We all struggle to define ourselves as individuals while time plays the cruel joke of turning us into our parents.
Maybe it is because they raised us to be like them or because we share the same genes, but some invisible force seems to pull us closer and closer to becoming like mom and dad. Oddly enough, conceptual artist Alketa Xhafa Mripa found her individuality through embracing the lessons from her father instead of rebelling.
Instead of forcing a distinction, Mripa focused on what was truly different between her and her father, the world they lived in.
“During communism, I saw and lived a different kind of Art in my house,” she says, “Compared to traditional forms that our society knew and practiced, such as painting, sculpture, or drawing. He would sew anything from everyday clothes or clothes just lying around to the kitchen utensils. My father seemed to me like a revolutionary. In a society controlled by the state, what he was doing was his own. He owned it.”
While the needlework of her father instilled a love of art in Mirpa, it was the backdrop of growing up in soviet Yugoslavia – where conformity was valued, if not insisted upon – that taught her the importance of being different.
“Because of the socio-economic circumstances at that time, my father was coming up with something new, a new medium, that was mysterious,” Mirpa says.
“He would say to me that the strongest thing that no-one could take away from you is your originality, your thoughts, and ideas inside your mind. The mind is unique. No one could represent the same idea in the same way! Originality was his way of fixing reality.”
Mripa remembers seeing during her childhood, when she was no older than 4 or 5 years old, how the needle would go in and out of the canvas, the thread looking magical, golden.
“It looked like something was being repaired… something that was broken. There was a wound deep inside that way of life, that society, and this was a way of repairing, fixing, mending it… Everything was possible with the help of the golden thread.”
But looking around at the world, Alketa Xhafa Mripa sees new problems for her generation.
A bold messenger for activist art, she is a passionate champion of human rights, empowering women living in oppressive societies and refugee circumstances. Her art takes many forms including embroidery, paintings, photography, videos, and installations focusing on identity, reality, and memory, all the while echoing her upbringing in Kosovo.
Mripa’s big break in the art scene came last year, in June 2015, when she became the voice of thousands and thousands of survivors who were raped during the War in Kosovo in the 1990’s. Her exhibition, Thinking of You, consisted in transforming Pristina’s soccer stadium in Kosovo into a giant art installation, with thousands of dresses hung on washing lines. The Guardian called it “a powerful and poignant tribute to survivors of sexual violence.”
One year later, in June 2016, the Artist made headlines again when she showed her latest work “Refugees Welcome,” in London’s British Museum.
England’s capital holds a special place in Mirpa’s heart, but the recent political moves to keep foreigners out, such as the referendum to leave the European Union, scare her.
Having come to England back in the 1990’s as a student, the war in her country, Kosovo, turned her into a refugee.
“I cannot help but remember how much the British people looked after the Kosovan refugees: they opened their hearts and their homes to the people of Kosovo – including me. I am hoping that ‘Refugees Welcome’ can help us remember, recall, and rediscover that spirit of solidarity,” Mripa says.
“Refugees Welcome” is an art installation consisting of a truck transformed into a conservative English living room. In there, people can share stories about their own experience in England.
While her father chose the solitude of his needle and thread and his canvases, Mripa, with her work, likes to engage people. With her art, she prefers to get them involved and allow them to shape the work and spread awareness on the issues that matter.
But she says there is something inherently similar between her art and what her father was doing.
“My father was expressing his emotions on canvas,” Mirpa says. “His uncertainties, his struggles, and his personal political views, most of which he was forbidden to speak about. Watching him create, I was witnessing the intimate language of art.”
“In those incredibly harsh times… I began to understand the priceless value of art – as a unique language created by an individual yet understood by all. Art became for me what it was and is for my father. It became the way in which I best express myself. Art is my language of choice, my voice that travels without me having to utter a word. Art has no language barrier – it is universal. It is a way of expressing the unsaid, the unsayable.”
Alketa Xhafa Mripa values originality in art, the same originality her father talked to her about when she was a child. But at the same time, she is aware that her own uniqueness is made possible, in big part, by what she has learned from him. Lessons from him gave her the power to be herself. Lessons from our parents give us the power to be ourselves. While resembling them, we remain unique.
Silvi Bakiri is an editor-in-chief and founder of the Albanian-based Gentlewomen Magazine, where she explores feminism, politics and the pulse of the world.