Astrit Ismaili

Interview by
Miloš Trakilović
Photography by
Nikola Lamburov


It’s not quite Spring yet, but Astrit Ismaili, Prishtina’s prodigal alt-pop star, is blooming. "The First Flower", the title track on their upcoming debut album, is narrated by a faggy plant. Growing up in a country that did not yet exist, the artist now struts around Europe as Miss Kosovo. To score the full story behind the 31-year-old's latest musical project and fab moustache, fellow Balkan boy Miloš Trakilovic shows up at Astrit's door with a bottle of wine and a raging appetite.

Miloš: Astrit, Miss Kosovo, I know for a fact that you’re an amazing kisser.
Astrit: Yes! We kissed in Prishtina during the Manifesta 14 opening party.
In the Palace of Youth and Sports.
What an amazing building. You know, back in 2012, I co-organized a performance art project there. The building burned down in the 2000s and it wasn’t functional for many years. But because of this project, it reopened to the public. During Yugoslav times the building was called Boro and Ramiz.
Is there a history to the name?
Boro and Ramiz were two socialist fighters, one Albanian and one Serb. They fought against the Nazis together. They were the symbol of brotherhood in Yugoslavia. I always found some hidden homoerotic potential in this story and for my project, I invited two artists, one from Serbia and the other from Kosovo, to paint Boro and Ramiz kissing on a huge canvas.
Totally us. (both laugh)
The closing performance was actually 2500 people marching behind this banner. And our kiss… Me, an Albanian from Kosovo and you, a Bosnian…
With a Serbian-sounding name!
It brings back those Boro and Ramiz vibes.
The night was very magical. That same night you had premiered your performance piece ‘LYNX’, right? You were in heels with your butt out.
That’s true.
How did you feel going out in a corset and high heels and a thong in Prishtina, with your mom sitting in the front row?
With my mom and my dad and my uncles. (both laugh) At the end of the day, I just felt comfortable in my latex corset and G-string. I was like, ‘This is the look.’ If I would’ve made a compromise it would’ve probably ruined my mood.
You looked fierce as fuck.
The look had this silver finish, a little bit shiny. And I had those alien Prada sunglasses. My sister heard a kid in the audience asking her mom if I was a robot. I really loved that.
I was proud of you.
Awww. The performance that you saw, actually I started working on it in the beginning of 2022. But it encompasses all my interests and all the research that I’ve been doing for the past eight years. It involves wearable musical instruments, my obsession with writing catchy pop music, and the choreography was in collaboration with performers, it also integrated fashion as well.
That’s why it felt fully rounded.
It also brought in material that my mom composed in the 80s, which was performed by my sister in the last part of the piece. I felt really engaged with the audience, and it felt like a homecoming, like I regained a space I’d left and I was afraid that I may’ve lost it. But I got it back.

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I remember seeing you on Grindr in Prishtina. Did you get any sort of attention from guys on the apps because of your performance?
Actually, I got a lot of fab messages on Grindr. One was like, ‘I just saw your performance last night. It was amazing. Thank you so much. You’re our icon.’ (both laugh) And of course, I screenshotted it and shared it on Instagram.
But you didn’t get any sort of action?
I did with you.
That’s right. (laughs) So, what are you currently working on?
My second album. Actually my first album was made when I was growing up in Kosovo. As a kid, in the post-war times, my sister and I had a mini-career as child pop stars. My mom pushed us in that direction as a way to deal with the trauma of the war and when I think back to my childhood, I only have good memories. I’m glad she did it, but when I became a teenager, I really wanted to separate myself from that image of a child pop star.
You had your Britney moment!
Well, actually, my friends and I got very Gothy. We had a collective called “Evil Makers”.
What was the collective about?
Everyone thought that we worshipped Satan, but mostly we were making short, very obscure experimental films. We literally just had a little digital camera and made like three or four films that were all very dark, about sad dull people. At the time, we got some attention from the local art scene and we were able to show them.
Do you still like to collaborate with other people?
Yes. Collaboration is a very important element in my work. Everywhere I go, it’s important for me to have a community, because that’s how we can grow stronger and resist heteronormativity.
I agree. When you collaborate, how do you preserve your autonomy?
It’s very important to credit everyone involved for their work, but also for there to be compensation. This is the starting point – creating an economy that’s fairly distributed.
Does working on your album feel like a switch from a performance art context to maybe something that’s more poppy?
All of my performance pieces are narrated through music. Melodies and voice are always present. The album is an extension of this project ‘MISS’ that I developed in 2019. Basically, the music of this performance is finally being released as an album, which will enable the public to have access to this piece of work that’s normally only accessible via a live performance.
What stage is the album at? What comes after it’s finished? Are you going to tour? Are you going to perform?
The album is presently being recorded, most of it is done. We have a cover… It’s very hot, very sexy!
You played me a couple of songs and there’s a lot of themes and topics about nature, and flowers and a combination of fertility in relation to biology and arousal, and also some dark songs.
The album is called ‘The First Flower’. The story behind it is based on the idea that queerness, as aphenomenon in nature, happens constantly without disruption. However, in a human context, queerness is still put into question. The album narrates the evolution of the first plant that decided to become a flower, and the struggles throughout this evolution.
This also has some sort of eroticism to it, or…?
In the end, it’s a project about blooming. It’s also about war.
How so?
To come out of war, to bloom again, which is actually something I’ve witnessed, from the late 90s and the early 2000s, like seeing a country that has been completely ruined and completely, completely devastated to come back and bloom again.
You manage to tie up aspects of your life and upbringing in a very queer perspective. I remember in ‘LYNX’ there was a segment devoted to being aroused by inanimate objects, like car parts. Do cars turn you on?
Absolutely. And motorcycles.
Vroom vroom.
The sleekness of glass, the coldness, but also the warmth of machines and the size makes me want to squirt! It turns me on. I’m very interested in body extensions, like wearable musical instruments. They serve as a comment on human bodies, blurring the line between the artificial and the natural. Where does the body end, and where does the machine begin? Humans, in our everyday lives, use all kinds of machines, like cars, computers, phones, kitchen supplies. These tools become extensions of our bodies, and then sometimes they’re actually integrated into our bodies. We share and perform a lot of intimacy with these objects.

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Moving onto something else… Do you go out? Do you party?
I’m quite a workaholic, but life isn’t only about work.
Girl, it’s time to have some fun!
Dancing is very important for me. Clubs and party spaces are primative environments where we can really explore each other in a nonverbal way.
It sounds very kinky.
Well, we can explore our bodies through dancing. And it’s really transcendental, especially in queer spaces.
Speaking of queer spaces… Where do you usually go out in Amsterdam?
Amsterdam. (sighs) Well, I love Berghain, in Berlin.
I once bumped into you on the dancefloor at four in the morning there. You had your butt out, just in a G-string! Do you get naked a lot in clubs?
No, actually, I’m veeeeery conservative. (laughs) I used to perform naked a lot. It’s quite tricky wearing a costume as a performer. Clothing is very charged. But one common thread in all of my performances is performing femininity, and not as in drag, I never try to present as a woman. I just think my body looks very good in feminine clothing. Even though I come from a queer community, I think there’s still a lot of sexism. Femininity is viewed as a weakness. But I believe that the oppression of femininity comes out of insecurity.
Speaking of the feminine, do you have any experiences with girls? Romantically?
As a child pop star, I actually had to say that I was this “desirable bachelor”. Girls loved me. When I was a teenager, I had a girlfriend for a year. I was in love with her, but it ended because I was too young to commit. Also, I knew that I wasn’t done exploring my sexuality.
Did you realize that you’d also like to suck dick?
Well, that’s not what Balkan guys do! (both laugh)
What do Balkan guys do?
They don’t suck dick, they get sucked! Wow… Actually, I’m not such a big fan of oral sex, although it’s growing on me. I guess it has to do with the fact that I was circumcised very late.
You actually remember it?
Yes. Because of the war, my parents circumcised me when… I don’t know how old I was, but I remember the whole procedure.
Was it painful?
Yes! If it was up to me, I’d ban circumcision. I think circumcision is irrelevant for the times we’re living. It’s also something that should be decided by the person who’s getting that operation done on their bodies. This circumcision tradition needs to sashay away.
How does this reflect on your sexual life? Like a lot of lube, a lot of saliva?
No, no, no, no, it’s all good. My penis is just very sensitive.
All penises are very sensitive. (laughs) When did you first have gay sex?
My teenage years are very blurry to me. I’d get, like, REALLY horny. There’s no way of cruising in Prishtina, so one time I decided to take the bus all the way to Skopje, in Macedonia. I went by myself and just walked the streets. Nothing happened! But on my way back the next day, I got on the bus and there was an American soldier. We sat next to each other. He was a really typical porn-looking kind of dude.
Was he in uniform?
Yeah! He was going back to the American base in Kosovo. We started touching each other in the bus, and then when we got to his stop, we went to a hotel and I fucked him.
You fucked him?!
Yes. (laughs) I was this skinny, grungy looking boy with long hair. The next day I had to go back to school and I had the hottest story, but I couldn’t tell anyone.

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Until now! Anyways, let’s go back to nightlife. What’s a good night out for you? You go mostly to dance, but are there also hookups?
I hooked up much more when I was younger. I actually enjoy being 30 and partying because I don’t have any more of those overwhelming sense receptors of my 20s. I come to enjoy the music, dance with my friends and kiki. I come from a club kid background, but I’m definitely not a club kid anymore.
Are you dating anyone?
During COVID was basically the only time that I slowed down and had time to find a partner. I actually learned how to appreciate intimacy. I’m a very romantic person, like if you get me flowers. I love these gestures and I’m a sucker for romance. At the moment I’m single, but I’m ready.
Mingle! (both laugh)
I’m really curious. Personally. What question do you hate being asked the most on Grindr?
On Grindr I’m really fake. For example, my pictures, I don’t show any of my feminine side. Grindr doesn’t work like that. Unfortunately. I wish it was more open, but it’s not and at the end of the day, I see it as a tool to get what I want. I don’t have to put my values down. I always play the game and it works and it’s good.
What’s the game you play?
If I’m using Grindr, it means that I just want to hook up. It’s very business work ethic! (laughs) You got what I want, let’s hook up.
Sounds like good pop lyric. I hate it when guys ask me where I’m from. I just don’t think it’s the platform for that kind of conversation. Ask me what I want.
I used to hate it when guys asked me where I’m from, especially here in Amsterdam. When I tell them, it’s always kind of like the same reaction. And I’m aware that I come from a country that didn’t exist before 2008. A lot of people don’t know about Kosovo, but it hurts me when they don’t because it’s actually geopolitically relevant. People should know about Kosovo.
Are you out there advocating and educating as Miss Kosovo?
If Kosovo had a non-binary Miss, I’d love to be that person. Miss Universe, Miss Kosovo!
I think they’re bringing back Miss Universe. Would you sign up to represent Kosovo at Miss Universe?
The world isn’t ready. And it’s such a pity. I think we’re still living in a very, very heteronormative binary society. Everything is still divided into pink and blue.
Were you born in Yugoslavia?
No, I was born in 1991.
I was born in Yugoslavia. It’s funny to me, because like gender, these constructs of identity, of nationhood, are very fragile. They can morph, they can disappear, they can vanish, they can be transformed and reinvented.
It’s true. I witnessed my country get made from scratch and realized that everything is constructed artificially. An ideal institution or an ideal political structure or an ideal country, they’re just illusions, they’re just ideas, they’re things that can change and transform. As queer people, we’re in a powerful position to propose realities and environments that are different, that challenge and disrupt…
…which is a departure point in your work, through performances and music, through your fabulous queer perspective.
Give me a kiss! (both kiss)
Now we’re done.

Originally published in BUTT 32