Very Volcanic Over This Green Feather: A Review of the Petrit Halilaj Exhibition at Tate St Ives

Petrit Halilaj was just 13 when he and his family were forced to flee Kosovo. Friction had dramatically escalated between the Kosovar Albanian population and the Milošević regime in Serbia, since Kosovo’s autonomy had been revoked in 1989, and a decade later the former province was engulfed in a brutally destructive war. Atrocities quickly became commonplace and, in what is now understood as an attempt to ethnically cleanse the region, between 1.2 to 1.45 million ethnic Albanians were forced to flee. 

Having gazed at the mountains, trees, and huts of Kosovo’s landscape I gasped as I discovered that behind them was fire, destruction, and suffering.

Very Volcanic Over This Green Feather marks Halilaj’s first U.K. solo exhibition and is a testament to the collective experience of the millions of displaced reflected through the eyes of one. The work weaves together thirty-eight drawings that Halilaj produced in the Kukës II refugee camp as an outlet for his trauma, aspects of which are massively scaled up and suspended from the ceiling to create an immersive landscape. The colours are vividly powerful and the images are striking, both in their grandeur and subject matter. I was in awe as I walked through the exhibition for the first time. 

| Matthew Slack/Falmouth Anchor

But then, as I changed position, everything shifted. Having gazed at the mountains, trees, and huts of Kosovo’s landscape I gasped as I discovered that behind them was fire, destruction, and suffering. The reds of the setting sun and the jovial parrot were now the reds of blood and refugees’ jackets. What seemed calm from one standpoint was chaos from another. Beautiful had become brutal. 

This utilisation of perspective is extremely telling and poignant. It speaks to how Halilaj’s life, and so many others, changed in an instant. Amongst the carnage and cruelty of these new images, for me it was the disappearance of the birds that was most frightening. As emblems of a childlike imagination allowed to flourish before the violence, they are no longer present when it arrives; none are printed on the reverse.  

Yet, if you look closely, there are a few feathers scattered around the display. They are the only ‘organic’ matter utilised in the exhibition and, at least from my point of view, demonstrative of a potential. Whilst being relics of the lost birds, they are nonetheless there, and real.  

The figure of a little boy crying bridges the peaceful and the ferocious images as the only one to be printed on both sides. It is also the only figure to physically touch the gallery space. First thinking that this a depiction of Halilaj himself, I soon learnt that it is more symbolic of the fact that what is portrayed is derived from actual experience. He acts as a connection between the past and the present and, subsequently, the world of the image and the world of our own. He is, in this way, a legacy. “All of us,” as Halilaj suggests, “the survivors and the people who now have the possibility to decide.”  

Looking at the exhibition entirely, it is truly astounding that it all came from the mind of a child. Halilaj, at aged 13, captured the scenes and emotions through felt tips and pen strokes that have come to define the Kosovo War. Now 35, he has taken these images with time to reflect on his trauma, resulting in a truly complex and nuanced display that emblematises a shared experience. For Kosovo in particular – independent since 2008 – it is a collective history which, whilst not noticeable at first glance, is still very much present.  

| Matthew Slack/Falmouth Anchor

Very Volcanic Over This Green Feather is poignant and challengingly immersive. However, I would argue it is equally hopeful. Petrit Halilaj has demonstrated in this work the power of art as a healing device. After everything that he, his family, and so many others endured, to still be able to present a space and story that interweaves serenity with tragedy and is noticeably devoid of accusation is nothing short of inspiring. The exhibition, as such, stands as a tribute to how ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can always be transformed into value. 

Very Volcanic Over This Green Feather was displayed at Tate St Ives and ended on the 16th January 2022.