Radio Kukesi bas-relief

Bas relief on Radio Kukesi - 08

Bas relief on Radio Kukesi – 08

Socialist Albania was a colourful place in its time. Banners would decorate cities on anniversaries of important occasions, such as the Day of Liberation from Fascism, and when conferences and congresses were taking place banners and posters would celebrate these events. Slogans, often quotes from Marxist-Leninist leaders, would call upon the people to work to build Socialism in opposition to a hostile world surrounding the small Balkan country. Many of these symbols of the building of a new society were temporary and would be replaced when another anniversary arose or a different meeting was taking place. However, there were a number of more permanent works of art transmitting this message and one of them is the bas-relief over the main entrance to the local Kukesi Radio Station in the eastern town of Kukes.

(Such decorations would be branded and dismissed as ‘propaganda’ in capitalist countries. They don’t seem to accept or recognise that the advertising hoardings and the signs that abound in city streets to encourage people to buy – often things they don’t really need and often with money they don’t really have – are that social system’s propaganda tools to ‘sell’ the consumer society that is a fundamental of the capitalist system.)

As with many socialist realist artistic creations there is a common theme running through them so images appear again and again with the slight change being determined by the context. Here the central figure is of a worker marching forward. He is dressed in his working clothes with his jacket loose and flowing behind him as he goes forward.

Bas relief on Radio Kukesi - 01

Bas relief on Radio Kukesi – 01

He is the personification of Albania as it confidently marches forward to a new future. He is fit and healthy and the muscles show on his bare arms. And he needs to be fit as he is carrying a flag pole to which is attached a large national flag – the red flag in the centre of which is a black double-headed eagle with a golden star above the two heads.

This flag is held high, over his right shoulder, with his right arm, slightly bent, as he grips the pole at the point where it meets the flag. His left hand is holding the bottom of the pole, the left arm being bent at 90 degrees across his chest. In this way he keeps the banner steady as it gets taken by the wind and streams out, from left to right, above his head.

So here we have Socialism, especially Socialist Albania, with the workers being the only class that can take society forward to a new society.

The bulk of the rest of the image puts this into the specific context of the radio station. In the top left hand corner there’s a large five-pointed star, the two right hand points being obscured by the body of the worker and the flag. From this star radiate the lines and the concentric circles that have been the international symbol of radio since the very first days.

To complete the original work the words ‘Radio Kukesi’ appear in stone, spanning the whole of the narrow edge of the rectangle which holds the bas-relief. It’s also good that those who have been in charge of the decoration of the building have expanded the idea of radio waves continuing to go outwards, with green arcs on a red background, getting gradually longer and thicker, as they move away from the bas-relief.

Originally we would have had the idea not only that the building is a radio station but also the idea that this is Communist truth that is being broadcast. Again, this would be called propaganda by the capitalist and imperialist countries something which they never broadcast, all news in their media being entirely balanced, objective and having no political context whatsoever.

And here, coincidently, we have an example where the different post-Socialist governments (which one exactly I don’t know) since 1990 have used art to distort the truth. Or better to say have distorted the original message by changing the elements on show.

If you look at the top left hand corner you’ll see that there’s a solid star within the bigger star. This seems strange and really you have to ask yourself why would the original artist would have included something redundant when it breaks up the clean and flowing lines of the rest of the bas-relief.

Bas relief on Radio Kukesi - 04

Bas relief on Radio Kukesi – 04

The answer is that this second star hides what was originally in the central circle of the main star.

It’s not immediately clear, and almost impossible to see with the naked eye from street level, but here there are the remains of two elements that were very important in Albanian Socialist iconography. Peaking out on the left hand side of the top point of this new star is the end of a rifle barrel. Needing a little bit more imagination, but obvious when you know what to look for, on the right hand side of this point you can see the end of the cutting edge of a pickaxe.

This is in reference to the revolutionary slogan of the Party of Labour of Albania, which was: ‘To build Socialism holding a pickaxe in one hand and a rifle in the other.’ This means that Socialism can/could only be built by the efforts of the workers through their labour but any advances would have to be defended by the gun if necessary. (This symbol is more evident on the neglected, but still existent, emblem over the erstwhile Party HQ in Peshkopia.)

This particular act of vandalism was done with some forethought, the texture of the new star in some ways mirroring that of the flag. A work that was done through ignorance but not with a total lack of intelligence.

(Reactionary attempts to alter history can, perhaps, be better understood if you consider the monstrosities that go under the name of art that have been placed in public spaces in Tirana (especially) in recent years or the travesty that seeks to honour a young female partisan, Liri Gero, in the town of Fier.)

I don’t know why the new capitalists in Albania do this, appropriating the past but in a vandalised form. Probably because they lack the imagination to put a real artistic alternative in its place. The problem for capitalism is that it cannot put symbols of its political position on such public display as it would only serve to remind the majority of people that they are missing out on something. And there’s only so many times you can place a Coca-cola bottle in such a location before even fans of the poisonous concoction get fed up.

This sort of vandalism is not unknown in ‘free’, capitalist Albania. The most glaring, and most criminal, example is the way the mosaic on the façade of the National Historical Museum has had part of its political message torn from view. That act of political, state sponsored vandalism only being surpassed by the present criminal neglect that sees more and more holes in, and damage to, the mosaic as time goes on.

Individual, mindless vandalism also take place and one example that springs to mind is the way that the name ‘Enver’ (from Enver Hoxha, the leader of the Party of Labour of Albania from its inception till his death in 1985) had been (partially) scratched away from the book in the arms of the young girl in the Bestrove mosaic, just outside the port town of Vlora.

I’d prefer that these examples of Socialist Realist Art were totally destroyed (as were the statues of Enver Hoxha) rather than the ‘new’ old capitalist society appropriating it for its own ‘benefit’. I believe that Albania has some wonderful examples of a new and vibrant art form that will be further developed in the future, if not first in Albania in some other country. But this new art form, and movement, can only benefit the working class when it’s in a position of power, without that power these images are devoid of meaning.

For reasons that are far too complex to go in to here Socialism in Albania failed because of a number of fundamental mistakes, similar but equally disastrous mistakes being also made in the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam. When that study is completed the role that art played in the past will be an important component in understanding those mistakes of the past to avoid making them again in the future.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, I don’t know exactly when this bas-relief was created or by whom. I only hope that the creator was not the one who vandalised his own work (as was the case in the mosaic in Tirana).

Location:

The Radio Station is at the bottom end of Rruga Dituria, the main street which leads to the bus station and the principal entrance of the town from the north and east.

GPS:

N 42.7845

E 20.41707

DMS:

N 42º 04.704

E 20º 25.048

 

The Bus from Bajram Curri to Tirana

Kosovo entry stamp

Kosovo entry stamp

The Bus from Bajram Curri to Tirana

or

How to officially enter a country without setting foot in it.

One of the joys of travelling is the unexpected. Well, I suppose, many people have come across a form of the unexpected they would rather not have experienced but those unpleasant situations can happen in your own country. The unexpected that I’m talking about is the experience when something happens, something changes, something develops in a manner that was totally unforeseen at the beginning, but all ends up well.

This was the case when I wanted to get from Bajram Curri, in the very north of Albania, back to the capital Tirana – more or less in the centre of the country.

I had arrived in the area via the Komani ferry and had spent some time (unsuccessfully) attempting to get to Thethi via Valbona. It was my fault (for a number of reasons) that I didn’t achieve my original goal but that wasn’t the first – and I’m sure it won’t be the last – time that such has happened.

But at some time I had to get back south and so decided on the bus route from Bajram Curri. I didn’t start out with no information, it’s just that the information wasn’t exactly accurate. This is where the adventure starts in a place/country where there is little accurate and up to date information. The only British guide-book I had at the time had so many flaws it was bordering on worse than useless. It might be argued that things are changing in Albania rapidly, and that’s true, but I came across errors that didn’t reflect changes that were made long before the particular edition was published. I don’t want to labour that point, just to say ‘beware of guide books’. Take into account the most important word in the phrase and use the information provided as an indication and not to consider it as gospel.

My guide-book gave the indication that the bus to Tirana would take a tortuous, uncomfortable and very slow route through the mountains. That wasn’t a problem. I wasn’t in any real hurry and it wouldn’t be the first time (or, again, the last) I had travelled on such bad roads. Getting older the pains last a little longer but a day or two of rest and a not insignificant amount of alcohol has always dissolved the aches and pains in the past. And, anyway, it was the chance to see another part of the country.

I was starting fairly early in the morning. The guide books seem to indicate that much of the transport in Albania tails off considerably after midday. That’s true in some places but my experience over my three trips to the country is that people in generally are wanting to travel later in the day and the buses or furgons (minibuses) are starting to fill the gap, one of the ‘glories’ of the free market. However, if you don’t have exact information it pays to start early, just in case.

I should have realised that something was not what I was expecting when I was asked by the driver, once I had discovered the next Tirana bound bus, to hand over my passport. Now, I don’t have a problem of not having my passport, especially when I’m out of the country. The worst that can happen is that I won’t be able to get home. When the request is unexpected it’s a little disconcerting but when I saw that he was asking for everyone’s passport (I was the only obvious tourist on the bus) I relaxed a little.

We left on time and I was trying to work out how long it would be before we made a turn off to the right. From the map the route would be, more or less, north-east for a few kilometres and then south-east along the rough road towards the town of Kukës. But we kept on going NE and climbing and coming down from the hills. A very attractive route as we were passing by the mountains and hills in the very north-east corner of the country. Everyone else was relaxed so I assume there was no attempt at a mass kidnapping.

Then we arrived at a border crossing, so now I understood why I had been asked for my passport. A big pile of passports was passed to the immigration but no one made any attempt to see if the passports bore any relationship to the passengers. I was now in Kosova.

At this point I still wasn’t sure of my eventual destination. I was sure that there wasn’t another major destination in the area that sounded like Tirana but not planning/expecting to enter Kosova I hadn’t done any research before leaving home. I few people got off at some of the towns we then passed through but the majority stayed on. I thought my best plan was to stay on to the bitter end and just play it by ear.

The bus picked up a better, faster and wider road and then I started to see signs for Prizren. That didn’t sound like Tirana and anyway we didn’t enter the town, skirting around it towards the south. The bus then took a major road, now moving quite quickly, in a south-westerly direction. Slow witted I might have been but I started to work out what was happening.

In place of going along a very rough, very slow mountain track that would have taken hours, we had kept to the best roads to make the most speed. The only way to do that was to leave the Albania and use the roads that had been paid for by the World bank, IMF and the EEC after they had successfully dismembered the old federation of Yugoslavia following a long, bitter and hugely expensive war, both in terms of resources and human lives.

On arriving at another border post my realisation was confirmed. Immediately after moving off at the border the passports were passed from the front of the bus to the back, mine arriving quickly as it was the only one where they didn’t have to check the photo to know who it belonged to. About 15 to 20 minutes later, overlooking the town of Kukës, we stopped for a break at a road side café, back in Albania with the known brand names for the beer and the like.

On moving off from there we travelled on an amazing motorway. Amazing for the effort needed in its construction and for the fact that there was so little traffic passing along it, in either direction. Again a road funded by foreign money but I couldn’t really see how it benefited the Albanians. Thousands travel every day along the coastal highways, from Shkodër in the north to Saranda in the south. Parts of that road are atrocious and work, in places, had been stalled for as long as I’ve been going there, presumably due to lack of resources.

Why this motorway in the isolated mountain area of eastern Albania was a priority has nothing to do with the Albanian people or their economy, but more for any future foreign interests. Mainly military, I would have thought, to get to the heart of the country and its capital Tirana, in the quickest possible time, in the event of anything developing that might have an adverse effect on foreign control of the country that has been an aim since the end of the 19th century. That’s my theory but would welcome any other ideas.

So I eventually got to Tirana, my original goal, and probably much quicker than my expected route. I wasn’t kidnapped and held to ransom. It was just the quickest way. The next time I’m in that area I will attempt the rough route and keep hold of my passport.

But now I have a stamp (only one – I didn’t get one for leaving Kosova) in my passport for entering a country in which I, literally, have never set foot.