Political Vandalism and ‘The Albanians’ Mosaic in Tirana
The wonderful and impressive ‘The Albanians’ Mosaic, which has looked down on Skenderbeu Square, in the centre of Tirana, from above the entrance of the National Historical Museum since 1982, is starting to show it’s age. Less it’s age, in fact, but really the signs of intentional neglect which is tantamount to an act of political vandalism.
The last time it was really ‘cared for’ was when one of the original artists involved in the construction of the mosaic (Agim Nebiu) used his skills and ‘expertise’ to attempt to depoliticise the work of Socialist Realist Art. At that time (which I still can’t say exactly when) the large, gold rimmed, five pointed red star which used to exist behind the head of the principal female character, at the centre of the mosaic, was removed. Also taken out was the smaller, gold-outlined star that sat above the heads of the double-headed eagle, the only difference between the flag of the present, capitalist state of Albania and the flag of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania.
Also removed – for me inexplicably – was the book that the male, to her right, clutches closely to his chest with his right arm. Although it would have been impossible to have seen so from street level, this would probably have been one of the books of Enver Hoxha, leader of the government and the Albanian Party of Labour from the first days after liberation to his death in 1985. (Another mosaic, this time in Bestrove, has an image of a child carrying a book of Enver Hoxha‘s works closely to her chest.)
Nebiu did a ‘good job’ – it’s very difficult to realise the original from what exists now, apart from a few areas where the colours don’t exactly match, and those unaware of the original will notice nothing. For his efforts he got his thirty pieces of silver. And people wonder why intellectuals were sent to the camps in Siberia.
The mosaic was also covered for some time at the end of 2012, just before the centenary of national liberation from the Ottoman Empire. But if any remedial work was carried out then it was very slip shod and almost immediately the mosaic showed increasing signs of decay.
One of the most obviouslt damaged areas
And that decay continues. At an ever increasing pace.
Places were the ceramic tiles have fallen away have been obvious to the naked eye for some time and the iron framework upon which the whole structure rests has also started to poke its rusty face through the imagery. However, the majority of the decay wasn’t really encroaching on the actual figures in the picture. That’s different now as damage can be seen to the figures and their dress, especially in the lower third of the art work.
The iron framework shows through
And that’s not a surprise. It receives no shade whatsoever from the blazing summer sun and for many of the summer months at the heat of the day the tiles would almost certainly be too hot to touch. Come the winter months temperatures below zero would be normal, especially at night, when ice crystals would form behind the tiles and force them away from the framework to which they are attached.
This alternating between extremes of temperature would have existed in the eight years of the mosaic’s existence before the fall of the socialist system in 1990 but efforts would have been made to keep matters of dis-repair under control. Also it would have been relatively new in the 80s and assuming care had been taken in its construction then it would have been able to withstand such variations in climate.
Cracks in Socialism and Albania marching forward
Although in the last couple of years a huge amount of money has been spent on renovating the immediate area – and it must be admitted that (at least at present) the new look, pedestrianised and car free Skenderbeu Square is a joy to walk through. But not a lek has been spent on the mosaic.
Damage appearing the length of the monument
This must be intentional. The cowardly aim of the politicians, of whatever hue, to let the mosaic fall down – so as to avoid the accusation of artistic and cultural vandalism. If a sizeable chunk of stone was to fall and kill a foreign tourist as s/he was entering or leaving the museum all the better. Blame could then be apportioned on those who came up with the project in the first place – both the actual artists involved and the system of Socialism itself.
Unless there’s a radical change in attitude – which is highly unlikely – I doubt whether tourists to Albania will be able to enjoy and appreciate this unique example of Socialist Realist art on a visit to Tirana for many more years into the future.
1971 National Exhibition of Figurative Arts – Tirana
The article below was first published in New Albania, No 6, 1971. It discusses the general idea of art in a socialist society, how the Albanians saw ‘Socialist Realism’ with mention of a handful of works (out of 180) that were displayed at the National Exhibition of Figurative Arts in Tirana in the autumn of 1971.
Emphasis, so far, in the pages on this blog related to Albanian art, has been placed on the Albanian lapidars – public monuments. There have been a few reasons for this: they are often large and out in the open, and therefore accessible to all at all times; some of them all under threat of decay from either neglect and/or vandalism – a number of important ones have already been destroyed by reactionary forces within Albanian society; they embody a uniquely Albanian approach to such monuments: and, even if in the public domain are often ignored – strangely people walk past works of art everyday (and not just in Albania) without taking notice of what they are passing or the significance they might have in the country’s history.
But ‘Socialist Realism’ in Albania was not restricted to the public sculptures and a great deal of material in all forms was produced from after Liberation in November 1944 until the capitalist supported reaction was able to re-take the land of the people for the benefit of exploiters and oppressors in 1990. However, these numerous works of art, that used to be part of the people’s heritage, are now under the control of the enemies of such political statements in oil paint and water-colours (as well as stone, bronze and wood). Many museums and art galleries have been closed and (no doubt) many works of art destroyed by the ignorant reactionaries or stolen by the opportunistic and avaricious. An obvious example is the looted museum in the town of Bajam Curri, in the north of the country.
However, there are still a few museums that still display examples of Socialist realist Art. Apart from the National Art Gallery in the centre of Tirana (which always has a permanent exhibition of art from the revolutionary, socialist period) a visitor to the country could investigate the modern art gallery close to the Bashkia (Town Hall) in Durres; the museum and art gallery in the centre of Fier; and the small gallery in the town of Peshkopia.
(Unfortunately I’ve never seen the statue of ‘Mother’ by Mumtaz Dhrami, that heads this post. He was, and still is, one of the most renown Albanian sculptors and such a piece of work demonstrates a very Albanian approach to sculpture, chunky and solid. I hope it still survives intact (but fear not). At the same time I have no knowledge either way. Other creations of Dhrami are: the magnificent Arch of Drashovice; Education Monument in Gjirokastra; Mother Albania at the National Martyrs’ Cemetery; the (now virtually destroyed) Monument to the Artillery in Sauk; the large monument to Heroic Peza, at the junction to the town on the Tirana-Durres road; and the War Memorial in Peza town itself.)
(My notes/comments are enclosed in italised square brackets [note/comment])
by Andon Kuqali
The feelings, emotions and thoughts of the working man, the master of the country, the new man of socialist Albania is the content of this year’s National Exhibition of Figurative Arts. The paintings, sculptures, drawings, and designs exhibited, aim at expressing this content through an art characterized by the truth, the reality of life.
Since the 1971 National Exhibition of Figurative Arts was to be opened before the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the founding of our Party and on the eve of its 6th Congress, the artists chose themes for their works from the history of the Party and the Albanian people during these 30 years, as well as from our revolutionary traditions, themes from the struggle and work to build our new socialist society. As a matter of fact, today even the most modest landscape or still life embodies this new content, because it exists in the very life of present-day Albania.
What strikes the eye in this Exhibition is that the paintings, sculptures and drawings have more light, more vigorous colours, more varied expressions of artistic individuality than those of the previous national exhibitions. This is important because national exhibitions in Albania are a sort of summing up of the best creative activity of our artists during two or three years, thus they show the course of development of our art at a given stage.
But those colours and variegation of form remain within a realist imagery. Turning away from superficial, manifestative compositions, our artists have tried to enter deep into the life of the people to portray it more truthfully, with greater conviction and artistry. The figures of workers and peasants, of partisans or of outstanding people are true to life, simple and this in no way hinders them from being full of virtue, human and heroic at the same time. Even the industrial landscape is presented in its intimate aspect as an integral part of the life of the working man with the richness of original forms and characteristic realistic colours.
The dawn of November 1941 – Sali Shijaku – 1971
[The house where the Albanian Communist Party (later to become the Party of Labour of Albania) was founded in 1941 is the one with a tree to the right of the stair to the first floor. It became a Museum of the Party after Liberation – it might be in private hands now (it definitely isn’t readily accessible.) The letters VFLP written in black on the white wall on the side of the building in the foreground (as well as along a wall at the very top of the painting) stands for ‘Vdekje Fashizmit – Liri Popullit!’ (‘Death to Fascism – Freedom to the People!’), the revolutionary slogan of the Communist Partisans. I don’t know where this painting might be at the moment. I hope it’s in the storeroom of the National Art Gallery. What goes against its public display are the four letters VPLP – modern-day fascists don’t like that!]
Alongside the tableaux in grand proportions which portray notable events from the history of the Party and Albania, or outstanding figures of communists and revolutionaries, the landscape ‘The Dawn of November 1941’ by the gifted painter Sali Shijaku is no less significant and profound. In reality, this is a composition in small proportions in which the great idea that the Party emerged from the bosom of the common people is expressed. It depicts a poor quarter of Tirana as it was, in the midst of which stands the house where the Communist Party of Albania was founded: an ordinary house like the others, except that from the two windows of the ground floor flows a cheerful light which spreads far and wide driving away the gloomy night of the occupation and reaction.
Albanian Dancers – Abdurrahim Buza – 1971
[I don’t know where the original of this painting by Abdurrahim Buza might be at the moment.]
Dancing is the motif of a number of works of this exhibition. ‘The celebration of liberation’ by N. Lukaci, is a composition in sculpture developed with rounded figures, powerful like the beats of a drum and representing a typical folk dance. ‘Albanian Dances’, by the veteran and very original painter, Abdurrahim Buza, is the tableau of a circular dance in which the lively silhouettes of men and women from all the districts of the countryside with all their warmth and colour move freely, expressing the happy unity of all our people.
Planting Trees – Edi Hila – 1971
[This used to be on display in the National Art Gallery in Tirana but not when I last visited in 2019.]
A soft breeze stirs the fragrance of the fresh-dug soil, where girls and boys are planting trees under a blue sky. This is the tableau ‘Planting Trees’ by the young painter Edi Hila, inspired by the actions of the youth, a song of spring for the younger generation of Albania who are growing up happy with a fine feeling for work, a fresh tableau with a dream-like quality, from the vitality of our reality.
The dynamism of the daily life of the workers, their enthusiasm at work in the factory, before the smelting furnace, their chance encounters in the streets, the clash of opinions in which the new man is tempered, are expressed in the strong lines in the series of drawings under the title ‘Comrades’ by Pandi Mele.
Comrades – Pandi Mele – 1971
Like saplings in the bush, the children frolic and romp in Spiro Kristo’s delicately portrayed tableau ‘Springtime’.
The Children – Spiro Kristo – 1966
[Unfortunately I haven’t been able to come across an image of the painting ‘Springtime’ to add here. Until I come across an image I’ll include an earlier painting by Kristo, the charming ‘The Children’. This is still on permanent display in the National Art Gallery in Tirana (as of 2019). In 2016 I took some friends to the gallery and one of them was (literally) shocked to see such a depiction of children on the walls of a national gallery. I didn’t understand his reaction then (or even to this day). he is of an age to have played with guns (and probably destroying the indigenous population of north America on many occasions and children are killing children in school killings in the USA on an almost weekly basis. This painting encourages an idea of national defence, of preparedness against external threat and invasion, and not of aggression which dominates the armed forces of imperialist countries – just consider the wars of aggression in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria and the consequences for the population of those countries.]
In his monumental decorative tableau ‘Our land’, painter Zef Shoshi elevates the figure of the peasant woman, the untiring, hard-working cooperative member, who has won her own rights as a person with tender feelings and priceless virtues, the woman brought up amidst the collective work, in the years of the Party, as the people say. The drafting is connected and dynamic and is permeated by the colour tones of the wheat the soil, and the timber.
The manual lathe operator – Zef Shoshi – 1969
[‘Our land’ is another painting I have yet to see, either in actuality or in a photograph. However, this picture of a female skilled worker seems to capture the idea that Shoshi would have represented (confident, aware of her part in the construction of Socialism and a more than equal participant in the new society – a crucial and important aspect of Socialist Realist Art) in his entry for the 1971 National Exhibition of Figurative Art in Tirana.]
These are a few remarks about the 180 works exhibited.
Each painter and sculptor is represented here with works which reflect the world as he imagines it, that aspect of life, past or present closest to his heart, the essence of which he tries to communicate his emotions and thoughts to the viewers as directly and clearly as possible, through the emotions and thoughts of the artist who belongs to the people, an active participant in our socialist society in its revolutionary development. This is the source of the variety of methods of expression of each artist, the special individual features of each and, at the same time, of their common stand towards life. These are the features of socialist realism in Albania, an art, which serves the people and socialism, which aims at being an integral part of the spiritual life of the working class and of all the working people.
[Another painting which was part of the exhibition was one by the painter Lec Shkreli entitled ‘The Communists’. It depicts those Communists who were arrested by the regime of the self-proclaimed ‘King’ Zog just before the invasion of the country by the Italians in April 1939. The person in the foreground wearing glasses is Qemal Stafa – one of the founding members of the Albanian Communist Party.]
Although the plan is to attempt to record all the monuments from the socialist period in Albania’s history there are, and will be, occasions when I will have arrived too late. Either the ‘democrats’ (a mixture of monarchists and neo-fascists) have got there first and destroyed the works of Socialist Realist art as it represents all that they despise and fear – such as any of the statues of Enver Hoxha – or those lumpen elements who see only scrap value in a piece of metal – that has led to the damage to the statue of the Five Heroes of Vig in the northern city of Shkodër. Destruction and vandalism has been the fate of the Monument to the Artillery in the hills to the south of Tirana, close to the town of Sauk.
Even during the time of socialism in Albania this area was probably not that accessible. Now abandoned, two military barracks and a network of tunnels had been constructed on the ridge that looks down on the artificial lake and the forested area that is Tirana Park.
During the National Liberation War this would have been even more inaccessible, with no drivable roads from the valley to the ridge. However, this inaccessibility didn’t prevent a unit of the 3rd Shock Brigade of the Partisan army from transporting a short-barrelled mountain gun to the top in order to disrupt the plans of the German Nazis from establishing some element of legitimacy to their occupation of the country with the setting up of a ‘Quisling’ government.
Firing across the valley the small piece of artillery hit its target and caused the suspension of the meeting. For this reason, following the independence of the country with the defeat of the Nazis and the liberation of the country from all foreign forces at the end of November 1944, the 18th October was declared the Day of the Artillery of the People’s Army.
And for that reason the Monument to the Artillery of the National Liberation Army was established in the hills above Sauk.
The monument involved the work, skill and imagination of three sculptors – Kristaq Rama, Muntas Dhrami, Shaban Hadëri (who also collaborated on a number of other sculptures, including Mother Albania at the National Martyrs’ Cemetery and the Monument to Independence in Vlora) – and the architect R Kote.
(It’s perhaps pertinent here to make a comment about the construction of monumental art in a socialist society. An aspect which makes Socialist Realism not only an art for a specific class of people but also a new way of producing public art is the collaborative manner in which artists are encouraged to work. This is a big issue and I don’t intend to go into any greater detail here but the individuality that most ‘intellectuals’ crave, demand and expect gets challenged in a socialist society. This might explain why some of those Albanian intellectuals and artists now hold the views they do. Examples of this would be the writer Ismail Kadare who no longer lives in his own country; Agim Nebiu, who was an active participant in the vandalism of the Albania Mosaic on the National Historical Museum, of which he was one of the designers; and Hektor Dule, who created the statue of Azim Hajdari, one of the leaders of the counter-revolution in 1990.)
The artillery monument was constructed of concrete with the relief being of bronze. Inauguration was in 1968.
The columns were typical of the style that was adopted throughout the country. This time two rectangular columns, of about 10 metres, are at right angles to each other with the shape of a star cut into a red background almost at the top of the tower. The base on which these columns sit was faced with white and red marble on to which the story of the attack on the Quisling assembly was written. In 2014 there were only small fragments of the marble in existence, most of it being smashed and some of it still littering the site.
A wall that held the bronze bas-relief has completely disappeared, as has the metal. Whether this was stolen out of pure theft or political vandalism I don’t, as yet, know for certain. This today is still an isolated site but 20 or 30 years ago would have been more so. That would have made either option relatively easy and unobserved.
The relief depicted six Partisan fighters, five men and one woman. The lead man has a pair of binoculars up to his face and would have been looking in the direction of the Victor Emmanuel III Palace. Behind him is a woman with a rifle on her back.
Next is the gun crew and their short barrelled mountain gun. There’s a commander pointing in the direction of fire and a gun aimer is down on his knees making the necessary adjustments to the angle of the barrel to determine the range and trajectory of the shell. Behind him a Partisan holds the shell that is soon to be dropping on the heads of the Fascist collaborators and traitors. The sixth man of the group holds the reigns of the horse that had contributed to dragging the gun into position in the first place.
In 1979 the artist Petro Kokusta created a depiction of this event in a painting entitled ‘Shelling the traitor’s assembly’ which is presently on display on the first floor of the National Art Gallery in Tirana.
Shelling the traitor’s assembly – 1979 – Petro Kokushta
Not only is the monument in ruins the whole of the area is a rubbish strewn mess. The paths are overgrown and the area emits an atmosphere of neglect and dereliction. That’s a shame as from this vantage point you can get one of the finest views of the city of Tirana, with the Datji Mountain range in the background. The day I visited was the worst day, visibility wise, of my visit in November 2014 and the picture is pretty muggy. Next time I will visit on a better day and, hopefully, be able to provide a more accurate photographic impression of the possibilities.
Because this range isn’t as inaccessible now as it used to be. From the top end of Sauk a newly surfaced tarmac road climbs towards the first ridge where the local cemetery is located. The road continues to a second higher ridge which is where the ruined monument can be found. (Looking up from the centre of Sauk you should be able to make out two man-made structures, the columns of the Artillery Monument and a sharply pointed obelisk which stood over a military barracks.)
This road is Rruga Xhrebahimi and, I assume, was built primarily to serve the old barracks. But now it is a very fine, well made and smooth surfaced road – but it basically goes nowhere and is indicative of the ‘development’ under ‘democracy’.
As I was going along this new road I couldn’t work out why no traffic was passing me in either direction until a single motorbike passed me. As I walked uphill towards the high pass I passed a group of six workmen who were making ‘improvements’ to the road which weren’t necessary. They were merely shovelling spadefuls of gravel on the edge of the tarmac and then using a light steamroller to keep it in place (until the next rainy day). A completely useless and wasteful task – apart from keeping them employed.
When I arrived at the pass I realised why there was no real traffic on such a well made road. At the top there was a section of from 100-150 metres where the road was just a rough and rutted dirt track. The road then continued down the other side of the hill, going for how long and to where I know not. Why this crucial section hadn’t been completed I can only speculate. Corruption? Inefficiency? Bad planning? Probably a mix of all of them.
There would be, however, some people who will benefit from this road. Being built very close to the road, in a location which meant that the patios would look down towards the Tirana Park Lake and the city were a small handful of very expensive looking houses. This road, no doubt paid for by public money, would make it very easy for them to get home. What the people of Sauk thought of this road I wasn’t able to discover. They must have wondered why such a road was being built to nowhere when the roads in the town are just falling apart.
There are buses leaving at regular intervals, destination Sauk, from the bus station that is located in the square to the south of the Opera/National Library building (not far from The Partisan statue). Get off at the terminus and head for the hills in the direction that the bus had been travelling before you alighted. Cost 30 lek.
It’s a bit of a hike and must be close to 3 kilometres in distance. Once you get to the pass and the temporary end of the road take the narrow path off to the right, on the Sauk side of the hill and follow this to the monument. If you take the wider path off to the left, going pass some tunnels you will arrive at an abandoned military barracks and the site of the pointed obelisk (with a now sad-looking red star at its apex). Chose a good, clear day and you will be rewarded with a fine view of the city and the mountains (as well as, possibly, a sight of the coast).