Art education faculty member takes arts and cultural advocacy efforts to Kosovo

Immersive art installation

What does arts and cultural advocacy look like in a context of community development and social transformation? What is the role of arts and culture in the context of oppression, or rebuilding after war? Those are questions that Penn State Art Education faculty member Ann Holt explores through the facilitation of community arts workshops in Suhareka/Theranda, Kosovo.

Holt has visited Suhareka—a region where arts and culture are seen as critical to community development—in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2023, and 2024 with ArtsAction Group (AAG), for which she serves as an advisor, board member, and artist-teacher. This past March, she spent 10 days in the southeastern European municipality, continuing a collaboration with AAG partner Refki Gollopeni, an artist and administrator at Fellbach-Haus Center for Creative Education.

AAG is an international collective of arts educators, art therapists, artist-teachers, and educators committed to facilitating socially engaged arts and education initiatives with children and youth in conflict-affected environments. Members of the group were introduced to Gollopeni and the dynamic community at Fellbach-Haus in 2009.

“While the beginning of the collaboration was about arts and healing and entrepreneurial rebuilding, the relationship has become more geared toward STEAM, innovation, and looking at ways that arts and culture can help to bring up the economic well-being of the country,” explained Holt, who holds a Ph.D. in art education from Penn State.

Kosovo is still recovering from the 1998–99 war, including ethnic cleansing that marked the end of the fall of Yugoslavia. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of the houses and buildings were destroyed by Serb forces and more than half the population of surviving ethnic Albanians were internally displaced or made refugees during the two-year-long conflict, launched by the former Serbian President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milošević. NATO forces brought an end to the war, which resulted in Milošević being charged as a war criminal. However, Kosovo’s sovereignty is still contested, despite its declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008. While countries like Spain, Russia, China, and Serbia do not recognize Kosovar sovereignty, all G7 and most European Union countries do.

“It’s an interesting kind of context to be thinking about arts and culture,” said Holt. “But Kosovo has always had a very rich cultural and artistic heritage. Animation has long been a part of their cultural output.”

The theme of the 2024 collaboration with Fellbach-Haus was “Imagining Place: Mapping New Worlds,” and resulted in an immersive installation—created by robotics students and children and youth at the community center—featuring high- and low-tech kinetic drawing machines, animations, and large-scale video projections with audio linked to the theme. It also featured an entire range of handcrafted, illuminated, and symbolic plants, insects, and animals. With assistance from Penn State maps specialist Heather Ross, Holt was able to bring a digital topographical map and print analog maps of the region to use for creative inspiration.

While AAG members make plans with Gollopeni and the youth prior to arriving in Suhareka, the art projects evolve organically once they are on-site.

“This year we surpassed what we usually accomplish in a week because we set out to do an installation and it became super-immersive,” noted Holt. “There was so much artwork going on that we could not keep track of all of it. The kids take off—they just make.”

Goals this year included working with other local educators—they collaborated with an art teacher and a robotics teacher—and facilitating more dialogue among participants.

“Some of this is about creating more spaces so that we can have more time for dialogue, and more time not only working with the students, so we [educators] can stop and just sit at a table, reflect, and talk. It was not possible this trip,” explained Holt. “But at the same time, that is part of how we operate in the sense that we embrace not knowing, and seeing what comes out of it. It lends itself that way because it’s not us making all the decisions.”

Every year AAG members invite volunteers to join them in Suhareka, including international colleagues and former students. Julian Darragjati, a Penn State English faculty member who was born in Albania, accompanied Holt to Suhareka in March to explore ways the project could incorporate partners from other disciplines. Holt met Darragjati when Gollopeni visited the United States in fall 2023, where he presented his arts advocacy work and experiences in context to war and rebuilding to Holt’s grad students enrolled in Art Education 524: Arts Education, Advocacy, and Policy.

“The world is changing, and we need to consider projects that allow for more collaboration,” said Darragjati, who left Albania as a teen. “Talking with the kids, they were almost like family after working with them for a few days. You want to do what you can to help them.”

Helping the kids—by using the arts to show what they are capable of—is AAG’s primary mission. AAG collaborates with local partners engaged in the arts with children and youth to foster capabilities associated with the arts—from creative expression and reflection to big-picture thinking.

“It’s not one of those things where you just go and don’t go back,” said Holt. “The relational component is key to making it work. Language may get in the way but when you know each other, language does not truly get in the way—there are workarounds, you figure out how to communicate, you trust each other.”

According to Holt, the challenges mainly lie in supporting the work of AAG and its partners in meaningful ways. AAG members self-fund where they go, participating in fundraising efforts when possible. This year AAG was partially supported by the Suhareka municipality with additional funding from ProfVal, a company building bridges for international academics and professionals who seek to contribute their expertise in the United States.

Holt said she is exploring the possibility of developing a Penn State study abroad program or immersive experience where she takes students to Kosovo to engage in international community-based arts and cultural education work, a focus of her research.

Reflecting on her experiences in Suhareka over the years, Holt said it’s inspiring to see how engaged the students are and what they accomplish in one week. The workshops culminate in a public exhibition and celebration attended by participants and their families, community members, and local dignitaries. A celebratory dinner features local singers performing traditional Albanian songs.

“These trips are always successful,” she said. “We are creating the conditions for relationships to happen outside this program—it’s the beginning of lifelong friendships.”

For more on AAG’s work in Kosovo, visit the AAG website.