Alketa Xhafa Mripa Jigsaw Stories

What was the initial inspiration for your work? 

I came to London in 1997 as a student to study my art degree. The Kosovo War started the following year, in 1998. Being here in London, I became a refugee. Around 2003, I returned to Kosovo. The roads were filled with voices speaking about patriotism and who those who fought, but I did not hear anything about the survivors of sexual violence that were the victims of the war. 

In 2013, I came across a documentary where a survivor of wartime sexual violence was talking behind a curtain about how voices like hers were not heard. How institutions and government were not recognising them. How they were like the black sheep of the family, because of the stigma and shame they felt, despite not having committed any crime. So not only were they traumatised by what happened to them during the war, but also post-war as well. It was then I started thinking how could create an artwork involving the whole society and community in dedication to the survivors of sexual violence during the war. The most important thing was she was saying was that their voices are not heard, so I wanted their voices to be heard not just nationally, but internationally as well. 

Then the idea came about with the dresses. It was a way to portray symbolism of women. I started asking people to donate skirts; first of all survivors, but also the wider community. They became part of this art installation and giving something in dedication to the survivors. On June 2015 the whole installation took place in a football stadium, a male dominated field symbolising the crimes committed mostly by male Serbian forces. There were stories of how some of the rapes and crimes happened in the stadium in Pristina as well. I filled this whole field with more than 5000 dresses. The beauty of this is that each dress had its own story. It  is estimated that there were 20,000 raped during the war. By visually portraying this issue, no one could close their eyes to the reality. 

This must have been a deeply personal project for you. 

Being born in occupied Kosovo, I wasn’t allow to attend school in Albania because of the Serbian regime, so I know how it feels to be the voice that is not heard out there. It is about humanity, it is about being truthful about what is happening. When I came to London and started studying, I could see that there was freedom of speech. I found my way through my art, bringing that activism and involving people by visually portraying issues like Refugees Welcome and the new piece I have coming in Albania looking at the voices that were not heard during the 40-year communist regime. It is about giving a voice for the voiceless.

It seems that empowerment is at the centre of it? 

Refugees Welcome was inspired by coming through Calais to London on holiday and seeing lots of migrants on the side of the road. This is nothing new, people coming across the channel illegally in or under the wheels of trucks. Seeing them right in front of me and feeling so powerless to help them, while seeing Britain as a place of hope and a better future for those fleeing war-torn countries. I thought, how can I portray this visually? I am not someone who can change the policies, but as an artist I am someone who can visually portray this. And, as a refugee as well, I can empathise. 

The truck symbolises the crossing but inside I have arranged a traditional English setting with two chairs and table and most importantly a visitor book. I never knew about this visitor book until I found out in a hotel in London that you could leave comments about your experience, so it became a very English thing for me somehow. I invited people inside and asked them to hear my story as a refugee, how I had felt so welcome in this country when I came when I was young. I saw the solidarity of the British people. I wondered, what is happening to that solidarity? Where is that welcome that I experienced in Britain? When I think of Britain, I think of hope, I think of solidarity and I think of welcome. But it has changed, and not only politically, but emotionally. So I am questioning that welcome by inviting people into the truck and talking to me.

The beauty of this is the slogan ‘fancy a tea with a refugee?’. Tea is a very English thing, there is a sense of being at ease talking over a cuppa. But this is with a twist – with a refugee. So would you come? The whole piece became a platform for refugees to tell their stories. As it evolved, it also became a space for British people to share their voices, as well people from the European Union. Everyone is in need of a space to have their say somehow, and this happened in the post-Brexit era. There is going to be a book that displays the stories, because they need to be heard – over 800 of them. This is not just my, but our Britain. These are our communities and society of people who live in the UK and bring their truth and emotional facts, without the propaganda and brainwashing of politicians. 

How do you arrive at your concepts for installations? 

They are simple. They come from conversations, from me and you provoking things. Or me watching an interview, like in the ‘Thinking of You’ exhibition. Seeing migrants waiting to open those lorries is what led to ‘Refugees Welcome’. Another piece that I am going to be doing in Albania. During the communist time in Albania, there was no freedom of speech. These people were in concentration camps and jails for 40 years. All the stories about the regime are kind of under the table/tunnels. For me this is so important. For me these stories need to come up like a skyline, they need to be seen, they need life to be put upon them, so how I started thinking about this. Every piece of my art work is not just an object, those are the first things around it, but then there are people within it so it will change, the story will change, the story of the skirt will change, the van changed each time. This piece is going to be called ‘Even walls have ears’, inspired by the culture of imposed silence in communist Albania. They were saying that at any one time, seven people were spying for every one person. I am going to be going all around Europe and Albania, collecting stories from the survivors, the victims. We are going to set up a website to which people are going to send stories from all over. And from those stories, I am going to get quotes from those whose freedom of speech was denied. For one night only, the whole of Albania is going to light up with projectors exhibiting these quotes in 8 cities. It’s about bringing elements together that you can’t usually. It is not so much provoking, in that it is already out there. It is about the simplicity of it and being so clear to your audience so there is an understanding of what you are doing.

What place does art have in society in producing these thoughts and raising awareness towards these issues?

Over the last few years we’ve seen more artists raising their voices and using their art to make changes. It depends on the personality of the artist because you cannot put them all in one group, it depends on nature of work and what they want to do. I believe during this time with everything that is going on around the world, this Trump and Brexit era, artists should really use their voice in whatever matter they want, but to make people think and see things in a different way. I am opening some wounds out there. Not many people like that because they want to forget the past, but they can never forget the past because it will always come back to them. I am opening wounds in a way to heal and prevent them from ever happening again. There is a methodology for other countries to heal and prevent them. 

There was this one interaction I had with someone in the van. A guy came in and said “This is bullsh*t. Britain has no space, no room left for refugees. We have done enough.” But we are humans, we feel the other person. When people hear a story, it touches something inside them. After I told him my story, he said “Yeah, but you are different.” I wondered, what do you mean, I am different? Is it because I am white or I can speak English? I am different to them because I was so welcomed and safe in this country that my potential and talent slowly came out. If I was boxed in, told, don’t do this, don’t go here, my potential and talent wouldn’t have come out. If I was not allowed to study, if I was not allowed to work. I’m not sure if I changed his mind, but at the beginning he didn’t even want to have tea with me and as I began talking, he relaxed and when I asked him again, he had a tea. I’m sure he left with something that wasn’t there before. This is the beauty of bringing other people in; it was not just for refugees, it was a call for everyone. Similarly with the ‘Thinking of You’ exhibition, it wasn’t about just women, it was a call to everyone to donate a skirt for all the survivors of sexual violence and harassment.

What have been the biggest obstacles you have faced?

Trying to find funds. You know that you are creating something much bigger, much deeper than the value of the funding. But these organisations have to go through protocol and bureaucracy and they do not see the bigger picture; that art has the power to open pathways, to change policies. 

Who are the people in your life that inspire you?

People in everyday life inspire me. It is real stories, real struggles, real injustices being made in this world that really annoy me. Those who try to clear history to suit a particular narrative. That is what goes into my consideration.

What do you want people to take with them from your work?

Whatever the audience take, they take it. I am not here to dictate anything. For me what is most important is when survivors call me and say, thank you for thinking of us and telling the world what happened to us. Or when some refugee kids or British people came to my van and said thank you. Real people acknowledging that it made a difference within them. I am only doing something every human should do, except I am doing it through art. Others do it through language, I suppose, others through dance. 

Do you feel obliged because of your own personal experience to represent certain groups?

No. I just feel they need to be represented and their voices need to be heard. I do not feel obliged. That is what I am made for. 

Is it because a large amount resonates with you because of your childhood? The struggle? Whether anyone can even see what you are going through? Whether anyone cares?

I am sure it has a root in it. They say later on in life these things come out. I am sure if I did not have a childhood being occupied and oppressed I may not have this, but then again all of my family are artists. We all have different things, but each one has a humane depth to it somehow. My father is a painter and his work is about struggle, fear, history. My brother is different, more social more political. I am different with my female voice. But maybe upbringing plays a big role. But I was born and raised only through art. For me art was my father’s language. He coloured canvasses all day long, I knew nothing else. I always I knew I was going to be an artist but I struggled in the beginning in secondary school because there was this idea that the only options were painting and sculpture. My father told me there is more to art, then when I came to study here found this whole new world of conceptual contemporary art, this freedom. Only when I came here did I realise art was more broadly defined. I started to question, why is this a taboo back home? Is it culture? I realised it was not about culture, it was about being occupied. Whatever was rooted within me is all slowly coming out.

So art is your language of choice?

Yes it is; I do not know any other ways to speak. I can’t even talk about it much. If you want to know about it, look at the art, because whenever I am asked to talk about it I kind of go silent. You see a piece and then you will know more about me. Everything I want to say is there.