Five Heroes of Vig – Skhodër

5 Heroes of Vig - Dobraç,

5 Heroes of Vig – Dobraç,

Celebrating solidarity and the willingness towards self-sacrifice in the common cause the statue of the Five Heroes of Vig once stood in one of the central squares of Skhodër, in northern Albania. After a period ‘out in the wilderness’ – close to the city rubbish dump and subject to crass, petty thievery it has now found a new permanent home in the centre of a roundabout to the north of the city.

The statue commemorates events that took place in the small village of Vig in 1944, just before the victory of the Partisans over the Germany Fascists, their hangers-on, collaborators and lackeys.

On August 21, 1944, at Vig in the Mirdita highlands, 5 long time partisans went to talk to the peasants who were under the thumb of the feudal chief, Gjon Markagjoni, ‘a tool of the fascist occupiers’.

5 heroes of vig

5 heroes of vig

From left to right: Ndoc Dedo (Teli), Ndoc Mazi (Minuku), Naim Gjylbegu (Besniku), Hidajet Lezha (Hida), Ahmet Haxhia (Tigri).

Informers let the fascists know of their whereabouts and 200 Nazi troops were sent to capture or kill the five. The fight went on for 6 hours, the Communists fighting to the last bullet, and all of them being killed.

5 Heroes of Vig - Pandi Mele

5 Heroes of Vig – Pandi Mele

The incident was depicted in an Albanian film of 1982 called Besa e Kuqe (Red Faith), directed by Pirro Milkani.

Ahmet Haxhia 1926-1944

Ahmet Haxhia 1926-1944

 

 

Nom de guerre Tigri (Tiger). From a lower middle class family from Skhodër. Joined the Albanian Communist Party at the beginning of 1943 and worked in the town as part of the organising resistance amongst young people. In December of that year joined the Partisan unit based in the Miradita region. The youngest of the five.

 

 

Hydajet Lezha 1920-1944

Hydajet Lezha 1920-1944

 

 

 

Nom de guerre Hida. Born in the town of Lezha. Joined the Albanian Communist Party in early 1943 and, as an orphan, it was here where he found his true family.

 

 

 

Naim Gjylbegu 1920-1944

Naim Gjylbegu 1920-1944

 

 

Nom de guerre Besniku (Faithful). Was involved in the Skhodër Communist Group, the forerunner of the Albanian Communist Party, when still in his teens. In October 1942 became a member of the regional Committee of Communist Youth. Soon after arrested and tortured for his activities but once released became commander of the local CETA – guerrilla organisation.

 

Ndoc Deda 1918-1944

Ndoc Deda 1918-1944

 

 

 

Nom de guerre Teli (Wire). Born in a village in the Milot region into a peasant family. Organised revolutionary activity in the ranks of the old army later leaving to join the Partisans in the middle of 1943 and in October of that year joined the Albanian Communist Party.

 

 

Ndoc Mazi 1920-1944

Ndoc Mazi 1920-1944

 

 

Nom de guerre Minuku. Was born into a poor working class family in Skhodër. Was a member of the Skhodër Communist Group before it morphed into the Albanian Communist Party, Suffered from tuberculosis but still worked underground in, first, Durrës and later in Skhodër before joining the Partisan army in the Mirdita region. 

 

 

 

The statue, whose name in Albanian is ‘Monumenti i Heronjve të Vigut’, is the work of Shaban Hadëri (28th March 1928 – 14th January 2010) who created the statue of Isa Boletini – also in Shkodër – and collaborated on two of the most important existing monumental statues in Albania – Mother Albania, in the National Martyrs’ Cemetery in Tirana, and the Independence Memorial in the city of Vlorë.

Hadëri joined the Partisan resistance to the Fascist invasion at the age of sixteen in 1944 and was able to follow his artistic education following the success of that war of liberation and the opportunities the Communists provided in terms of education.

This statue has gone through good times and bad. It originally started out as a concrete statue, of a little more than life-size, and was installed in the square beside the Rozafa Hotel in the centre of Shkodër in 1969.

5 Heroes of Vig in concrete

5 Heroes of Vig in concrete

This original was replaced by a much larger, 5 metres high, statue of bronze. This new statue was similar, with the same idea as the original, but with a few differences. This was mainly in the form of dress and the way they carried their armaments. It remained there until 31st January 2009. On that date it was transported to a site beside the Martyrs’ Cemetery on the banks of the River Kir.

5 Heroes of Vig - Shkoder

5 Heroes of Vig – Shkoder

When this cemetery was established the location would have been enviable – outside of the city, close to a river and with the mountains of the Dukagjin highlands behind it. However, since the arrival of ‘democracy’ in the 1990s many things have changed. The river, which only has significant water just after the snow melts in the spring, is now a tragic site.

The town’s rubbish dump has been created beside the river, very close to the Martyrs’ Cemetery. One of the results of the greater availability of consumer goods has been a massive explosion in the number of plastic bags. Once they are just dumped in the open air (there’s no attempt at a landfill in Shkodër) all it takes is a light breeze and the bags are everywhere. OK if you like your river beds multicoloured but generally disastrous for the environment.

Rubbish in Kir River

Rubbish in Kir River

Another legacy of the re-introduction of capitalism is the job of sifting through rubbish dumps, a trade that now spans the globe where, on some of the huge dumps, people both live and work on the detritus of others. At the Shkodër dump there are small groups bagging up whatever there might be of value and now they are really the only ones who visit the area in any frequency.

I’m assuming it must have been someone amongst this group that decided, at the end of  2012, that there was monetary value in the bronze statue of the 5 heroes and have been helping themselves to bits of it. There were certain amongst the politicians of Shkodër city council who, I’m sure, were glad of this news, that being part of their plan in the first place. In the centre of town any vandalism would be obvious but outside in a totally unpopulated area anything could, and did, happen.

This is what you would expect from a council that has changed the name of the road to the railway station to ‘Hungarian Anti-Communist Revolution Road’ as well as pandering to the US with celebrating nationals of that country who have had nothing to do with Albania apart from trying to make it a vassal to a greater imperialist power either in the distant or recent past. It’s in such a fundamentalist Catholic environment that Mother Teresa appears everywhere and the anti-Communist paintings have been commissioned in the Franciscan Church.

The present day ‘so-called’ Socialist Party made noises about the destruction of national heritage and that this showed a total lack of respect for those who had fought for the country’s liberation from Fascism. Despite their silence in the past – when such desecration has occurred and their almost non-existent opposition to the return of Ahmed Zogu’s remains to Tirana in November 2012 – their efforts have resulted in the re-siting of the (cleaned up if not renovated statue) on the northern perimeter of the city.

The Statue 

In its simple composition the statue epitomises the ideas of Socialist Realist sculpture. They form a tight circle so they are supporting, defending and depend upon each other and the direction in which they are looking gives the impression that they are covering the whole 360 degrees. It’s a defensive, rather than an attacking stance and in that way represents the way they dies – surrounded by an overwhelmingly superior force. But at the same time they wouldn’t have just been waiting for the enemy and the (imagined) depictions above try to give a more realistic representation of their ‘last stand’. What we have here is a symbolic representation of unity, solidarity and comradeship.

They are dressed in various clothing styles with one of them appearing to be dressed in a Partisan uniform but whether that would have been the case is unlikely due to the very nature of their mission – the elimination of a locally known tyrant and collaborator.

There’s a look of determination on all their faces together with a tranquillity as if they understand the circumstances and the inevitable acceptance of their lot, their fate. In the sort of war they were fighting any Partisan had to realise that once they had taken up arms they had to accept that all might not go well. This was total war and the Nazis would give no quarter – but then neither would the Partisans. Anyone who didn’t accept this should stay at home, let others do the fighting. Victory necessitated sacrifices – aim should be to make those as small as possible.

It’s very difficult with any degree of certainty to say exactly which of the five figures represents the real person and as they are in a circle there’s no real starting point so I’ll start with the figure that most clearly seems to be in uniform.

The uniform is typical of that seen on other lapidars throughout the country. He’s wearing a heavy jacket under which is a thick woollen jumper. He has a wide belt tied, not buckled, around his waist and into this is tucked a pistol. This pistol has a huge grip (similar to that carried by Bajram Curri in the statue to him in the town that bears his name). The pistol is attached to a twisted leather lanyard which goes around his neck, under the collar of the jacket. On his head he wears the typical Partisan cap, with the red star at the front. He is wearing sandals – with thick woollen socks – the strap and buckle on the left foot visible and cords crisscross the trousers of both legs, on the shins.

He is holding what looks like a Beretta Model 38 sub-machine gun with the forefinger of his right hand on trigger and his left hand supporting barrel in front of magazine, the bottom end of the magazine resting against his left knee.. Here is one of the examples of mindless vandalism which this monument has had to suffer and the end of barrel has been sawn off – this must have provided the thief with enough to buy a raki, not much else.

He stands with his legs slightly apart, standing steady, giving an impression of solidity, determination, of not going to move. He is looking slightly to his left.

5 Heroes of Vig - Solidarity

5 Heroes of Vig – Solidarity

One interesting, human touch is that the left hand of the fifth in the group is placed protectively, supportively, on his right shoulder. This again emphasises the idea that these are Comrades united in a common cause – whatever might be the consequences.

5 Heroes of Vig - Haderi 1984

5 Heroes of Vig – Haderi 1984

Carved into the rock against which he is standing, close to his feet be can see the name of the sculptor, Shaban Halil Hadëri, and the date 1984. As I have stated elsewhere, for example the Martyrs Cemetery in Lushnjë, it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the name of the artist started to appear on Albanian lapidars, demonstrating a softening of the approach towards the idea of individuality in art. As I’ve stated above this particular statue (apart from moving around a lot more than most) existed in an earlier, plaster version which was created in 1969. Although it’s impossible for me to say given that that version was almost certainly destroyed when the new one was installed, I would very much doubt whether Hadëri’s name appeared on the original.

Hadëri also was responsible for the monument to 1920 in Qafe e Kociut (close to Vlora) and also worked with Mumtaz Dhrami and Kristaq Rama on the Vlora Independence Monument.  

I must stress, again, that here I’m in no way denigrating the art, skill and imagination of the artist. But, in the end, he was only one of a number of skilled individuals who produced this fine example of Socialist Realism – where are the names of the others?

5 Heroes of Vig - Peasant Partisan

5 Heroes of Vig – Peasant Partisan

The next in the circle is not in uniform but is wearing the comfortable, winter clothing of a peasant. On his head he has a qeleshe (the felt skull-cap) on his head with a long headscarf wrapped around his forehead with the scarf trailing behind him. He wears a tight-fitting shirt and an open xhamadan (the traditional tight, short waistcoat) which has decorated trimming on the edges. He wears the traditional tight-fitting peasant trousers (tirc) which have the V shape at the front at the bottom, as they go either side the opinga (shoes) but these are without the sheepskin pompom. There are signs of decoration on the opinga. It looks as if there is a great coat hanging from his left shoulder, almost falling to the ground – the bottom edge of the coat can be seen hanging down behind his legs.

Around his waist is an ammunition belt with 4 pouches visible and 5 bullets in each. In holds a bolt-action rifle, his right arm fully extended and gripping the weapon at the trigger mechanism, his forefinger pushed through the trigger guard. His left arm is bent at right angles with his hand holding the gun at the point where the barrel departs from the rest of the mechanism – so the rifle is across his body from bottom right to left by his elbow. This weapon is not in a firing position but we know he is prepared to do so at any moment. Another small detail is the broken ring to which a strap would be attached which can be seen on the butt of the rifle. The end of barrel has also been stolen by the short-sighted, ignorant, rubbish rats.

His head is turned almost fully to the left and sports a moustache – almost always the differentiation that demonstrates a background of the country rather than the town (as is the sort of clothing depicted).

The third is basically in civilian dress, in the clothes of the urban working class. There’s a woollen jumper (with vertical stitching) under his jacket and he wears normal, contemporary trousers. On his feet are closed toe sandals – the straps and buckles of both feet visible. Around his neck is a large scarf, tied with large knot – this is not for warmth as this is the red scarf of a Communist. He is bare-headed.

A narrow, leather strap comes over his left shoulder, across his chest, to an unseen bag/pouch on his right hip. There’s an empty holster on a waist belt, seen under the left hand edge of open jacket, rucking up his jumper. In his right hand he holds an automatic pistol – possibly a luger taken from the enemy (this has also been vandalised and the end, just a few centimetres are missing). This gun, yet again, is not in a firing position but gives the impression that he ready to do so. There’s a sense of dynamism, movement, in his stillness. His arm is away from his body, the wrist bent in towards his leg and the gun pointing down it but could come up at any time – a coiled spring?

His stance the same as the others, feet slightly apart and steady and he is looking partially to his left.

This statue is all about solidarity and comradeship and the connection between the third and fourth of the five heroes is something I’ve never seen before, not even in Albania where the lapidars celebrate unity in struggle and certainly never in any other country. Here we see the left hand of the Partisan being gripped by the right of his comrade.

5 Heroes of Vig - Solidarity, Comradeship and Unity

5 Heroes of Vig – Solidarity, Comradeship and Unity

Their arms are touching from the elbow to the wrist and the hand of the fourth partisan is over that of his comrade hand, with his fingers in the palm and the thumb pressed against the fingers. This grip is returned in the same manner. There’s an impression that this has just happened, it has a vitality and feeling of immediacy. It seems to encompass the fate of the group as a whole. They know their fate, they are heavily outnumbered and the chances of survival are minimal – capture certainly would have led to an end in a Nazi torture chamber. They were not separated in life and wouldn’t be in death.

This is a slightly more intimate, but telling the same story, as the hand on the shoulder of the first Partisan described above.

It’s these little depictions of intimacy and the unexpected introduction of something that is so far from fighting and warfare that makes Albanian lapidars so unique in 20th century Socialist Realist sculpture and art in general. Another example of the unusual and unexpected is the small bunch of flowers in the left hand of the statue of Liri Gero, behind the National Art Gallery in Tirana.

The fourth hero is another who is more in civilian rather than military dress. He is wearing the clothes of the urban working class of the epoch. He has a tight-fitting shirt and his trousers have a turn ups which rest on top of sturdy boots. There’s a long, heavy overcoat but only his left arm is in the sleeve and the coat just hangs across his back. With his right hand grasping that of his comrade this stresses the closeness between them. He is also bare-headed and his stance is the same as the others, steady, rock solid, not going to give in. He looks to his right but not directly at his comrade as he is covering an area around them not necessarily covered by any of the others. An idea of continual vigilance, knowing what’s happening and what might happen next.

Around his neck, and under the collar of his shirt, is a lanyard and unites to become twisted just on his chest, beside a shirt button – many of the lapidars have these tiny details. This is attached to a ring on the butt of a pistol, in a holster, which is attached to his belt and rests on his left hip – most of the gun being obscured by the overcoat.

5 Heroes of Vig - pistol in holster

5 Heroes of Vig – pistol in holster

In his left hand he holds a Beretta Model 38 sub-machine gun, just behind the magazine. This is pointing up from right to left, with the barrel pointing into the air. This is not a firing position and he’s not ready, as some of the others are, to get into a firing position within seconds. He’s a fighter but in this image he is representing more the idea of comradeship and solidarity – which rests very much on the willingness and ability to use arms – rather than depicting the role of a Partisan. Although the end of the machine gun barrel is away from the main body of the sculpture this is still in place, not having suffered the attention of the petty thieves.

The stance of the fifth in the group is different from all the others. He stands side on so we only see the right hand side of his body. He has the look and wears the clothing of a peasant rather than someone from the city. He has short-cropped, curly hair (uncovered) and sports a moustache – often, though not always, an indication of a peasant background. Although his body is in profile he looks straight out at the viewer.

He seems to be dressed in similar clothing to the other peasant of the group already described, with a xhamadan over, this time a loose, short-sleeved shirt, the tirc but with sandals on his feet. Around his waist we can see a couple of ammunition pouches attached to his belt, a full one holding six cartridges and a partial one with two cartridges showing. In his right hand he holds a very long, bolt-action rifle which extends to just above his feet to the height of the shoulder of his comrade on the left. The machine gun of his comrade on his right is almost touching his knee.

5 Heroes of Vig - Weapons

5 Heroes of Vig – Weapons

As I’ve mentioned before his left hand is on the right shoulder of the comrade on his left thereby completing the circle and the show of unity.

Although this bronze version is relatively late in the history of Albanian lapidars it encompasses all those elements which had developed over the 40 years of socialist thinking about art. Even though it had its genesis in the 1969 version, where many of these elements were introduced, the present day statue, created 15 years later took those elements and made them much stronger, providing a vitality which was missing in the original and physically tightening the group so their unity is emphasised. In a sense the early version shows the group falling apart whereas the 1984 version shows us that nothing will ever break them apart – even death.

When the ‘Five Heroes of Vig’ had been exiled to beside the Shkodër Martyrs Cemetery – once a clean, quiet and pleasant location beside the river but now the site of the sprawling city rubbish dump – it had a feeling of dirt and neglect, and then it was vandalised. Before it was moved to its present location it obviously underwent a certain level of renovation and looks almost as good as it would have done in the centre of the town.

Apart from the damage done to the ends of the weapons there’s a small amount of written graffiti, more of the ‘I wus here’ kind but things are much better now than when I first saw the statue in 2011.

It’s location is not the best, it’s literally on the edge of town, on the last roundabout before the road leads to the border with Montenegro, but being placed on a circular, stone plinth it’s now in a place where more people can appreciate the story it tells.

Location:

From the roundabout next to the Rozafa Hotel (and the buses to Tirana) head north-east along Rruga Qemal Draçini which becomes the town’s market as stalls start to spill out on to the pavement. Continue north until arriving at Sheshi Ura e Maxharrit. This is coming to the end of the town proper and this is where you can find furgons to the towns to the north of Shkodër and the Montenegran border at Hani i Hotit as well as the early morning (07.30. more or less) departure to Thethi.

From the square continue along the SH1, passing the old, now very much overgrown, town cemetery and after about 10 minutes arrive at the roundabout with the lapidar in the centre.

GPS:

N 42.089302

E 19.507358

DMS:

42° 5′ 21.4872” N

19° 30′ 26.4888” E

Anti-Communist paintings – Shkodër Franciscan Church

The Communist as Anti-Christ

An angry Communist threatens Franciscan friars

Religion is interesting in Albania. Travelling around you can’t help but notice the new mosques and churches (both Catholic and Greek Orthodox) that are appearing everywhere. Whether there’s a real need for so many is debatable, I’ve hardly seen any evidence of what could be called a ‘religious revival’. However, the Catholic Church, in particular, is on the offensive and that can best be seen with the anti-Communist paintings in the Franciscan Church in Shkodër. 

When I’ve gone past mosques after the call to prayer there’s hardly as much activity as there is on a regular basis at the mosque in Liverpool 8. And when I’m expecting there to be the 6 o’clock mass in the Catholic Churches there have been even fewer people in the church at that time than there might have been a few hours earlier. Or the churches are locked up. I don’t really know the timetable used by the Greek Orthodox church (and I’m hardly an authority on any other religious sect really) but I’ve not seen crowds streaming from their doors either.

I’ll no doubt return to religion in other posts but in this one I want to concentrate on one particular church and five paintings inside of that church. This is the Franciscan Church (known as The Big Church) in the city of Shkodër, in the north-west of Albania, not far from the Montenegrin border.

Having their headquarters outside of the country, the Franciscans, in 1946, were forced to cease their activities in Albania – as were the Jesuits. In January 1947 a cache of arms and ammunition was found in their church in Shkodër and that led to the state clamping down hard on the order. The priests maintained these arms had been planted by the Albania security forces – but they would, wouldn’t they – and pleaded their innocence. The Franciscans resented this greatly and held that grudge for almost 50 years. However, those were times when efforts were being made by countries such as Britain and the US to do anything, and everything, they could to get a change of government in Tirana, one much more amenable to their political philosophy. We may have to wait another half a century before any material in the secret British Government archives might reveal more definite proof.

In the intervening period the church had been used as a cinema and auditorium but with the counter-revolution of 1990 they got their church back and a few years after that commissioned three new paintings – two more were to follow in 2012.

These are unlike any paintings I personally have seen in any church, of whatever variety of religion.

Here they represent that the gloves are off. They are a declaration of war against any society that has the temerity to challenge their superstition and their right to peddle such ideas to the young, confused, frightened and impressionable. Nowhere have I seen a clearer representation of the virulence of their hatred for socialism and, perhaps, is only comparable with the attitude of the Catholic Church and priests in Spain during the Spanish Civil War (1936-9) and earlier still during the height of the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century. The arch-reactionary Karol Wotjyla would have loved them.

All the post-Communist, political/religious painters in this church have been painted by P Sheldija – I haven’t been able to find out anything about him. I can only assume that s/he is a local of Shkodër and that s/he’s still alive – at least s/he was in 2012. To the best of my knowledge I haven’t come across any more of his/her work outside this building. 

Communists threaten Franciscan Friars

Who placed the arms in the Franciscan Church?

The first one is entitled ‘Shpifja e Madhe’, meaning the ‘Great Lie’ where the Franciscans maintain their innocence and is dated 1996. 

What is interesting in this painting, and one of the aspects that unites the first three, is the influence of the Socialist Realist style in the depiction of the images. They depict ‘real’ people in ‘real’ situations. There are those who are obviously ‘good’ and those who are positively ‘evil’. Here there is no muddying of the waters. Communists = BAD, Franciscans = GOOD. And the ordinary people are the ones who suffer in this eternal battle. 

Because it is an eternal battle and as the Communists are the Anti-Christ, they are literally the agents of the Devil. The Devil (or his disciples) are behind the Communists in both a literal and figurative sense. They are at the back of the Reds, talking into their ears, inciting them to attack the church and its loyal, faithful and non-violent servants. The Devils have horns, tails and bat like wings. The fires of Hell surround this group.

(We are encouraged to suspend disbelief here and forget the persecution that the Catholic Church perpetrated throughout the centuries, the deaths they precipitated, and the lack of sympathy for any ideas, or religions, which were not totally in accord with what was decreed in Rome. The ‘extirpation of idolatry’ was the term used in this context in South America following the arrival of the Spanish and entailed the physical destruction on any remnants of indigenous faith and beliefs.)

The principal Communist is aggressive, angry. His gun points at the Franciscans, his other fist raised in a threatening manner, a sneer on his face. Two of the Franciscans are in chains, forced to carry armfuls of guns. They are calm, stoical and have an angel of God looking over them. In a painting in a side chapel St Francis holds an infant Jesus in his arms.

At the bottom are the people. A mix of ages, social and ethnic backgrounds, gender and degrees of fear, shock, supplication, confusion displayed on their faces. They are begging, imploring that all this violence ceases.

(A Catholic raised friend who saw these paintings was shocked to see modern weapons depicted in a painting inside a religious building. I was a little surprised at that as I’ve seen an innumerable number of paintings and statues, world-wide, where St James the Moor-slayer is cutting off heads on all sides or where St Michael has been plunging a spear into the devil or his disciples.)

On either side of the painting are quotes from the Book of Psalms. The left hand side reads:

Qe, bakëqijtë harkun e shternguen

mbi kordë shigjetën vendosen

per t’i shigjetue fshehtas të drejtët.

This translates as:

For, lo, the wicked bend their bow,

they make ready their arrow upon the string,

that they might privily shoot at the upright in heart.

Psalm 11, v2

On the right hand side we have:

Per shkak të mjerimit të vorfenve

per shkak të klithmës së të ndryghunve

tashti do të ngrihem-thotë Zoti-e

do ta shpëtoj atë që e perbuzin.

Which means:

For the oppression of the poor,

for the sighing of the needy,

now will I arise, saith the LORD.

I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him.

Psalm 12, v6 – but that’s not quite correct, at least in my Bible. The quote is from verse 5 and not verse 6.

The atheists meet while the Catholics hold Mass

The atheists meet while the Catholics hold Mass

The second painting depicts an atheist, anti-religion meeting in the city of Skodër. On a banner is the famous phrase from Karl Marx – ‘Feja eshtë opium per popullin’, ‘religion is the opium of the people’. This banner is the red one, placed above the entrance of the Franciscan church when it had been converted into a community centre after discovery of the hidden arms cache and the punishment of the perpetrators. On the white banner the slogan is ‘Fight against religious ignorance’ – ‘Lufte kunder paragjykimeve fetare’.

This was also painted by Sheldija and is dated 1997 (signature and date in bottom right hand corner). It is above the title ‘Pavdeksia e fese’ which I think best translates as ‘religion is Immortal’ or ‘Religion can never die’.

The figures in the foreground have turned their backs on all this ‘nonsense’. Like in the previous painting they are a mix of ages and genders. Traditional as well as contemporary dress is depicted. The central figure here is a priest whose stole (the long, narrow sash a priest would wear when saying Mass and which he kisses before putting around his neck) is resting on the head of a bowed man, presumably a form of blessing.

An old woman looks tired and weary and in her hand is holding a rosary, which a young girl shares with her. Another woman also has a rosary in her hand but this one has the cross hanging just above the head of a baby in a cot. A young woman is reading from a Bible and in the background is the building in which the painting now resides, the Franciscan church.

This also has two quotes from the Book of Psalms on either side. On the left is:

Q hyj, e pushtuen paganët pronën tande,

e dhunuen tempullin tand të shejtë,

Jerusalemin e banë një grumbull rrenojash!

ua dhanë kufomat e sherbëtorëve të tu per ushqim shpendëve të qiellit,

mishin e shejtenve të tu bishave të malit.

This translates as:

O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance;

thy holy temple have they defiled;

they have laid Jerusalem on heaps.

The dead bodies of thy servants have they given to be meat unto the fowls of the heaven,

the flesh of thy saints unto the beasts of the earth.

Psalm 79, verses 1 and 2.

On the right we have:

Kthehu, o Zot! deri kur kështu?

Deh, ki mëshirë për shërbëtorët e tu!

gëzona për ditët që na mundove,

për vjetët që i kaluem në mjerim.

Translated as:

Return, O LORD, how long?

And let it repent thee concerning thy servants.

O satisfy us early with thy mercy;

that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

The carving says Psalm 90, verses 13-15 but it is actually verses 13 and 14. Perhaps the Albanian Bible numbers differently from mine.

Crucifixion of Franciscan Friars

Crucifixion of Franciscan Friars

The third doesn’t have a title but is a reference to the Crucifixion. Also painted by Sheldija it’s dated (I think) 1997. Instead of Christ hanging on a cross we have two Franciscan friars being tortured by being tied to a tree. One of them looks up to heaven, his face a mixture of pain and serenity knowing that salvation awaits him. 

Above him is another priest who seems to have been jammed into a fork of the branches although a rope comes from the branches to his left which presumably goes around his body to stop him falling. He has his eyes closed and is probably dead. It appears that his right arm has been cut off above the elbow as his sleeve is ragged and empty. What could be a tourniquet is around the upper arm. I’m not sure what is represented here.    

On either side of the tree, sitting on the ground, are two Communists, both armed and one with the red star on his cap. They are possibly asleep, resting on their weapons. There’s obvious references to the crucifixion of Christ and the way it has been traditionally represented, with Roman soldiers taking the place of the Communist Partisans. 

Although the idea is that the Franciscans suffered for their believes it seems to be bordering on heresy to imply that a mere mortal, Franciscan priest has the same authority as the (Son of) God. Even St Francis only went as far as to claim the stigmata. 

In the background there’s a depiction of the very Franciscan church, with a distorted entrance facade on the right and the bell tower on the left.

Whilst the first two paintings are in alcoves along the length of the left hand side of the nave the painting of the Crucifixion is in an alcove to the left of the altar, up a few steps.

These were the modern paintings that were displayed in the church quite soon after its reconsecration and that remained the case until 2012 when two more paintings, also by the same painter, Sheldija, appeared on the right hand side of the nave. These both share and differ in style from those of the 1990s.

The first of the latest additions is entitled ‘Fe e dëshmueme me gjak’ which translates to something like ‘Bloody [Religious] Martyrdom’, martyrdom being very much a religious concept and therefore, perhaps, the word religious is slightly redundant.

Bloody Martyrdom

Bloody Martyrdom

This follows very closely the style of the two paintings from the 1990s in that it is very much influenced by Socialist Realism but the image is as far from the principles of Socialist Realism as it is possible to get. In fact, this is quite a disturbing image and incorporates all those negative and pernicious aspects of capitalist, going-on fascist, society.

Whether it depicts an actual event I have been unable to ascertain, there’s no indication of such in the immediate vicinity of the painting, or it might just represent religious ‘persecution’ of the Franciscans in Albania’s past. If the previous paintings are anti-Communist this painting is anti-Islam and the devils are now Muslims in general.

As was the case with real Socialist realism imagery there was often a local reference in the painting or sculpture. Here we have reference to Rozafa Castle, which sits on a hill to the south of the present day city. The castle can be seen ion the top right hand corner.

At the base of the hill we have a small settlement of some kind where the only building which has suffered any damage is the small Christian church depicted on the left hand side of the panel. There are cracks in the wall, the roof is caving in and the small cross that would have been over the main entrance has been toppled over. The three or so homes in the picture seem to be intact.

Walking downhill from the building in the forefront (on the right) is a group of nine Albanians, all in traditional dress – seven men and two women. Outside of the church is another group of six Albanians – five men and one woman. What I don’t understand about these people is that they don’t display any emotion at all, unlike the very clear ‘distress’ shown by the Christians just a few metres away on the other side of the nave.

What I don’t understand here is what Sheldija is saying about them. Are they complicit in the ‘crime’ being committed, i.e., are they also Muslims and agree with the fate of the Franciscans or is it that they just don’t care? It’s difficult to tell as there’s no certainty about the date of the ‘event’.

Until the declaration of ‘Independence’ in 1912 the country had been dominated by the Ottoman Empire for centuries and although there might have been attempts by the Catholic Church to make an inroad in Albania (as they tried to do in all parts of the world as part of their imperial attitude towards religion) I can’t see them being able to actually build a church in secret, leading to its destruction when the Turks ‘discovered’ the transgression.

For the central image is the murder of two Franciscan friars by the Turks, represented by the five males in the right hand side foreground. We only get a fullish picture of one of them, the dark-skinned, bare-chested individual on the left of that group. He also holds the only weapon in view and that’s a long sword, blood covering its tip. The fact that there’s no firearms would seem to push this episode back a few hundred years – which I find even more confusing.

But as virtually all images of martyred Catholics I’ve seen in any part of the world the death has to be made even more cruel, more horrendous, more sadistic that it would have been in reality – this by a religious faith that has been destroying religious locations and the people holding non-Catholic faith for centuries.

What we see are two, sharpened wooden stakes that have been set into the ground and, presumably, the friars have been sat on the point so that their own weight forces the stake through their bodies – a favoured form of execution of the 13th century Mongol emperor. This seems to have been used by the Ottoman’s, even into the early 20th century, and the spike is called the Khazouk. If done by an expert the victim could live in agony for a matter of days. The fact that it was in occasional use by the Ottomans is accepted but I have been unable to find any documentary proof that in was used in Shkodër against Franciscans.

But in many ways that’s not what Sheldija is saying. He wants to make the point that the Franciscans were persecuted and the more hideous he can make this claim the better to attract his chosen audience – the ignorant and frightened of Albania who can’t make any sense of the society in which they live.

But as with some of his earlier works Sheldija dabbles in the heretical, equating the martyrdom of the Franciscans with the crucifixion of Christ, there being many references here to what have become, over the centuries, the traditional accouterments surrounding that supposed event.

The base of the Khazouk

The base of the Khazouk

Here is depicted the desecration of those items that are an integral part of the Catholic ritual: a crucifix laying in the grass; a chalice used for the Eucharist knocked over and spilling the wine (an allegory of the spilling of Christ’s blood); what looks like a discarded alb – the long, white vestment worn by a priest during a Catholic Mass; and a couple of books, one of which will be the Bible. The tip of the bloodied sword held by the Ottoman in the foreground is touching the cover of on of the books here stressing the idea of violence against the Christian church.

In the bottom right hand corner are the tools used to erect the khazouk; a mallet, three wooden stakes and a couple of stones used to maintain the khazouk vertical with the writhing of the victim.

What of the two victims of this martyrdom? As is always the case with Catholic martyrs not only are they shown with the instruments of their martyrdom they always have a serene look on their faces. And that’s the case here.

The friar on the left looks towards Heaven and holds a small wooden crucifix in his left hand, holding it close to his chest. His right hand hangs down at his side, pointing towards the ground. Behind his head protrudes the sharp, bloodied end of the spike and as he is still alive his own blood runs down the lower end of the stake and blood drips from his feet onto the alb.

The central, and presumably the more important, of the two has his arms outstretched on either side of his body, in emulation of a crucifixion. His right arm is bent slightly and he holds a small wooden crucifix towards the light of the Holy Ghost which emanates from the sky above. This is a common motif found in those paintings of Francis of Assisi as he ‘receives’ the stigmata – the wounds of Christ.  As with his companion the blood covered spike appears a couple of feet above his head and his blood flows towards the ground along the wooden stake and from his bare feet.

One of the problems with this painting, in a society that is supposed to be ‘united’ now that Socialism has been dismantled, is that these images perpetuates the divisions within the country that are never far from the surface when religion is concerned.

In many Catholic churches in southern Europe you will encounter paintings, sculptures, of Sant Iago (St James) Matamorros – Moor Killer. The commissioning and the present day existence of these images can be put down to a less enlightened age but the fact that they are commissioned in the 21st century says a lot about the hypocrisy of the current wearer of the Triple Crown in Vatican City.

Most Albanian Muslims won’t be aware of such images – people with strong religious beliefs would never be seen dead in the ‘holy’ place of another faith – but they will tend to harden the attitudes of fundamentalist Catholics (of which there are many in Shkodër.

The other 2012 addition to the Franciscan Church’s decoration is entitled  ‘Për fe e atdhe’ – ‘For God and Country’, and depicts (amongst others) the images of eight Franciscans who would later, at the end of 2016, be Beatified – plus one other who was obviously not considered to be saint material. 

For God and Country

For God and Country

They were all charged with counter-revolutionary activity and died in the ten years following liberation. Many of them had been ordained and had worked in Fascist Italy and were openly ‘friends’ of the United States. When the US and Britain were actively attempting to subvert the young Socialist state; refusing to accept the revolutionary government and the Albanian Communist Party as the legitimate representatives of the people; sending flotillas of warships to intimidate the people who had suffered so much to rid their country of two fascist armies; and supporting the collaborating monarchist Fascists in neighbouring Greece in a Civil war against the working people and peasantry it was no wonder the state took a hard-line against any such counter-revolutionary activity.

It wasn’t as if the Roman Catholic Church had a spotless reputation when it came to popular movements. The Church was an open and fervent support of Franco, in Spain, against the legitimate government in the Civil war of 1936-39. Eugenio Pacelli (also known as Pius XII) was still in control of the Vatican after collaborating with both the Italian and German Fascists during the Second World War. He had no love of Socialism and supported the violent suppression of the attempts of building socialism in Bavaria (where he was Papal Nuncio) in 1919. And in Albania itself high ranks in the Catholic hierarchy opening consorted with the invading forces of both Italy and Germany.

Catholic priest in league with Hitlerites

Catholic priest in league with Hitlerites

So claims of ‘innocence’ by these priests have to be taken with a significant pinch of salt. The time of the ‘revolutionary priests’ of South America were a few decades into the future. All these priests had been brought up in an environment of Fascism and anti-Communism. they wouldn’t easily have dropped that stance and stood with the people. 

We know the names of the Franciscans in the picture as their names are stitched into their clothing – as if their mothers didn’t want them to lose their cassocks. The image was painted four years before the decision about the ‘Blessed martyrs’ was taken and in 2012 the expectation must have been that Luigj Palio (the one at the top with the mustache) would have been among their number. He didn’t make the cut, however, for a reason I don’t know. 

I don’t find this a particularly good painting – on any level. It lacks the bitterness and hatred of the other three in the building and also any lack of humour. By inter-twining the colours of the Papacy (yellow and white) with those of the Albanian stated (red and black) the artist seeks to give the impression of the close relationship with the present day capitalist country of Albania. However, the Catholics are very much a minority, their heartland being the area around the town of Shkodër itself.

The crown of thorns on the crucified Christ morphs into thick thorns bushes that line the inside of the arch at the top of the picture and then transform themselves into barbed wire around the crosses in the centre of the picture and creeping down to the church candles, symbolising what Sheldija considers to be persecution of religion. 

As this is a Franciscan church an image of St Francis of Assisi is included, standing before the crucified Christ, his hands facing the viewer so that the ‘stigmata’ (the wounds of Christ) can be seen in the palms of his hands together with a spot of blood on the outside of his cassock on the right hand side.  

One of the friars, Bernardin Palaj, standing on the right hand side of the image, holds a large green book in his hands, symbolising his ‘intellectual’ status.

An image of the very Franciscan church dominates the centre of the picture with the clock and bell tower rising up into the top right corner.

At the apex of the arch is an angel dressed in a purple dress, carrying a large bunch of branches. It’s difficult to make out exactly what they are, they don’t look like olive – which would be a symbol of peace (and also victory – after all the Catholic church has got back what it always wanted in Albania, that is a capitalist state). Another theory would be that the angel is bringing vegetation to cover the guns that the friars were to hide on the basement of the church.

Sheldija was obviously educated and trained under a Socialist system and the influence of Socialist realist style was still great in the 1990s, such that – apart from the content – it would have been stylistically indistinguishable from works by his contemporaries. However, like so many ‘intellectuals’ Sheldija sought to bite the hand that had fed him and used his skills to attack Socialism for the benefit of ignorance and obscurantism. 

These have been the most political paintings I’ve seen in any of the churches I have visited in Albania. It’s not surprising that these should be in Shkodër as this was the Catholic heartland. In that city you don’t come across any Greek Orthodox churches, although there are at least three mosques.

At the same time Shkodër was also the place that the first Communist cells were established that later led to the foundation of the Communist Party of Albania (later the Party of Labour of Albania). Not surprising really, it’s in those locations of the greatest reaction that the seeds of revolt germinate and grow. Then and in the future!

Location:

The Franciscan church is in the narrow street Rruga At. Gjergji Fishta which passes to the left hand side of the Intesa Sanpaolo Bank at the bottom end of the pedestrianised street Rruga Kolë Idromeno in the centre of town, just beside the Big Mosque.

GPS:

N 42.067372

E 19.515415

DMS:

42° 4′ 2.5392″ N

19° 30′ 55.494′ E

The bas reliefs and mosaics of the Vlora Palace of Sport

 

Facade of Vlora Palace of Sport

Facade of Vlora Palace of Sport

Although they are being neglected, and sometimes need dedication and determination to view them, there are still a number of artistic works from the Socialist period on many of what would have been public buildings. The most impressive (and becoming one of the most neglected) is the grand mosaic on the facade of the National Historical Museum in Tirana. Another example, which can easily be missed, is the bas-relief on both the north and south sides of the Palace of Sport in the town of Vlora. Even more easily missed are the two interior mosaics on either side of what would have been, in the past, the main entrance to this sports centre.

The Palace of Sport (now the home of the town’s basket ball team, Flamurtari – the same name as the football team whose home ground is in the long-established stadium less than a hundred meters from the hall) is located at the bottom end of Rruga Sadiki Zotaj, the main street running from north to south through the town, at Sheshi Pavarësia (Independence Square). Although the facade, and the square in front of it, has had some cosmetic work done in recent years the money seems to have run out for any further modernisation of the interior of the main entrance. For this reason, to the casual visitor, the building looks abandoned – like so many public buildings dating from the 1970s and 80s – with graffiti scaring the white paint work and entrance to the court is now at the back of the building.

Flamurtari signifies ‘flag bearer’, not in the personal sense but in the figurative sense. Vlora ‘prides’ itself as being the town where formal independence was declared in 1912, hence the very large monument to the event at the northern end of the main street. So it’s the town that is the standard-bearer. This was emphasised during the time of Socialism but now gets formal acceptance by most of the so-called ‘democratic’ political parties whilst they preside over the very real giving away of that very independence so hard-fought for. For the workers and peasants the day of true independence was achieved on 29th November, 1944, when the Fascists were defeated throughout the country. That celebration is now sidelined and ignored by the bourgeois parties as it would mean a recognition of the role of the Communist Partisans in the National Liberation War.

The Bas Reliefs

Southern Bas Relief

Southern Bas Relief

Of the two the bas-relief in the best condition is the on the southern face of the building, on the right as you look at the main entrance. This is probably solely down to the fact that it looks down upon one of the expensive bars attached to one of the hotels that are mushrooming throughout the country. The bas-relief is high up and as with all such of the Socialist period it tells a story.

Starting from the bottom we have a number of athletes taking part in various sports, both representing sport in general as well as some of the activities that would have taken place in the building. On the extreme left is a male in the act of about to throw a discus. Next are two males wrestling. These images represent those sports that were practised in classical antiquity to date.

Matters are brought up to date with the next images of two females. One is in the act of leaping to throw the ball, clasped in both her hands, into an unseen netball ring. Her opponent is also leaping, her right arm high above her head, in an attempt to prevent the goal.

Next in line is a return to antiquity with a male with his back to us. His right arm is stretched behind him and in his right hand the he holds the shaft of a javelin. He is running forward and the tension can be seen in his body as he is just about to put everything into his throw. Finally, amongst this group, we have another female facing towards the back of the building. She has her arms outstretched, her right leg raised and bent at the knee whilst she stands on her toes on her left. The element of grace in this image indicates that she is a gymnast, following a floor exercise.

There is a suggestion of gender difference here as the males are involved in trials of strength whilst the women are following those sports which in the past were considered more appropriate for females.

This traditional idea is challenged somewhat in the image above the first group. Here we have a group of ten runners, seven male and three female. The fact that the two genders are introduced in the same race seems to indicate that here is represented something akin to the modern-day marathons where gender plays no role in the entry qualifications. It also represents athletics in its purest and most basic, running needing no special equipment – despite what the sports manufacturing companies spend a fortune in promoting.

The three women are at the back of the group and for some reason one of them is actually looking backwards. As they are all running at full pace this is difficult to explain. The only time an athlete would be looking backwards would be at the time of changeover in a relay race but this doesn’t make sense here.

The idea of any gender difference gets blown out of the water in the final panel on the left hand side of this bas-relief. Here we have a group of five standing males (with their left legs forward) and four kneeling females (their right knees on the ground, the foot being bent, whilst the left leg is bent at the knee and the foot firmly place on the ground for stability) all in the act of firing, or about to fire, their weapons. The rifles are pressed against their shoulders, their left hands on the barrel and their right fingers on the trigger.

Rifle Practice

Rifle Practice

The figures are presented in a row, the one behind slightly in front of the one before, the symmetry of their stance being demonstrated by the left legs of the males stepping forward and the left, bent, leg of the females. This all gives an impression of depth on a flat plane.

As is almost always the case in Albanian Socialist Realist Art there is an indication that Socialism is something that represents all the people, from whatever part of the country they might come call their homeland, whether they be peasants or workers. The male closest to the viewer is dressed in the jacket and hat that is most associated with the mountains. He also seems to have a brez (a wide cloth belt) around his waist, as seen on the statue of Bajram Curri in the northern town which bears his name. We only really see the heads of the figures behind the first but all the faces are different and they all display different characteristics but it’s not easy to define ethnicity. What can be seen is that two of the others are wearing caps, the last two being bare-headed.

From the images of the women we can get no idea of their background, all of them being dressed in what, at the time, would have been, more or less, the uniform of the militia. This, for women, meant a step away from tradition as although it might be very attractive in its own right such clothing was not entirely practical for modern warfare – although there are images of fighting women in traditional clothing in lapidars such as the Arch of Drashovicë. All four of the women are wearing caps and we can see the long hair of the female closet to the viewer.

Here I don’t think that the rifle shooting is being introduced as a sport as it might be considered nowadays. However there is a link between sport and the armed militia. Physical activity would have been encouraged during Socialism and such Palaces of Sport built in all towns and villages to promote the well-being of the people. After centuries when the vast majority of the population would have been living a subsistence existence the last thing on the minds of the ruling class would have been the promotion of a strong and healthy working class or peasantry – especially one that knows how to use modern weapons. On the other hand a Workers’ State depends upon an armed and trained militia to defend itself against the many attacks made by the defeated capitalists.

(Witness the hysteria in capitalist countries about any weapon in the hands of ordinary people whilst at the same time the state spends billions on weapons which are accessible only to their puppet armed forces in times of conflict – which can just as easily be used against their own population if the workers ever decide to get up off their knees and oppose oppression and exploitation.)

When it comes to nutrition things haven’t changed a jot in the present day. The cheapest foods available in the vast majority of countries tends to be the most unhealthy in the short and long-term. Just consider the proliferation of fast food outlets throughout the world and in present day Albania the cheapest food is the fatty meat and ‘E’ numbers laden sauces that make up sufflaqe, or its local variants.

It has to be remembered that military service was obligatory for all young people in Albania during Socialism and there is no point in having weak and sickly soldiers (of whatever gender) to defend the homeland. The poor health of so many young men after a century and a half of the Industrial Revolution in capitalist Britain showed how badly the working class had fared in that time and was dramatically demonstrated when they were expected to go to the front in the murderous, imperialist war of 1914-19 (euphemistically called the ‘Great War’ by some).

Another aspect that should never be forgotten, and a matter I have constantly stressed when writing about Albanian Socialist Realist Art, is that in these images the women are armed. Armed with modern weapons but also with an ideology that uses that armed force for the benefit of women within the general society. So far, on this blog, when describing the lapidars, when weapons are an integral part of the image, the only one where the women have NOT been armed is on the bas-relief in Bajram Curri, a later piece of art which, in some ways, presaged the future.

Even though armed and provided with more equal rights than in any other country worldwide the Albanian women, just like the men, threw away those conditions in favour of short-term material gains and so-called bourgeois ‘freedoms’. This has led to the present situation where the country has lost any semblance of independence and with an economy that is totally at the whims and mercy of international financial interests and investment.

Although the primary focus of this bas-relief is towards the front of the building, looking from right to left, the firing men and women are directing their anger towards the back of the structure, otherwise they would be shooting their comrades in the back.

All of the images so far have been placed on a background in the shape of a lower case J. I have tried to work out the meaning of this but without success. Working on the basis that all aspects of such a work of art mean something this one has got me beat.

What is relatively clear, however, is the grouping of the flags at the top of the image, above the sporting and military figures. There are an uncountable number of them, at the top of flag poles whose serried ranks again give an impression of depth. However they are fluttering in both directions. This is obviously impossible. As I’ve stated elsewhere Socialist Realism doesn’t mean realistic imagery, it’s allegorical and attempts to tell a story in a new and innovative manner.

Banners above the military

Banners above the military

One interpretation of this image is that it’s a transitional stage to what we see as part of the main image to the left, that they are leaves of a book and, by extension education in general. Sporting expertise without education just provides society with such as the rich, mindless and illiterate footballers in the modern game, unable to string two words together in any known grammatical structure. Being able to kill people without an understanding of the political situation in which this killing takes place only produces mercenary killers and not liberation fighters.

The main subjects of this bas-relief are two athletes, a man and a woman, running flat out, their legs as wide apart as is possible when in a race. They are running on the bottom curve of the ‘J’ and their hands reach as high as the flags. There’s obviously a classical reference here, the only difference being that the two figures are clothed, the man with shorts but bare-chested whilst the female wears shorts and a T-shirt (female public nudity not being an element of Socialist Realism). On their feet it is easy to make out that they are wearing running shoes.

They are runners but not only runners. Within this image there are a number of ideas. We have the fact that they are healthy and fit, capable of strenuous activity that is not connected with work but for pleasure.

The woman is closest to us. She has her left arm fully outstretched behind her and her right arm is fully extended above her head. In that right hand she holds a rifle close to the end of the barrel, the rest of the weapon hidden by her arm and body. Her face is in semi-profile and her long hair flows out behind her by the force and speed of her forward movement.

Allegory of Socialism

Allegory of Socialism

The male is partially hidden by the female. His left arm is fully extended above his head, parallel and just behind the right arm of the woman. His hand grips the handle of a pickaxe just where the shaft meets the metal cross-piece. To all intents and purposes the rifle and the pickaxe are touching. This is in reference to the revolutionary slogan of the Party of Labour of Albania ‘advancing towards Socialism with the pickaxe in one hand and the rifle in the other’. This is interpreted as meaning that work alone will not achieve Socialism unless it is protected by the same level of force of those capitalist and imperialist forces who seek to deny working people the control over their own lives and the wealth of their country.

As if it is not enough to run with a heavy pickaxe held high he is also carrying a large book in his right hand, pressing it against his waist.

The whole combination of elements surrounding these two young people is an attempt to show how the society – at the time of its creation – was going forward towards Socialism. This relief was almost certainly inspired by the statue of the ‘Worker and Kolkhoz Woman’ (1937) by Vera Mukhina, presently situated at the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy in Moscow.

This bas-relief is in a good condition and it looks like it has very recently been cleaned and repainted. As I’ve already stated it faces down on a fancy cafe attached to a new 4 star hotel. It’s good that this ‘public face’ has been respected – but as so few people actually look up higher than their own eye level I don’t know how many have actually noticed this unique and interesting piece of history.

Unfortunately fate has not been as kind to the mirror image that is in a similar location on the north side of the building. I say a ‘mirror image’ but that’s not quite the case.

Northern bas relief

Northern bas-relief

Most of the elements on the south facade are repeated but with a few minor differences. On the bottom panel where five different sports are represented, new ones have been inserted. From left to right we have; discus throwing, weight lifting, netball, wrestling and a female gymnast. Those which are repeats are the same as on the south side apart from the stance of the gymnast. She is still engaged in a floor exercise but here her left leg is on the ground, her right leg raised high behind her. Her right arm is raised high above her head and her left stretched out behind her with her head bent back.

The weight lifter, a male, looks like he has just achieved success in the jerk technique, his left leg bent and his right out behind his body, providing the balance.

The running group above is also slightly different. It’s still a mixed gender group, bunched up as in the early stages of a distance race but this time there are only seven runners.

At the front are two males running almost together, there being little seen of the runner behind apart from his legs. The runner fourth – as is the one in fifth, sixth and seventh – place is a female, we know this by their long hair, flowing behind them. It’s impossible to make out any of the facial features of the runner in fourth due to deterioration of the image.

Long hair for males wasn’t common in Socialist Albania and the press and governments of the capitalist west made a big issue of this in the 1970s when visiting young people were ‘obliged’ to have a haircut at the border if they wanted to get a visa. Whether this was more of an urban myth, promoted to denigrate Socialism, is more than likely it being almost impossible at that time to arrive at the border and obtain an entry visa – very much like it is at present on seeking entry into the belly of the capitalist beast, the United States of America. Stones and glass houses comes to mind.

Anyway, the length of the hair is still the clue to the gender of any person on any public Albanian art from before 1990 – their being no comparative artistic endeavour produced under capitalist controlled Albania. That’s not a surprise, how can you represent the idea of hope and a future when the measure is the amount of material goods one has and in a system that is prone to economic crisis. The image of a rich man or woman surrounded by all they can possess would be seen more as a parody rather than an aspiration for those without anything.

In the panel that shows both men and women firing rifles the stances are very much the same, the men standing and the women kneeling, but here the number of women has been reduced to three whilst the men stay at five.

However, the ethnic element is still present with the male who is most visible being dressed in a traditional country jacket and hat whilst the other four sport modern caps or go bare-headed.

The arrangement of the flags is the same and the only significant difference between the two main characters of the story is that what they held in their right hand on the south facade they now hold in their left, and vice versa.

Deterioration to north facing bas relief

Deterioration to north facing bas relief

As I’ve stated before his bas-relief is not in as good a condition as the one on the other side of the building and hence is sometimes difficult to read clearly. It’s north facing and doesn’t get the same amount of sunshine and that has led to a proliferation of black mould. Lack of cleaning and maintenance also means that the plaster is starting to come away in places. This deterioration is quite noticeable in the five and a half years between my visits to the Vlora Palace of Sport. It also suffers from looking out over a dusty, dirt car park and probably not noticed by the vast majority of people who might pass by. A little bit of tender loving care wouldn’t go amiss – although I think that’s highly unlikely to happen in the near future.

Of the artist I have no information whatsoever. Normally such works would have been created by local sculptors, especially in the late 1970s early 80s when I estimate this building was constructed. But who I have yet to discover.

The Mosaics

Traditional Sport

Traditional Sport

To appreciate the bas reliefs you only have look up from the street when passing by, close to the ferry port. However, there are a couple of gems that can only be seen by looking through the dirty windows of the unfinished renovation of the main entrance hall to the building, fronting on to the main street.

These are two mosaics which tell the story of the development of sport in Albania from the period in the past when ‘sport’ used the technology available at the time to the late 20th century when sport became much more of an organised activity.

The first mosaic is seen inside the left hand entrance to the building. Here all the individuals are dressed in the everyday clothing of the peasantry up to the end of the 19th century. They are engaged in what we now call sport but would have been more a form of local entertainment in the past, as well as competition between the young men to attract the attention of the nubile women as has been the case in tribal societies throughout the world for millennia – there’s only one woman portrayed on this mosaic but she is there as part of a political statement rather than a participant in competitive activity.

This last statement is not made as a criticism of the imagery on the mosaic. Women were involved in the actual fighting against foreign invaders from very early times. This was especially the case from the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The ‘People’s Heroine’ Shote Galica, who is often depicted in photos as heavily armed as any man, died young (at the age of only 32) and was a virtual legend in her time. She was commemorated during Socialism by the marking of her grave in Fushe-Kruja and a large bust of her in Kukës.

The involvement of women, especially those we now call teenagers, in the struggle for the liberation of their country increased exponentially in the anti-fascist liberation war – the example of Liri Gero and the 68 young women of Fier being a fine example. Many fine young women of Albania fought and died for their liberation – one of the reasons their sacrifice and effort was celebrated during Albania’s Cultural Revolution and on lapidars throughout the country.

The ‘progressives’ in capitalism ‘celebrate’ when women crash through the ‘glass ceiling’ – when most of them do exactly the same as the men in the positions they achieve, that is make capitalism function at the expense of the workers and peasants (just refer to the experience under of Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi or Margaret Thatcher). True ‘female liberation’ occurs when women use their bravery, initiative and ability to wield a weapon to gain their freedom and in so doing aid the liberation of all the oppressed and exploited – as happened in China and Albania.

Back to the image. In the top left hand corner there are two men standing and facing one another. Their elbows rest on a flat surface and their right hands are clasped together. They are arm wrestling. The image I have in mind with this activity (for no other reason than this is how it is normally depicted in cinema) is that they should be sitting but, it seems, in Albania it was carried out standing up. But what more simple a test of strength can you get? One on one, no technology involved, and can be carried out anywhere.

Arm Wrestling

Arm Wrestling

As with the majority of the men on this mosaic they are dressed (starting from the top) in a qeleshe (felt skull-cap), xhaqeta (waistcoat), tirq or brekusha (trousers, sometimes tight, sometimes loose), brez (cloth belt), corape (long socks) and opinga (the shoes that have a ball of sheep skin at the toe to keep the water out – this might be more familiar to those who have seen pictures or the reality of Greek ceremonial soldiers) and in all cases here the balls have been dyed red.

Below them, on the left hand side, is a group of men all huddled together in what looks like a rugby scrum. It can’t be a contact game as they are all wearing loose clothing and that’s definitely a disadvantage if you are going to be chased (and a felt qeleshe is certainly nothing like a modern rugby protective cap). But, so far, I’ve been unable to come across a credible explanation of what they are doing.

Next to them is another conundrum. Here we have a young boy with a rope. If you look carefully you can see there’s a loop in the end of the rope that he holds in his left hand. This is reminiscent of a lasso, but that doesn’t make sense (at least to me) in a society where the principal domestic animals were sheep and goats – not much challenge, surely, in lassoing a sheep? It doesn’t appear to be a skipping rope as if the artist wanted to depict skipping surely s/he would have shown the boy actually jumping in some way. (Here I’m suggesting the artist might have been a woman, however, from what I’ve learnt so far about Albanian Socialist Realist art (of whatever kind) there seems to have been a dearth of women artists. Yes, the role of women was to be celebrated but by works created by men.)

This young boy is dressed slightly different from the men so far described. Most Albanian Socialist Realist works represent people from different parts of the country and this boy is wearing a fustanella, the skirt like attire worn by males (again familiar to those who have seen Greek state ceremonies) and more common in the south of the country.

Whatever the sport it was something that was still common during the period of Socialism. Inside the entrance at the back of the building is a statue of a young woman, this time, swinging the rope above her head.

Female Athlete with rope

Female Athlete with rope

Two central figures dominate the mosaic. One is a male who is on the point of loosing an arrow from his bow. Although the bow and arrow was the precursor of the gun this weapon doesn’t appear that often in the imagery of the late 1960s to the mid 80s. Yes there are a lot of them shown on the murals in the Skenderbeg Museum in Kruja and might appear as the accoutrements of war in other images, but rarely as a truly aggressive weapon of war. And the Kruja murals are a relatively late addition to the pantheon of Socialist Realist Art and appeared at a time when the politics in the country were starting to undergo major changes.

(If we go to the National Historical Museum, there is only one bow and three arrows on display, indicating it wasn’t that common a weapon of war. The rest of the fighting relics are heavy axes, spears or halberds or pole-axes. Warfare in those times wasn’t in any way sophisticated, you won the battle if you were able to bludgeon to death more of them than there were of you.

For me the cheapest weapon of choice in a mountainous country is the sling shot or the hand-held catapult. Simple to make, as cheap as the surrounding materials, i.e., free, and deadly as any modern rifle in the hands of an expert. David slew Goliath with a pebble and in the early days of the armed struggle of the Communist Party of Peru in the 1980s a sling shot took its toll on the enemy. Or just drop a stone from a great height, images of such activity being common throughout the art galleries of the country. Any guerrilla army uses whatever is to hand to defeat the enemy, the enemy’s technology often being its weakness more than its strength in unfamiliar circumstances.)

He is also dressed in the traditional clothing of the time but with a very loose and long flowing sleeve. Now I’m no expert in archery but I would have thought flowing sleeves are not the type of clothing to be wearing in a war like situation. And if you are going to choose the bow and arrow as your weapon of choice it would seem to make sense to protect the very vulnerable fleshy part of the forearm. The British archers who were so crucial to the victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415 knew this and had leather arm guards.

I don’t think I’m nitpicking on this issue. Socialist Realist Art is not real representation of an event or situation but at the same time it can’t go so far from reality as to cause a suspension of disbelief. As I suggested in the post about the bas-relief in Bajram Curri the greater the period of time between a revolution and its depiction the greater will be the disparity between the image and the accepted reading of the event shown.

The debate about what is truth in history will go on for many more years than I will be around and ultimately depends upon the perception of the victor. If the victor historically is ‘defeated’ many years later then we are into a different ball game. The ‘re-writing’ of history has been going on for a long time and takes place today. However, in a Socialist society which is attempting to write a history for the working people it is incumbent upon artists to get the ‘facts’ correct. After all, however little they might be receiving in recompense compared to their contemporaries in capitalist societies they live a better lifestyle than the vast majority of the working people.

This is not necessarily wrong if they are doing their job because the task they have been given is an important and crucial one. If they are opportunist and just seek an ‘easy life’ they are no better than those artists in history who produced works of art, of whatever quality, for a patron who ‘paid the piper and called the tune’.

It is for this reason that what we can call ‘intellectuals’ have a responsibility over and above that of the vast majority of those in a Socialist society. They are privileged in a way no other section of society is or can be. For that reason they have to be held to account in a way that is different from the majority of people. With rights come obligations. Intellectuals have never understood this and this is why they will always have supporters in the capitalist/imperialist countries. Not because they believe in artistic freedom, just the opposite. They just use this myth of ‘freedom’ to challenge any attempt to undermine their control of the world’s wealth and peoples.

This is a call for intellectuals in any future society to know their place, to take pride in the privileged position they hold and to stay faithful to the people who have put them in that position.

Armed Resistance

Armed Resistance

The woman is shown with a rifle to her shoulder and she is in the act of firing in the opposite direction to the male, that is towards the right edge of the panel. This is not a modern weapon but something that would have been around during the middle to the end of the 19th century, having a much longer barrel than later weapons. We don’t see much of her face but we are shown her right eye open as she sites her target. Her head is covered in a scarf and she is wearing a white, long-sleeved dress which reaches down to her ankles. Over this she has a purple, sleeveless waistcoat. Around her waist is a belt with a large golden buckle. Over all this there is a long either woollen or sheepskin open jacket, which extends down to her knees. On her feet she has leather shoes with the toe curled upwards. These are a version of the opinga, with the curve upwards at the toe but it was only the men who wore the shoes with the woollen ball attached.

Both these characters stand on a stylised platform representing the hills and mountains of Albania. As in many paintings and lapidars this places the scene firmly in the Albanian context and has been a trope used since the very early days of Albanian Socialist Realism.

The top right of the panel has two males involved in a sword fight. The one on the left has his back to us and is wearing a black xhaqeta (waistcoat) whilst his opponent’s is white – so this could have been the way they delineated the teams – and we see the right side of his face in profile. The other we see his body front on whilst the left side of his face is in profile. There’s no real sense of aggression in this image as the swords, which are crossed at waist height, both point downwards as if parrying an attack. The swordsman on the left has his left hand resting on the top edge of his scabbard, which is worn at his waist and which has a slight curve at the end. This seems to be a bit strange in any contest as a scabbard would only be a hindrance in competition. His opponent, on the other hand, has his left arm extended behind his back (which anyone familiar with present day competition fencing would recognise) aiding in his balance when either attacking or defending. Although it’s not possible to see the end of the swords they look as if they are straight, without any curved ends.

Below the fencers there are two scenes. On the left two males are wrestling against each other, only being able to see the face of the one on the left as the wrestler on the right has his head down, seemingly straining to get an advantage over his opponent.

The other, and last, individual on this panel is of a single male grasping a huge rock to his chest. This is obviously a weightlifting contest, there being an awful lot of rocks in Albania and the only criteria needed in such a competition was to select one that was heavy, no world records being attempted and therefore no strict measurements being needed. This competitor is only the second on this panel to be wearing a fustenella and he is also the only one to be sporting a bushy, black moustache – a sign of his physical age.

Weight Lifter

Weight Lifter

For reasons I don’t understand some (though not all) of the figures, as well as their instruments, are surrounded by a translucent lilac halo. This seems to have little use as the figures and their sports equipment are clearly delineated from the background, which is a light, reddish-brown throughout, and the fact it is not used all the time is even more of a mystery.

At the top and bottom edge of the panel there are geometric, pyramidal, designs in red, white and black, a pattern which is repeated three times along the length of the mosaic. There are no such designs on either edge, the action scenes going to the end on both sides. The whole mosaic has a red wooden border around the four sides.

It might be pertinent to point out (again) that, apart from the woman with a gun – which is an important statement in its own right – women are not shown as taking part in sporting activities, although there must have been sports or games in which peasant women would have taken part on a regular basis. This just goes to show that it’s a bit of minefield when we wish to represent those things of the past in the present – what you leave out being as important as what is included.

Although the location was a building site (in suspension) when I visited, in the summer of 2016, the mosaic looks in a reasonably good condition, a little dusty, perhaps, but not showing any real signs of damage – either intentional or accidental. I wasn’t able to ascertain what the plans were in completing the renovation of this area but it is hoped that when it is eventually finished and people pass on the way to the basketball games they will be able to appreciate a little of their cultural past (although a local person I spoke to, who had visited the Sports Palace during the period of Socialism, couldn’t remember these mosaics).

I’m not exactly sure of the date of this mosaic but there is a clue (possibly) to the artist as in the very bottom, right hand corner (just below the right foot of the weight lifter) are the letters ‘LNSH’. Who that represents I have yet to discover. If that is the artist it would date the mosaics more towards the late 1980s as it was in the final period of Albanian Socialist Art that attribution, either names or initials, started to appear on the works.

Modern Sport

Modern Sport

The panel representing modern sport is of exactly the same size of that depicting traditional sport and can be found on the right hand side of the main entrance hall. (I didn’t measure the panels but a rough estimate would be that they are about 2.5 metres high by 8 metres long.)

This modern panel contains much more movement as well as being more colourful, the athletes wearing clothing appropriate to their sport rather than what was the normal, everyday clothing which is seen in the representation of the traditional sports.

In the top left hand corner there’s a group of seven young women taking part in a medium to long distance run – they’re all bunched up which wouldn’t be the case in a sprint. They are in various colours, both in their shorts and vests. This is a very much more modern representation of women who have come a long way in a short number of years. Pre-liberation the role of women in Albania was very different from what it became under Socialism. After 1944 women were involved in all aspects of society and it should be remembered that there was only one woman depicted in the ‘traditional’ panel so the inclusion of this large group tells the story of how things had changed in a matter of very few years.

Of the seven we see four of the faces in profile, one in semi-profile, one just the hair and one who seems to be looking out at the viewer, smiling. In fact there’s no impression of real effort on the faces of any of the young women. They are running for pleasure not for the victory. This is especially the case of the one in yellow vest who we see in full face. She seems to be saying ‘this is fun, join in’. Whilst all of them have their arms and hands moving in rhythm to their legs she seems to be waving at the viewer, the palm of her hand facing outwards.

The happy runner

The happy runner

And amongst all the colours there’s no sign of the ubiquitous number plate which has become obligatory in individualistic sports, where the winning is all and the participation of those non-competitive are considered a nuisance.

Neither are they running in specialist footwear but simple, light shoes. This has become an industry in its own right, causing all kinds of problems for parents whose children wouldn’t even consider running around a proper track but need this ‘specialist’ footwear just to go to school.

Here we get the representation that sport is something that should be encouraged but not something that becomes the be all and end all. I’ll accept that this was distorted under revisionism where sport was another battlefield in the so-called ‘Cold War’, but that’s not what it should be in a Socialist society.

Following the same pattern as in the previous panel, there is action on two different levels.

Below the female runners we have a couple of males playing football. One of them, on the left, is in a red strip, with a red shirt, shorts and socks, whilst the other is in a blue shirt with white shorts and yellow socks. They compete over a football, both their right feet almost in contact. It’s clearly seen that they are wearing football boots.

To their right is a swimmer just about to leave the starting block in a race. He’s wearing a yellow skull-cap and green swimming trunks and both his arms are thrown back just at the second before he leaps off the block. There’s a bluish-green representation of the water in the pool just where he’s about to jump.

To the right of him is a female netball player, at full stretch as she leaps off the ground attempting a goal, the ball firmly grasped in both hands. She’s wearing a red vest and green shorts.

As in the previous mosaic the central figures take up (almost) the whole height of the panel. Here again it is a young man (on the right) and young women (on the left), but in an image that is full of meaning.

The Pickaxe and Rifle

The Pickaxe and Rifle

They both face out directly towards the viewer and both are dressed in a red vest and white shorts. They appear as if they are slowing approaching us along a red running track. But these are not ordinary athletes. On her right shoulder a rifle hangs from a strap. We can see the top of the barrel just to the left of her head and the dark, wooden butt peaks out behind her thigh. She grips the strap with her right hand, at chest height.

Her left arm is fully extended and clasps the hand of her male comrade. He is slightly taller than her so is right arm is slightly bent at the elbow. His left arm is also fully extended above his head and he grips a pickaxe handle, at the top of the shaft just before the metal cross-piece. Here, as on the bas reliefs on the exterior of the building, we have the visual expression of the slogan of the Party of Labour of Albania; ‘With a pickaxe in one hand and a rifle in the other, marching forward towards Socialism’. Their clasped hands providing a physical connection between the two parts of the slogan.

Behind their raised arms flutter a group of red flags. The poles of these flags can be seen either side of the male’s head, framed by his upraised arms. These do not carry the symbols of the black double-headed eagle or the gold star of the national flag of the Albanian People’s Republic so these red flags simply represent the Communist movement in general.

Their stance is mirrored in that their right foot is forward and the left close behind, partly hidden. It is here that the first signs of damage, on either of the mosaics, appears. The tiles around the male’s ankle have fallen away and it appears that a somewhat amateurish repair has been made, basically filling the area with plaster. But there is also evidence that this area has had problems in the past as there’s a sizeable area to the right of his feet where the tiles have been replaced but in such a manner that the repair is evident.

Immediately to the right of the two central figures is a male handball player. He mirrors the female netball player on the other side. He is also dressed in a red vest and green shorts, is leaping off the group and is just about to hit the handball with his right hand. The mirror image includes the arching of their backs as they attempt to put as much effort as possible into scoring their goal.

The next image, that takes up the top, right hand corner of the panel contains two parts, one of which is slightly disturbing. The right hand side of this depiction, on the very edge of the panel, is a male and a female, both in the uniform of the People’s Army, including the red stars on their caps, in the act of firing their rifles out of the panel. They have their rifles up to their shoulders and both are kneeling. Behind them, and standing up as she fires, is another female soldier/militia woman firing her rifle. Long, dark brown hair spills out under her cap, which also displays a red star. This little detail says quite a lot as in many parts of the country these small representations of Communism have been vandalised

So far so good. In a Socialist country, constantly being threatened from outside (and by inside renegades and traitors) it’s quite rational that fire arms practice should appear on a panel which is devoted to sport.

Another aspect of defence is that a healthy and fit militia force is much more effective than the sickly individuals that make up so much a proportion of the young population in many capitalist countries in the present day. It’s somewhat ironic that a hundred years after the First World War (where so many conscripts were basically unfit to fight) the health levels of the young people in a country like Britain are at as bad a level as they were following the century of capitalism using, or more accurately abusing, people’s bodies for profit. A hundred years ago it was by exploiting young people in the factories, mills and mines of Britain, now it’s in feeding them cheap, fatty, over-sugered so-called ‘fast’ and convenience foods – and blaming them for their condition.

Being hit by a rifle butt

Being hit by a rifle butt

The disturbing portion of this image is to the left of the rifleman and women. Here we have a militia man hitting, seemingly at full force, another militia man in the face with the butt of his rifle. The militia man doing the hitting wears a cap with a red star (and it’s also possible to see the bayonet fixed, if you look closely enough) but the reaction of the man being hit is real, this is not play acting. I can accept that hand to hand combat is part of military training but this seems to be an extreme manner in which to represent this sort of training. Your aim is to kill or disable the enemy, not your own side.

Finally, in the bottom right hand corner, matters return to the ideal of sport rather than training.

In the same location as in the panel on traditional sport there are two men wrestling. Now no longer encumbered by clothing and constraints of the culture of yore they are shown more akin to the wrestlers of classical times. They wear shorts, one is in red, one in blue, and they are head to head in an exact sense as we only see the tops of their heads, the muscles of their bodies straining to get the better of the other.

The last figure is that of a young female gymnast. She is dressed in a pink leotard and is in the act of performing a routine with a ring. Her left hand is outstretched above her head, her right hand grips the ring whilst her left leg is bent high as she stands on tiptoe with her right – all elements giving the impression of movement and grace.

This panel is the same as the first in that the top and bottom of the action is decorated with similar geometric designs and the whole thing is encased in a red, wooden frame.

As I started to look in a detailed manner at the two mosaics I started to think that the images were so different that more than one artist was involved. Then I realised that the same letters, NLSH, can just be made out on the very bottom frieze, between the feet of the footballer on the extreme left, in an area where there has been some slight damage. This made me think that it’s possible the letters don’t refer to an individual but to a collective, the letters SH being the abbreviation of Shqipëri (Albania). So the letters could stand for an artistic grouping – but that’s just speculation

Access to the mosaics isn’t easy. I was able to convince someone in the office (accessed from the entrance at the back of the building) to allow me to see the traditional panel. We went across the basket ball court and then through a temporary barrier to come to an area that is part building site, rubble and debris strewn around.

There is, however, a substantial barrier between the two mosaics at present. Originally all the glass doors at the front of the building would have gained entrance to a common foyer. The stairs up to the main sports hall are located between the two mosaics and the foyer would have served as such places do throughout the world, as a meeting place either before or after the performance.

With the most recent ‘renovation’ this common area has been broken up and a substantial dividing wall now exists between the mosaics. I had to go back early the following morning to meet up with the key holder of the right hand section as this is now the location of the local weightlifting (peshëngritje) club, the mats and weights in the area in front of the Socialist work of art. They could use the image of the weight lifter in the traditional panel as a logo, to give their club a distinctive image but I doubt if anyone has ever thought of that.

Location

The erstwhile Palace of Sport is found set back from the road at the bottom end of Rruga Sadiki Zotaj at Sheshi Pavarësia (Independence Square). This is close to the roundabout that takes you right to the docks and ferry port and straight on to the hotels and beaches (coming from Fier).

GPS

N 40.454991

E 19.487818

DMS

40°27’18.0″N

19°29’16.1″E