The Roof Garden Commission: Petrit Halilaj, Abetare
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
29 April – 27 October 2024

The Met’s highly anticipated 2024 Roof Garden Commission, by Kosovar artist Petrit Halilaj (born 1986, Kostërc, former Yugoslavia), is now on view through October 27, 2024. For his first major outdoor installation, Halilaj has transformed the Museum’s Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden with a sprawling work that explores the intersection of reality and fantasy through the rich world of children’s drawings. The installation’s metal sculptures are inspired by children’s doodles, drawings, and scribblings found on desks at the school he attended in Runik, Kosovo, as well as schools in Albania and countries from the former Yugoslavia, which are now undergoing significant cultural and sociopolitical change. The Roof Garden Commission: Petrit Halilaj, Abetare is the 11th in the series of site-specific commissions for the outdoor space.

The exhibition is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Additional support is provided by the Diane W. and James E. Burke Fund, Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon B. Polsky, and the Edward John & Patricia Rosenwald Foundation.

“The Met is thrilled to unveil Petrit Halilaj’s intervention for the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden and share the deeply meaningful conversation it invites between the artist’s work, the Museum, the Manhattan skyline, and beyond,” said Max Hollein, The Met’s Marina Kellen French Director and Chief Executive Officer. “Petrit Halilaj’s inspiring and multilayered work—which is both deeply rooted in the artist’s history and homeland and forward thinking and international in scope—powerfully reframes the complex role of the childhood imagination in history’s retelling of events.”

“The casual scribbles of schoolchildren done on their desks in moments of boredom or distraction reveal the fantasies and dreams of their minds,” said Halilaj. “I started to explore this in my practice in 2015, and it was important for me then to extend the dreams of my school in Kosovo to Europe, a part of the world from which my country was still isolated. Now, in 2024, numerous desks and scribbles from schools across the Balkans are showcased in a new context and on a new continent. My work here at The Met is dedicated to all the children whose lives have been interrupted and deeply scarred by wars around the globe. I hope their dreams will fly us to a better future.”

Halilaj is known for immersive installations that express a desire to alter the course of personal and collective histories, creating complex artistic worlds that claim space for freedom, intimacy, and identity. For The Met commission, furtive drawings from children’s desks have been enlarged into three-dimensional metal sculptures, with each one retaining the trace of the original drawing. Together, they bring to public view the collective memory and imaginative power of generations of students whose lives were marked by traumatic conflicts and territorial divisions. Kosovo experienced the last of a series of wars in the Balkan region in the 1990s, during which time many children were denied access to education on ideological grounds. Abetare borrows its title from the book the artist and his peers used to learn the alphabet at school, with each letter linked to a lesson in pictures and text.

The commission shares conceptual DNA with his previous body of work, the 2015 Abetare project started at Kölnischer Kunstverein, which focused on Halilaj’s research in Kosovo only. Here, by opening his project up to experiences beyond his own geographic, national, and ethnic story—across the Balkan region—he complicates binary and purely oppositional categories that pit nation against nation, or any one ideology against another, including “East” and “West”—none of which can ever fully represent the experience of the individual. Abetare at The Met creates a web between these nations and experiences through symbols and language, much like the installation’s largest sculpture, Spider, might weave a web connecting these shared experiences with the city, the Museum, and the world.

In Abetare, culturally specific references to different political ideologies, religions, and local heroes coexist with more universal symbols and playful nods to pop culture, art history, and sports. Spread around The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden, the “drawings in space” merge with the surrounding architecture and landscape to create a multivocal scenography with an open-ended narrative. A celebration of the shared impulse for personal expression and making a mark, Abetare is an opportunity for discovery and an invitation to expand our capacity to imagine transformative futures.

Photos by The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Hyla Skopitz