#Petrit Halilaj

Petrit Halilaj’s Scratchy Doodles Grapple with Childhood Innocence on The Met Rooftop

May 1, 2024

Grace Ebert

“Abetare” (2024). All photos by Eileen Travell, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, shared with permission

When visiting his hometown of Runik, Kosovo, back in 2010, Petrit Halilaj realized that his elementary school was being demolished. He went to the site—which had miraculously survived the Yugoslav wars that spurred his family to flee to an Albanian refugee camp in 1998—and found a pile of desks, many with doodles and notes scratched into their surfaces.

These etchings have now found their way to New York, where they’re perched atop The Met’s rooftop garden for Abetare, which translates to primer, as in the early education books used for learning basic literacy. Enlarged to proportions that would crush any singular tabletop, the rough drawings are presented as scratchy bronze sculptures depicting a flower, house, and spider á la Louise Bourgeois.

For the exhibition, Halilaj (previously) paired his initial findings with other scribbles recovered from desks throughout Albania, North Macedonia, and Montenegro, Balkan countries impacted by Serbian hostilities following Yugoslavia’s dissolution. “For me, returning to the region and visiting numerous schools was prompted by a desire to construct my own intimate map, in contrast to historical maps that reflect dominant narratives,” he shares. “We do not exist in isolation. We are shaped by each other’s identities, both positively and negatively.”


On view through October 27, Abetare features smaller works among the freestanding sculptures, including an arrow with Runik written in the center. Halilaj fastened that smaller piece to a concrete wall and pointed it toward the village as a way to tether the distant locations.

While playful and evocative of adolescent impulse, the works are a reminder of how war and conflict warp innocence. The project is also particularly timely as the city contends with helping tens of thousands of school-age migrants and the world witnesses mass atrocities in Palestine and Ukraine. Magnifying childhood transgressions, Abetare highlights what the artist refers to as small “acts of freedom” that defy ideology and systemic oppression.

Find more from Halilaj on Instagram.


#Petrit Halilaj


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