Exchange brings artists from Kosovo to Rifle
When organizers in 2014 planned to revive a one-time exchange program, which took local artists to the southeast European country of Kosovo and brought Kosovo Albanians to Colorado a decade ago, they did not foresee the global political climate and rhetoric reaching its current state.
Two years after those discussions started up, the mission of bringing people of different cultures and faiths together through public art has only grown more critical.
“When we started to do planning for this new phase of the project in 2014, I never would have imagined the political climate we’re in right now. … We want to bring people together at a time where we face so many stereotypes that are not really accurate about what a Muslim is, or what even a Christian is for that matter,” said Mary Wade, a Rifle native and project coordinator.
Six Kosovo Albanians landed in Denver on Tuesday. It was a very warm welcome, Mervan Mustafa, who holds a master’s degree in art and is acting as coordinator for the Kosovo team, said Wednesday through an interpreter.
The Kosovo artists, along with the group of Colorado artists from the Western Slope and Front Range, are spending five days painting two murals at the Swansea Community Center and St. Charles Recreation Centers in Denver.
From there they will travel to the Western Slope for some rest and recreation.
Then on Thursday, July 21, the teams will spend the early part of the day at Rifle Falls State Park, where they will paint and create together.
Some of that work and other pieces will be displayed at the Bookcliffs Arts Center in Rifle later that day during the free Hilltop Summer Concert Series. The concert starts at 6:30 p.m.
Echoing some of Wade’s sentiments, Mustafa said the goal of the exchange is to recognize the similarities and differences between the two cultures and come together as a group to create public art.
“People on the other side of the world may be different, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from one another,” he said through the interpreter.
On that note, the Kosovo team is excited to view local art here in Colorado and experience the state during its two-week stay, he added.
Overcoming the odds
Not to be lost in the events, Wade noted the somewhat miraculous nature of the exchange finally happening.
A group of 11 people from Colorado traveled to Viti, Kosovo, where they collaborated with their hosts in painting a large mural, in May 2015.
The goal was to have the Kosovo team travel to Colorado later that summer. However, as the refugee crisis exploded in the Middle East and Europe, obtaining visas became even more difficult than normal.
International aid workers informed the groups that only a fraction of those who apply for visas actually receive them — about 1 or 2 out of 10, according to Wade. To have all six receive their visas is practically unheard of.
“It’s really an amazing story about overcoming the odds,” she said.
For Wade and some of the artists here and from Kosovo, the story dates back to 2005, when a group affiliated with New Hope Church in New Castle traveled to Kosovo, which was still recovering from the Kosovo War in the late ’90s.
Wade was in high school at the time.
Cheryl Currier, Wade’s mother, and a friend suggested to some other friends, who were doing aid work in the Balkans, an art-centric trip where they could help teach art classes and paint a mural.
“We feel that public art is an important bridge,” Currier said. “It allows people to have important conversations, express ideas and beautify the world … ”
Currier said they suggested a theme of reconciliation — a suitable idea for the war-torn region still teeming with ethnic division.
Kosovo did not declare its independence from Serbia until 2008, and although the U.S. and more than 100 other countries now recognize it as a sovereign state, others do not.
The team of local artists made the trip in 2006, and later that year a group from Kosovo traveled to Colorado.
The team painted a mural that continues to hang in the New Castle Branch Library.
Through the initial exchange effort, Wade made several friends, including Zyrije Haziri, a Kosovo Albanian artist.
“It’s an example of one relationship that has led to the birth of many other relationships,” Wade said.
When Squiprim Hyseni, a young artist, friend and “one of the most passionate members” of the original team, died of a heart attack in 2014, Wade and Haziri started talking about reviving the exchange program — something that Hyseni had wanted to do.
Wade said she wasn’t sure she would return to Kosovo, but she could not say no, particularly with escalating hostility in the U.S. toward Muslims. She and others involved hope the exchange can help dispel stereotypes some people have.
“People need to know that not all Muslims look like ‘fill in the blank with your stereotype,’” she said. “They’re wonderful people, and incredible artists.”
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