The first time I saw Besnik Harizaj it was in a shape of a Testa di Moro, in an Instagram story.
Bianca Balti, Dolce and Gabbana’s supermodel, was filming herself from her Los Angeles home, and there they were: two beautiful Sicilian vases that were traditional yet modern. I made a little research to find the craftsman and I immediately stumbled upon one name: Besnik Harizaj. To my great surprise, behind one of the most iconic and representative Sicilian symbols there was a man coming from Albania.
Besnik Harizaj was born in 1969 in Valona, and studied Fine Arts at the academy of the city. He later became an art teacher, earning a very low salary. With the outbreak of the war in the former Yugoslavia, he was forced to move to Crete. There he made all sort of jobs to collect enough money to move to Italy by boat. He was the first generation of people escaping from the Balkans to find a better life in the western world.
When he arrived to Sicily, without a visa, he started doing all sorts of jobs, from bricklayer to farmer. But he never stopped drawing.
“I had to. I didn’t want to lose the capability to draw”, Besnik, which means loyal in Italian, told me when I reached him on the phone.
We had a long talk during lockdown. When Besnik talks about his life and work he is like a flood: he recalls memories, funny stories, jokes, and tips. The most important one he gave me: if you want to succeed in something, you must train EVERY SINGLE DAY.
But let’s start form the beginning.
What happened when you left Albania?
I was an art teacher, but it was difficult to earn money. I had to leave. So, I packed my stuff, few things including some water and some food, and told my family: “If you don’t see me coming back in one week, it is because I managed to pass the borders. I went to Crete, and there I started working to collect enough money to reach Italy. I moved to Sicily and I started working in the countryside to earn my bread and butter.
But you didn’t immediately work as an artist.
No, I did everything I could do. I worked in the countryside, as a bricklayer… but I never stopped drawing. It was because of my art teacher.
Why? What did he do?
He used to give me a lot of homework. A hundred drawings to do every day. I noticed he did it only with me, So I asked him why. He told me because he saw an artist in me, a talent. But I had to master the technique, as talent is never enough. I remember I used to employ my whole family to draw and complete all that amount of homework!
Let’s come back to Italy.
Yes, those who noticed me drawing started telling me that I had to work in an artist’s workshop. And that’s what I did. I started working in a bottega and I learnt the art of Sicilian ceramics. I opened my own shop in 1997 but it wasn’t easy.
People were suspicious. I was a stranger working in the most traditional Sicilian sector. I remember people looking through my glass window without entering. The first year was difficult, my shop was constantly empty.
And what did you do?
I kept on working and experimenting. At that time, all the artists used to visit the Ceramic Museum of Caltagirone to copy the Teste di Moro. They used to finish them with pale colours, like those preserved in the museum. But those are not the original colours as the artefacts date back to centuries ago. I started using vivid and bright colours. It was a huge change at that time.
That’s why your works look so different! After discovering you, in a shop full of ceramics I could immediately recognize yours. I didn’t realize why, but your Teste di Moro really stand up from the others. The colours!
Not only. I started studying new profiles and wanted to fix in a vase the men and women I like. I remember the day I saw a beautiful African woman outside my shop, so I called her and asked if I could make her a portrait. She and her husband were very suspicious. I told them I could pay. She agreed to pose for me only because the husband agreed and stayed with us all the time.
And, in fact, your faces are really modern. They remind me of Hollywood stars.
What you see in my handicrafts are the men and women I like. Totò was one of the first I made.
Totò? The Italian Neapolitan actor?
Yes, I love him. I am a big fan. I also got a letter from his niece who was positively impressed on what I did.
Talking about famous people, also Dolce and Gabbana loves what you do.
I am not a fan in that case. But a lot of other stars have bought my vases. I sell all around the world now. And those who were looking at me from a distance are now copying me.
Someone said: “Imitation is the highest form of flattery”.
True, in fact now many artisans here use strong colours. They copy me and somehow they force me to invent something new. Every year I try to come out with a different work, a different detail, a different style.
And I truly love how you explore and surpass the boundaries. I found your Teste di Moro in total silver or total gold simply amazing.
Can people buy your works online?
Besnik, I’d really love to return to Caltagirone and meet you in person.
I’ll wait for you. I am always happy when people visit me, come to my workshop to take a look or even for a nice chat.
I asked Besnik Harizaj if he wanted to return to Albania one day. He said he has spent so many years in Italy he now feels Italian. Plus, going back now would be odd. His work is here and is deeply rooted with the Sicilian tradition. You know what, Besnik? If you decided to leave Italy, I would firmly oppose. You are an Italian treasure. A precious gem Italy can simply not let go.