Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy
There are fine examples of Socialist Realism in the Armaments Museum in the Castle in Gjirokastra, but you might have to ask to go upstairs to enter this older part of the museum – especially out of the summer season. ‘Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Military’ is one such sculpture.
The Castle in Gjirokastra is the place to visit for any tourist to the city. Not only is it an interesting place historically it also affords a fine view of the old town below as well as the fertile valley (now no longer farmed) and the mountain ranges in the distance. The Armaments Museum is located upstairs, off the main vaulted artillery gallery, just to the left of the new, very much bland, most recent museum manifestation. This is not always open so you may have to look for someone who has the keys but it shouldn’t be a problem and it’s well worth the effort.
The museum was opened in 1971 in what used to be part of the Castle Prison, used extensively in the days of Ahmet Zogu, the pre-war dictator and self-proclaimed king. (The entrance to the prison cells is off the corridor to the Armaments Museum so make the time and the effort to see this part of the castle. At the end of the cells look for the sculpture of The Two Heroines by Odhise Paskali, which commemorates the murder of two female Communist Partisans by the Nazis during the Liberation War.) When society collapsed in the 1990s this museum, along with many throughout the country, was looted of many of its antiquities and anything that was considered of value, as well as attacks on many example of socialist art. However, a number of examples still exist to this day.
(There was obviously discontent within the population and the reasons for that have to be studied and lessons learnt for the future. What is certain is that reactionary, fascist and lumpen elements rode on the back of this discontent and they were responsible for the mindless looting of the country’s many museums (the museum in Bajram Curri is one of the most bizarre I’ve ever entered) as well as the book burning that took place in Skënderbeg Square in Tirana.)
Here I want to just concentrate on one of the statues to be found in the section of the museum that tells the story of the anti-Fascist struggle of the Albanian people under the leadership of the Albanian Communist Party (later known as the Party of Labour of Albania) led by Enver Hoxha.
The sculpture was inspired by the novel ‘The General of the Dead Army’ by the Gjiroskaster born Albanian writer Ismail Kadare. The writer, who achieved fame during the Socialist period of Albania’s past, left the country for the capitalist west when everything fell apart in the 1990s – like many ‘patriotic’ intellectuals.
This statue, which I’m calling Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Military (as I don’t know its official name) depicts a woman, larger than real size, with her right arm outstretched and her finger pointing into the distance indicating that the other two individuals should ‘Go’ – to where we do not know but the impression we get is that they are not wanted here – ‘here’ being Albania.
Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy
We know that she is Albania as there are many representations of her throughout the country, most notably the huge statue of Mother Albania that holds the red star in her upraised hand in the National Martyrs’ Cemetery in the hills overlooking Tirana. The sensation on looking at this woman is that she is strong and determined, not just physically but in the way that she exudes confidence. She knows what she wants and she knows how to get it. And one way to make sure that she gets what she wants is the possession of the rifle, the barrel of which she holds in her left hand as it rests on the ground.
And it’s common to see women armed in the many lapidars (Albanian monuments) that still exist throughout the country. This can be seen on works of art as diverse as the mosaic on the facade of the National Historical Museum in Tirana to the statue in the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Lushnje to the (now sadly abandoned and discarded) commemoration to the young heroine of the National Liberation War, Liri Gero.
(Here it might be useful to remind readers, or inform them if they didn’t know before, that the revolutionary slogan of the Party of Labour of Albania (as the Albanian Communist Party was known throughout the period of socialist construction) was: ‘To build socialism holding a pickaxe in one hand and a rifle in the other.’ And this should be remembered when analysing those works of art produced in that period. This meant that the success of socialist construction depended upon armed workers and peasants, ever vigilant against attempts to destroy workers’ power. This has its parallel in the history of Chinese Communism with the famous quote from Chairman Mao Tse-tung that ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’.)
We also know the woman is Albania as her skirt morphs into the mountains of the country. Those mountains define the country. They have shaped the culture, determined its history, formed its economic development, delineated its tribal and ethnic structure, moulded the thinking of its people and provided the environment in which they were able to resist invaders for centuries. As well as all that those mountains provide the visitor with some of the finest scenery in southern Europe.
So the woman arises from, emerges out of, the soil of Albania, she is a result of the history that has gone before, she is part of a tradition that fights against ignorance, oppression and death. And those elements are represented by the two other characters in the sculpture, much smaller physically than the women, again a statement of their respective relevance to the country.
Mother Albania Expelling The Priest and The Monarchy (detail)
One is the priest. He wears the traditional dress of a Catholic priest at the early part of the 20th century. We know he’s Catholic as he clasps a Bible in his hands, there’s a cross inscribed on the front cover. If the woman is confident he is the opposite. He is bent almost double and looks afraid and unsure of himself. He looks questioningly at the other individual. Is he after answers, reassurance, support? That’s for us to decide. What we do know is that he’s not going to get any of what he may be after. By expelling him from the country Albania is ridding the country of ignorance, superstition and obscurantism.
That’s because the other is not concerned with the priest, he’s more concerned for himself. He’s scowling and has an angry look on his face. He’s probably as angry at the priest as he is at Albania; one is throwing him out of the country and the other weak and clinging. He is dressed in some sort of uniform, with a long trench coat, and represents all the rest of the problems that the Albanians had endured over the years such as the self-proclaimed king – who was also an oppressive landlord in his own right – as well as the dictatorial military regime. These forces of reaction produced nothing but death, represented by the skulls which he holds in a cloth in his hands and which can be seen under his coat, at his feet.
In the sculpture Albania is banishing these feudal remnants from the country forever but history has shown that if the workers are not vigilant then those same forces defeated one year will come back the next, and with a vengeance, if they are given the opportunity.
The statue could do with a bit of dusting – but then many of the museums throughout the country suffer from neglect to one extent or another. Nonetheless this is a fine example of socialist realist sculpture still on (limited) show in Albania.
(Albania is in a bit of a quandary about its past (a situation that you also experience in the erstwhile Soviet Union). If it ignores the anti-Fascist struggle against both the Italian and German invaders, which was led to victory by the Communist Partisans, then there’s not much to put in the museums. It might not be wise to remind the people of the condition of their grandparents when that existence was one of feudal oppression in the 20th century. Economic ‘liberalisation’ also means that the museums are being starved of resources and I’ve not found it so easy to get the information I would like (at least so far) and cannot provide accurate details about all the works of art I hope to post on the blog. So if any reader has any information then I would be grateful if they could pass it on. Perhaps then the picture of Albanian Socialist Realist Art will be more rounded.)
There’s a unique lapidar in Gjirokaster, in southern Albania, which was erected to commemorate the struggle for education in the Albanian language when the country was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. This monument to education is an obelisk in the shape of a stylised scroll, or a certificate rolled up, upon which are carved images depicting the struggles of the past as well as the intentions for the future. Its official name is ‘Obelisku kushtuar pionierëve të arsimit shqip’ (‘Obelisk dedicated to the pioneers of education in [the] Albanian [language]’.)
As with many of the Albanian lapidars this one is the result of the collaboration of three sculptors, Mumtaz Dhrami (Heroic Peze, Drashovice, Independence in Vlora, amongst others), Ksenofon Kostaqi (Dancers and Musicians, Gjirokaster) and Stefan Papamihali (Partisan, Gjirokaster). To the best of my knowledge this was inaugurated in 1983 (on the 40th anniversary of the liberation from the Italian Fascists – the Nazis came back for a while) when a number of other monuments were constructed throughout the town.
It’s worthwhile remembering that tiny Albania, because of its strategic position, was the object of desire for many imperialist powers, for a period of more than two thousand years. The last major imperialist power to hold sway in the country for any length of time was the Ottoman Empire based in Turkey. That empire wanted to impose total control and this included the language spoken and taught in schools. Therefore the struggle to maintain and develop the Albanian language was an anti-imperialist and progressive struggle which developed throughout the 19th and into the 29th century.
Education Monument – Zamir Mati
The obelisk is made from the local limestone and the story unravels as you look at it from the face in front of you at the top of the steps and then continues up and around in a clockwise direction.
The first carving is of disembodied hands, one holding a flaming torch, the other a book and an olive branch. These can mean slightly different things depending upon their context and location. The torch can symbolise liberty (as in the Statue in New York Harbour) or light. As this is an education monument it’s more likely representing the light that comes to an individual once they have access to education. The other hand holds both the book and the olive branch symbolising that through reading and education can come peace.
Allegories are always complex. You have to take into account the situation in which Albania found itself in 1983. The break with the Chinese revisionists in the 70s had meant that the country was alone in a hostile, capitalist world. They might have wanted peace but that was going to be difficult to achieve in such circumstances.
(Allegories can also be ironic. On the back of the present US ‘dime’ (10 cent piece), you can also find a torch and olive branch depicted, supposedly representing peace and liberty. There’s been little of that for many of the US population and even less for the peoples in countries where the US considers its interests are at stake. The oak tree, which is supposed to symbolise strength, has become a club with which to beat people, both nationally and internationally.)
Above the image of the hands are the words:
‘Pionierëve të gjuhës shqipe që në vitet e errëta të robërisë mbajtën gjallë dashurinë për liri, arsim, kulturë.’
Which translates as:
‘To the Pioneers of the Albanian language who, in the dark years of captivity, kept alive the love for freedom, education and culture.’
Before continuing around the obelisk look to the building at your back and to the plaque on the wall. The top part reads:
‘Ne kete godine ne shtator te vitit 1908, pas perpjekjeve te shumta te mesonjesve e patrioteve gjirokastrite u cel e para shkolle shqipe per qytetin me emerin ‘Liria’.’
Which translates as:
‘In this building, in September 1908, after numerous attempts by the patriotic educators of Gjirokaster, the first Albanian school in the town was opened, it was called ‘Freedom’
At the bottom of the plaque it states that the building was restored in 2002 with money from the California-based Packard Humanities Institute.
On each occasion I have been to see the lapidar the building has been closed so I don’t know if it contains any more information about the event in 1908.
Back to the obelisk.
Moving clockwise we come across an image of a man and a young boy. The man is dressed in the traditional, countryside, clothing of the beginning of the 20th century, a soft cap (qylafë) on his head down to the tsarouchi shoes (with its woollen pompom to keep out the water). He is armed – no real progress for the people will come unless it is fought for – and he holds a rifle, pointing downwards, in his left hand. Around his waist he wears an ammunition belt. Across his chest are the straps of small satchels that he wears on either side.
The young boy is dressed in more modern, western style dress, more like a suit and his shoes are also from a later period. Across his shoulder is the strap for a school satchel. He represents the future. He is carrying on the legacy that the man has fought for. It’s not always the case that those who do the fighting get the benefit (the many graves in the Martyrs’ Cemeteries are witness to that) but without such sacrifices no society can move on.
The young boy is walking up steps, again an allusion to the future, going upwards and onwards. But he’s not doing this alone. The right hand of the man is resting on the boy’s shoulder, an indication of both support and encouragement, and that hand is connected, through the man’s body, to the rifle. What has been gained by arms will also have to be defended by arms. This is a motif that appears elsewhere in Albania, for example, the statue of the Partisan and Child in Borove and in the Martyrs’ Cemetery at Lushnje.
The Past and the Future
The stance of both of them is confident and they are looking up, into the distance. This is one aspect which appears a great deal in Albanian lapidars – there are few bowed heads in either despair or defeat.
But the boy isn’t just going nowhere – he’s walking into a cloud of positive words that come as a consequence of education. Words that are in a different font, of different sizes but all suggesting the results of a properly organised educational system. Here we are moving away from a strictly historical celebration of the events in 1908. A school might have been established in Gjirokaster (and other locations in the years afterwards) but it wasn’t until the liberation of the country from Fascism in 1944 that the journey along the road of free and universal education was begun. As in most countries in Eastern Europe at that time (apart from the Soviet Union) illiteracy rates were astronomical.
I’m not sure if I’ve got all the words carved into the limestone. As we move around the monument the face that takes all the bad weather, from the north, starts to show signs of wear. However. I’m fairly sure about the majority.
Shoqrite – friendship; undra – wonder; vëllezëria – brotherhood; studenti – students; lidhja – unity; puntoreve – workers; bastiljes – captivity; mesuesue – teachers; drita – light (which was also the name of the magazine of the Albanian Writers and Artists Union, with the same font); shpresa – hope; kandile – oil lamp, candle, light; bashkimi – union.
OK, some of them are not directly connected to education but these words establish the general principles and themes of a socialist state in construction, which is impossible with an uneducated population (and even difficult with) and is why the promise of universal education is a pledge by virtually all national liberation movements, wherever and whenever they might be.
These words are inscribed upon a banner which is being held by the three individuals higher up this part of the obelisk. On the right hand side of the group is what looks like an academic. He’s fairly smartly dressed, perhaps early 20th century sophisticated, but not in a western style, more a wealthy local style that is beginning to adapt to western influences. He is wearing a fez and a topcoat, is grabbing hold of the banner with his left hand and has a book clasped to his chest in his right hand (in the same way as the worker did on the mosaic of the national history museum in Tirana – before its vandalisation). I assume he represents one of those pioneers mentioned before or one of the teachers in the ‘Freedom’ school.
On the left of the group is another man. Again he’s dressed in the style of the early part of the 20th century, but he’s not an academic, he’s a fighter and has hold of the top of the barrel of a rifle in his left hand. His right hand is gripping hold of the banner with the inscribed words of the future. So what we have here are the two forces which achieved the establishment of the school in 1908.
In between is another man, but this time he’s a worker, wearing the type of protective head covering which was typical of an engineer, or someone working in a steel plant, during the socialist period. (We have to remember that, although not producing anything now, Gjirokaster was the Albanian ‘Sheffield’ during socialism, producing the cutlery needs of the country. The deserted buildings alongside the main road from the border towards Tepelene, below the old town, is all that remains of that industry.)
His right hand is stretched out and the tips of his fingers seem to be touching the barrel of the rifle and his thumb is only inches away from the banner. He’s a worker, but everyone in socialism needs to be prepared to take up arms to defend the revolution and be ready to take up the banner of the revolution’s achievements once those that have gone before leave the scene.
High above this group of three, and almost at the top of the column, the double-headed eagle is carved into the stone. There’s no star above the heads as this is a monument to an event before the establishment of the People’s Republic. Above the eagles, in large letters, is the word ‘Baskimi’, meaning union, unity. Below the birds is the word ‘Drita’, meaning light, which is in inverted commas. I’m not sure why. The magazine of that name didn’t exist until more than 50 years later, when using the inverted commas would have been valid. Below that, now fading, is the date 1908.
Continuing the clockwise trajectory there is a fighting group from the end of the 19th century. This is the part of the monument that is most exposed to the elements and some of the images are difficult to make out.
At the bottom of the group a man is kneeling, looking forward, with a rifle in his right hand, the butt resting on the ground.
Above him, at his left shoulder is a group of three, a woman and two young children. She is looking in the same direction as the man below – as I said before, there’s always this symbolism of looking forward, confidently, to the future. She wears a kapica, a long scarf wrapped loosely around her head. In her right hand she is holding the top of the barrel of a rifle. Again, as in many Albanian lapidars and friezes, the women are more often than not armed, for example the Peze War Memorial. Her left hand rests on the left shoulder of a young child. This is the older of the two children, or at least the biggest, looking at his sibling, who is looking at him/her. This is the only one in the group who isn’t looking forward. I can’t make out the gender of the children as weathering and staining are greatest at this point.
Woman and children
So here we have a woman armed yet still protective of children, whether they be hers or not. Women played an active role in Albania’s liberation struggle, to a much greater extent in the war against Fascism but also in the independence battles of the 19th and early 20th centuries. So this woman can either represent all those heroines and/or could represent the idea of Mother Albania, as seen at the Tirana Martyrs’ Cemetery or in expelling the priest and the military from the country in the Armaments Museum in Gjirokaster Castle.
In front of the woman, and slightly above her, is another independence fighter. He is depicted striding forward, always that forward motion, determined and prepared. He holds a flag pole in his right hand, the banner fluttering above his head. It’s impossible to make out if anything is inscribed on the banner, i.e., the double-headed eagle. His left arm is fully stretched out behind him and is holding a rifle at the mechanism end of the barrel, the butt of which is just behind the head of the woman. Often there will be a person in a lapidar who is looking backwards, urging others behind to come forward, as in the monument to the students and teachers just around the corner in Gjirokaster, but here he is using a gesture with his rifle to achieve the same effect.
On both the men so far mentioned you can see the Albanian version of the tsarouchi shoes, with the sheep’s wool pompom at the toe.
Above the banner, and now almost at the top of the obelisk, is a group of three men, one in the act of firing, one about to do so and the third in the process of getting his rifle to his shoulder. We only see their head and shoulders but what can be made out is the type of hat they are wearing. This is a round and flat cap, similar to that worn by Çerçiz Topulli on the statue in the square that bears his name in Old Gjirokaster.
We have now gone around the clock face and are now at the point were we started but now look up higher and see a large group of children with their teacher. Above the group, in large letters, is the word ‘Mëmëdhue’, meaning Motherland – the idea of nationalism being a strong motif, especially in monuments that commemorate those events prior to 1944, after which socialist elements tend to become more dominant.
Then we have the letters ABC, obviously representing literacy, both reading and writing. The only other monument where I have seen this, so far, is on a smaller lapidar to education in the small village of Proger, not far from Korça. (Albanian uses the Latin alphabet but there are 36 letters as opposed to 26 in English.)
Below that is a compressed scene from a school classroom. There are eight children, three girls and 5 boys. These are young children so this is a class where they are learning the basics of the Albanian language. From what I can make out they are wearing some sort of school uniform which indicates to me that the scene is from a country school after liberation as I can’t imagine matters being so organised way back in 1908 (and girls might not have had ready access to education at that time).
Three of them have writing tablets and pens whilst three have books, with the other two it’s not clear. There’s a mix of attention to the teacher being depicted. Four of them are looking at the teacher, one seems to be looking out the window to the mountains, one of the girls has her back to us, another girl is reading and one of the boys is looking straight at us as we view the scene. All but one of the children are bear-headed, and he wears a fez.
Immediately above the group of children we can make out the legs of a blackboard easel, the blackboard itself merging into the rest of the monument. The teacher, to the right of the children, is bare-headed, wears a tie and his dress would seem to fit into the idea that the scene is late rather than early 20th century. In his left hand he holds an open book and in his right hand he holds a ball of chalk as if just about to write something on the board. His index finger is pointing to the B of the letters in an obvious reference to literacy.
The final piece of decoration is a star carved into the stone at its highest point. This is immediately above the hands with the torch, book and olive branch.
Generally the monument is in a good condition and doesn’t look like it has suffered from any vandalism. Where there is some degradation it seems to have been caused by the weather, on the north facing parts of the lapidar.
Holiday in Gjirokaster – Zamir Mati
It’s also in a pleasant location. Whereas the streets of the old town can get busy, especially when large tour groups arrive in coaches for a day trip, I’ve never been to the monument when there have been more than a couple of people there. The fact that the approach is not obvious until you actually find it might be the reason for that. From the small balcony on which it stands you get a great view of both the old and the new town, as well as the mountains on either side of the River Drino valley, looking northwards in the direction of Tepelene. For a few years this would have been a good place to get a high view of the statue of Enver Hoxha that was located just a little lower down the hill (and where there are now a couple of expensive bars). Unfortunately Enver suffered a terminal attack in 1992.
Enver Hoxha, Gjirokaster
How to find it:
Go up hill from Çerçiz Topulli Square and at the junction at the top (about 100m) take the higher of the two roads on the right and then immediately the narrow road on the left. Within a few metres on the right there’s an always open door, as if going into a house. Go up these stairs and through the building – if you smell decay mixed with stale urine then you’re in the right place. Coming out into the open the steps become wider and they take you to the small plateau upon which the obelisk stands.
This small relief, at the bottom of the stairs into a high school in the old part of Gjirokastra, commemorates an event in 1942 when the local students from the gymnasium (college), together with their teachers, demonstrated against, and clashed with, the occupying Italian fascist forces.
This is quite likely to be missed by those who are passing on their way to the Ethnographic Museum (which also happens to be the birth place of the leader of the Partisan Army during the war against fascism and for National Liberation and leader of the Party and the country, Enver Hoxha).
There are a number of documented cases where the local, unarmed, population took to the streets and showed their opposition to the fascist invaders. This is even more remarkable when you consider that there was already a guerrilla war being waged throughout the country and this would pass into another, and higher stage, in September of the same year after the Peze Conference, in a small village just to the south-west of Tirana when the National Liberation War was initiated, under the leadership of the Albanian Communist Party, later the Party of Labour of Albania (PLA).
The organisation of the Communist youth was well established in Gjirokastra by this time, a prominent role being played by Bule Naipi (who was later to be murdered by the Nazis, along with her comrade Persefoni Kokëdhima, in July 1944) and the occupying forces found it difficult to deal with this type of open opposition.
This demonstrated a lot of courage on the part of the Albanian people as the action in Gjirokastra was repeated in many other places, such as Durres. A painting by Sali Xhixha (in the Durres Art Gallery) depicts a demonstration against the Italians in Albania’s most important port and the main bridgehead for their invasion in 1939.
Durres Demonstration – Sali Xhixha
The bas-relief depicts five young people, in the main young and all but one looking in the same direction, that is, towards the left of the viewer. We see little more of the individuals than a head and shoulders.
Gjirokastra High School Relief 02
The young man in the front has a stern expression on his face and has his right arm high in the air and his fist clenched, seeming to indicate he is about to throw a rock at the invaders.
Behind him is a young woman. Her long hair is braided and hangs down over her left shoulder. Her mouth is shown open shouting her defiance.
Gjirokastra High School Relief 03
Next is an older looking male, probably representing the teacher, not least as he is wearing a neck tie. (This is not recommended in demonstration situations as this can easily be grabbed and the wearer is then incredibly vulnerable and can be quickly made ineffective due to the threat of strangulation. It’s also not recommended to have long hair plaited as this offers the military or police forces another way to incapacitate a demonstrator.) He has a stern look on his face but apart from that it’s difficult to read his expression. He is looking in the general direction of the action but we are able to get a view of his face full on.
The next of the quintet is another young man, a student. He is looking away from the main action and we can also see his complete face, rather than the profile of some of the others. He is also shouting, his mouth wide open and has his left arm high above his head – the vegetation on my visit obscuring what, if anything, he has in his hand.
This idea of one of the characters looking in the opposite direction to the main action is a common device in Albanian Socialist Realist sculpture (see the Monument to Heroic Peze and the Peze War Memorial for other examples) as it indicates that there are many other people involved than those we see. These individuals play the role of encouraging those unseen to keep up with the action, whether it be the battle of arms in the mountains or a confrontation with the fascists in the streets of their home towns.
Gjirokastra High School Relief 04
The juxtaposition of this student and the teacher, and way they are looking, also act as a challenge to the viewer. They are asking, sometime mutely, ‘What are you going to do?’
Finally we have another young woman (always a more or less 50/50 representation of male/female protagonists in Albanian Socialist Realist art). She also has longish hair, but this time not tied back in any way. There’s a determined look on her profile as she heads towards the point of conflict.
As a backdrop to these five demonstrators we have the Albanian flag. We get an impression of the folds of the banner in the way the bronze has been moulded. It’s the Albanian flag as we can see the heads of the double-headed eagle on either side of the arm of the first angry student. Unlike on other monuments there’s no obvious sign of a star (the Communist symbol) but this is normally directly over the place where the two eagle heads meet and any such star would be obscured by the upraised arm.
This could have been a deliberate move by the sculptor (so far unknown to me). We know from other circumstances (the Mosaic of the National Museum and the Durres War Memorial, for example) that not all the artists involved in such work prior to 1990 were steadfast in their politics and later could be easily bought.
Gjirokaster Students and Teachers Revolt
At the far right hand side of the monument are the words which explain what it commemorates:
Me 6 Mars, 1942, nxenesit dhe mesuesit e gjimnasit perleshen me forcat e fashizmit
This translates as:
On March 6, 1942, the gymnasium (high school) students and teachers clashed with the forces of fascism (Italian).
The relief had suffered from a certain amount of mindless, yet not too destructive vandalism on my first visit. However, by May 2015 it had been cleaned up and the vegetation cut back so it was much easier to appreciate the story being told. (This element of ‘renovation’ is taking place throughout much of the country, sometimes sympathetic to the original, other times not so much. Nonetheless destructive vandalism seems to have retreated in the last couple of years.)
Being at the bottom of the stairs to the present college building I wonder if any of the students think on this monument and what it represents as they go to school each day – unfortunately, I doubt it.
If you visit this bas-relief it is also worthwhile going up the steps to take a look at another lapidar just to the right of the main entrance to the building.