Qukës-Pishkash Star

Pishkash Star - Marco Mazzi - Albanian Lapidar Survey

Pishkash Star – Marco Mazzi – Albanian Lapidar Survey

There are some of the lapidars in Albania that can truly be called monumental in all meanings of the word. One of these is the massive and impressive Arch of Drashovice and another is the Qukës-Pishkash Star, to the side of the road from Librazhd to Përrenjas, just opposite one of the impressive viaducts of the, now, sadly neglected Albanian railway system. The sheer scale of the star can be appreciated when you look at the picture above which includes the team who catalogued the Albanian lapidars in the summer of 2014.

It’s constructed of blocks of local limestone and between the summer of 2014 to the spring of 2015 it had undergone a certain level of ‘restoration’, basically it was painted white. In other circumstances I believe this has not changed significantly the aspect of the monuments, as in the Saranda Martyrs’ Cemetery, for example, but here the white-washing has masked the weathering that had given the original scheme a character of its own. In a sense, the painted monument appears somewhat bland.

It has to be remembered that in the vast majority of cases the lapidars were the colour of the materials with which they were constructed. It’s true that concrete and plaster can deteriorate with age, if not given regular tender loving care, as is the case with the statue at the entrance of the Universiteti Bujqësor i Tiranës (Tirana Agricultural University) in Kamez. However, natural stone weathers in a different way and often this would have been taken into account by the sculptor at the time of construction.

Strangely it’s only the part that faces the road that has been painted as the back of the star, which also has been worked, remains as it was originally.

This monument is officially called Përkujtimorja e Brigadë së Parë Sulmuese (Commemoration of the First Assault Brigade) and the star was both the symbol of the Partisans who fought in the National Liberation War as well as that of the Albanian Communist Party – later to be called the Party of Labour of Albania. It’s a symbol that appears on many lapidars.

There’s not a great deal of text on this lapidar but on the right hand side of the star, at the bottom and separate from the star itself, are the words:

Lavdi Brigades Pare Heroike Sulmuese

meaning

Glory to the Heroic First Assault (Guerrilla) Brigade

(The word ‘sulmuese’ might not directly translate into English as ‘guerrilla’ but it seems to me that this term is more understandable to English readers as this is what the Partisan Army was for most of its existence – groups that would hit the enemy hard and then disappear into the mountains. It was only towards the end of the conflict that these various groups would act in concert in a way similar to a conventional army, as they did in Berzhite on 14th November, 1944, only days before the liberation of Tirana.)

The star has its two lowest points resting on the ground and the carved images start, more or less, in the middle, where the figures are life-sized, and spread out to the left and the right, finally soaring to the highest part of the fifth point.

But we will start from the point of the star on the left and here we have a group of nine figures, very small at the extreme left but getting bigger as they get closer to the centre. Here we have Partisans coming to join the battle, or at least getting ready to join the conflict. This change in perspective gives both the impression of distance and the idea there are lots of people prepared to join the fight. The three figures at the extreme left are also running, which provides movement to the scene. The mountains are represented by the steps down which they are running. When considering the National Liberation War against Fascism it’s important to remember that the way the Partisans used the mountains was as important as the organisation of the Albanian forces themselves.

Many of those areas are not easily accessible today, in the 1940s much less so. The Fascists in such circumstances wouldn’t have been able to use the superiority in machinery that made them so successful in the invasions of Belgium, France and Poland. In fact, such superiority becomes a hindrance in such mountainous terrain. So dependent the soldiers would have been on motorised transport and heavy weaponry they would be like fish out of water if they had taken to the hills – I’ve not come across any information that indicated that the Nazis had any troops that were effective in the hills, either in fighting or in intelligence gathering. Any successes they would have had in this sort of terrain would have been as a result of traitors and collaborators of the likes of the Balli Kombëtar. It was due to such betrayal that the Five Heroes of Vig were surrounded and eventually killed.

Although the furthest away from the centre is the smallest due to perspective he also looks like a young boy. (It’s difficult to be certain with some of these figures, even the gender is not always clear, as the repainting on top of any possible damage has resulted in blurred edges.) It’s not unlikely that a young boy would appear on these monuments. There’s clearly a young teenager on the 1943 side of the Drashovice Arch and many of the Partisan volunteers were still in their teens, this can be seen by looking at the ages of those commemorated in the various Martyrs’ Cemeteries throughout the country.

He also seems to be dressed differently from the other two closest to him. They are wearing caps and the full uniform of the Partisan. It looks like he’s carrying a weapon in his hands as he runs but there’s no indication of a uniform. But it’s impossible to tell definitively. To give the impression of him running his left foot is off the ground.

The second one in could well be a female partisan. The face is in profile and you can see she’s wearing a cap, which would have the star at the front. Her right hand is hanging down at her side so she’s not carrying anything but a strap can be seen across her chest so it’s possible her weapon is on her back. There appear to be ammunition pouches on the belt around her waist (it’s very common on lapidars to have this detail on uniformed fighters) and a satchel of some kind is over her left hip.

The next in line is a male and is also in uniform, including the standard cap. He’s not quite facing us but more or less. There’s a large bag over his right hip, but can’t think what it could be carrying, it’s the first time I’ve seen this type of equipment. Strangely, as he’s running in the mountains, he seems to be carrying his rifle, in both hands, behind his neck. This would seem to be OK if stopped and resting but running down a mountain? A bit risky. As we move towards the centre the figures are standing on a lower level, again suggesting coming down the mountains. These last two have their right feet off the ground, as they too are rushing to join the fight.

What’s happening next is a difficult question to answer. There are two figures very close together as if they are working in concert, possibly sharing the weight of some heavy armament. The problem is that with a mixture of erosion (as far as I can see) and the slap dash painting means it’s not very clear. As the lapidar is constructed of limestone there’s always the problem of erosion but serious erosion is only in this particular section there being no real sign anywhere else on the star. I certainly can’t make out any of the features on the faces and heads and little of what they are wearing and/or carrying. The faces are almost skeletal, more from a B-movie horror film than a monument to the fallen in a war.

There’s an added problem when looking at the very large lapidars in that if you are close enough to be able to make out the fine detail you are then so close that you are looking up the noses of the people represented. Unfortunately the pictures I took at the time of my visit don’t help in deciphering the story being told. So the next paragraph or so is more of a guess, based on images seen elsewhere.

There is a shadow of a heavy machine gun hanging down over the right shoulder of the figure in the front. That figure has its right arm bent and the hand close to its shoulder as if holding something heavy in place and helping to take the weight. (I use the term ‘its’ as it is impossible to tell the gender of the figures.) This would make some sort of sense. Because of the way the ground slopes, almost in a series of steps, at their feet we are reminded that they are in the mountains and in such terrain everything had to be manhandled a in such circumstances the carrying of a heavy machine gun, for example, was a more than one person task. The two figures are themselves on a different level to each other as if they are coming downhill, reinforcing the idea they are working together. Not much is seen, other than the head, of the individual at the back, but the partisan in the front is wearing a full uniform, together with webbing of some kind across his chest and ammunition pouches attached to the belt at his waist.

The physical features of the next partisan is a lot more clear but there are still problems. This figure is of a male, who seems to be in uniform but he is not wearing the typical cap and his shirt is open at the neck. Many partisans are shown wearing a knotted scarf but not this one. It’s possible here that the sculptor wanted to make the point that although the majority of the Partisan Army was made of up Communists not everyone was a member of the Party. After the Conference of Peze a National Front was established to encourage all Albanians opposed to foreign occupation to join in the fight. (The Nationalist Balli Kombater refused to do so and later ended up collaborating with the Nazis and were therefore fired upon from the mountains of Sauk when they participated in the Quisling Assembly in Tirana in 1943.)

The face is shown in profile and his right arm is bent and seems to be holding the strap of his rifle, the top of the barrel of which can be seen behind his right shoulder. Not a lot is clear with the rest of his body. He seems to have the ammunition pouches attached to his belt and high on his right hip there’s a circular container of some kind, possibly a water bottle. To go into battle you need weapons but you also need those necessities, like food and water, to sustain yourself in the process. A guerrilla army doesn’t always have the luxury of going back to a base camp after the battle.

The next figure, a male Partisan, is standing facing forward. He is also in uniform (only the young boy on the extreme left seems to be in civilian clothing on this lapidar) and he is wearing a cap, the star being visible if you look really closely. His left arm is bent across his chest, with his hand almost touching his right shoulder. Why? I really can’t tell. Other than the, now ubiquitous, ammunition pouches he doesn’t seemed to be armed in any way.

Thankfully the story becomes less cloudy as we move further to the right. The figures become larger, which helps, and not so crowded as to cause confusion – although towards the end of this story those uncertainties begin to resurface.

The next figure is another male, again looking forward and dressed in full uniform, including a cap where the star is much clearer. His right arm hangs loosely at his side but is left is bent and holds on to the strap of his rifle, the top of the barrel of which we can see behind his left shoulder. Again he has ammunition pouches attached to the belt at his waist.

The next figure is interesting in a number of ways. This is of a female Partisan, which is very common on the sculptural works already documented (and the presence of women being a declared aim of the explosion in monument construction of the 1970s and 80s – see what Ramiz Alia had to say about this in Volume 1 of the Albanian Lapidar Survey) but she is presented in a manner which is relatively rare.

She’s presented as a strong person both in her physique as well as the determination in her features. She’s partially in profile, but we can see both her eyes, and is shown as if she is looking in the direction where the battle is already waging. Her long hair, this time braided, hangs from below her cap. Apart from the facial features (sometimes not 100% certain) it’s very often the hair which reinforces the idea that we are dealing with a female. As the uniforms of the partisans were the same for both genders it’s normally those signs that differentiate the men from the women.

Here that’s not the case. We see her full body from the front and as she is wearing a tight and close-fitting top the shape of her breasts is very pronounced. This is not unique in the images on Albanian lapidars but it’s not common. This tight jerkin is the sort of clothing that the People’s Heroine Shota Galica is virtually always depicted as wearing. This is the case in the statue of her by Kristaq Rama in Kukës. It was also the case with the, now criminally destroyed, monument to the Four Heroines of Mirdita.

Shota Galica

Shota Galica

Now here we come to a possibly controversial matter. Women have breasts but should those breasts be evident in Socialist Realist Art? Not so much of an issue in paintings but the whole issue takes on a different dimension (sic) when we are dealing with sculpture which is in 3D. Is representing women as they are in these monuments a sexualisation of women? Of a concentration on their physical form rather than the acts for which they are being commemorated?

This issue of the different ways women are depicted in Albanian art came up when I compared the statue of the young Heroine of the People, Liri Gero, which is hidden away behind the National Art Gallery in Tirana, to the modern, reactionary statue of her which was erected in the centre of Fier, the town of her birth, in 2010. There’s no shadow of a doubt that the modern version seeks to stress her youth rather than her heroism. But is that the situation when put into the context of a monument such as the Qukës-Pishkash Star where she is only one of many in a war situation? The statue of Liri in Fier stands alone on a plinth, with no context.

To the best of my knowledge there were no problems about these images on the lapidars at the time they were constructed or in subsequent years. This is more important when one of the fundamental issues it was considered had yet to be addressed in Albania in the 1970s and 80s was an adequate depiction of women, both in the National Liberation War and in the Construction of Socialism.

Four Heroines of Mirdita

Four Heroines of Mirdita

And I probably wouldn’t be making these comments now if it wasn’t for a couple of factors. The first was the reaction to the pictures of the Four Heroines of Mirdita that I showed to an Albanian (not a friend of Socialism) a year or so ago when I had found a book which documented some of the principal lapidars. On seeing the photos he said, something of the likes of: ‘The female partisans would not have dressed in a way that emphasised their titties’. As a first comment I thought that interesting. In a sense I have to agree as the pictures I have seen of the partisans during the war such images have not been amongst them.

The second reason revolves around the vandalised murals I saw in the empty and looted museum in Bajram Curri. The breasts of some of the women shown in those murals had been selected for an especial, more destructive, attack.

Bajram Curri - Mural in Looted Museum

Bajram Curri – Mural in Looted Museum

But back to the Star. Although she looks a formidable woman she isn’t shown bearing arms, apart from the ammunition pouches on the belt around her waist, her right arm hanging loosely at her side, the left arm hidden by one of the other characters on the monument.

(When I first started looking closely at this lapidar I thought that this woman had thighs that would put an Olympic speed skater to shame. She wouldn’t need any weapons, she could just crush the enemy between those thighs. Then I realised that she, like most of those in uniform on this monument, was wearing breeches which seem to explode over the thighs. I assume these would have been liberated from the Italian army as there are many pictures of Mussolini wearing such trousers – I’ve also seen photos of Enver Hoxha in such a uniform. As there would have been no structure in the country for the partisans to produce their own uniforms they must have been adapted from those taken from the invading forces. Why they use these, I don’t know, they seem ludicrous in all situations.)

Behind her, over her left shoulder a male partisan is seen looking straight out at the viewer. He’s in a uniform and, again, the star can be seen on his cap, but as we only see a part of him it’s difficult to say how he is equipped. He’s there to make up the numbers in some ways and as his carving is not that pronounced as the other figures nearby you get an impression that he is some distance behind her. Ready for the fight but not in the thick of it yet.

Moving further to the right we have another male partisan who is shown in profile. From his stance we get a sense, again, of movement. He’s obviously running quickly to the centre of the action, his feet are far apart as if he is striding out and his arms are bent and up close to his chest, in exactly the same way as you would see in a competitive runner. The urgency suggested in his stance could mean he is carrying an important message to the Battalion Commander in the centre of the star. This figure is in full partisan uniform and his rifle hangs loosely from a strap over his right shoulder.

The next image is one that is also somewhat unique. Here we have a female partisan leading a pack horse. The terrain in which the Partisan Army operated would have been virtually devoid of anything more substantial than a mountain path so the only way to transport heavy materials, such as dismantled artillery pieces and its related shells, would be by pack horse. I can’t recall seeing a horse being depicted in the paintings in various art galleries and this is certainly the first time on a lapidar, so it’s quite possible here we have a unique idea.

The woman leading the horse is dressed in exactly the same way as the female partisan described before, her hair is braided and as she’s busy with the horse doesn’t carry any weapon, although there are ammunition pouches on her belt. It also appears she’s wearing a heavy woollen jumper. Her left hand is holding on to the bridal of the horse, close to its head, the horse being slightly above her level. Her right arm is stretched out towards the viewer and in her hand she is holding something, but this has broken off so it’s not easy to work out what it is. She’s also wearing a very fierce expression on her face, more anger than determination.

The horse itself is heavily laden. There seems to be a large box and attached to the side is which looks very much like the barrel of a small artillery piece or a heavy machine gun. The impression of movement is provided by the fact that the left fore leg is raised and it’s possible to see the hoof. The right fore leg can be seen between the legs of the woman as she strides out.

The last in this group which is marching to the front is a male Partisan whose face is in profile as he marches forward to battle. This is the standard-bearer. The flag he is holding, in his left hand, flutters slightly from right to left, becoming the backdrop to the horse’s head and ending at its shoulders, before its load. When viewed from the right hand side it’s possible to see that the way the group is posed the flag pole is held in front of him as he marches, the wind then blowing it back and partially wrapping itself around him to then flutter back towards the rear of the column.

This is the flag of the Communist Partisans which became the national flag of the country after true Independence in 1944. Even before the lapidar was white-washed it wasn’t easy to make out the eagle and the star and now you need to know it’s there to be able to see it. Between and above the heads of the double-headed eagle is a star – but it’s very faint (or maybe because I expect it to be there I just imagine it). However much a target these stars have been in certain parts of the country this monument doesn’t appear to have been attacked and if the star is faint it’s more likely due to general weathering over the last 38 years.

I don’t quite understand what he’s doing with his right hand. I would have thought he would have needed both hands on the pole but it’s raised so that it’s close to his shoulder and seems to be holding something. To me it looks like there has been something broken off at some time in the past, but what and why his hand is there I don’t know.

Although he merges with the next group he is, in fact, positioned at the end of one story and the beginning of the next.

We now get to the command group which is located right in the centre of the star and consists of five partisans, as far as I can make out all of them are male. It’s also in this area where the style of the sculpture changes. Not only have the figures become larger, until the commander is, more or less, life-size, the figures have also ‘moved out’ of the star. The carvings at the extreme left of the monument are typical bas-relief but as we move to the centre they start to emerge from the stone. This is the case with the right legs of the running soldier and horse wrangler but becomes more pronounced with the command group. The top half of the foremost officer is completely separate from the rest of the monument so that its possible to look behind him and see a full carving of the other members of the group who revert to being bas-reliefs.

Pishkash Star Command Group

Pishkash Star Command Group

The officer is dressed in what I’ve come to expect for a commander of the Albanian Partisan National Liberation Army. It’s the full uniform, with the cap and the star as well as the bandana around his neck – signs of his Communist affiliation and beliefs. There are two straps across his chest which go under the belt at his waist. On his left hip there’s a holster, the pistol attached to one of these straps. On the other strap is attached what I believe to be a leather dispatch and map case. As he is standing facing us you can also see the breeches he’s wearing. So far this is the first lapidar where this style of uniform seems to be almost universal. I can only assume that early in the struggle the First Brigade broke into an Italian Fascist warehouse where these were the only uniforms in stock, surely no one would use these trousers by choice. His left arm hangs loosely at his side, the hand open whilst his right arm is bent and the clenched fist at the level just above his belt. At first I thought he might at one time been holding something in his hand but that doesn’t seem to make sense. Perhaps it’s another demonstration of determination to defeat the enemy or a representation of his having arrived at an important decision in relation to the battle he is supervising.

(The more I look in detail at these fine works of art I wonder why the Partisan Army followed so closely the conventions of capitalist armies. I accept the principle of an organised leadership structure but did it have to faithfully imitate the actual fashion style and equipment as well? It’s possible that representing the Partisans in this way is due to the fact that the artists, here the sculptors, that were working in the late 1960s and for the next fifteen to sixteen years when lapidars were being created, had not actually experienced war themselves. The photos I’ve seen of the period give me the impression that the Partisan Army was much more egalitarian, much more informal than is sometimes presented in Socialist Realist Art.)

The next figure, this one over the left shoulder of the officer, the highest of the group, is another male. He is looking straight ahead and only the very top part of his body is in sight. He’s wearing a uniform, as are virtually all those figures present on this lapidar. (That’s another difference with some of the other major monuments which include many figures. Normally there’s a mix of dress, as would be expected in a Partisan/Guerrilla Army.)

Next, in front, and slightly to the right, there’s another Partisan but, again, only the head is visible, wearing a cap but no other details are visible. But he presents another conundrum. His left arm is raised so the hand is at the level of the top of his head. His hand is grasping what looks like a tube, probably no longer than half a metre but, for the life of me, I can’t work out what it is. I can’t even come up with a half-educated guess. This is one of the problems when trying to read these major monuments. Once you are close enough to make out detail you are viewing the images at such an acute angle that the perspective is all wrong.

Then on the principal officer’s left is the second most important figure in this group and that’s another soldier in full uniform. He’s in half profile looking towards the battle raging on the right. His uniform is similar to the that of the officer but as well as ammunition pouches around his waist he has a bandolier of pouches across his chest over his left shoulder. A strap which passes over his right shoulder is attached to his rifle. This is a little strange as the strap passes under the bandolier, making it awkward to get his gun in a firing position quickly. All we see of the weapon is the butt which he is holding away from his body with his left hand, the rest hidden behind his back.

The final figure in this group is on its extreme right. This is another male Partisan in uniform. It’s possible to see the left hand side of his body but he doesn’t appear to be armed and I can’t work out his role in the group. He just seems to be standing there, with his arms hanging down by the side of his body. I work on the basis that all the images on these lapidars are there for a purpose but there are a few here whose role is opaque, to say the least.

There’s no doubt of those we come across, now on the ride hand point of the star. These are those who are actively engaged in the fighting. This is a scene that appears on a number of lapidars, most notably the Drashovice Arch in the Shushicë valley, close to Vlora.

The are six Partisans in this group, four male and two female and all of them are actively involved in engaging the enemy. As is often the case we know it’s in the mountains as we have the uneven surface upon which they are standing or kneeling. This impression of the hills is helped by the up-sweep of the bottom of the star point on the right. Another device used to give the sense of fighting in the hills is the fact that the weapons are pointed downwards. What we have here is an ambush where the Partisans have used the terrain to their advantage and have chosen when and where to fight.

Starting from the bottom we have a female fighter. She’s kneeling and has the gun up to her left shoulder, her right hand on the forestock and squeezing the trigger with her left. I would have thought that most people, whether right or left-handed, would have the rifle stock against the right shoulder. So here we have a situation where reality has been changed to suit the artistic situation. Here, to have carved the bas-relief in the way that conformed to reality would have meant obscuring the facial features of the Partisan. She’s in full uniform and is well supplied with bullets, having ammunition pouches around her waist as well as others on a bandolier across her chest. Her long hair streams out underneath her cap, again providing an element of movement and suggesting her movement forward, attacking the enemy with courage and determination, as well as suggesting the wind in the mountains.

Above her and to the right, with the tip of the barrel of his weapon right on the edge of the star, is a male Partisan whose is firing what looks like a medium machine gun. He has both his hands on the trigger and aiming mechanism and we can see the belt after the bullets have been expelled coming out of the right hand side of the weapon. I’m in no way an expert on WWII weapons but the closest I can get to the image on the lapidar is a Spanish made ALFA 44 (Ametralladora ALFA Modelo 44) Medium Machine Gun (1944). If it’s true I have no idea how it got to Albania but no other weapon that looks like that shown on the monument fits. However, again this might be due to a lack of proper research on the part of the sculptor. (Here I don’t want to cast aspersions but I’m not aware of how conscientious the artists who worked on the creation of these monuments were when it came to historical accuracy.) But it’s important to stress that he is firing down hill. This is almost a trope of such lapidars in Albania.

He’s in uniform, has ammunition pouches on his waist belt and wears a cap – but on this monument it’s difficult to make out the stars. As I write more about what’s here I start to think that Çuli has very much followed a formula. He has many individuals but they are more like clones. Although I think this is a fabulous example of Albanian Socialist Realist Art Çuli doesn’t have the same imagination as sculptors such a Mumtaz Dhrami. It’s monumental but on closer inspection it doesn’t have the individuality that intellectuals ‘demand’. When you have the chance, like here, make the most of it.

Behind the Partisan with the machine gun, a little lower, and to the left of the first female fighter, are two males. At first glance this is slightly confusing. The one closest to the centre of the star is obviously in the process in firing his rifle at the enemy. In the same way as the first Partisan in this section of the story, he has his rifle up to his left shoulder. His jacket flies out behind him, he is rushing to the front, his enthusiasm to engage the enemy is unbounded. So this is understandable.

However, there is a face of another person, close to the front and the heat of battle but he seems to be doing nothing. His head is close to the rifle of his comrade but he looks unarmed. But that’s not the case. If you look behind the head of the rushing forward rifleman you will be able to pick out the shape of a hand, the right hand of the mysterious face. And in this is a Mills bomb, a British made grenade. At times there are representations of German made stick grenades but the Albanian Partisans seemed to have preferred the British model, given to the Partisans as the majority of the British Army was safely behind the Channel.

Although there are some individuals in this scenario where I don’t see the reason for their presence I like this idea of ‘hiding’ a fighter but who, under closer inspection, reveals that he is as involved as the more dramatic of his comrades.

Above, and to the left of these two combatants, is another male with his rifle up to his right shoulder this time. Again he fires down, stressing the idea of the mountains. It’s possible to make out his right forefinger on the trigger and he steadies the weapon with his left hand on the forestock.

At the very top of this part of the tableau is a very angry young women. We know she’s female due to her body shape and her long hair flowing back as she charges forward. She’s the only one of this group who’s not using her weapon from a distance. She has her rifle, which is fitted with a bayonet, held high above her head. Her right arm is stretched as far as possible behind her head and her hand grips the weapon just before the firing mechanism. Her left arm is bent back above her head, to increase the force of her thrust forward, and she holds the rifle by the barrel. Some lapidars depict the closeness of the fighting with the addition of the enemy as part of the sculpture. Here there are not Fascists shown but the impression of hand to hand fighting is represented by this woman who is about to use her gun more as a sword than a firearm.

One criticism I have here is that this rifle seems way out of proportion. If to scale it would have been almost as long as she was tall. This is not the first time I’ve seen this exaggerated representation. A similar one can be seen on the sculpture of the female Partisan at the Fier Martyrs’ Cemetery.

This scene is different from the other stories so far interpreted as all these Partisans are carved into the star whilst all the other figures are on the face of the star. I can’t think of any reason for this other than a way to demonstrate that this small group is involved in the actual fighting whereas all the others are yet to fire their weapons in anger.

Moving back into the centre of the star we have the numbers 1944, positioned just above the command group and to the right of the Partisan flag. This is the year when the Partisan army defeated the invading Nazis and November 29th is celebrated as the date of the beginning of true independence for the Albanian people – something which has been given up in recent years.

As the figures started out small and then became larger as we got to the centre of the star so the figures become smaller as we move to the apex. And here it gets very difficult to make out exactly what the story is we’re being told. Not easy before the white-washing, more difficult since.

Peeking over the burden of the pack horse are four figures, all male and all in uniform. We just see a little over the head and shoulders of all of them, the one on the extreme left being slightly lower than the other three. The first on the left has his right hand raised to his shoulder and it looks like his wrist is hanging over the barrel of a gun of some kind. This is the sort of casual way of carrying a weapon that’s common in Hollywood films, with the left hand resting on the butt, but there’s no real sign of the other end of the gun in this image. He’s facing forward, as are the next two to the right of him. There are indications of guns on straps over shoulders but it’s very confusing. The fourth partisan is in half profile and it definitely seems he’s holding the strap for his rifle in his right hand, close to his shoulder, with the top of rifle barrel peeking out. He’s also wearing a bandana around his neck.

The remaining images are now on the part of the star from just above the flag to the apex.

The first, on the left, is a female Partisan, identifiable by her long hair. She’s facing forwards and her right hand is raised in the clenched fist, revolutionary salute. On her right, and slightly higher (her head is at the level of his waist, is another officer in a very similar stance, and dressed in the same manner, as the Commanding officer in the centre of the lapidar. He’s in full uniform, has a holster on his left hip (with the strap coming over his right shoulder to which would be attached the gun itself) and ammunition pouches on his belt. His right arm is bent and his clenched fist rests on his chest. Why? I don’t understand. His left arm hangs at his side and the hand disappears behind the top of the flag.

Above him are a group of three, two males and a female, again all in uniform. The first, on the left, looks forward and there’s no sign of a weapon. The woman next to him is likewise unarmed. The third of the group behaves differently. He’s in half profile, his left arm is bent at a 45 degree angle and his fist is clenched. Is this a demonstration of defiance or anger?

Standing above him, their feet just above his fist, are a male and female partisan. He has a rifle hanging from the strap over his right shoulder and he is looking in the direction to the left of the star. In fact, he’s the only person in the whole tableau who’s looking in that direction. To have at least one person looking in the opposite direction to the action and the majority of the others is quite common. Normally it indicates looking at those who are coming to join the battle and often, though not in this case, making a gesture for others to hurry up and get involved. The woman, on the other hand, is looking to the right, to where the fighting is already taking place. There’s a possibility that she holds a pistol in her left hand.

At the same level as these two, on the left, is a donkey with a rounded pack on its back. This is the first time I’ve seen one on a lapidar. This beast of burden has a difficult task as it is going up hill with its load, its hoofs on different levels of what is obviously implied to be the side of a steep mountain, the bend in the legs indicating that it is working hard. Constantly you get these references to hills in Albanian lapidars.

Just above the shoulder of the donkey is the head of a male soldier. He’s looking towards the front but doesn’t seem to be guiding the animal in any way – at least not in the way the wrangler lower down is doing with her pack horse.

Finally there’s a group of five, four men and one woman. The lowest one, a male, has his left hand on the strap of a bag that rests on his left shoulder. Slightly higher and on his right is a woman, She is in uniform, as are all the rest in this group, and there’s a bag resting on her left hip. Her right hand is holding on to something resting on her right shoulder, in a similar manner to one of the other Partisans lower down. Here it’s possible to see the other end that protrudes over her left shoulder but it doesn’t look like a gun. It’s something circular but what I still don’t know.

Things are increasingly indistinct as we go higher. There’s not much detail in the three men on her right and which concludes this group. I don’t know if it’s the shadows caused by the time of day I took the pictures but the one in the middle looks like he might have a moustache, indicating an older man. So far the majority of the partisans on this monument are young people – representing the make up of the National Liberation Army.

Between that individual and the one on the left there’s a tall circular object, almost phallic, which goes to a higher point than any of the figures. This is another object that, so far, has me stumped.

And that’s what you see when you have the road, and the railway viaduct, at your back. There are more questions about what’s being depicted than I would like but I hope to be able to come up with more accurate descriptions following my next visit.

But this star has two sides, and the back, although much less ornate and with no human or animal figures, is still interesting. It also has remained free of the restoration white washing and therefore gives an idea of what the monument looked like originally.

Back of the star

The image on the back is simple and clear; a flag is attached at the top to the end of the barrel and at the bottom to the firing mechanism of an over-sized bolt-action rifle. The impression of the flag fluttering in the breeze is created by the undulations of the carving. This, in real life would have been a red flag with the Nationalist (the double-headed eagle) and the Communist (golden star) symbols and I’m slightly surprised they are not represented here. Perhaps the idea is that any piece of red cloth can be used in situations such as the entry of the Partisans into a town after liberating the area from the Fascists.

Qukës-Pishkash Star - back

Qukës-Pishkash Star – back

This part of the star also seems to be in a better condition than the front. Perhaps the trees behind and the direction of the weather have provided some sort of protection over the years.

The Sculptors

Although the names of those who worked on many of the Albanian lapidars are ‘lost’ – at least to me – more information is normally forthcoming on major monuments such as the Qukës-Pishkash Star. But, unfortunately, only a little.

It was inaugurated in 1978 and the principal sculptor was Perikli Çuli. So far I haven’t been able to gather any other information about him other than the fact that he was also the sculptor of the monument ‘Toka Jonë – Our Land’ – a celebration of workers and peasants – which is in the centre of Lushnje. This is a much later work having been completed in 1987.

He was ‘assisted’ by a recently graduated artist called Agim Rada. Rada seems to have been a bit of a ‘tortured intellectual’ as he hit the bottle for a number of years and only got out of that rut by finding God. He hadn’t produced much for years but was commissioned to produce a work in Shkoder in readiness for the visit of the Catholic leader, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who visited Albania in 2014.

This work is called ‘Kleriku i Prangosur – The Chained Cleric’ and stands in the grounds of the main Catholic church in the city. I haven’t seen it yet but hope to do so on my next visit to Shkoder.

Condition of the area

There doesn’t seem to be any real structural damage to the Star itself, although erosion and lack of general maintenance has made it difficult to make out some of the images. The painting hasn’t really helped as the original stone had different colours and this assisted in providing a contrast between the background and the carvings of the figures.

The general area, a fairly large paved space close to the main road, suffers from the same neglect that besets virtually all public areas throughout Albania. There’s a derelict drinking fountain to the left of the monument so, presumably, at times in the past there would have been large groups of people in the vicinity.

Some time before the group from the Albanian Lapidar Survey visited the site in the summer of 2014 there must have been a significant anniversary as a sash and wreath made from laurel leaves had been placed across the shoulders of the commanding officer. This might well be an annual celebration. When I visited in the early summer of 2015 the wreath had been thrown on the ground at the back of the star.

A more modest lapidar

Pishkask Lapidar

Pishkask Lapidar

It’s possible to see the variation in the whole scheme of Socialist lapidars just by looking across the road, to the left of the bar/shop. There a couple of joined, concrete columns commemorate, probably, those of the village of Pishkash who died in the National Liberation war. It’s impossible to say exactly as the space where a marble plaque would have been fixed is now empty. Whether vandalised or stolen it’s impossible to say.

Location of the Qukës-Pishkash Star:

GPS:

41.073821

20.49985302

DMS:

41° 4′ 25.7556” N

20° 29′ 59.4709” E

Altitude:

503.1m

How to get there.

All the furgons and buses on the route Librazhd – Përrenjas or Korçë pass the Star. You should be able to get back to your starting point if you don’t leave it too late in the afternoon. There’s a small bar, as well as a shop, just across the road, at the junction of the road leading up to the village of Pishkash.