‘The Albanians’ Mosaic, National Historical Museum, Tirana

'The Albanians' - Mosaic on the National History Museum, Tirana

‘The Albanians’ – Mosaic on the National History Museum, Tirana

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‘The Albanians’ Mosaic, National Historical Museum, Tirana

‘The Albanians’ mosaic on National Historical Museum, Tirana, is one of the finest examples of late Albanian Socialist Realism still to be seen in the country.

For most visitors to Albania the example of Socialist Realist art they would have seen is the mosaic, called ‘The Albanians’, situated above the main entrance of the National Historical Museum in Skënderbeg Square, Tirana.

The work is the result of a collective of five Albanian artists – Vilson Kilica, Anastas Kostandini, Agim Nebiu, Justin Droboniku and Aleksander Filipi – and was completed in 1980 for the opening of the museum.

This is huge, covering 400 m², and dominates one end of the main square in Tirana. Fittingly, as it decorates a historical museum, it tells the story of how Albanians have fought against invasion and occupation throughout the centuries. Being one of the smallest states in the Balkan region (until the former Yugoslavia was broken up into smaller and even smaller western friendly ‘nations’) Albania was considered fair game by whatever was the dominant imperialist power around at the time.

Before talking about the mosaic in some detail a quiz question. Take a look at the picture at the top of this post and see if you can work out what is particular to the three women depicted, in a form that you are unlikely to see in any capitalist country?

On the left as you look at it is concentrated almost 2000 years of defiance towards the invaders, going back to the Roman Empire, which later changed to Byzantine control, that being usurped by the Bulgars, from what is now modern-day Bulgaria, in the 7th century. The major, and longest, running battle was against the efforts of the Turkish Ottoman Empire to control the small mountainous country, this being the period when Skënderbeg became the national hero. All these invading cultures have left their mark on the culture, architecture and language of the Albanians. Also among this group is the representation of Albania’s Declaration of Independence in 1912 – the man in a suit with a piece of paper on his hand is Ismail Qemali.

On the right is depicted a very specific and the most recent and most successful National Liberation struggle, the one against, first Italian and later German, Fascism between 1939 and 1944. The red star on the caps of three of the four individuals indicate they are Communist Partisans, where armed men and women fought side by side.

The trio in the centre represent, what was then the present in 1980s Albania, workers in control of their country, the red flag flying, the guns in the hands of the workers and united they are marching forward to a Communist future. That march has been halted, temporarily, but there is still an element of hope depicted in the determined way the trio are walking towards the viewer.

However, what you see is not the original. Sometime after 1990 (I’ve yet to discover exactly when ) the mosaic was ‘depoliticised’, at least partially. There were probably those who wanted to see the total destruction of the mosaic (as has happened in other places, such as the wall of the National Library just across the square from the Historical Museum and the monument to the ‘Four Heroines of Mirdita’) but the compromise was, nonetheless, cultural vandalism.

And the ‘artist’ responsible for this crime was one of the five who created it in the first place. The criminal’s name is Agim Nebiu. He didn’t do so for any political reason, he did it for money. Like so many artists he was/is cheap. One of the problems with ‘intellectuals’ and ‘artists’ under Socialism is that they are so ‘special’ (or they think themselves as such) that they throw a hissy fit if they are expected to create something which might not fit into their ‘artistic’ sensibilities.

If from a working class or peasant background they would never have had the chance to learn their trade if it were not for the Socialist Revolution but once having gained those skills they turn their backs on the people who provided them with previously unheard of opportunities. They adopt the attitude of many ‘artists’ under the capitalist social system, that they should be ‘free’ to ‘express their creativity’. That they hold no debt to those workers who have enabled them to have the luxury of a higher education. When someone throws thirty pieces of silver on the table they grab them with both hands. They declare that now they are ‘true artists’, not following the diktats of the state. They are no such thing. At least prostitutes are honest.

Stars are crucial to Albanian Socialist Realist Art. They determine the meaning of the story. There is no shadow of a doubt that the Fascists would not have been thrown out of Albania, by the Albanian people themselves, if it were not for the political direction given to the struggle by the Marxist-Leninists, those members of the then Albanian Communist Party (later to be renamed as the Party of Labour of Albania).

The self-proclaimed ‘king’ Zog fled when the Italians landed in Durres in April 1939 and lived in luxury in Britain. The nationalists of Balli Kombëtar sat down with the Nazis and were bombarded by the Communist Partisans from the hills of Sauk. True partisans, like young Liri Gero – a true daughter of her country and living up to the meaning of her name (Freedom) and who was tortured to death by the odious Nazis – followed the Communist banner. On that banner was the golden star of Communism.

That star was anathema to the counter-revolutionaries who gained power after 1990 and throughout the country that symbol, so hated by capitalism and its lackeys, has been the target of official and unofficial vandalism.

The mosaic is an example of the official.

Below is a detail of the original mosaic, as it was planned and executed by the group of five artists in 1980.

National Museum Mosaic - original

National Museum Mosaic – original

Notice that there is a large golden star above the head of the woman in the centre of the picture. If you now look at the close up of that middle section below can you spot an anomaly?

Mosaic on National Historical Museum - detail

Mosaic on National Historical Museum – detail

Doesn’t the flag look a strange shape? Flags are normally rectangular but this one looks like it’s a piece of cloth cut totally at random. That’s because the corner of the flag between the woman’s head and her upraised rifle is where the star used to finish. What has happened is that the gold star pieces of ceramic have been removed, replaced by reddish pieces and then a bump of red inserted between the original folds of the flag and the corner. If the flag followed its original shape the corner would have been behind the woman’s head.

The pieces of ceramic are also a slightly different colour and they have a different orientation to the originals. It must have been difficult to get exactly the same pieces at least 20 years after the original was installed – not least because all the factories that would have made the original tiles have been closed down and now lay derelict.

You’ll notice the same disparity if you look above the twin eagle heads on the flag. During the Communist era there was a small gold star here and that also has been obliterated, but a close examination of the area shows that something is amiss.

A third change is to the depiction of the male character on the right of the central female.

Originally he carried a red book in his right hand, holding it against his chest. In the vandalised version he carries something that looks like a sack. This is plainly ludicrous. In all forms of art, especially Socialist Realist art, everything has a meaning. Carrying a book means education (denied the majority of the population before 1944 and something that was a principal aim and achievement of the Socialist society – although there has been much privatisation of education in Albania in the last 25 years the popularity of the annual book fair in Tirana in November shows the love that still exists for books within the country). Carrying an empty sack means … what? The same as in the empty sack … nothing!

To have just removed the book would have meant that the character would look strange. Why have an empty hand across his chest. In the context of the three of them marching it would be more realistic if his right arm was hanging down by his side as people do when marching when not carrying anything.

To have changed his stance would have been a major task indeed so Nebui took the easy way out and substituted the book with the sack.

If it is easy enough to understand why the stars were removed it begs some interesting questions when we talk about a book.

This is tantamount to book burning – which did take place outside what is now the Adrion book shop just across the square during the counter-revolution of the early 1990s. To me it’s also symbolic of the attack on education for all, at the state’s expense, a principal of all Socialist states in the past but something which has also been privatised in all post-Socialist states. Education is now a privilege and not a right.

When I first went to Tirana in November 2011 the whole of the front of the building was covered with scaffolding, which was finally removed in time for the Independence Day celebrations on the 28th. I don’t know what sort of work was carried out on the mosaic but what surprises me is that the red stars on the caps of the Communists have survived.

Now the answer to quiz posed at the beginning. ALL the women are carrying arms! OK, there’s only three of them but that’s still a hundred per cent. And this is quite common in the depiction of women in Albanian lapidars, such as in Fier, Lushnjë, Saranda, Librazdh, Pishkash, the,sadly destroyed monument to the Four Heroines of Mirdita, the first Party Cell in Proger, Liri Gero and the 68 Girls of Fier, the Drashovice Arch and many others yet to be written and posted.

But apart from the ‘official’ re-writing of history we have neglect. Just from the street it is possible to see that the mosaic is starting to crumble. Bits are falling off and there’s obviously no concern to repair a unique piece of art, even from the Social Democrat government at present in place. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Tony Blair, the traitorous warmonger who was able to woo the British population to his mock Tory politic, now ‘advises’ his protégé, Edi Rama, himself the son of an Socialist sculptor and a trained artist, but basically a philistine more intent on self-enrichment than the preservation of his country’s culture.

Close up photos show just how bad the deterioration has become.

At the same time I don’t have a problem with this. I think this mosaic is one of the finest pieces of Socialist Realist Art in Albania but the present population doesn’t deserve it. I see no reason why works of art that celebrate the working class and its struggle for Socialism should exist in a country where the vast majority of its young people want to leave in order to live in a capitalist ‘heaven’, many of its young women populate the brothels of Europe and their principal export is vicious, murderous gangsters. (There’s study to be made why post-Socialist societies produce such scumbags.)

Wonderful as such art is, and making a statement that has yet to be fully developed, celebrating the working class in a manner that has never been made before, a working class that doesn’t struggle for a better future doesn’t deserve such art.

Let them live with the banality of the celebrity culture, reality TV, cake making competitions, Coca Cola and McDonald’s. Until they attempt to change the world for the betterment of themselves and those that follow that’s all they are worth.

The slideshow below shows some of the detail of the mosaic and also, sadly, signs of neglect and cracks in the design itself. If something isn’t done soon we will find pieces of ceramic falling on the heads of those entering the museum.

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Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Military

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy

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Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Military

There are fine examples of Socialist Realism in the Armaments Museum in the Castle in Gjirokastra, but you might have to ask to go upstairs to enter this older part of the museum – especially out of the summer season. ‘Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Military’ is one such sculpture.

The Castle in Gjirokastra is the place to visit for any tourist to the city. Not only is it an interesting place historically it also affords a fine view of the old town below as well as the fertile valley (now no longer farmed) and the mountain ranges in the distance. The Armaments Museum is located upstairs, off the main vaulted artillery gallery, just to the left of the new, very much bland, most recent museum manifestation. This is not always open so you may have to look for someone who has the keys but it shouldn’t be a problem and it’s well worth the effort.

The museum was opened in 1971 in what used to be part of the Castle Prison, used extensively in the days of Ahmet Zogu, the pre-war dictator and self-proclaimed king. (The entrance to the prison cells is off the corridor to the Armaments Museum so make the time and the effort to see this part of the castle. At the end of the cells look for the sculpture of The Two Heroines by Odhise Paskali, which commemorates the murder of two female Communist Partisans by the Nazis during the Liberation War.) When society collapsed in the 1990s this museum, along with many throughout the country, was looted of many of its antiquities and anything that was considered of value, as well as attacks on many example of socialist art. However, a number of examples still exist to this day.

(There was obviously discontent within the population and the reasons for that have to be studied and lessons learnt for the future. What is certain is that reactionary, fascist and lumpen elements rode on the back of this discontent and they were responsible for the mindless looting of the country’s many museums (the museum in Bajram Curri is one of the most bizarre I’ve ever entered) as well as the book burning that took place in Skënderbeg Square in Tirana.)

Here I want to just concentrate on one of the statues to be found in the section of the museum that tells the story of the anti-Fascist struggle of the Albanian people under the leadership of the Albanian Communist Party (later known as the Party of Labour of Albania) led by Enver Hoxha.

The sculpture was inspired by the novel ‘The General of the Dead Army’ by the Gjiroskaster born Albanian writer Ismail Kadare. The writer, who achieved fame during the Socialist period of Albania’s past, left the country for the capitalist west when everything fell apart in the 1990s – like many ‘patriotic’ intellectuals.

This statue, which I’m calling Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Military (as I don’t know its official name) depicts a woman, larger than real size, with her right arm outstretched and her finger pointing into the distance indicating that the other two individuals should ‘Go’ – to where we do not know but the impression we get is that they are not wanted here – ‘here’ being Albania.

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy

We know that she is Albania as there are many representations of her throughout the country, most notably the huge statue of Mother Albania that holds the red star in her upraised hand in the National Martyrs’ Cemetery in the hills overlooking Tirana. The sensation on looking at this woman is that she is strong and determined, not just physically but in the way that she exudes confidence. She knows what she wants and she knows how to get it. And one way to make sure that she gets what she wants is the possession of the rifle, the barrel of which she holds in her left hand as it rests on the ground.

And it’s common to see women armed in the many lapidars (Albanian monuments) that still exist throughout the country. This can be seen on works of art as diverse as the mosaic on the facade of the National Historical Museum in Tirana to the statue in the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Lushnje to the (now sadly abandoned and discarded) commemoration to the young heroine of the National Liberation War, Liri Gero

(Here it might be useful to remind readers, or inform them if they didn’t know before, that the revolutionary slogan of the Party of Labour of Albania (as the Albanian Communist Party was known throughout the period of socialist construction) was: ‘To build socialism holding a pickaxe in one hand and a rifle in the other.’ And this should be remembered when analysing those works of art produced in that period. This meant that the success of socialist construction depended upon armed workers and peasants, ever vigilant against attempts to destroy workers’ power. This has its parallel in the history of Chinese Communism with the famous quote from Chairman Mao Tse-tung that ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’.)

We also know the woman is Albania as her skirt morphs into the mountains of the country. Those mountains define the country. They have shaped the culture, determined its history, formed its economic development, delineated its tribal and ethnic structure, moulded the thinking of its people and provided the environment in which they were able to resist invaders for centuries. As well as all that those mountains provide the visitor with some of the finest scenery in southern Europe.

So the woman arises from, emerges out of, the soil of Albania, she is a result of the history that has gone before, she is part of a tradition that fights against ignorance, oppression and death. And those elements are represented by the two other characters in the sculpture, much smaller physically than the women, again a statement of their respective relevance to the country.

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy (detail)

Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy (detail)

One is the priest. He wears the traditional dress of a Catholic priest at the early part of the 20th century. We know he’s Catholic as he clasps a Bible in his hands, there’s a cross inscribed on the front cover. If the woman is confident he is the opposite. He is bent almost double and looks afraid and unsure of himself. He looks questioningly at the other individual. Is he after answers, reassurance, support? That’s for us to decide. What we do know is that he’s not going to get any of what he may be after. By expelling him from the country Albania is ridding the country of ignorance, superstition and obscurantism.

That’s because the other is not concerned with the priest, he’s more concerned for himself. He’s scowling and has an angry look on his face. He’s probably as angry at the priest as he is at Albania; one is throwing him out of the country and the other weak and clinging. He is dressed in some sort of uniform, with a long trench coat, and represents all the rest of the problems that the Albanians had endured over the years such as the self-proclaimed king – who was also an oppressive landlord in his own right – as well as the dictatorial military regime. These forces of reaction produced nothing but death, represented by the skulls which he holds in a cloth in his hands and which can be seen under his coat, at his feet.

In the sculpture Albania is banishing these feudal remnants from the country forever but history has shown that if the workers are not vigilant then those same forces defeated one year will come back the next, and with a vengeance, if they are given the opportunity.

The statue could do with a bit of dusting – but then many of the museums throughout the country suffer from neglect to one extent or another. Nonetheless this is a fine example of socialist realist sculpture still on (limited) show in Albania.

(Albania is in a bit of a quandary about its past (a situation that you also experience in the erstwhile Soviet Union). If it ignores the anti-Fascist struggle against both the Italian and German invaders, which was led to victory by the Communist Partisans, then there’s not much to put in the museums. It might not be wise to remind the people of the condition of their grandparents when that existence was one of feudal oppression in the 20th century. Economic ‘liberalisation’ also means that the museums are being starved of resources and I’ve not found it so easy to get the information I would like (at least so far) and cannot provide accurate details about all the works of art I hope to post on the blog. So if any reader has any information then I would be grateful if they could pass it on. Perhaps then the picture of Albanian Socialist Realist Art will be more rounded.)

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War Memorial, Saranda, Albania

Saranda War Memorial

Saranda War Memorial

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War Memorial, Saranda, Albania

Through its monuments and memorials you can tell a lot about a country, its history, its heroes, its respect for itself, the class relationships, the political balance of power, even the state of the economy.

And there are many examples to prove this hypothesis.

I remember reading a letter written by Vladimir Illyich Lenin asking, in no uncertain terms, why Tsarist memorials and street names still existed in Petrograd (as Leningrad was then known, and not the Germanic St Petersburg as it is now called) less than a year after the October revolution – see Lenin Collected Works, Vol. 44, p105.

I have also seen pictures of the statue of Carlos III being transported to storage on a horse and cart. Carlos Bourbon stood in the Plaza del Sol in the centre of Madrid but was taken down during the time of the short-lived Republic in the 1930s. He was reinstated by the Fascist Franco and still stands there to this day in the time of the so-called ‘democratic monarchy’.

The Plaze del Sol is the traditional meeting place for working class and left-wing Madrileños and the square has witnessed many demonstrations and sits-ins as the people protest the ever worsening economic situation in which an increasing proportion of the Spanish population are having to live. But this is not a problem for the present Bourbon family and Carlos sits on his horse looking down his not insubstantial nose at the hoi polio below with contempt. The situation of the Spanish people will not improve until he is again taken away in another horse-drawn cart, in pieces, to be melted down and the present day Bourbons are taken in a similar cart for an appointment with Madam Guillotine.

One of the images that went around the world after the United States led invasion of Iraq was the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in the centre of Baghdad. The Stars and Stripes flag that was originally covering Saddam’s face was quickly replaced by an Iraqi one (it wouldn’t do to give the impression that he was toppled by a foreign invasion force and not a ‘popular’ revolt) and the edited version is the only one that gets shown now. Imperialism has always re-written history.

In Britain the long-term sycophancy and obsequiousness of the British population is shown by the plethora of statues to different members of the monarchy and representatives of the ruling class that have oppressed and exploited the population over the centuries. To themselves and their struggles the working class have little to look to.

One of the finest is the monument to the ‘Heroes of the Engine Room’. This is on the Liverpool waterfront, just a few metres north of the Liver Building at the Pierhead. This was originally designed to commemorate the men who kept the lights working on the Titanic as it was sinking, having been sealed in to the engine room and with no possible chance of escape. It is still known locally as the ‘Titanic’ Monument, the name being changed to recognise that just over two years after the sinking of the Titanic hundreds of men died in the slaughter of the ‘Great War’ in similar circumstances. Britain is littered with statues and monuments to the incompetent and criminal generals who ‘master-minded’ that particular capitalist and imperialist enterprise but you’ll have to look far and wide to find any others to the ordinary workers turned warriors.

Monument to the Heroes of the Engine Room Liverpool

Monument to the Heroes of the Engine Room Liverpool

And following that conflict, again in Liverpool, there wasn’t enough money to pay for a permanent memorial to those who had died in the ‘war to end all wars’. They didn’t return to Britain to ‘homes fit for heroes’ and neither to a memorial to their dead comrades. Throughout the 1920s on Armistice Day (11th November) a rickety wooden construction was wheeled out on to St George’s Plateau in Lime Street, decked in red paper poppies for the short memorial ceremony. When there was a bit of money, collected in the main from ordinary working people, the city was provided with (to my mind) one of the finest – if not the finest – war memorial/cenotaph to found anywhere in Britain.

Liverpool Cenotaph Mourning Panel

Liverpool Cenotaph Mourning Panel

And that brings me to Albania.

During my visits to the country I have attempted to search out the monuments and memorials that were constructed in the period of socialism. Most have been neglected, many have been vandalised, some have been destroyed but many are still in existence and in their different ways tell the story of not only the past but the present in Albania. I will be illustrating and telling the story of those monuments in the future.

So the first one is the small, well maintained but almost hidden and not easy to find (if you don’t know where it is) war memorial in Saranda.

There were certainly memorials in the centre of the town but if they still exist I’ve yet to find them. The language problem (i.e., my inability to speak Albanian) means there are few people to ask and some that might know don’t necessarily pass on their knowledge. The construction that seeks to turn the place into a major tourist destination might have played a role, outright vandalism and reactionary elements would also have played their part.

When it comes to the war memorials I have difficulty in understanding why so many in Albania have been treated in the way they have. I believe the First World War to have been a disaster for the European working class but that doesn’t mean I advocate destruction of the war memorials that are in all but very few cities, towns and villages throughout the British Isles. I’d rather they had died fighting for themselves (as did the workers and peasants in what became known as the Soviet Union) but the lack of any anti-war, Communist leadership and the betrayal by the young Labour Party didn’t make any real and meaningful opposition to the war a viable proposition at the time.

So why have the Albanians allowed their history to be treated in such a shameful manner? More than 30,000 of their people died in the occupations by the Italian and German Fascists. The country’s economy was in pieces, thousands of homes had been destroyed and the isolation imposed upon the country by the victorious imperialist powers because they wanted their own independence meant that they had to build using mostly their own efforts – only the severely damaged Soviet Union coming to their aid.

I might find the answer on day, but I don’t have it yet.

But back to the Saranda memorial.

There are only two main routes out of Saranda (apart from the sea route to Corfu), the road to Butrint (the archaeological site dating back to the Greeks) and the Greek border or the road that leads to the rest of the country. It is by the side of this latter road you’ll find the memorial. The road rises steeply after leaving the coast heading up in the general direction of Lëkursi Castle. Once you get to the brow of the hill, with a view of the valley below and the mountains that you have to go over on the route to Gjirokastra to the north, the memorial is slightly above street level on the right, next to an ordinary house.

It’s a strange place for it to be and I’ve no idea if that is its original location or whether it’s been moved there in the last few years. The pillar looks as if it has been made of relatively modern materials, although the plaque with the names and the red star would be the originals.

This is the sort of modest war memorial can be seen all over the country, although some are difficult to find.

The inscription reads: Glory to the martyrs who fell in the liberation of Saranda on 9th October 1944.

‘Lavdi Deshmoreve’ (Glory to the martyrs) was the slogan that was ubiquitous during the time of Socialism, even being set in huge characters on top of the Palace of Culture (now the Opera House) in Skenderbeg Square in Tirana.

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