Remnants of religious thinking in Albanian Socialist Art

Bule Naipi's blouse

Bule Naipi’s blouse

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Remnants of religious thinking in Albanian Socialist Art

The contents of a small display case in the Gjirokaster Prison Museum pose a question of significance for an understanding of Socialist Realist Art in Albania in the past and the challenges facing those who want to create an art that is free from the superstitions and negative influence of capitalism (as well as that from previous repressive social systems) in the future.

One of the problems that all societies that have tried to build Socialism have had to face is the problem of the old ideas preventing the development and growth of the new. However fervent a revolutionary might be the influence of the old repressive system will always be there, in the way we act, speak and think. That, in itself, isn’t a problem. Just as we can’t control the way we look we can’t totally control the influence that the traditions and the culture under which we grew up have upon us, even though we might not like it. Those old ideas and traditions only become a problem if they prevent us from looking at the world in a different light under a system that seeks to end oppression and exploitation forever.

The revolution can change the structure and direction of society it is for us to change ourselves.

This is the reason for the ‘cultural revolutions’ that have taken place, to a greater or lesser extent, in all societies that considered themselves Socialist. That in China, between 1966 and 1976, described as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, is the most well known due to the dominance it had in society in the final years of Chairman Mao‘s life but they also took place in other countries seeking to build Socialism.

In Albania the cultural revolution manifested itself in a number of ways. The construction of the lapidars which commemorated those who died in the struggle for Liberation against Italian and then German fascism, together with those that sought to celebrate some of the achievements of the revolution were all part of that. As were the paintings that were produced, a great number of examples of which were on display in the National Art Gallery in Tirana in 2021. Many others can be seen in various locations, museums and art galleries throughout the country but many are also being allowed to fall into a sad state of repair.

That’s unfortunate for those who like and appreciate such works of art but at the same time their demise is all part of the class war and at the moment, in Albania, it is capitalism which is the ascendant. The lack of care of the lapidars, sometimes to the extent of wanton political vandalism, is also a reflection of society as it is and not as we would like it to be.

The declaration of Albania as an atheist state in 1968 was also part of Albania’s ‘cultural revolution’. Although, so far, I have come across few examples of the art produced that were part of that anti-religion campaign the painting by M Jorgji, created in 1975, is a good example of how the campaign was carried out.

Anti-Orthodox Church

Anti-Orthodox Church

An Orthodox priest is surrounded by villagers and he is being forced to face his crimes, and the abuses of power, he had inflicted upon, in this case, the rights of women and girls. The somewhat long slogan written on the red banner at the top says it all;

The whole Party and the country must rise to their feet, burn fiercely and behead anyone who tramples on the sacred law of the Party for the protection of the rights of women and girls.

This was a direct attack upon the church that had been using, and abusing, its power for centuries and was an important, not to say crucial, aspect of the struggle against superstition and metaphysical ideas. However, that shouldn’t have been the be all and end all of the campaign.

Such a cultural revolution has to change the thinking of the population as a whole – and that includes those artists whose task it was to promote a new view of the world.

However, some of those artists, either consciously or unconsciously, carried their old, out-dated ideas into their work in the new society. And, to the best of my knowledge, such ‘transgressions’ (if I might use that loaded term) were either not recognised or certainly not openly criticised and publicly exposed.

Here we will look at an example of where this ‘old thinking’ manifested itself in few examples related to the murder of two Partisan women by the the German Nazis in the town of Gjirokaster in 1944.

Bule’s blouse

I don’t know if I’ve missed it in the past but on my most recent visit to the Gjirokaster Prison Museum there was a small glass case which contained a colourful woman’s blouse.

This is displayed with the label which says in Albanian;

Me keto rroba fshataret e Lazaratit e maskuan Bule Naipin ne fshat me 1944 per to mbrojtur nga Nazistet Gjermane

in English;

With these clothes the Lazarat villagers disguised Bule Naipi in the village in 1944 to protect her from the German Nazis

I’m assuming that this display case, with its arrangement and label were produced during the period of Socialist construction in Albania, to label seems to indicate so.

This blouse is displayed just under the sculpture, made by Odhise Paskali, of a twin bust of the two murdered women. In the case, towards the top, is a short piece of knotted rope.

And its the rope that introduces an interesting aspect of Albanian Socialist Realist sculpture (less so in the paintings) which demonstrates the task that a future Socialist society has to deal with when it comes to matters of culture.

By including the rope – in the glass case with the blouse, around the necks of the two young women in the sculpture above the case, as well as the statue that used to stand (and should be returned once the work is completed) in Sheshi Çerçiz Topulli – there is a very clear reference to (Catholic) religious art going back centuries.

In countless Catholic churches, throughout the world, you will encounter images of the saints together with the instruments of their torture and eventual death. The prime, and ubiquitous, example of this is, of course, Christ on the cross.

And this ‘tradition’ seeped into the work of some of the painters and sculptors when they came to produce works of art which I have included in the blog under the heading ‘Socialist Realism’.

A number of the works of Odhise Paskali contain such religious imagery – the most notable example being his sculpture in the Përmet Martyrs’ Cemetery. Here we have a group of three Partisans, one mortally wounded and a male and a female Partisan tending to and comforting him. This is an EXACT replica of countless images of the Deposition of Christ from the Cross as seen in many churches, especially in Spain and Italy – those being the most Catholic of the European states.

Now it can be said, and it was probably why he got away with it, that Paskali was already a mature, experienced and renowned sculptor before the Liberation of Albania in 1944. He was born in 1903 and even before the establishment of Socialism his work was on display in various locations in Albania.

His major works (many of which are included in the Albanian Lapidar Survey) are;

ALS 123 – Nationalist Fighter – Korça (1937)

ALS 244 – Comrades – Martyrs’ Cemetery – Përmet (1964)

ALS 246 – Monument dedicated to the creation of peoples’ power – Përmet (1964)

ALS 276 – Monument to the Martyrs of Kolonje – Ersekë (1938)

ALS 590 – Monument dedicated to the Assembly of Lezha – Lezha (1968)

Bust to Vojo Kushi in Tirana

The statue of Cerciz Topulli (1932, bronze) which stands in the square that bears his name in Gjirokaster Old Town.

The large ‘Skenderberg’ statue (bronze), 1968, in Tirana main square, in collaboration with Janaq Paço and Andrea Mano.

He also created ‘The Triumphant Partisan’ (1968). This depicts a Nazi soldier being forced to the ground by an Albanian Communist Partisan. The original is at the Mauthausan Concentration Camp in Austria – where many Albanians were taken if captured. There’s a copy in the Castle Museum in Gjirokaster.

As well as the bust of ‘The Two Heroines‘ – Bule Naipi and Persefoni Kokëdhima.

Not all of these are loaded with religious imagery but it was certainly a not uncommon aspect of his work.

And this religious influence can be seen in other, much later lapidars created by younger artists who had been brought up and educated under the Socialist system. One clear example of this is the statue at the Lushnjë Martyrs’ Cemetery, created by Maksim Bushi in 1984. Bushi wasn’t born until 4 years after Liberation but take away the gun and change the uniform to a blue cloak and you have the Madonna and Child – again very common in Catholic churches.

So this just goes to illustrate the struggle that is necessary (and the time required) for the working class to develop a body of art that truly represents their interests, clear of any metaphysical content. A new type of art, with its own symbolism and establishing its own traditions.

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Gjirokaster Martyrs’ Cemetery and the 75th Anniversary of Liberation

Gjirokaster Martyrs' Cemetery - 18th September - Liberation Day 75 years

Gjirokaster Martyrs’ Cemetery – 18th September – Liberation Day 75 years

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Gjirokaster Martyrs’ Cemetery and the 75th Anniversary of Liberation

Details about the lapidar, and some of the history, of the Gjirokaster Martyrs’ Cemetery (ALS 376) were posted some time ago. However, on the occasion of the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Gjirokaster from the Nazi occupation I was fortunate enough to be, again, in the city.

The Nazi’s were forced from the city by the Partisans, under the leadership of the Albanian Communist Party (that was later renamed as the Party of Labour of Albania) on 18th September 1944. That date is still considered important, even through all the changes and the anarchy that hit Gjirokaster significantly during the 1990s, as the main street in the new town is still called Bulevard 18 Shtator (18th September Avenue).

On that date in 2019 a small celebration was organised both at the cemetery itself and in the theatre in the new part of town – but much less than it would have been during the period of Socialist construction. However, the event did follow certain aspects which were common of such occasions between 1944 and 1990.

There was a march from the centre of the new town to the cemetery (which is on the edge of town on the national road that heads towards Tepelene (and hence Tirana) in the north and the Greek border at Kakavija towards the south) where a short ceremony took place and this was followed a short time later by a cultural performance/speeches in the town’s theatre.

As I have said this was very low key, the rest of Gjirokaster carrying on life as normal, something which would not have happened in the past. Such an anniversary would have been a public holiday and the celebration would have been much more formal and with events taking place all over the town.

However, there are a few points I would like to emphasis from my observation on the day, which include how things were done in the past and how they were done in 2019.

It was obvious that those who still identify themselves with the Socialist past in Albania were those who wore a red scarf around their necks. This was part of the ‘uniform’ of the Partisans. This I have pointed out in many descriptions of the lapidars which have appeared on the page under the heading of the Albanian Lapidar Survey.

The military presence existed but on a much reduced level – just really a couple of officers in regular, i.e., not dress, uniform. Whether it was seen as an obligation I can only surmise. During the Socialist period the military presence would have been in the form of the People’s Militia which consisted of both men and women.

Proud Relative

Proud Relative

The tradition at ceremonies in the Martyrs’ cemeteries always consisted of children from the Young Pioneers standing at each of the tombs and during the ceremony a single red carnation would be placed on each tomb. As time passed it would obviously mean that many of the martyrs would not have any surviving relatives who might be able to place flowers on the tombs. By having the Young Pioneers do so, in a formal and organised manner, it meant that none of the anti-Fascist fighters were forgotten and left out. In 2019 it was again young people who brought baskets of flowers and then placed a single flower on each tomb – but these were older children, in their teens, rather than the younger, primary school children, who would have carried out the task pre-1990. (But someone ‘forgot’ to count the tombs as at the end of the flower distribution there were still quite a number without a flower.)

Child distributing flowers

Child distributing flowers

There was very little ‘formality’ during the 75th Anniversary celebration at the cemetery. People tended to mill around rather than stand in any formal manner. If you want to draw comparisons then the fact that this is being written on 11th November provides an easy and almost direct comparison.

At 11.00 on Remembrance Sunday (in the United Kingdom) in the centre of London at the Cenotaph there will be a very formal presence of politicians and aristocracy. After the Minutes’ Silence there will be a very formal and organised laying of wreaths and then a march past of veterans. To do otherwise in Britain would cause an outcry of indignation from various sectors of the population and media. For people to just walk by and see who had left the wreath at the Cenotaph during the Minutes’ Silence would be considered disrespectful. That was virtually what was happening in Gjirokaster on 18th September 2019.

I’m not saying that is either good or bad. It’s just to remind readers that countries have various ways in commemorating their dead in past wars. It should also be remembered that, in theory if not really in ultimate practice, in the early 1940s the so-called ‘Allies’ were supposed to be fighting on the same side and that the defeat of Fascism was the aim of all the countries. So perhaps people should remember this when they start to make judgements on the past in Albania.

Without significant help from any other army of the major warring Allies the Albanian people were able to liberate themselves from both the Italian Fascist and German Nazi invaders. In some respects that was their greatest crime – at least in the eyes of the British and the Americans. It meant they weren’t beholding to any external power and would fight to maintain the independence they had gained on 29h November 1944. It was for this reason that the British threatened and made attempts at ‘regime change’ in Albania even before the sound of the cannon fire had disappeared in the distance.

But back to the ceremony on 18th September 2019.

One small event that caused a local stir was the presence of an older man who help a portrait of Comrade Enver Hoxha, in a glass frame, high above his head in front of the images of the eight heroes/heroines of Gjirokaster depicted on the lapidar. He drew the attention of the media present as well as a number of onlookers. Though a single incident it was good to see that the spirit of the past still exists within the city.

Holding Enver High

Holding Enver High

Hopefully, readers will be able to get an idea of the event from the pictures in the slide show below.

Event at the theatre

Much of the celebration that continued in the theatre an hour or so after the ceremony at the celebration went over my head as a non-Albanian speaker. However, it was possible to get the general tone in that the Liberation of the town from the Nazis 75 years previously was still an event that needed to be remembered and commemorated.

(This is despite the fact that in Tirana Park, in the capital, there’s a monument to the Nazi fallen – put there to please the so-called democrats of Germany and, no doubt, in a bid to curry favour with a principle player in the European Union – which Albania is desperate to join and which (even though it goes against all the logic of the EU Constitution). This is likely (bizarrely) to happen in the not too distant future. High level talks are taking place in 2021 – when the rest of the EU is starting to implode – and the only reason I can see for this is the huge mineral resources that have so far remained untapped in the (at the moment) relatively inaccessible part of the north east of the country. But how many other countries that fought the Fascists in the Second World War have monuments to the dead of the invaders?)

As part of this celebration there was a small exhibition of Socialist Realist Art in the entrance to the theatre – examples which are included in the slide show below. Some of these had been brought down from the Museum in the Castle for the occasion – and can be seen in the badly maintained and positively dirty museum at present. Others seems to have come from storage – as was the picture of Persefoni and Bule, the two so-called ‘Hanged Women of Gjirokaster’, two young, Partisan women, in their early twenties, who were publicly hung in the main square in the old town on July 17th 1944. This particular picture has been added as an update to the post on these two brave young Communist fighters.

Persefoni and Bula - G Modhi 1966

Persefoni and Bula – G Modhi 1966

Also in exhibition was a brand new, and very fine, tapestry of the Liberation which, I assume, was made specifically for the 75th Anniversary. The artist has signed their name SC – but I have no further information to date.

18 Shtator 1944 - SC - tapestry

18 Shtator 1944 – SC – tapestry

Update on the cemetery

I took the opportunity of a quiet moment to have another visit to the cemetery to try to get an idea of what the Anti-Fascist National Liberation war was all about. I had missed them in the past but was slightly surprised to see that (although there are many young people remembered on the tombs) there were two children of 14 (Sulo Hysi (1929-1943) and Kristo Cavo (1929-1943)) and one 16 year-old (Celo Sinani (1928-1944)) who also fell in the struggle for liberation.

Kristo Cavo

Kristo Cavo

I have been having difficulty in tracking down someone in Gjirokaster who might know exactly who is represented amongst the eight heads which are depicted on the lapidar. In the cemetery there are a few tombstones which carry a red star as well as the name of the individual. These will be officially Heroes of the People. Two of those, Bule Naipi (1922-1944) and Persefoni Koadhima (1923-1944) are the so-called ‘Hanged Women of Gjirokaster’ and are the young female faces on the lapidar.

I am assuming that of the other Heroes of the People whose tombs are in the Martyrs’ Cemetery – Themo-Vasi (no dates), Celo Sinani (1928-1944) and Muzafer Asqueria (1918-1942) – might well be also depicted on the panel but if so I’m not sure which they are.

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