Liri Gero and the 68 Girls of Fier
Many monuments, statues and lapidars from Albania’s Socialist period have suffered over the years, through outright political vandalism or just neglect. However, there has been a bit of a sea change in recent years but this has not come without its own problems. Here I want to develop the ideas of Albanian Socialist Realist art by looking at two works produced to commemorate the life of a young partisan woman, Liri Gero, and also a work in commemoration of 68 young women who also left their home town of Fier to join the partisans fighting the Fascist invaders.
The first thing to know about Liri is the meaning of her name. Liri means Freedom, indicating her parents were at least nationalist, if not much further to the left, and possibly supporting the growing communist movement at the time of her birth. In a country that had a long history of fighting foreign invaders naming your children in such a way was making a political statement.
Soon after the country was invaded by the Italian Fascists in April of 1939 Liri, along with many other young people, started to take part in activities that opposed the occupation and assisted those actively fighting against the invaders, especially after the declaration of the National Liberation Front at the Conference of Peza of 1942.
However, as the struggle became more intense, and the betrayal by the collaborators and sycophants of the ‘nationalist’ Balli Kombetar (who were formed in November 1942 to cause confusion – the name literary means ‘national front’ – amongst the Albanian anti-Fascist masses) became a much more real threat, it was suggested that Liri leave her home town of Fier and join the partisans in the mountains, in the fighting war.
In any guerrilla war the struggle in the owns and cities occupied by the invaders is as important as that on the front line but when such activity ceases to be practical, or too dangerous for particular individuals, then the only way forward is to leave home and join the partisan army. Liri was one of many young women of her generation who did just that. Disguised as the bride in a wedding party she was able to leave Fier, which was then under the under the control of the Italians, in 1943.
In October 1944 Liri was part of a unit that attacked a German Nazi column in the vicinity of Fier. Although the partisans inflicted severe damage on the Nazis in this attack Liri was wounded and later captured. With just a matter of weeks before their final defeat (and when the war throughout Europe was going badly for the Germans, especially on the Eastern Front where the Red Army was moving ever closer to the German capital) the Nazis first tortured the 20-year-old and then poured petrol over her and burned her alive – and the reactionaries have established a Nazi war memorial in Tirana.
In volume 2 of ‘Flasin Heronj të Luftës Nacional-Çlirimtare (‘The Heroes of the National Liberation War Speak’) the collection that recounts the stories of many of those who gave their lives in the struggle against Fascism, her dedication, torture and death is described poetically:
‘When you go to the Cemetery (in Fier), under the name of Liri Gero you may think lie the remains of her beautiful young body, but this is not the case. It’s just a handful of ashes from her heart burned for the freedom of Albania.’
Being so young when she got involved in the anti-fascist struggle, and her equally premature death, she became a prime candidate to be singled out and immortalised in bronze during Albania’s Cultural Revolution. She would stand as an example to the young and it would also play a part in commemorating, celebrating and emphasising the role of women in Albania’s Socialist construction, in the past, present and future.
The sculptor chosen for the task was Mumtaz Dhrami, the sculptor who produced so many fine works during this period of artistic development in Albania’s Socialist period, including the monuments at Peze and the magnificent Arch of Drashovice.
(When I first published this post on the 29th October I mistakenly attributed this piece of work to another sculptor, Hektor Dule. These mistakes, unfortunately, will happen from time to time due to the difficulty of obtaining some of the basic factual information.
However, when I started to revise the text to show the facts I realised that this is all part of the different approaches to art in a socialist and capitalist society. Under capitalism the first question is who. Who produced it, as if that person is someone famous then the piece of art might be worth money, and with recent ‘investment’ in art a great deal of money. It’s for this reason a signed sketch on a paper serviette is worth a fortune just because the signature of Pablo Picasso is in the corner. It becomes valuable not because of its intrinsic artistic value but because of its association.
In Socialist Realism the most pressing question is what. What does it represent, what is it trying to convey, what does it mean to the people who see and relate to it, what role can the artistic object play in educating the people. And as those were the most important questions asked in a society attempting to build Socialism the artist as an individual became secondary. For that reason many of the lapidars and monuments in Albania don’t have any indication of who actually provided the artistic skill.
As we live in a world where individuals are praised way above the collective this creates a situation where some ‘artists’ consider that they are being hard done by, in comparison with ‘artists’ in capitalist countries. For this reason they start to grumble and for the same reason some have run away to the capitalist countries, not to have more freedom to express their art, not for the fame, but for the financial reward that they can receive in a different society from the one that nurtured, educated and trained them.
By being somewhat obsessed with getting the details of who might have created any particular piece of art I am also falling into the trap of bourgeois individualism. I find myself reluctant to post an article if it omits such information as it might appear incomplete. But that’s not the meaning of Socialist Realist art – it’s the message not the messenger.
In discussions about art many years ago, when Britain actually produced things rather than being a nation serving countless variations of coffee, it came up that those skilled engineers, for example, who could take a piece of raw metal and with their skills and experience turn it into a part necessary functioning of a complex machine, weren’t used to signing their work. Those who worked in agriculture didn’t sign their potatoes before they sent them to market, but if we didn’t have their skills then the vast majority of the population in so-called ‘developed’ societies would starve.
So why should an artist sign his/her work? Who is the most important in society? No society can produce or develop any sophisticated art unless they first are able to create a surplus of those things that society needs. All artists, in all societies, in all stages of development of civilisation rest on the shoulders of the workers. Why should one be named if the other isn’t?
To finish on this matter, before the whole post goes along too acute a tangent, what of those workers who took Dhrami’s ideas and turned it into the bronze object under discussion. Shouldn’t their names be noted – if the ‘artist’ were to have his signature somewhere in view?)
The statue is slightly larger than life-size but we only have her depicted from the thighs up. She is shown dressed as a Partisan fighter, not in full uniform as such but in a manner that allows no doubt that she is a full-time member of the fighting force. The pose is as if she were standing to attention and she presents a calm demeanour, serene and confident and clear about what she is doing. She wears a cap with the star of a Communist clear at the front.
The only images I have seen of her show her with long tresses, braided on both sides of her head and hanging down in front of her. I’m sure that, as a young woman she was proud of her hair but to go into conflict with such long hair is not a wise move and I would have thought that one of the first acts after joining her partisan çeta would be to visit the barber. None of the pictures of the guerrilla groups show the women with long hair. However, by depicting her with her long tresses Dhrami has made an easy reference to the photos that people would have seen in different museums throughout the country as well as in magazines and other publications produced at the time.
So she has a full head of hair, spilling out from under her cap, and the braids hang down and finish just over her breasts. Around her neck she has a bandana (yet another symbol of her communist affiliations) and she is wearing a thick woollen sweater. There’s a rifle slung over her back and her right hand is holding the strap of that rifle just over her chest. Around her waist she has ammunition pouches attached to her belt and on her right hip hangs a Mills bomb (British made grenade).
It is what she holds in her left hand which makes this statue stand out as one created with a socialist realist perspective. Her left arm hangs loosely down by her side and in her fist she has a bunch of flowers.
This is complimentary to the rifle. Socialism cannot be built, or maintained, without the rifle (symbolising force, or at the very least the threat of force) but the ultimate aim is a society without conflict. How long that will take is still to be decided and the twists and turns along that road are abundant. This idea of flowers in the hand of a young women prepared to use violence (and, for her, ultimately, giving her life) is part of a long-held view of communists, that we fight for bread (meaning freedom from exploitation and oppression, from want and the anarchy that comes with capitalism) but we want the roses too (a fulfilling and productive cultural life in companionship with others, and not just being spoon-fed the ‘culture’ that capitalism supplies, as long as it can make profit.)
I’m not exactly sure where the statue of Liri would have originally stood. Being made of bronze it was designed to be outside (and is still in a very good physical condition). There used to be a properly organised statue park in the area around the National Art Gallery and it would make sense that it was here the work was exhibited. If on a plinth it would have been minimal, just separating the statue from the ground, allowing the viewer the opportunity of being able, physically, to relate to the young heroine and her place in history.
Its location now is with other still extant statues that have come from different parts of the Tirana area. To the right hand side of the Art Gallery there’s a ramp and a service entrance to the building. This doesn’t seem to be used on a regular basis and is not an area that is cared for. When I first visited at the end of 2011 there was a shanty type hut but that has now been removed, but the area is in no way organised or what could be called an exhibition space. The area is dirty and the statues, although out-of-the-way, are not displayed in any manner that you would expect of works of art.
What I have described as the ‘Sculpture Park’ is really just a storage area for the statues. At one time they were all in a line, Liri amongst them but by the time of my visit in 2014 a new statue of Stalin had been added to the collection and Liri was moved so that she had her back to the building and was facing the other statues.
Also on my early visits it was possible to get close to the statues without any hassle but a vandal attack on the Soviet produced statue of Stalin and the Albanian (damaged) Lenin, with them having red paint thrown over them in 2011, has meant that visits are discouraged. That’s a pity as, although in a far from ideal circumstance, here it is possible to get an idea of different examples of Albanian Socialist Realist sculpture as well as being able to appreciate the noticeable differences from Russian Soviet interpretations with the black statue of Stalin – presented to the Albanian people upon his death in 1953.
So that’s the Socialist representation of a young woman who gave her life for her country and people.
As stated above Liri was from the town of Fier, which in socialist times was a major industrial centre – that’s all but gone now and is a place of industrial archaeology rather than industrial production.
Although the industry might have gone there has been an effort in recent years to remember and commemorate the past. As part of that Fier is one of the few towns in Albania that has a functioning museum, very recently renovated, where you can find information about the anti-Fascist war as well as some examples of Socialist Realist paintings and sculpture.
(I’ll be writing about the Fier Historical Museum in a future post but here I will just provide information about its location. It can be found in Rruga Leon Rei, which is about 200m west of Sheshi Pavarësia (Independence Square).
Location of the Museum:
40° 43′ 28.1280” N
19° 33′ 19.1520” E
Well worth a visit. Across the road from the museum is a monstrosity of a (at least in May 2015) half-finished and stalled private educational institute.)
As part of this recovery of the past the city decided to erect a completely new statue to Liri Gero – to the best of my knowledge there had been no local monument to her, other than her grave in the Martyrs’ Cemetery. This statue was inaugurated in 2010 and is located at the edge of a small park in the centre of the town.
Whatever the intentions behind its commissioning this modern statue of Liri is a ludicrous and hideous depiction of the woman who Liri definitely wasn’t. It’s the absolute antithesis of the example to be found behind the National Art Gallery in Tirana.
It’s wrong in virtually every way. The figure is similar to the Dhrami piece in that we don’t get the whole body, this one is from the knees up and it is also a little more than life-size. That’s the only things the two statues have in common. The first thing that strikes the viewer is that you get a crick in the neck to look at it close up. The bronze statue is on a plinth more than two metres high and its impossible for the viewer to have any connection with the young woman, she’s placed on a pedestal in the literal and figurative sense.
When we get to the statue itself we see no connection with the actual life of young Liri. It’s in a neo-classical style and a silky dress clings to her body, emphasising the female form, her breasts straining to break free of the material. A thin cord around the waist is pulled tight so that it accentuates the hour-glass figure of the torso. The dress itself is of a style that no woman, or even young girl, would have worn in pre-liberation Albania – and would draw a not too sympathetic attention today.
If her clothing is bad things get even worse when we look at her hair. The pictures of Liri show her with long hair, a style that would have been common with girls of her age at that time but here she is represented with hair of which Rapunzel herself would have been jealous. (With the wonders of the internet I’ve just had a look and you can buy Rapunzel wigs that must have been what the sculptor forced his model to wear.)
There’s so much hair!
Its crazy. This isn’t a young woman who was tortured to death after going to join forces with those wanting to free their country of foreign invaders. No, this is a young woman who’s going out on the town, has been to the supermarket for a bottle of cheap vodka and now intends to dance until dawn, as happens in many British towns and cities.
Whereas the Dhrami Liri is serene, confident, sure of herself the 2010 Liri is flighty, frivolous, would fit into the stereotype of a ‘dippy blond’ (Liri was dark-haired) and wouldn’t know how to spell Fascism let alone have the understanding to fight against it.
I don’t know why such a statue was commissioned by the Fier Bashkia (Town Hall) or what they were thinking about in paying for such a representation of one of the towns most famous daughters. It was good that the town wanted to have their own statue to her but did it have to be so alien to the actual woman herself?
To the best of my knowledge those who are responsible for this monstrosity are the ‘artists’ Haxhiu Kalluci, I Kasem and A Shuraj. How they divided up the work I don’t know but I would have thought that one, at least, would have to have concentrated on the hair – it’s a sculpture in its own right.
The best thing about the monument is the inscription on the front of the plinth.
We have the words:
1924 – 1944
Heroine e Popullit = People’s Heroine
And a short inscription which reads:
Si flutura drejt drites shkon njeriu drejt lirise
This translate as:
‘As moths are drawn to the light so man is to freedom.’
Across the road is a monument to other brave Fier women. Obviously very well organised, in a town that was occupied by the Fascist invaders, on the 14th September 1943, under the cover of darkness, 68 young women and girls left to join the Partisans. Not only was the actual leaving of the town a dangerous activity they then spent the next few days walking all the way to Berat to join up with the increasingly more powerful and organised Communist led National Liberation fighters.
This quite exceptional (not just in Albania but other parts of Europe fighting against the Fascists) decision of such young women to take the path of the greatest resistance was celebrated in Fier with the commissioning of this simple but nonetheless effective sculpture. The plinth upon which it stands at present is new although the bronze bas-relief fixed to it has all the classic hallmarks of those sculptures produced during Albania’s Cultural Revolution.
As is normally the case there is no name or date on the sculpture itself so I have no idea who was the artist or exactly when it was inaugurated. As many of the sculptures of this period were commissioned to mark specific anniversaries I would hazard a guess that it was first shown to the public on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the women leaving the town, i.e., 1973.
Neither do I know if it is in the original location or whether it has been moved from somewhere else. (So many lacunae in the history of Albanian lapidars!) Although it does seem to fit where it is now the bas-relief design suggests that it might have been high up on a wall of a building such as the Bashkia – although that’s just speculation on my part.
What can be stated categorically is that it is in a very good condition. It hasn’t undergone any vandalism and the target of the reactionaries, the stars on the flag and the Partisan’s cap, are both intact and undamaged.
The monument consists of one female partisan depicted as if she is emerging from the national flag. The flag is fluttering in the wind and at the extreme left hand side, at the top, can be made out the double-headed eagle with the Communist star above the two heads.
The tips of her fingers of the right hand just brush against the eagle’s feathers as if this is what she is seeking to attain. She’s fighting for Socialism, for a future. Her whole stance is one of going forward, striving for something higher, reaching up to the stars. But to attain that goal she needs to use force, as such aims have never been attained without the use of arms. For that reason she holds a rifle in her left hand, gripping it just in front of the bolt.
Carved into the wooden stock of the rifle are the letters VFLP, signifying “Vdekje Fashizmit – Liri Popullit!” (“Death to Fascism – Freedom to the People!”). This has been seen on a few lapidars previously described, such as Heroic Peza, the Peza War Memorial and the Arch of Drashovice. This tradition of writing slogans on weapons was begun in the 19th century during nationalist struggles and was adopted by the National Liberation fighters in WWII. As well as other imagery, these letters on her weapon declare that she is a Communist Party member.
The young woman is shown in a semi profile and, as I have already said, she emerges from the folds of the flag so we really only see the top half of her body. She’s wearing a thick woollen sweater and around her neck she has what would have been a red bandana, together with the star on her cap a signifier of her political allegiance to the Communist cause. A full head of shoulder length hair pushes out from under her cap.
The bottom half of the bronze statue is fixed to a concrete block faced with slabs of red marble. The top half of the statue extends above the block creating the idea of the free-flowing of the flag and gives the impression that the young woman is almost flying, taking off from the block.
There are two inscriptions on the modern pedestal, on the front:
14 shtator 1943 68 vajza Fierake dolen partizane
‘On 14th September 1943 68 girls from Fier blossomed into Partisans’.
On the back:
Lule, yje për lirinë krenari për Shqipërinë
Flowers, stars for freedom, the pride of Albania
There are certain similarities to the work of Hektor Dule of the female figure which is in what used to be the National Assembly Hall in Tirana – the fluttering material, the figure seeming to emerge from, as well as being a part of, the national flag, together with the determination on the face of the woman.
Although separated by a road and barely 10 metres there’s a world of difference between this depiction of a female partisan and the travesty that is the new statue of young Liri Gero.
This close proximity of two different ideologies, two different world views, as depicted in art helps to understand both. The new Liri statue is populist in place of being popular, in the sense of presenting an image to which ordinary people can relate. It represents the young women as young women see themselves in today’s Albania, not concerned with their own national identity but aiming to ape the banalities of capitalist culture. In a sense it’s the result of the ‘celebrity culture’, the facile, the emptiness of present existence where individuals become famous for being famous, not for anything significant they might have achieved.
The new is brash, vulgar, noisy – it screams at you. But it has nothing to say.
The old is serene, dignified, full of symbolism and meaning.
I read an article where a near-contemporary of Liri and the other young women bemoans the fact that the young people of Fier today don’t know the story of what happened during the occupation. Not only do that not know they don’t want to know. They are so caught up in the accumulation of consumer goods, the search for the ‘good life’, that they don’t know where they got to where they are now. But neo-liberalism doesn’t want people to remember the past, if they did they might want to change the future. Already the crash of 2008 is being forgotten – to be remembered when the next one comes along. And if you can’t completely forget the past – as has been the attempts in the destruction of lapidars and statues throughout the country over the years – then you can distort history so that any meaning is taken out of the images.
If there’s a tragedy surrounding the life of young Liri Gero it’s the way that life, and its violent end, is being ‘celebrated’ in the 21st century.
About 50 metres south from Sheshi Pavarësia on Rruga Ramiz Aranitasi
40° 43′ 28.9884” N
19° 33′ 28.7424” E