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

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At the end of July, during the opening week of Manifesta 14 in Kosovo, the small alleyway that houses LambdaLambdaLambda is buzzing with artists, curators and a press hungry for lentil fritters and drinking beer. The gallery is tucked away in a far corner, next to the Babaghanoush vegetarian cafe: the de facto social center for those visiting Prishtina for the biennale.

The cafe, which is run by two artists, was a deciding factor when Katharina Schendl and Isabella Ritter chose their small space. It was central, but out of sight. When they first visited Pristina together in 2014, the alley also housed a bookstore 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 outdoor bench an arm’s length from the falafel-fueled hubbub. A collegiate sensibility is evident in the gallery’s name: a playful riff on the Greek lettering used for sororities and fraternities in the United States.

Schendl and Ritter are both Austrians and have made careers in the Viennese art scene. Ritter worked in the commercial sector and Schendl was on the staff of Mumok, the Museum of Modern Art. What possessed them 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 it was amazing here.”

LambdaLambdaLambda², Pristina. Photo credit: Rina Meta

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

For this reason, artistic practices are possible as long as graduates live with their parents, but as soon as they need to support themselves, they stop altogether or try to balance art around a full-time job. full. “Our idea was to found a commercial gallery so that, for at least some artists, we could create a long-term professional environment,” the dealer said.

The decision was impetuous: they committed to space on this first trip in October 2014. The gallery opened the following January. Over the past seven years, they have presented here 36 exhibitions of 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 partnership with Misako & Rosen from Japan and Park View/Paul Soto from Los Angeles. The launch of a second 250 square meter (2,691 square foot) 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 in a former office building – a brutalist structure with veranda windows on three sides through which leaf-dappled light pours. A flood of international visitors the opening week of the biennale is testament to the international reputation that LambdaLambdaLambda has built over the years.

Such attendance is atypical. Cultural life in Prishtina is event-oriented. Exhibition openings draw large crowds from the local art scene, but casual gallery visits are rare. Occasionally a group will travel to Kosovo from a European museum or Kunsthalle and take a tour.

Ritter had known collectors from his years in Vienna, but from the outset it was clear that LambdaLambdaLambda would do almost all of its business through art fairs. This fall the gallery will make its debut at Frieze London, but has exhibited at fairs around the world. One of the first was Material Art Fair in Mexico City. At that time, “no one from Kosovo could go to Mexico because the country was not recognized. Now you can, but in 2016 it wasn’t,” Isabella recalls. “So outside of art, you start talking about politics in a very interesting way.”

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View of the exhibition “Nothing like home II”, (with Blerta Hashani, Brilant Milazimi & Dardan Zhegrova), 2022. Photo credit: Leart Rama. Courtesy of the artist and LambdaLambdaLambda Pristina/Brussels

Travel restrictions are a huge problem for Kosovo, and by extension 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 United States and established itself as a republic. Nevertheless, it remains unrecognized by a handful of countries, most with their own factional border issues. Travelers must obtain an expensive visa to travel to the neighboring EU, and application appointments have been reduced during the pandemic.

This process is unpredictable: painter Brilant Milazimi, an artist from the LambdaLambdaLambda program, was unable to attend his own opening in Brussels in May due to lack of a visa. Here is, in part, the answer to why it took two Austrians to open the first commercial gallery in Prishtina: a Kosovo-born merchant could not get to fairs, shows and events with the ease required to maintain viability. gallery business.

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View of the exhibition “don’t tell me where it’s going, I have loooo-ooooo-ooove surprise-es”, Nora Turato, 2021. Photo credit: Marcel Köhler. Courtesy of the artist and LambdaLambdaLambda Pristina/Brussels

Three of the nine artists represented by the gallery are based in Kosovo, with most of the others from the Balkans and its diaspora. “We don’t just work with artists from Kosovo: it was important for us not to be ghettoized,” Ritter said. She and Schendl want LambdaLambdaLambda to be known for the strength of its program, rather than 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 artists are well represented in the exhibition: performance artist Astrit Ismaili performed in front of a huge crowd on the opening night and painters Blerta Hashani and Milazimi were both selected for the exhibition central. Dardan Zhegrova, a self-taught sculptor of giant, soft voodoo dolls that speak from the chest when kissed, are featured. The work of these last three welcomes the crowds to their new space.

Currently, LambdaLambdaLambda is not so much a big fish in a small pond as the only fish. How would they 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 great!”

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