Two young women took a risk and opened an art gallery in remote Kosovo.  It is now one of the most talked about galleries in Europe

Two young women took a risk and opened an art gallery in remote Kosovo. It is now one of the most talked about galleries in Europe | Pro Club Bd

At the end of July, during the opening week of Manifesta 14 in Kosovo, the small alleyway that is home to LambdaLambdaLambda is packed with artists, curators and press eating lentil pancakes and drinking beer. The gallery is tucked away in a back corner next to the vegetarian cafe Babaghanoush: the de facto social center for those visiting Prishtina for the Biennale.

The café, which is run by two artists, was the decisive factor for Katharina Schendl and Isabella Ritter when choosing their tiny premises. It was central but not visible. When they first visited Prishtina together in 2014, the alley also housed a book and record store, as well as a painter’s studio.

“We use it as an extended office and living room,” Ritter said as we sat on an outside bench, an arm’s length from the falafel bustle. A collegial sensibility is capitalized in the gallery’s name: a playful riff on the Greek letters used for sororities and fraternities in the US

Schendl and Ritter are both Austrians and have previous careers in the Viennese art scene – Ritter worked in the commercial sector and Schendl was a staffer at the Mumok, the museum of modern art. What drove you to open a gallery in a country with no collector base and no commercial scene? “There were no family ties, no romance, just a crazy idea,” Ritter said. “We had friends who were artists from Kosovo and the region – we realized that it was great here.”

LambdaLambdaLambda², Prishtina. Copyright: Rina Meta

programming of the peripherals

Prishtina is a young city: more than half of the population is under 25 years old. While there is “great energy,” Ritter noted that “young artists don’t have a lot of opportunities.” The city lacks a permanent infrastructure “that would allow artists to make a living from their art”.

Because of this, art practices are possible while graduates live with their parents, but once they have to support themselves, they either quit altogether or try to squeeze art alongside a full-time job. “Our idea was to start a commercial gallery to create a long-term professional environment for at least some artists,” says the dealer.

The decision was impetuous: they chose the space on that first trip in October 2014. The gallery opened the following January. In the last seven years they have presented 36 exhibitions here with works by artists from Prishtina, the Balkans and beyond.

Two years ago they opened a space in Brussels called La Maison de Rendez-Vous in collaboration with Japan’s Misako & Rosen and Los Angeles’ Park View/Paul Soto. The opening of a second 250 square meter gallery in Prishtina coincided with the start of Manifesta.

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Nora Turato, “let’s never be like that”, organized by LambdaLambdaLambda, La Maison de Rendez-Vous, Brussels, 2020. Photo credit: Isabelle Arthuis.

This larger space is located in what was once an office building—a Brutalist building with conservatory windows on three sides that let in leaf-speckled light. A stream of international visitors during the Biennale’s opening week is a testament to the international reputation LambdaLambdaLambda has built over the years.

Such a cadence is atypical. Cultural life in Prishtina is event-driven. Exhibition openings draw large crowds from the local art scene, but occasional visits to galleries are rare. Occasionally a group from a European museum or art gallery will travel to Kosovo and pay a visit.

Ritter knew some collectors from her years in Vienna, but it was clear from the start that LambdaLambdaLambda would do almost all commercial business through art fairs. This autumn the gallery will make its debut at Frieze London but has shown at fairs around the world. One of the first was the Material Art Fair in Mexico City. At that time, “nobody from Kosovo could go to Mexico because the country was not recognized. Now you can, but that wasn’t the case in 2016,” Isabella recalls. “So apart from art, you start talking about politics in a very interesting way.”

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Exhibition view Nothing like home II, (with Blerta Hashani, Brilant Milazimi & Dardan Zhegrova), 2022. Photo credit: Leart Rama. Courtesy of the artist and LambdaLambdaLambda Prishtina/Brussels

Travel restrictions are a big problem for Kosovo and therefore also for LambdaLambdaLambda and its artists. Nine years after the end of the Kosovo war, the state declared independence from Serbia in 2008 with the support of the USA and established itself as a republic. Despite this, it is not recognized by a handful of countries, most of which have factional border issues of their own. Travelers have to get an expensive visa to travel to the neighboring EU and application dates have been reduced during the pandemic.

This process is unpredictable: the painter Brilant Milazimi, an artist in the LambdaLambdaLambda programme, was unable to attend his own opening at their Brussels location this May due to a lack of visas. Here is part of the answer as to why it took two Austrians to open the first commercial gallery in Prishtina: a Kosovo-born dealer could not travel to fairs, shows and events with the ease required to keep the gallery economically viable to keep viable.

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Exhibition view “Don’t tell me where this is going, I have loooo-oooo-oove surprises”, Nora Turato, 2021. Photo credits: Marcel Köhler. Courtesy of the artist and LambdaLambdaLambda Prishtina/Brussels

Three of the nine artists represented by the gallery are from Kosovo, most of the others from the Balkans and its diaspora. “We not only work with artists from Kosovo, it was important to us not to be ghettoized,” says Ritter. She and Schendl want LambdaLambdaLambda to be known for the strength of its programming and not for the “identity politics” of its artists.

This year’s edition of Manifesta is certainly a boost for the gallery: it has brought international attention to Prishtina and its art scene. LambdaLambdaLambda’s artists are well represented in the exhibition: performance artist Astrit Ismaili performed to a huge audience on the opening night, and painters Blerta Hashani and Milazimi were both selected for the central exhibition. Dardan Zhegrova, a self-taught sculptor, features giant soft voodoo dolls that speak from the chest when hugged. Works by the last three greet the crowds in their new space.

Currently, LambdaLambdaLambda is less of a big fish in a small pond than the only fish. How would you feel if another gallery opened in Prishtina? “It would normalize the idea that people should buy art from commercial galleries because those galleries support the artist’s career,” Schendl enthused. “That would be breathtaking!”

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