Steel Rebel

Albanian artist and product designer Helidon Xhixha talks to CID about his passion for steel sculpting and freedom of expression.

Helidon Xhixha, an Albanian artist currently based in Italy, begins: “My father was the starting point of my career.” Though he is currently in the process of establishing himself in Dubai, Xhixha bears a heavy past filled with hardship, triumph and international success.

Xhixha explains: “I was born in Albania in 1970 and grew up under the communist regime. Life was very difficult and harsh in Albania during that time, as we were under a strict and controlling government that imposed how to live and think, and left us completely isolated from the outside world.”

The sculptor’s father was an artist himself who was considered a talented painter who worked for the government. His father would complete portraits of politicians and was often asked to produce poster art for political propaganda.

“As a kid, I used to spend hours in his studio admiring his work and [watching] him while he would paint a portrait of me or my siblings. I was fascinated by the way he would handle his [paint] brush, dipping it into paint and swinging it over the canvas that would slowly come to life,” recalls Xhixha.

Initially, Xhixha attended Tirana College of Arts in Albania, where he discovered his talent as a sculptor; however, the students at this time were being trained in figurative and graphic art, as both were considered useful for propaganda campaigns.

In 1991, Xhixha had grown tired of the social limitations imposed by the Albanian regime and left to Italy, where he would attend the Brera Art Academy of Milan.

He explains: “It wasn’t easy at first as I spoke little Italian and I had to work to pay for my studies, but I knew being an artist was the thing I wanted the most in my life and this made all the hard work worthwhile.

“This experience was a breath of fresh air in my artistic growth as I was exposed to modern and contemporary art. I felt like a little child released in a huge toy store and allowed to play with everything around me.”

In 1998, Xhixha received a scholarship to attend Kingston University in London, where he improved his engraving techniques, sculpting and photography. When the three month program ended, he returned to Italy and completed his studies. Xhixha graduated from Brera in 1999, and was soon to launch a massive and internationally acclaimed career.

Of his first piece, Xhixha describes: “My first sculpture was the head of a woman made in Murano glass during the time I was still passionate about figurative art. I remember using very bright colours trying to get as much light out of it [as possible]. Extracting the light out of the material has always been the base, the true core of all my art work.”

One only needs to take a single look at the sculptor’s portfolio to gather his passion for light and his ability to use it not as an effect, but rather as a base. For the artist, the form of any piece is of secondary importance, and the reflection of light is primary. In other words, light is a phantom material that he moulds through the use of palpable mediums.

He says: “In the first years of my career, I experimented [with] sculpting various materials like Murano glass, marble and iron. But once I discovered steel, it was love at first sight. Stainless steel fascinates me for its power to reflect and transmit positive energy. It makes my sculptures come to life as they constantly reflect the colours and the movements of their surroundings.”

Though his foundation is figurative art, Xhixha gradually switched his focus to contemporary art where he found his true power of expression. And coming from a rigid background that he wanted to move away from, contemporary art offered him a personal freedom he had yet to experience.

He notes: “Using stainless steel as the foundation of my artwork has helped me find my identity as a contemporary artist and my technique of folding it, turning it inside out and marking it, became my sign of recognition. Contemporary art gives me as an artist, the freedom of expression and to the outside viewers, the freedom of being able to capture their very own interpretation and feelings as the reflection of their thoughts.”

The multi-faceted artist dabbled in design as well, but it wasn’t until he was asked to participate in Le Briccole di Venezia 2010, an exhibition that involved 29 important artists to create designs using briccole wood, that Xhixha would realise his talent for what he terms “functional art”.

“For the occasion, I created my first table, Reflections in the Lagoon, a fusion between contrasting elements. The wooden briccole represents the past and the history of Venice, [while] the steel’s sheen represents the gleam of the waters of the lagoon.

Together these two elements form homage to the passage and rhythm of life with its ships, its people and its culture. As I was very pleased with the outcome of my table and the success it received, I started dedicating myself to functional art.

“I think it’s amazing when an artist’s creation can become something that can also be touched, used and enjoyed in everyday life. Design becomes a greater challenge, establishing a contact between living people and art as a living thing, without it losing its innate aesthetic and artistic sense.”

In 2001, Xhixha had his first trip to Dubai and found himself amazed by the city’s infamously rapid transformation into a modern oasis. Having been asked by an Italian architect to design a sculptural piece for the lobby of the Melia Hotel, Xhixha jumped on board. The piece is titled Elliptical Energy and was delivered to Dubai from Milan in January 2012.

About the piece in Melia Hotel, Xhixha explains: “My inspiration came from the magical lights that brighten up the night sky of Dubai.” The 12m by 4m wall sculpture is made of 316 marine grade stainless steel, as with most of his pieces, and currently hangs in the hotel’s great hall.

Elliptical Energy represents Xhixha’s swift entrance into the Middle East’s design scene, however it doesn’t stop there. The year following the Melia Hotel piece, the sculptor exhibited at Design Days Dubai, and refers to it as “the best and most elegant artistic design platform to be introduced to the region…We [were visited] by the highest VIPs and art collectors of the region.”

At the moment, Xhixha is amidst the process of establishing himself in the UAE. With a number of monumental artwork under his belt such as the three monoliths in Switzerland Montanstahl Stabio, the monument for the regional government building in Milan, and the monument for the Stradivari Museum in Cremona, Italy, as well as his product collection of statement tables and chairs, Xhixha plans to continue similar art in Dubai.

He explains: “My desire is to create a monument for Dubai. I would love to be a part of this amazing city and its growth towards an international art hub. Dubai is very central to the entire region and it’s on its way to becoming a very important art platform at an international level.”

With Dubai on Xhixha’s horizon, we look forward to seeing more steel in the vast land of sand and glass. But his goals don’t end there. He seems to have one particular goal that is much bigger than Milan, Dubai or any other international city.

“My dream,” Xhixha discloses, “is to create a monumental building. A tower that is a sculpture on its own entirely covered with my stainless steel tiles, stitched together like a mosaic.”

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