An estimated 20,000 Albanian women – and some men – were raped by Serbian army, police and paramilitaries during the 1999 Kosovo war as Albanian separatists fought against the Yugoslav regime led by Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic. Alketa Xhafa-Mripa, a Kosovo-born artist and British national, said the idea for her installation came as she listened to interviews given by survivors of sexual violence who said their voices were rarely heard.
Alketa Xhafa-Mripa’s art installation in football stadium addresses silence surrounding wartime rape, putting a new spin on ‘airing dirty laundry’. She is transforming a football pitch in Kosovo into a giant art installation, with thousands of dresses hung on washing lines in a powerful and poignant tribute to survivors of sexual violence. The exhibition, Thinking of You, will go on show in the city stadium of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, tomorrow on Friday, the 16th anniversary of Nato forces entering the city after a three-month bombing campaign.
“I started questioning the silence, how we could not hear their voices during and after the war and thought about how to portray the women in contemporary art,” said Xhafa-Mripa, who came to London in 1998 to study art and has lived here ever since with her husband and three children.
Xhafa-Mripa, 35, chose the dress or skirt to symbolise fragility and purity, and by hanging out 5,000 dresses on washing lines, she has given a new spin to a familiar expression. “‘Air dirty laundry in public’ is a way of saying ‘Talk about your private issues in public’, but in this case the laundry is washed, clean, like the women survivors who are clean, pure – they carry no stain,” she said in an interview in London.
The dresses are to be hung on 45 washing lines on a football pitch, which could be seen as a symbol of masculinity and machismo. By assembling so many dresses and skirts, Xhafa-Mripa seeks to convey the scale of the problem of sexual violence during the war. Women and men, not just survivors, will be encouraged to come to the stadium to help in the installation, sponsored by the National Council for the Survivors of Wartime Sexual Violence, as an act of solidarity.
“I want those thousands of dresses to hit you with the reality of what happened and I want people to talk about it. The installation can be grasped by anyone, no matter what language they speak,” she said.
As in the Bosnian war, Serb forces used rape to terrorise and humiliate the civilian population, according to Human Rights Watch. The rapes – often perpetrated in front of victim’s families – were carried out mainly by paramilitary forces. Kosovar militants were also accused of rape, but the number of such cases is believed to be far lower.
To date, there has been only one conviction at the international criminal tribunal for former Yugoslavia based partly on sexual assaults. In Kosovo itself, there have been only two rape case prosecutions – by the war crimes unit of Eulex, the EU rule of law mission in Kosovo.
Few women have spoken publicly about their trauma for fear of being ostracised or bringing shame upon their family in a highly traditional society, although there are groups such as the Kosova Women’s Network that have provided help. Last year, the law on war veterans was changed to include survivors of sexual violence as being eligible for compensation.
“Survivors of sexual violence are still stigmatised and denied recognition,” said Atifete Jahjaga, Kosovo’s first female president and a sponsor of the exhibition. “With this artistic installation, we show that society supports them, that there is no ‘us and them’. The language of this installation is universal and goes beyond Kosovo. We dedicate it to women and men all over the world who are subjected to sexual violence, a crime against humanity.”
In the runup to the installation, Xhafa-Mripa has been attending events in Pristina and other towns, collecting clothes from people and hearing harrowing stories from survivors. People have been encouraged to contribute items of clothing imbued with special meaning. President Jahjaga was an early donor. One woman donated her wedding dress. Another gave a pair of trousers she wore while on the run from Serb forces.
Cherie Blair, wife of former prime minister Tony Blair, also made a donation, as did Lady Anelay, the UK’s new special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict, who will carry on the work begun by William Hague, the former foreign secretary.
“Let’s contribute together and dedicate this to the survivors of rape during the war,” said Xhafa-Mripa. “The beauty of this artwork is that everyone is so willing to be involved. They want to be part of it – that’s my biggest achievement.”
Source and the whole article: