Finally, 'Jakup, Come Back!', shows us what happens when the local artist actually makes it abroad. Lined up in the living room are his father, mother and two younger sisters. His father, a well-known painter of the old school, starts by expressing his gratitude to Ren� Block, the curator of the grand Kassel exhibition, 'Gorges of the Balkans', for inviting his son. Then, he betrays his artistic and fatherly disappointment in the fact that his son has stepped into this strange new video art by pleading with Block that he really should take some time to see the boy's earlier work, paintings in a style his father appreciated much more. Finally, the mother speaks: she pleads with her son to be careful out there and to come back home soon. She is on the verge of tears, and when her voice breaks the two girls crack up with laughter and embarrassment.
There is more. Mehmet shows me a number of short video's which take gentle or forceful cracks at religion, Albanian nationalism, the omnipresent violence and the obsession with America. All of them witty, low budget, showing not telling, often finding a simple image to convey the complexity of trying to leave a suffocating, bloody, ideologically tainted reality behind. It is easy to see why many of these works find their way into international events. But they also make you wonder if the recognition will continue once these artists really succeed in breaking out of their Balkan reference and enter the global arts competition in their own right, once they can no longer be qualified as representatives, however ironically, of the region that they are still identified with.