The representation of the last military action of Vojo Kushi, Sadik Stavaleci and Xhorxhi Martini in Albanian Socialist realism is an interesting one as it has been depicted in a number of formats so offers a (possibly) unique opportunity to compare how the event has been presented to the Albanian people, history and posterity. Although the sacrifice of the three is commemorated it is Vojo Kushi who is in the forefront of these representations, his last action of storming an Italian tank being an act of bravery that has transcended even the counter-revolution of the 1990s.
Vojo Kushi 1918-1942
There’s also much more information available about Vojo. He was born in Vrakë, near Shkodër on August 3rd 1918 from a Serbian minority which was suppressed under ‘King’ Zog, one aspect of whose rule was to ban names with Serbian suffixes. At that time there was no unified Albanian Communist Party and it was in Shkodër where the first Communist revolutionary organisation was established. However, all Communist Parties go through difficult struggles before (and after formation) and it wasn’t until November 8th 1941 that the Communist Party of Albania (later to become the Party of Labour of Albania) was formed in Tirana. Vojo was chosen as a member of the regional committee and also appointed as commander of the local guerilla unit. Apart from other activities he was tasked with the discovery and elimination of traitors and collaborators.
Sadik Stavaleci 1918-1942
All I know about Sadik was that he was born in Kosove (considered then and now as part of Albania) and obviously seemed to have joined the partisan/guerrilla movement soon after the Italian invader had entered the country.
Xhorxhi Martini 1921-1942
There’s not a lot more I’ve been able to discover about Xhorxhi. He was from Tirana and the youngest of the three People’s Heroes to have died on that day.
On October 10th, 1942, due to either a mistake on their part or more likely due to the activity of collaborators, spies and traitors (always to be found ready to creep out from under the rocks in any struggle for national liberation) the three found themselves surrounded in the Red Hills district of Tirana. After a 6 hour battle, during which time they were facing up to six Italian tanks, running out of ammunition and wounded, it was at this time, knowing they had nothing to lose, that Vojo Kushi carried out his suicidal attack. Running out of the building he shot a number of soldiers before he jumped up on to the turret of a tank and attempted to throw a grenade into the hatch he was trying to open. So exposed he didn’t last long out in the open.
The first piece of art to commemorate the event was put on show to the public in 1949 and is a bust of Vojo Kushi by the sculptor Odhise Paskali (whose other public works include ‘Shoket – Comrades’ at the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Permet). Whether it is in its original location or not I can’t say for sure but it has obviously been kept well and has had a recent coating of gold paint. It also sits on a new pedestal with the words ‘Heroi i Popullit, Vojo Kushi, Tarzani, 1918-1942’ on the plaque. This translates as ‘People’s Hero, Vojo Kushi, Tarzan, 1918-1942’.
This is a classic bust of the time, a head and (cut off) shoulders view of a man in his early twenties. His head is held high, he’s confident and looks into the distance/future. What is very distinctive about Paskali’s representation, and I’m not sure where he picked it up, is the very pronounced quiff, that extends over his forehead like the peak of a cap. This is not particularly the image you would get from the two photos I’ve seen of Vojo but this style has been picked up by other artists, particularly the (unknown) sculptor of the bas-relief a few streets away.
If the bust is the original the plaque certainly is not. Placing the word ‘Tarzan’ in the description acts to take away the politics of the whole episode. There is an increasing move to ‘renovate’ lapidars and other monuments throughout Albania but in certain places there is a definite agenda of de-politicisation being followed. What this agenda seeks to demonstrate is that these individuals were patriots fighting for the liberation of the country from the foreign invader. The fact that during the National Liberation War the invader was the Fascist, first the Italian and then the German, is conveniently forgotten as, in the forefront of that struggle, was the Communist Partisan Army. In Albania today many don’t say ‘forget the war’ they say ‘forget who led the country to victory’. By putting that simple word ‘Tarzan’ on the statue they seek to infantilise, fictionalise and mythologise into insignificance the actions of those Communists who refused to surrender.
There’s a sense of irony in the present location of the statue. Vojo has his back to a Euro Lloto pop-up store. Here Albanians can gamble on an infinite variety of events in sporting fixtures, a quick way for most (the off the street punters) to become poor and an equally quick way for others (the shop owners, either in Albania or elsewhere) to get rich. Considering that in the 1990s many hundreds of thousands of Albanians were cheated out of their personal wealth and privatised land through criminal Pyramid Schemes its interesting that so many still see their future through touching the big one – such places are all over the country.
Rruga e Dibrës, just south of Sheshi Selvia
41° 19′ 58.0080” N
19° 49′ 21.7200” E
There are, at least, a couple of paintings of Vojo Kushi. One is a simple full length portrait by Zef Shoshi. I don’t know the exact date it was painted nor where it might be at the moment, I’ve never personally seen it on display. Here he is placed in an urban environment, presumably somewhere in Tirana. This is a simple, figurative painting, showing a young man, with a determined expression on his face, looking out of the picture, into the future. The impression of determination, and anger, is reinforced by his clenched fists, his arms hanging down at his side. In this painting he looks very different from the other representations of him in Tirana. Here art is used as a record of someone who died fighting for his country.
The other, more famous, on permanent display in the National Art Gallery in Tirana, is a different affair. This was painted by Sali Shijaku in 1969 and is a huge painting, measuring 200 x 300cm. It depicts a recognizable Vojo Kushi performing his final act of heroism for which he is well-known, that is, just about to throw a grenade into the hatch of an Italian tank (depicted at the top of the post).
Discussing this painting is where the understanding of Albanian Socialist Realism becomes more complex. The painting follows the conventions of political art: it represents an event that actually took place; the individual is recognizable; it serves to commemorate and celebrate an heroic act, a sacrifice, that occurred during the National Liberation War; it seeks to inspire the viewer (especially the young); it declares that the act was committed by a Communist; and it tells the history of the Albanian people.
But, and this is a big but, it is fantastical. Most of the painting is quite dark, a good half of the background and the tank itself (which is in the bottom foreground). There are white flashes in the background indicating either fire or smoke, giving the impression that this is in mid-battle.
It is when we get to Vojo himself that things become strange. For some reason he has lost his shirt and is bare from the waist up, apart from what looks like a cape, fluttering out behind his left shoulder. This cape is red and either represents the red flag of Communism or the Albanian Partisan flag (although it’s not possible to make out the black, double-headed eagle). This flag/cape isn’t attached to his body in any way, one corner just resting over his raised right arm.
His left hand grips the edge of the hatch lid, giving the impression he has just wrenched it open and in his raised right hand is a grenade, ready to throw it inside the tank. The image and what he is attempting is OK but why is he dressed in such a way? Not only is he bare-chested he is also bare-footed, his right foot on the barrel of the tank’s gun, his other foot out of sight as he straddles the turret. The other aspect that is strange is the lighting. A shaft of light comes from some unidentified source at the lower right of the painting, illuminating his upper torso and thus separating him from the dark background.
I think all these devices cause to separate Vojo from the ordinary man and woman. When you look at the picture you get the impression that he has flown there like some sort of superman (the red cape adding to the image of the character in the American Marvel comics). The lack of even a shirt or shoes indicates that nothing can harm him, that he is impervious to the bullets of the enemy. But he wasn’t. If this picture depicts anything at all it’s the last moments of a partisan willing to give his life for the cause of freedom from fascism. The way the light shines on his face is reminiscent of some Christian religious paintings and the cape, as it gives a backdrop to his head, resembles a halo (a common artistic device that Christian painters stole from the Roman Empire – amongst many other tropes).
As I’ve written before, until workers are able to freely develop a manner in which to represent themselves, free from the influences of the past, such an interpretation will always be possible.
However, it was obviously a favoured painting in the past, it being chosen to be one of the paintings that were depicted on Albanian postage stamps (although the reds are always much brighter in printed sources than the original).
To the best of my knowledge the monument to the action on October 10th, 1942 is located close to where things actually happened, although building development in recent years has meant that it’s now slightly hidden away on a quiet street corner.
It’s a relatively small lapidar following a typical design. There’s a concrete base which has a column just over two metres tall on the right hand side. The concrete is covered with marble slabs – but these have fallen away in a few places. Half way up the lapidar is a marble plaque (which looks original) which bears the words:
Herojte e Popullit – meaning People’s Heroes
Above the words there’s a star and this star, and the letters, are picked out in gold. There’s a little bit of vandalism on this plaque, a felt tip pen has been used to fill in the star and there’s a tiny figure of a man between the words Vojo and Kushi.
To the left of the column a bronze bas-relief is attached to a concrete panel. This is just over a metre high and just over two metres long. On it is depicted a version of the attack on the tank seen already in the painting by Shijaku.
However, the dynamism of the relief is different. Vojo is virtually sitting on the barrel of the tank’s gun which is pointing to the left. Vojo’s left hand is stretched out fully in front of him and is gripping the closed edge of the turret hatch. In his right hand, which is fully stretched out behind him, is a grenade. He is keeping his profile low, as it would have made sense in reality, offering a smaller target to the enemy.
There’s a repetition of the image in the Shijaku painting as although not completely bare-chested he is only wearing a ripped shirt, which is in tatters, but which also flutters out behind him, creating the image of a flag or a banner.
Although the face is in profile it’s quite recognizable from images of Vojo. However, things are slightly strange when we look at the very top of his head where it, and his hair, extend above the main body of the bas-relief over the top of the concrete. This produces a three-dimensional effect on that small part of the sculpture. This also includes a huge quiff, even more exaggerated than that on the Paskali bust on Rruga e Dibrës.
The sculpture is in a reasonable condition, not seeming to have suffered from any malicious vandalism but merely suffering from lack of care, as are many lapidars throughout the country.
Rruga Mahmut Fortuzi
41° 20′ 6.5040” N
19° 49′ 8.5439” E