Kosovar artist Zeqirja Rexhepi integrates two cultures

Nga: Maan Alhmidi

For 20 years, a Dartmouth Kosovar artist has dedicated his life to building bridges between two cultures.

In May 1999, Canada responded to the Kosovar refugee crisis by taking in more than 5,000 of them.

Zeqirja Rexhepi and his family were among those who came to Canada. They were airlifted from a refugee camp in Macedonia to Nova Scotia by the Canadian military.

Since then, Rexhepi’s murals, paintings and frescoes have contributed to the art scene, not only in Canada but in many European countries.

“It’s all about making connections. … (and) introducing the Kosovar culture to others.” Rexhepi said as he walked through his house in Dartmouth, which is an exhibition of his best art works.

The garage is his studio. The walls in the living room, the bedrooms and the hallways are full of his colourful symbolic art.

He also dedicated a room in the basement for his best paintings. One shows a group of faceless people stuffed into a small tent.

“There, you see people, but you don’t know who they are,” Rexhepi said. “You only know that they are in the same situation.”

Rexhepi stayed at the refugee camp with his wife and their six kids for a month after fleeing their home in Kosovo.

“I slept outside for three nights because there was no room inside the tent,” he said. “That was fine because, at least, I saw that my family (was) safe.”

He started painting just after landing at 14 Wing Greenwood.

“I did 120 paintings in my first month,” Rexhepi said. “Everybody who worked there asked for a painting. … They brought (photos) of their kids saying, ‘Can you do my kids?’ I say, ‘sure no problem. You get it tomorrow.’”

Those who commissioned him provided the supplies, including canvas and paints, and paid him for his work.

Rexhepi came to Canada as an experienced artist. He studied art at schools in Kosovo and Macedonia between 1974 and 1979 and then studied embroidery design in Switzerland.

He has been commissioned to paint many murals in Nova Scotia, including the tall ships mural that was a landmark in downtown Halifax from 2000 to 2017, a series of eight murals at Alderney Landing that reflect on the history of Dartmouth, and a mural in Windsor that tells the story of the expulsion of the Acadians.

He also has done murals and paintings elsewhere in Canada.

During his 20 years in the country, Rexhepi has had dozens of solo and group exhibitions. The first one was at the Greenwood military base only two weeks after landing there.

In Europe, Rexhepi has done dozens of murals and frescoes in mosques and churches in Kosovo, Switzerland, Germany, Turkey, Macedonia, Albania and Turkey.

“The biggest one (is) 835 square metres in a Catholic church in Kosovo,” he said.

Most of that art work wasn’t religious, he said. “It’s about the history of Albanians.”

Rexhepi reflects on the Albanian culture of Kosovo and his life experiences during the 1999 war. For him, the art is mostly about identity, and the human face is the main element of most of his paintings. He also draws tools, animals and musical instruments, using them as metaphors to tell stories about human characters and experiences.

As he’s pointing at a painting of a female face, he explains how she takes the mask off and starts talking.

“Ten thousand women were raped,” he said. “Someone needs to tell what happened. One (Kosovar-Albanian woman) who lives in the States started telling her story about what happened with her when she was 16.”

Rexhepi considers himself an ambassador for his people.

“Everything I do is to make my people proud of me,” he said. “I’m a proud Albanian from Kosovo.”

When he went back to Kosovo nine months after landing in Canada, he discovered his house had burned down. He turned that into a work of art by painting the house’s ruins with the chimney standing in the middle of the rubble.

During the war, people just want to survive, Rexhepi said.

People “run between death and life,” he said. When that time came, “I forgot what I built. ... I left my diplomas, I left my instruments, I left my culture.”

Kosovars who were resettled in Canada had to start rebuilding their lives from scratch, Rexhepi said.

They also had to build their reputation, he said.

The Canadian government knows the benefits of taking in refugees, Rexhepi said.

“I always say, when you bring (people) from a crisis, don’t worry about them. They’re going to work in anything. They will appreciate the country (that hosted them).”

Yet refugees and immigrants have to challenge the stereotypes that exist in western society about their ethnicities. Albanians, for example, were stereotyped in Liam Neeson’s movie Taken as a mafia group, he said.

“I told my kids that you have to work hard and tell (society) who you are,” Rexhepi said.

“You (have to) show people that you’re good and you’re contributing a lot to the country. Just keep your culture.”

When people leave their country, they lose most of their roots there, he said.

“My youngest son is so ... patriotic; he wants to move back to Kosovo,” he said. “But now he has a big family here.”

One of his daughters lives in Switzerland, he said. The rest of his children got education and good jobs and have nice families here in Canada.

“New roots have grown here,” he said. “For my grandkids, more roots are going to be here than in Kosovo.”