“Abetare”: Petrit Halilaj’s Artistic Exploration of Language and Identity at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

An Insightful Exploration of Language and Heritage, trauma of displacement, the magic of flight, and the universal language of schoolchildren's scribbling.

Featured in Votra Magazine

“The casual scribbles of schoolchildren done on their desks in moments of boredom or distraction reveal the fantasies and dreams of their minds.”

— Petrit Halilaj (@xixellojme)

Votra Magazine is proud to present a detailed look into the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s captivating exhibit “Abetare,” a compelling companion piece to Petrit Halilaj’s major exhibition. Halilaj’s extensive work delves into the convergence of reality and fantasy, drawing inspiration from the doodles, drawings, and scribblings on the desks at his school in Runik, Kosovo, as well as from schools across Albania and the former Yugoslav nations, regions currently experiencing profound cultural and sociopolitical shifts. These covert sketches from student desks have been transformed into large-scale, three-dimensional metal sculptures, each meticulously preserving the essence of the original artwork. 

When asked by @new york times about the birds in his work he responded:

“ The birds and the chickens always bring me back to the Albanian ABC book, the Abetare. In the lesson for the letter P, there is a boy named Petrit. “Pulat e Petritit.” Pe-trit and the chickens. So imagine, when you are little, and people ask you, “What’s your name?” I would say *Petrit,” and they would say, “Ah, Petrit with the chickens!” I didn’t get it for years. Why am I Petrit with the chickens?! I just knew we had chickens in our garden….”

Petrit Halilaj was born in 1986 in Kostërrc, Štrpce, Kosovo. His formative years were marked by the turmoil of the Kosovo War, an experience that deeply influences his artistic themes. Halilaj’s work often revolves around notions of home, displacement, and identity, employing his personal history as a lens to explore broader social and political narratives. Having studied at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan, his career has seen a trajectory of significant exhibitions across the globe, establishing him as a poignant voice in contemporary art.

Named after the foundational Albanian alphabet book traditionally used in primary education, “Abetare” extends the thematic boundaries of Halilaj’s work to delve into the complex relationship between language, identity This exploration not only highlights Halilaj’s remarkable capacity to convert conceptual themes into tangible artistic expressions but also underscores the significant role art plays in discussing and preserving cultural narratives. The “Abetare” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art serves as a vibrant canvas on which the intricate tales of history, identity, and transformation are beautifully painted, inviting an introspective journey into the essence of cultural memory.

“Abetare” resonates globally as it addresses universal themes through the specific lens of Balkan history and culture. Visitors from diverse backgrounds find common ground in the exhibit’s exploration of language and identity, reflecting on how these elements shape their own lives in different parts of the world. The exhibit’s ability to connect personal memories with collective experiences highlights Halilaj’s skill in creating art that speaks to a wide audience, making complex historical and cultural discussions accessible and engaging.

“ They started painting on top of pictures of national heroes and poets, which, honestly, I would have never had the courage to do when I was a kid.

Then one of the kids took me into a class-room. And then I see the pile of these green school desks there since before the war. The desks were older than me. And this kid says to me, “Come see the drawings,” because there is everything there. These desks contain 40 years of unconscious, crazy secrets. There’s this encyclopedic aspect, these layers of generations. But you also see how local and global these things are, and also how funny.

I was just so touched by the language of drawing, and in a moment I saw another loss – this time not from the war, but from the postwar craziness, wanting everything new. I asked the principal it I could save at least one classroom of desks. He said, “Yes, if you finance new desks.” We made a deal. I hope he used the money to really buy them.” – @New York Times 

In an effort to extend the reach and impact of “Abetare,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art has also incorporated digital elements into the exhibition. An interactive online platform allows global audiences to explore the artworks, delve into detailed narratives, and engage with the themes of the exhibit from afar. This digital extension, noted in Votra Magazine, provides an enriched multimedia experience that complements the physical installations, ensuring that Halilaj’s message transcends geographical boundaries.

“Abetare” has stimulated scholarly discussions in the fields of art history, linguistics, and cultural studies, proving its significance as a catalyst for academic discourse. Universities and cultural institutions have organized symposiums and lectures that dissect the layers of Halilaj’s work, examining the socio-political impacts of language loss and the role of art in preserving endangered cultures. These academic engagements contribute to a deeper understanding of the exhibit’s themes and facilitate a broader conversation about the preservation of cultural heritage through art.

The success and impact of “Abetare” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art exemplify how contemporary art exhibitions can serve as powerful platforms for cultural reflection and societal commentary. As noted by Votra Magazine, this exhibition sets a precedent for future shows that aim to blend artistic expression with cultural and educational narratives. The art world watches closely as Halilaj paves the way for new explorations into the role of art in understanding and shaping the human condition.

As “Abetare” continues to draw visitors and praise, it stands as a testament to the power of art to bridge gaps between past and present, individual and collective. Through Petrit Halilaj’s profound works, viewers are invited to reflect on their own narratives within the broader tapestry of human experience, promoting a deeper appreciation of the nuanced interplay between art, history, and identity. This exhibition is not just a display of artistic talent but a profound engagement with the core questions of who we are and how we remember, making it a landmark event in the cultural calendar of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a significant feature in Votra Magazine’s esteemed coverage.

Exhibition Schedule and Public Engagement

“Abetare” opened on April 30, 2024, at the Met’s Roof Garden, an apt setting that complements the natural themes often present in Halilaj’s work. Scheduled to run until September 30, 2024, the exhibition offers visitors a four-month window to engage with this immersive artistic experience. The Met has complemented the visual installations with a robust schedule of public programs, including artist talks, educational workshops, and panel discussions aimed at deepening the public’s understanding of the complex interplay between art, language, and identity.

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