Originally my project to describe, in detail, the magnificent examples of Socialist Realist Art that are embodied in some of the lapidars throughout the country has now expanded as I’ve encountered other incidences of the unique manner used in Albania in its attempt to impart the message of Socialism. Whereas some of these are truly monumental in all senses of the word, such as the Drashovice Arch, many others are, if not actually hidden, difficult to find unless you are looking for them or, as in this case, are directed towards it by a knowledgeable local. The emblem over what used to be the Headquarters of the Party of Labour of Albania, in the mountain town of Peshkopia in the north-east of the country, is one such example.
I don’t even know what such an item is called. It’s made from sheet steel (to tell by the way it’s now rusting) and must be about 3 metres high and about as much wide when the slogan surrounding the design is taken into account. The basis of this emblem is the outline of the whole of the country of Albania on to which have been welded, on the left, a pickaxe and, on the right, a rifle. This is a reminder of the slogan of the Party during the years of Socialist construction, between 1944 and 1990, signifying the that the workers can only construct and maintain Socialism if the efforts of the workers are backed up by arms. The revolution was born out of armed struggle against Italian and German Fascism and the preparedness to use arms would be necessary to defend any gains from outside interference.
In a large semi-circle in metal letters attached to a metal wire frame are (presently) the letters ‘SH I ERI SHKEM ANITI’. This is not complete and originally would have been SH[Q]I[P]ERI[A] SHKEM[B] [G]RANITI meaning “Albania, hard as a rock” (like granite).
Although in its early existence the building would have been the centre for the Party in the Peshkopia area it has now been divided into individual offices, one of which is that of the Albanian Socialist Party (presently in power nationally) but which is a party that has ditched and denied any revolutionary credentials and is no more nor less than a typical, capitalist, social democratic party, far from being immune from the corruption that seems to have become endemic in the country.
What I don’t understand in this case is why, if the emblem hasn’t been taken down, why it hasn’t been looked after and the missing letters replaced. If such a party wants to deny its past then don’t hang on to the credibility that some people in the country might place on the new party due to its antecedents with a reminder of the past, historic, slogan. Be honest, make a break with the past and start ‘anew’. But then that would be endowing such a party with scruples and principles to which it doesn’t posses.
Emblem over Party HQ, Peshkopia – light bulb
It must be stated that it’s not all easy to see this emblem. It’s high up on the roof of a three storey building and the nearby trees means you are directly underneath the symbol before it is visible. On closer examination you will be able to see a single incandescent light bulb, half way down on the right hand side. There are a series of holes marking the boundary of the country and I assume that all of these, in the past, would have such a bulb installed and would be lit up at night.
I don’t know if it was always a unique creation but I have certainly not seen anything of its like in other parts of the country.
The majority of the lapidars throughout Albania celebrate the events of the National War of Liberation and those who fought and died in that struggle. Others celebrate and commemorate events in the period of the construction of Socialism but there are few (probably a surprise to many) that are specifically devoted to the Communist Party of Albania (later the Party of Labour of Albania). One such – I only know of one other and that’s on the facade of the museum in Ersekë – is to the First Party Cell of the PKSH in the small village of Progër, close to Billisht and Korçë, not far from the border with Greece in the south-east of the country.
The lapidar consists of a huge, rectangular, concrete block on to which is attached a plaster bas-relief. This concrete mass is sitting on a plinth of large granite blocks. At the extreme left hand edge a large figure of a male partisan sits on a concrete plinth which is set out from the main block but the back of his body is attached to, and becomes part of, the main scenario.
We don’t see all the figure, he’s depicted from the thighs up. He’s staring straight out towards the viewer and his right arm is fully extended above his head, with the fist tightly clenched in a Communist salute. From the shoulder to just about the location of the thumb this arm is separate from the rest of the tableau. At the top of the hand he again becomes as one with the rest of the story.
He’s dressed in the full uniform of a Communist Partisan. This means he wears a cap with a star on the front and around his neck what would have been a red scarf, knotted at the front. He has two straps coming from his shoulders which cross in the middle of his chest. At the end of the strap that goes over his ammunition belt on his right hip hangs a small, cloth field equipment bag. The strap going down to the left, passes underneath the ammunition belt and this is attached to a revolver in its holster. We can see three ammunition pouches on this belt, each containing five bullets. Close to the equipment bag a Mills bomb hangs from a strap attached to the belt. In the space below where the straps cross it’s possible to make out the buttons on his jacket, The pockets on both sides of the jacket, over his breast, can also be seen. His left hand grips the top of the barrel of his rifle. Apart from the barrel we see nothing of his weapon and it looks as if the very top of the barrel has been broken off (a piece of the steel reinforcement sticking out of the plaster).
Immediately in front of his right thigh there’s an indistinguishable lump of plaster. It’s about the size of a football but I can’t think of what it could have been. The fact that it’s impossible to work out what it’s supposed to be suggests that this part of the statue has been the victim of vandalism.
Communist Partisan – Proger
Behind the Partisan’s head are the top three points of a five-pointed star. This suggests a religious comparison as it looks very much like a halo – one of those artistic references which come from previous artistic styles.
Above this star/halo is a larger star, its left most point reaching the left hand edge of the tableau. In the middle of this star are the letters PKSH. This stands for Partia Komuniste Shqiptare – Albanian Communist Party. This is the largest of all the stars on the lapidar. On either side of the uppermost point of the big star is a small star.
As we move towards the right we have two males, not in the uniform of a Partisan, but wearing the sort of clothes worn by workers in the 1940s. The first one is shown with his face in profile, as if he is speaking to his comrade. On his head he has a flat cap and is wearing a long overcoat. Hanging from his right shoulder is a strap and a bag of some sort appears to be at resting against his right thigh. It’s difficult to tell for definite but he seems to be wearing the long socks pulled up over his trousers – as is the case with the Partisan in the Korçë Martyrs’ Cemetery. He doesn’t appear to be armed in any way. His right arm is bent and his right hand is near the lapel of his coat, perhaps he’s making a point by using his hands to emphasise his argument. His left hand is resting on the shoulder of his comrade, an indication of their closeness and friendship.
Comrades – Proger
The next male is looking to his right, towards his companion, but we can see most of his face. He also has a flat cap on his head but his clothing is slightly different, although still workers clothes. He wears a short jacket and has extremely baggy trousers. On his feet he has the sandals common at the time. To give an indication of the detail we can make out the buckle on the belt around his waist. He is holding a rifle, half way along the length of the barrel, in his left hand – we can see most of the gun, only the end of the butt being hidden behind one of the other figures. Both these figures are standing on a ledge at roughly the level of the previously described uniformed Partisan’s elbow.
To the right of the head of this second male are three stars, a large one with a smaller one on either side. The left most point of the big star seems to overlap the smaller star on that side.
Below the stars, as if written on a wall, are the letters VFLP. These stand for ‘Vdekje Fashizmit – Liri Popullit!’ (‘Death to Fascism – Freedom to the People!’) – the common slogan of the Communist fighters and supporters. We have already seen these letters before, for example, on the lapidars in Peze.
The next figure is laden with symbolism and is the epitome of the Albanian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s/70s. This is of a female Partisan. Although not as large as the first male on the extreme left she is the central image on this lapidar. She’s virtually in the centre of the rectangle and carries with her the main symbols of the National Liberation War and the subsequent attempts to build Socialism.
The Spirit of Communism – Proger
She is shown as if she is running forward, her whole body giving the impression of movement. Her left arm is raised high over her head and is stretched out in front of her. She is gripping the short pole to which is attached the red flag of the Communist Partisans (and later, until the 1990s, to be the national flag of the country). She holds the pole just where the flag starts, the bottom end of the pole resting against her forearm. The flag itself streams out above and behind her head. On the flag is the double-headed eagle above which is a star. The folds in the material of the standard adds to the impression of movement. The very top inches of the flag protrude above the rectangle upon which the other images appear, slightly breaking the confines of the block.
The element of movement is also enhanced by the fact that her right arm is bent slightly behind her and in her hand she holds a Beretta Model 38 Sub-machine gun (seen before on the Drashovice Arch). Only one of her legs is seen and that is bent as she runs forward. Her face is in profile, just the right hand side seen, and she has her long hair tucked under her cap. This is an image seen before on the monument to the 68 Girls of Fier, amongst others. She’s dressed in the full uniform of a Communist Partisan and that means a star on her cap and a ‘red’ neck chief, stressing her political allegiance.
Below her is a male partisan with his right knee on the ground, in the act of firing his bolt-action rifle. He has the rifle butt up to his right shoulder and it’s possible to make out a star cut into the wood of the butt, a tradition from early independence struggles which was carried over to the war of 1939-44. He is also in full uniform, wearing a cap with the Communist star. There are puttees on his shins. These were (and versions still are) worn to protect the legs from damage in the rough terrain of the Albanian mountains. His feet rest on top of the letters that run from left to right along most of the bottom edge of the sculpture.
This takes us to about two-thirds of the way along the monument and here we have an actual physical line of division. This line runs from the wrist of the female partisan holding the flag to just before the left toe of the boot of the kneeling male partisan (the top of the line ‘hidden’ behind the fluttering flag). But I’m not too sure why.
All the images on the left depict the story prior to victory over the invading Fascists in November 1944. If the section on the right was to depict events after Liberation it would make sense, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. My doubts stem from the next image.
With his right foot resting on top of the letters at the bottom of the rectangle we have a large, older male. Here we don’t have the representation of a worker but of someone from the countryside. He wears a cap similar to the two workers who are having a discussion but the rest of his clothing, and his look, is more of a peasant than a town dweller. First, he has a bushy moustache, which was becoming rare in the towns. Secondly, his jacket looks home-made, two straps keeping what, I assume, is a leather jerkin closed at his chest. He wears baggy trousers with gaiters buttoned over his shin, more common and usual before the use of puttees (which were mainly for military use). His right foot is on solid ground but his left is on some sort of man-made walk way in the hills – an image I haven’t seen before.
He’s very muscular, as he has to be in order to lift the huge rock he has in both hands, his arms straight as they strain to take the weight. But why is he moving this rock? What prompts the question is that he has the top of the barrel of a rifle sticking up behind his right shoulder. Without the rifle it could be argued that he is building a wall or clearing a patch of land for cultivation. But if that was the case why does he need his rifle? This area is very close to the Greek border and there were incursions into Albania by British and American supported monarcho-fascists in the early days of Socialist Albania. There’s a monument to one such repulsed encounter in the town of Bilisht, only about 5 kilometres away (as the crow flies), on 2nd August 1949. That would explain why people were vigilant and keeping arms to hand but not necessarily on their person at all times when doing hard, physical labour in the countryside.
However, there is an image very similar depicted in a painting by Sali Shijaku, called ‘Skenderbeu’s Artillery’ (1968), where a huge rock has been moved to a high vantage point to drop on any invader. (Shijaku also painted the image, which is in the National Art Gallery in Tirana, of the last moments of Vojo Kushi.)
Skenderbeu’s Artillery, Sali Shijaku, 1968
So I’m uncertain of how exactly to interpret this image.
Because the final figure on the lapidar is definitely representing the new Albania after Liberation. Here we have a true Amazon. It’s the image of a country woman, facing straight out, her feet apart, and holding a large sheaf of wheat above her head, with both arms bent at the elbows. She’s a young woman with long hair hanging down both sides of her head and wears a long, simple peasant dress reaching half way down her shins. There looks to be a simple cord pulling it in at her waist. There’s a similar representation of a peasant women in the large sculpture called ‘Toka Jonë – Our Land’ (by Perikli Çuli, 1987) in the centre of Lushnje.
Building Socialism – Proger
If you look at the two peasant figures together it appears that the older man is bringing the young woman a huge rock but although I’m sure she could lift it I really don’t see the connection between them.
At the very bottom of the lapidar is the written explanation for the monument. Starting immediately to the right of the large male Partisan on the extreme left are the words:
‘Më 21 XI 1941 në fshatin Progër u krijua celula e parë e partisë në zonë [n e …]’
Which translates as:
‘On 21 XI 1941, in the village of Progër, the first Party cells were established in the area [n…e…]’.
(This was very soon after the establishment of the Communist Party of Albania in Tirana.)
The last words have been totally obliterated and, so far, I’ve been unable to find information on what is missing. Someone has tried to plaster over the remaining words but that vandalism hasn’t been that serious and they can still be read.
This is the first time I’ve seen a lapidar where the target of vandalism has been the written text. Normally it’s the stars that bear the brunt of the hatred.
The sculptor is unknown, as is the date of its inauguration, although often the unveiling of story-telling lapidars would coincide with an anniversary of the event being celebrated. Very often a local sculptor would receive the commission but Progër is still today a small village so the sculptor might have come from further afield.
Apart from the actual vandalism to the text the lapidar shows some signs of damage, The nose of the young woman with the sheaf looks broken and there are a couple of other places where damage doesn’t look like the result of time or general neglect. Unlike many places this monument hasn’t received a recent coat of paint, whether by design or just waiting to get some attention is unclear – local politics playing a role in this.
Although not unique there’s a fence with a locked gate to limit access from the road, necessitating a little bit of climbing and a short walk over rough ground in order to get close.
There used to be many small museums throughout the country during the Socialist period, with virtually all the Martyrs’ Cemeteries having at least a room where artefacts were displayed. In addition most towns would have a small, local museum. There are few remaining. Most were looted or vandalised during the early days of the reaction and now they are few and far between – although the recent renovation of the City Museum of Fier might be the start of a general move to recognise and remember the past.
Museum – Proger
In tiny Progër there was a museum just to the left and above the lapidar. It is no longer a museum but has, at least, been put to constructive use as it is now a small polyclinic – although the word ‘Muzeu’ can still be seen, in large letters, above the main entrance.
For such a small village Progër is home to two other lapidars, one commemorating the opening of the first school in 1908 and another to those from the village who fell in the National War of Liberation.
Progër is a small village 3 kilometres to the east of the road from Korçë to Bilisht.
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.