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.]
Many monuments, statues and lapidars from Albania’s Socialist period have suffered over the years, through outright political vandalism or just neglect. However, there has been a bit of a sea change in recent years but this has not come without its own problems. Here I want to develop the ideas of Albanian Socialist Realist art by looking at two works produced to commemorate the life of a young partisan woman, Liri Gero, and also a work in commemoration of 68 young women who also left their home town of Fier to join the partisans fighting the Fascist invaders.
The first thing to know about Liri is the meaning of her name. Liri means Freedom, indicating her parents were at least nationalist, if not much further to the left, and possibly supporting the growing communist movement at the time of her birth. In a country that had a long history of fighting foreign invaders naming your children in such a way was making a political statement.
Soon after the country was invaded by the Italian Fascists in April of 1939 Liri, along with many other young people, started to take part in activities that opposed the occupation and assisted those actively fighting against the invaders, especially after the declaration of the National Liberation Front at the Conference of Peza of 1942.
However, as the struggle became more intense, and the betrayal by the collaborators and sycophants of the ‘nationalist’ Balli Kombetar (who were formed in November 1942 to cause confusion – the name literary means ‘national front’ – amongst the Albanian anti-Fascist masses) became a much more real threat, it was suggested that Liri leave her home town of Fier and join the partisans in the mountains, in the fighting war.
In any guerrilla war the struggle in the owns and cities occupied by the invaders is as important as that on the front line but when such activity ceases to be practical, or too dangerous for particular individuals, then the only way forward is to leave home and join the partisan army. Liri was one of many young women of her generation who did just that. Disguised as the bride in a wedding party she was able to leave Fier, which was then under the under the control of the Italians, in 1943.
In October 1944 Liri was part of a unit that attacked a German Nazi column in the vicinity of Fier. Although the partisans inflicted severe damage on the Nazis in this attack Liri was wounded and later captured. With just a matter of weeks before their final defeat (and when the war throughout Europe was going badly for the Germans, especially on the Eastern Front where the Red Army was moving ever closer to the German capital) the Nazis first tortured the 20-year-old and then poured petrol over her and burned her alive – and the reactionaries have established a Nazi war memorial in Tirana.
In volume 2 of ‘Flasin Heronj të Luftës Nacional-Çlirimtare (‘The Heroes of the National Liberation War Speak’) the collection that recounts the stories of many of those who gave their lives in the struggle against Fascism, her dedication, torture and death is described poetically:
‘When you go to the Cemetery (in Fier), under the name of Liri Gero you may think lie the remains of her beautiful young body, but this is not the case. It’s just a handful of ashes from her heart burned for the freedom of Albania.’
Being so young when she got involved in the anti-fascist struggle, and her equally premature death, she became a prime candidate to be singled out and immortalised in bronze during Albania’s Cultural Revolution. She would stand as an example to the young and it would also play a part in commemorating, celebrating and emphasising the role of women in Albania’s Socialist construction, in the past, present and future.
The sculptor chosen for the task was Mumtaz Dhrami, the sculptor who produced so many fine works during this period of artistic development in Albania’s Socialist period, including the monuments at Peze and the magnificent Arch of Drashovice.
(When I first published this post on the 29th October I mistakenly attributed this piece of work to another sculptor, Hektor Dule. These mistakes, unfortunately, will happen from time to time due to the difficulty of obtaining some of the basic factual information.
However, when I started to revise the text to show the facts I realised that this is all part of the different approaches to art in a socialist and capitalist society. Under capitalism the first question is who. Who produced it, as if that person is someone famous then the piece of art might be worth money, and with recent ‘investment’ in art a great deal of money. It’s for this reason a signed sketch on a paper serviette is worth a fortune just because the signature of Pablo Picasso is in the corner. It becomes valuable not because of its intrinsic artistic value but because of its association.
In Socialist Realism the most pressing question is what. What does it represent, what is it trying to convey, what does it mean to the people who see and relate to it, what role can the artistic object play in educating the people. And as those were the most important questions asked in a society attempting to build Socialism the artist as an individual became secondary. For that reason many of the lapidars and monuments in Albania don’t have any indication of who actually provided the artistic skill.
As we live in a world where individuals are praised way above the collective this creates a situation where some ‘artists’ consider that they are being hard done by, in comparison with ‘artists’ in capitalist countries. For this reason they start to grumble and for the same reason some have run away to the capitalist countries, not to have more freedom to express their art, not for the fame, but for the financial reward that they can receive in a different society from the one that nurtured, educated and trained them.
By being somewhat obsessed with getting the details of who might have created any particular piece of art I am also falling into the trap of bourgeois individualism. I find myself reluctant to post an article if it omits such information as it might appear incomplete. But that’s not the meaning of Socialist Realist art – it’s the message not the messenger.
In discussions about art many years ago, when Britain actually produced things rather than being a nation serving countless variations of coffee, it came up that those skilled engineers, for example, who could take a piece of raw metal and with their skills and experience turn it into a part necessary functioning of a complex machine, weren’t used to signing their work. Those who worked in agriculture didn’t sign their potatoes before they sent them to market, but if we didn’t have their skills then the vast majority of the population in so-called ‘developed’ societies would starve.
So why should an artist sign his/her work? Who is the most important in society? No society can produce or develop any sophisticated art unless they first are able to create a surplus of those things that society needs. All artists, in all societies, in all stages of development of civilisation rest on the shoulders of the workers. Why should one be named if the other isn’t?
To finish on this matter, before the whole post goes along too acute a tangent, what of those workers who took Dhrami’s ideas and turned it into the bronze object under discussion. Shouldn’t their names be noted – if the ‘artist’ were to have his signature somewhere in view?)
Liri Gero – National Art Gallery
The statue is slightly larger than life-size but we only have her depicted from the thighs up. She is shown dressed as a Partisan fighter, not in full uniform as such but in a manner that allows no doubt that she is a full-time member of the fighting force. The pose is as if she were standing to attention and she presents a calm demeanour, serene and confident and clear about what she is doing. She wears a cap with the star of a Communist clear at the front.
The only images I have seen of her show her with long tresses, braided on both sides of her head and hanging down in front of her. I’m sure that, as a young woman she was proud of her hair but to go into conflict with such long hair is not a wise move and I would have thought that one of the first acts after joining her partisan çeta would be to visit the barber. None of the pictures of the guerrilla groups show the women with long hair. However, by depicting her with her long tresses Dhrami has made an easy reference to the photos that people would have seen in different museums throughout the country as well as in magazines and other publications produced at the time.
So she has a full head of hair, spilling out from under her cap, and the braids hang down and finish just over her breasts. Around her neck she has a bandana (yet another symbol of her communist affiliations) and she is wearing a thick woollen sweater. There’s a rifle slung over her back and her right hand is holding the strap of that rifle just over her chest. Around her waist she has ammunition pouches attached to her belt and on her right hip hangs a Mills bomb (British made grenade).
It is what she holds in her left hand which makes this statue stand out as one created with a socialist realist perspective. Her left arm hangs loosely down by her side and in her fist she has a bunch of flowers.
Liri Gelo – flowers
This is complimentary to the rifle. Socialism cannot be built, or maintained, without the rifle (symbolising force, or at the very least the threat of force) but the ultimate aim is a society without conflict. How long that will take is still to be decided and the twists and turns along that road are abundant. This idea of flowers in the hand of a young women prepared to use violence (and, for her, ultimately, giving her life) is part of a long-held view of communists, that we fight for bread (meaning freedom from exploitation and oppression, from want and the anarchy that comes with capitalism) but we want the roses too (a fulfilling and productive cultural life in companionship with others, and not just being spoon-fed the ‘culture’ that capitalism supplies, as long as it can make profit.)
I’m not exactly sure where the statue of Liri would have originally stood. Being made of bronze it was designed to be outside (and is still in a very good physical condition). There used to be a properly organised statue park in the area around the National Art Gallery and it would make sense that it was here the work was exhibited. If on a plinth it would have been minimal, just separating the statue from the ground, allowing the viewer the opportunity of being able, physically, to relate to the young heroine and her place in history.
Its location now is with other still extant statues that have come from different parts of the Tirana area. To the right hand side of the Art Gallery there’s a ramp and a service entrance to the building. This doesn’t seem to be used on a regular basis and is not an area that is cared for. When I first visited at the end of 2011 there was a shanty type hut but that has now been removed, but the area is in no way organised or what could be called an exhibition space. The area is dirty and the statues, although out-of-the-way, are not displayed in any manner that you would expect of works of art.
What I have described as the ‘Sculpture Park’ is really just a storage area for the statues. At one time they were all in a line, Liri amongst them but by the time of my visit in 2014 a new statue of Stalin had been added to the collection and Liri was moved so that she had her back to the building and was facing the other statues.
The Original Sculpture Park
Also on my early visits it was possible to get close to the statues without any hassle but a vandal attack on the Soviet produced statue of Stalin and the Albanian (damaged) Lenin, with them having red paint thrown over them in 2011, has meant that visits are discouraged. That’s a pity as, although in a far from ideal circumstance, here it is possible to get an idea of different examples of Albanian Socialist Realist sculpture as well as being able to appreciate the noticeable differences from Russian Soviet interpretations with the black statue of Stalin – presented to the Albanian people upon his death in 1953.
So that’s the Socialist representation of a young woman who gave her life for her country and people.
As stated above Liri was from the town of Fier, which in socialist times was a major industrial centre – that’s all but gone now and is a place of industrial archaeology rather than industrial production.
Although the industry might have gone there has been an effort in recent years to remember and commemorate the past. As part of that Fier is one of the few towns in Albania that has a functioning museum, very recently renovated, where you can find information about the anti-Fascist war as well as some examples of Socialist Realist paintings and sculpture.
(I’ll be writing about the Fier Historical Museum in a future post but here I will just provide information about its location. It can be found in Rruga Leon Rei, which is about 200m west of Sheshi Pavarësia (Independence Square).
Location of the Museum:
40° 43′ 28.1280” N
19° 33′ 19.1520” E
Well worth a visit. Across the road from the museum is a monstrosity of a (at least in May 2015) half-finished and stalled private educational institute.)
As part of this recovery of the past the city decided to erect a completely new statue to Liri Gero – to the best of my knowledge there had been no local monument to her, other than her grave in the Martyrs’ Cemetery. This statue was inaugurated in 2010 and is located at the edge of a small park in the centre of the town.
Whatever the intentions behind its commissioning this modern statue of Liri is a ludicrous and hideous depiction of the woman who Liri definitely wasn’t. It’s the absolute antithesis of the example to be found behind the National Art Gallery in Tirana.
It’s wrong in virtually every way. The figure is similar to the Dhrami piece in that we don’t get the whole body, this one is from the knees up and it is also a little more than life-size. That’s the only things the two statues have in common. The first thing that strikes the viewer is that you get a crick in the neck to look at it close up. The bronze statue is on a plinth more than two metres high and its impossible for the viewer to have any connection with the young woman, she’s placed on a pedestal in the literal and figurative sense.
New Liri Gero Statue
When we get to the statue itself we see no connection with the actual life of young Liri. It’s in a neo-classical style and a silky dress clings to her body, emphasising the female form, her breasts straining to break free of the material. A thin cord around the waist is pulled tight so that it accentuates the hour-glass figure of the torso. The dress itself is of a style that no woman, or even young girl, would have worn in pre-liberation Albania – and would draw a not too sympathetic attention today.
If her clothing is bad things get even worse when we look at her hair. The pictures of Liri show her with long hair, a style that would have been common with girls of her age at that time but here she is represented with hair of which Rapunzel herself would have been jealous. (With the wonders of the internet I’ve just had a look and you can buy Rapunzel wigs that must have been what the sculptor forced his model to wear.)
There’s so much hair!
Liri Gero – hair
Its crazy. This isn’t a young woman who was tortured to death after going to join forces with those wanting to free their country of foreign invaders. No, this is a young woman who’s going out on the town, has been to the supermarket for a bottle of cheap vodka and now intends to dance until dawn, as happens in many British towns and cities.
Whereas the Dhrami Liri is serene, confident, sure of herself the 2010 Liri is flighty, frivolous, would fit into the stereotype of a ‘dippy blond’ (Liri was dark-haired) and wouldn’t know how to spell Fascism let alone have the understanding to fight against it.
I don’t know why such a statue was commissioned by the Fier Bashkia (Town Hall) or what they were thinking about in paying for such a representation of one of the towns most famous daughters. It was good that the town wanted to have their own statue to her but did it have to be so alien to the actual woman herself?
To the best of my knowledge those who are responsible for this monstrosity are the ‘artists’ Haxhiu Kalluci, I Kasem and A Shuraj. How they divided up the work I don’t know but I would have thought that one, at least, would have to have concentrated on the hair – it’s a sculpture in its own right.
The best thing about the monument is the inscription on the front of the plinth.
We have the words:
1924 – 1944
Heroine e Popullit = People’s Heroine
And a short inscription which reads:
Si flutura drejt drites shkon njeriu drejt lirise
This translate as:
‘As moths are drawn to the light so man is to freedom.’
Across the road is a monument to other brave Fier women. Obviously very well organised, in a town that was occupied by the Fascist invaders, on the 14th September 1943, under the cover of darkness, 68 young women and girls left to join the Partisans. Not only was the actual leaving of the town a dangerous activity they then spent the next few days walking all the way to Berat to join up with the increasingly more powerful and organised Communist led National Liberation fighters.
This quite exceptional (not just in Albania but other parts of Europe fighting against the Fascists) decision of such young women to take the path of the greatest resistance was celebrated in Fier with the commissioning of this simple but nonetheless effective sculpture. The plinth upon which it stands at present is new although the bronze bas-relief fixed to it has all the classic hallmarks of those sculptures produced during Albania’s Cultural Revolution.
Monument to 68 girls joining Partisans
As is normally the case there is no name or date on the sculpture itself so I have no idea who was the artist or exactly when it was inaugurated. As many of the sculptures of this period were commissioned to mark specific anniversaries I would hazard a guess that it was first shown to the public on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the women leaving the town, i.e., 1973.
Neither do I know if it is in the original location or whether it has been moved from somewhere else. (So many lacunae in the history of Albanian lapidars!) Although it does seem to fit where it is now the bas-relief design suggests that it might have been high up on a wall of a building such as the Bashkia – although that’s just speculation on my part.
What can be stated categorically is that it is in a very good condition. It hasn’t undergone any vandalism and the target of the reactionaries, the stars on the flag and the Partisan’s cap, are both intact and undamaged.
The monument consists of one female partisan depicted as if she is emerging from the national flag. The flag is fluttering in the wind and at the extreme left hand side, at the top, can be made out the double-headed eagle with the Communist star above the two heads.
The tips of her fingers of the right hand just brush against the eagle’s feathers as if this is what she is seeking to attain. She’s fighting for Socialism, for a future. Her whole stance is one of going forward, striving for something higher, reaching up to the stars. But to attain that goal she needs to use force, as such aims have never been attained without the use of arms. For that reason she holds a rifle in her left hand, gripping it just in front of the bolt.
Carved into the wooden stock of the rifle are the letters VFLP, signifying “Vdekje Fashizmit – Liri Popullit!” (“Death to Fascism – Freedom to the People!”). This has been seen on a few lapidars previously described, such as Heroic Peza, the Peza War Memorial and the Arch of Drashovice. This tradition of writing slogans on weapons was begun in the 19th century during nationalist struggles and was adopted by the National Liberation fighters in WWII. As well as other imagery, these letters on her weapon declare that she is a Communist Party member.
The young woman is shown in a semi profile and, as I have already said, she emerges from the folds of the flag so we really only see the top half of her body. She’s wearing a thick woollen sweater and around her neck she has what would have been a red bandana, together with the star on her cap a signifier of her political allegiance to the Communist cause. A full head of shoulder length hair pushes out from under her cap.
The bottom half of the bronze statue is fixed to a concrete block faced with slabs of red marble. The top half of the statue extends above the block creating the idea of the free-flowing of the flag and gives the impression that the young woman is almost flying, taking off from the block.
There are two inscriptions on the modern pedestal, on the front:
14 shtator 1943 68 vajza Fierake dolen partizane
‘On 14th September 1943 68 girls from Fier blossomed into Partisans’.
On the back:
Lule, yje për lirinë krenari për Shqipërinë
Flowers, stars for freedom, the pride of Albania
There are certain similarities to the work of Hektor Dule of the female figure which is in what used to be the National Assembly Hall in Tirana – the fluttering material, the figure seeming to emerge from, as well as being a part of, the national flag, together with the determination on the face of the woman.
Although separated by a road and barely 10 metres there’s a world of difference between this depiction of a female partisan and the travesty that is the new statue of young Liri Gero.
This close proximity of two different ideologies, two different world views, as depicted in art helps to understand both. The new Liri statue is populist in place of being popular, in the sense of presenting an image to which ordinary people can relate. It represents the young women as young women see themselves in today’s Albania, not concerned with their own national identity but aiming to ape the banalities of capitalist culture. In a sense it’s the result of the ‘celebrity culture’, the facile, the emptiness of present existence where individuals become famous for being famous, not for anything significant they might have achieved.
The new is brash, vulgar, noisy – it screams at you. But it has nothing to say.
The old is serene, dignified, full of symbolism and meaning.
I read an article where a near-contemporary of Liri and the other young women bemoans the fact that the young people of Fier today don’t know the story of what happened during the occupation. Not only do that not know they don’t want to know. They are so caught up in the accumulation of consumer goods, the search for the ‘good life’, that they don’t know where they got to where they are now. But neo-liberalism doesn’t want people to remember the past, if they did they might want to change the future. Already the crash of 2008 is being forgotten – to be remembered when the next one comes along. And if you can’t completely forget the past – as has been the attempts in the destruction of lapidars and statues throughout the country over the years – then you can distort history so that any meaning is taken out of the images.
If there’s a tragedy surrounding the life of young Liri Gero it’s the way that life, and its violent end, is being ‘celebrated’ in the 21st century.
About 50 metres south from Sheshi Pavarësia on Rruga Ramiz Aranitasi
The magnificent Arch of Drashovice is such an amazing structure with so much to tell us that I’m breaking the description up into three parts. This is the second and addresses the images relating to the battle in 1920 against the Italian invaders, a battle (and war) fought by an irregular army of peasants, workers and intellectuals against a heavily armed imperialist force.
I plan to describe the sculpture by starting from the panel underneath the arch and working clockwise to pick up the huge amount of activity and symbolism that’s before us. The two parts of the arch represent two distinctive events but there are some motifs that occur on both sides, another device (the bronze statue being the first) by Dhrami to show the similarities of the battles. There are also images that I have described before on other lapidars, signature images, if you like, of many of the sculptures in this intense period of memorial construction.
First we see just the head of an Albanian male, wearing a qeleshe (hat). He is looking towards the back of the arch, the direction away from all the action. But he’s still part of that action as he has his hand up to prevent the wind taking away his voice as his wide open mouth indicates he is calling for others to come and join the fight. This is a common image, seen before, for example, on the Peze War Memorial.
Almost hidden by his face and hand is an unidentified person and then we have a group of four weapons. First there’s a two-pronged pitch fork, then a scythe, next a hatchet and finally a forearm holding a rifle aloft. This is the arm of the male calling back to others. He wants others to join but he is also in the act of going forward. Partisan, guerrilla wars don’t have the force of a state behind them. There’s no quartermaster able to call upon limited resources. It’s no use them complaining to the government if they think they have been ill-equipped to deal with the enemy – as have soldiers from Britain and the USA in their illegal invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan (and will do in whatever country is next on the list).
No, a partisan fights with whatever is at hand. If they ‘want’ a gun, or some other sophisticated weapon, then they have to take it off the enemy. The choice of agricultural implements also shows that this was a battle fought mainly by peasants and the people from the countryside. Their depiction also indicates that this could have been a battle fought in close proximity, where no quarter was asked or given and was likely to have been a desperate and bloody affair.
Below the weapons is the full body depiction of a woman, wearing the kapica head covering and a long peasant dress of the period. On her feet are sturdy sandals. Her left hand is supporting the crumpled body of a male fighter, who has obviously just been shot and on the point of death, with his eyes closed. He is unshod, footwear giving an idea of the social position of the actors in these dramas, and is wearing the clothing of a peasant, with no military aspects whatsoever, as if he had just come from the village to the battle. His right hand is holding on to the rifle strap and his left just touching the wooden butt of the rifle. The reason he hasn’t dropped his weapon is that the woman has a tight hold of the barrel in her right hand. What is interesting about her stance is that she is not looking at the dying man but looking to where the fighting is taking place, a look of determination on her face. She will take care of the wounded if she can (although he looks like it’s the end for him) but she is also a fighter ready to take up the weapons of the fallen. This looks like the same type of rifle, a Carcano M1891, that the figure in the bronze statue is holding. Just below her left foot is the name ‘M Dhrami’ and the date ‘1980’. (Not all the lapidars have the name of the sculptor/s but it’s worth looking nonetheless.)
Drashovice Arch – Dhrami 1980
In front of her are a group of people either already fighting or joining the battle. Close to her, and with the dying man almost falling on him, is a male fighter, kneeling. He is bare-headed and has his rifle up to his shoulder, already firing. His dress is more military in style than the dying man, with more elements of a uniform. He has an ammunition belt around his waist and a pouch hanging across his back. On his feet are sandals and he wears gaiters over his shins.
Above him and at the same level as the woman are three males. They are not yet involved in the battle but there is a sense of movement in their stance as they rush to the front. Again they look like a mix of soldiers and volunteers. The male we see most of has straps across his chest and is holding his rifle with his left hand with the top part of the barrel pressed against his shoulder. On his head is a qeleshe. Of the other two one is also wearing a qeleshe but the other is bare-headed, and again looking more like a civilian. The one with the hat also has a bushy moustache, something which is quite prominent in images of males of the 19th and early 20th centuries. We don’t know if they are armed or not but they are going anyway. This presentation of individuals in groups of three is quite common in Dhrami’s work (something I will look at in more detail in the future).
Finally, on this inside panel, and further up, are two other fighters, a male and female. She is dressed in exactly the same way as the first woman, although we only see her head and shoulders. Her rifle is up to her shoulder and she is aiming along the barrel. We can only see the head and shoulders of the male above her but he is wearing a qeleshe and what looks like a sheepskin coat – it can get cold in the mountains. He’s holding a rifle but it is not yet in action.
I haven’t come across actual statistics but already, on this first part of the telling of the 1920 battle, we get the indication that women were involved in the actual fighting against the invaders. About 16% of the partisans in the 1940s were women but their active involvement probably goes back to the early days of the 20th century, the most famous and often referred to being Shota Galica. She wasn’t at Drashovice as she was fighting further north at the time.
Shota Galica with her husband Azem
Stylistically we can see that the story starts low and moves further up the stone as it unfolds clockwise. This means that the main panel, the one facing the road and the village itself, is a hive of activity, images covering more than 50% of that part of the arch.
Dhrami uses a few clever devices to move the action through a 90 degree plane; the flowing cape of the partisan destroying the cannon; the broken cannon itself; and the shoulder of one of the fighters which appears just above the cape. This has the effect of making the scene appear to be as one, with the first group seeming to be slightly behind, but still part of, the main action.
Perhaps the most striking figure on this main panel is the fighter with the cape. In that figure we have a number of symbolic references. Albania is normally depicted as female, as in Mother Albania, the statue that guards over the (now desecrated) Martyrs’ Cemetery in Tirana. Here the country is depicted as male.
The cape is attached to his body via four straps which are held together with a clasp in the middle of his chest. On this clasp is the double-headed eagle and by adding this symbol the cape then becomes a flag, which all those who are not yet in the battle are running towards. It spreads out behind him, a clarion call to all patriots. He’s a big and strong man, though not necessarily young, sporting both a beard and a moustache. He’s wearing a qeleshe on his head, he is a peasant, the rock on which 1920s Albania was built.
And he’s doing the impossible, pulling apart a mountain cannon with his bare hands. His right hand is gripping the opening of the muzzle and his left on the outside of the barrel to break the cannon itself from its fixing. His success in achieving the impossible is the broken fixing and wheel in front of the kneeling fighter already described. Also broken away is the flash guard. He’s doing all this bare-foot and although we cannot see the left foot we can assume he is using that to press down on the gun and get more purchase. His bare right foot is crushing the crown of the coat of arms of the Italian monarchy, breaking it away from the shield of Savoy (which was a white (Greek) cross on a red background).
So here we have ‘Father Albania’ destroying, with his bare hands, the military might of the Italian Army and in the process seriously damaging the power of the Italian Monarchy and breaking any hold it might have over Albania. (The fact that the self-proclaimed ‘king’ and despot, Zogu, was to sell out his country to the Italian Fascists before the decade was out is neither here nor there. Such cowards and opportunists are always with us and it was only in 1944 that Albania was able to achieve the real independence that so many had been struggling to achieve for centuries. The fact that the present day rulers of the country have thrown away that success should also not come as surprise. Sycophants, country-sellers and forelock-tuggers are always queueing up to fight over the crumbs from imperialism’s table.)
A further possible reference here is to the guerrilla fighter of the time of the wars against the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, Mic Sokoli. He went down in legend as dying by pressing his own body against the Turkish cannon at the battle of Silvova in April 1881 (a deed for which he was later awarded the title ‘hero of the People’).
Mic Sokoli – Sali Shijaku – 1976
Now things really start to get busy with a lot of activity as the battle heats up with more Albanian patriots arriving to crush the Italian invaders. Behind the gun destroying hero are three faces, two over his left and one over his right shoulder. One is armed with a scythe whilst we can see the ends of two gun barrels. They are not yet fighting but are on their way, determination etched on their faces.
Going further up we see the upper torso and arms of a single peasant fighter. He has a large hatchet in both hands but whilst his stance is one of attack he is looking back over his shoulder, both leading by example and calling for others to join the fight – we can see his mouth is open. Once you have the tactical advantage in any battle lack of commitment can lead to victory morphing into defeat.
Further upwards still and moving into the centre of the facade there is a group of three males. Due to their scale, stance and position these would seem to be a command group. The very nature of the countryside means that this group would likely to have been in the hills, looking down on the fighting and getting an overall picture of the situation. Whilst most of the individuals in the 1920 story are dressed in the clothing of the countryside the male on the right is dressed in town clothes, perhaps representing the small working class or the pro-independence, intellectual element within the country. He is clean-shaven and bare-headed whilst his two companions are moustachioed and wear qylafës (woollen hats). His left arm is bent and his hand clasps the lapel of his jacket. In his right hand he holds the top of the barrel of a rifle, the butt resting on the ground. He is not looking at the action but to some location in the distance, down the valley. Around his waist he wears ammunition pouches so is ready to fight but not doing so at the moment.
The man behind him is wearing the traditional countryside type of clothing and his right hand is on a shoulder strap of something we cannot see. The third of the group is not armed, as far as we can see, as he is the standard-bearer, the flag with the double-headed eagle fluttering above the three of them. These last two are also not looking at the battle below, more they are looking at the viewer.
Now almost at the top of the action on this part of the monument is a group of four males, all dressed in traditional clothing of the countryside. The male on the extreme right is in full figure and is clean-shaven. We can see he is wearing a fustanella, together with the tsarouhi style shoes, hobnailed and with the ball of sheepskin at the toe (which is also depicted on the Education Monument in Gjirokaster) and a qylafë on his head. There’s an ammunition belt across his chest and his cloak flutters out to his left. He seems to be climbing up hill but is looking up into the sky. He holds a rifle by the trigger mechanism in his right hand and his left hand is clenched, in anger, determination or victory, the 1920 version of the high five? We’ll see why that might be the case in a short while.
Behind him is another male wearing a sheepskin xhakete. He’s bare-headed and sports a moustache. His right hand is gripping the straps across his chest and in his left hand he holds out his rifle in triumph.
The other two males in this group are close together and are situated just above the fluttering national flag of the standard-bearer. Both have their rifles up to their shoulders and are firing downwards. This is almost always the case on Albanian lapidars. The country is mountainous and throughout history the partisans and guerrillas have used that to their advantage and this firing downwards is symbolic of that way of fighting. It also represents the moral and political high ground.
As we come back down along the left hand edge of the panel we see why the two fighters on the right hand side were so triumphant. Here we see a fighter biplane but it’s not attacking it’s falling from the sky, a plume of smoke following it as it crashes. The cross of Savoy is on the tail fin. This has just been shot out of the sky by the marksmen in the mountains. It’s difficult to identify exactly what make of aircraft but it was probably something left over from the First World War as there didn’t seem to be much development of military aircraft in the country until Mussolini came to power in 1922.
Drashovice Arch – Italian Biplane
As the biplane falls to destruction in the background the next group on this left hand side is a group of five males, all with rifles to their shoulders and firing in the same direction. They are on the same level as the command group but as we come back down the panel the fighting gets more intense, more fierce and more hand to hand. If this is an accurate description of what actually happened during those days in 1920 then it was something that repeated the close quarters fighting of the trenches during the 1914-18 war. As has now become a pattern these five men represent the various areas of the country and class background already seen, with traditional clothing to something more akin to an early 20th century military uniform.
Moving again to the centre there’s the image of a peasant woman. She’s wearing the kapica headdress (seen earlier) and over her dress a sheepskin jacket. Her left hand is resting on her chest and her right hand grips the barrel of a rifle. She’s looking down the valley and has a concerned look on her face. I’m not really sure what she is doing or represents. She’s the only woman on this panel which shows the battle in full swing but she’s not actually doing anything. She’s looking towards the images of the 1943 battle but I don’t know if that’s significant.
Below her we are right in the front line. Here we have four males involved in hand to hand combat but they are all doing so in a different way. On the far left hand side the partisan is pulling apart the Italian barricade with his bare hands. Whilst he holds his rifle by the barrel in his left hand he places his sheepskin jacket over the barbed wire and wooden crosses so as to be able to get over and take the battle to the enemy. Along this protective barrier we can make out the barbed wire that was used to make the barrier that more difficult to breach – but it doesn’t seem to be that effective. He’s wearing the typical peasant shirt, with wide sleeves and the woollen hat.
Next to him, on his left, is a somewhat unusual image of a male fighter. In his right hand he holds a meat cleaver but even though he’s right in the middle of the action and so meagrely armed he’s looking to his back as if looking for more support. He’s dressed as if from the town and perhaps wondering what brought him to such a situation.
To his left is the only Albanian with a modern weapon in this dangerous part of the action. Here a peasant has his rifle in a position to fire, the enemy being literally only a few feet away. Around his waist he has spare ammunition, if he survives such close combat. The last of this group of four is also a peasant in traditional country dress but he only has a wooden, three-pronged pitchfork as a weapon – although he appears to be using it in a very effective manner, it is raised high and he’s about to bring it down on the enemy with all his strength. One of these last two is wearing sandals, the other the opinga shoes.
This part of the tableau shows the very moment of the Albanians breaking through the Italian defences as beneath their feet we can make out the broken wood, with the pieces of barbed wire attached.
We have already seen that everything that could be used as a weapon had been brought into play and this only goes to demonstrate the nature of the war – a people’s war against the invader, whatever might be the cost to individuals.
These are the last of the Albanians on this part of the sculpture.
The remaining characters are seven of the Italians. Their stance, body language is the complete reverse to that of the Albanians. The Albanians are on the attack, they are confident, they are sure of themselves, however badly armed they might be. They know they are going to win as they are defending their own land whilst the invader is merely a paid soldier doing the bidding of a misguided monarch.
So all the Italian soldiers are falling back, they look weak, they look on the brink of defeat. They have nothing further to bring to the battle. Their superiority in military technology has shown itself to be ineffective, the artillery is shown as being broken up and the air power is crashing to the ground.
These soldiers are from the Bersaglieri corps, recognisable by the capercaillie feathers on their helmets. (This is the corps of the Italian army whose ‘fanfara’ (band) play on the run, an image you might have seen at some time in the past.) This is not their finest hour.
Of two of them we can only see the helmets, both bowed either in submission or to protect themselves from the meat cleaver that’s only a matter of inches away. Two are still firing but looking desparate as the Albanians break through their lines. A bearded officer has fallen back and is sitting on his haunches. He still has a rifle in his right hand but he’s not attempting to use it to try to prevent the onslaught of the enemy. Immediately to his left a soldier has both hands in the air, in the act of surrender, and to the officer’s back there’s slumped and lifeless body of a dead or wounded Italian.
An interesting novelty can be seen between the heads of the two bowed helmets and the two still fighting. Here there’s an entrenching shovel pointing upwards. These were used as auxiliary weapons when it came to close combat and would seem to demonstrate how desperate the battle was for all concerned, grab anything for protection or assault. Just behind that tool it’s possible to make out the muzzle and barrel tripod of a light machine gun, now no longer effective or in use.
This whole battle scene encompasses the war, the many battles and the final victory of the Albanians over the Italian invaders, who were soon to leave from the near-by port of Vlora for the trip back home.
Although I can’t say for sure research has led me to believe that (based on their areas of activity) the Albanian Commander was Sali Vranisht, in command of forces from Lumi i Vlores, and the commander of the Italian forces a Major Guadalupi.
Background to the war.
Here it’s perhaps worth while mentioning that the defeat of the Italians in their effort to divide and dismember Albania in 1920 wasn’t just the defeat of that nation but of the overall plans of western imperialism and it designs on the Balkans. It’s no accident that the Italian invasion took place almost exactly a year after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended hostilities between Germany and the Western European powers, and was where the so-called ‘western powers’ sought to divide the spoils of the defeated enemy, especially the Ottoman Empire.
Conflicts between the western imperialist powers and Russia had meant that the Balkans were an area of concern, conflict and intervention for most of the second half of the 19th century and those interests were revived after the carnage of the First World War. The 1917 October Revolution in Russia added another dimension to this long-held policy of limiting and squeezing, now a proletarian led, Russia. Although through the battle of Drashovice (amongst others during the short war) western imperialist interests were set back that didn’t mean that those aims were forgotten. Within a year of the ending of the Second World War the British used military might in an attempt to intimidate the new People’s republic of Albania.
Yet more vandalism?
When I had the opportunity to visit this magnificent example of socialist realist art for the first time in May 2015 I left pleased that I had visited a lapidar that had survived without any significant damage due to vandalism, whether officially sanctioned or not. Yes, there was a little bit of paint graffiti but that seemed the work of bored children with a pot of paint. It wasn’t till I started to really look at the pictures closely I realised something was amiss.
This is a remarkably symmetrical piece of work. Dhrami is constantly drawing parallels between the two events that were separated by those 23 years. This will become clearer when I describe the images of the battle against the Nazis in 1943. Symmetry is everywhere: the location of the images that tell the two stories; the location of the slogans; the location of the symbols; the positioning of the players or incidents that Dhrami is depicting; down to the height of the carvings in the stone. One side is a mirror image of the other, only the weapons and the clothing are different.
It is the height difference that shows that something has been changed. When, why, by whom or why I presently have no idea. What makes this vandalism even more confusing is that it has been perpetrated on the 1920 side of the arch. It’s normally the Communist emblems and symbols that have been attacked by mindless fascists but here it has something to do with a pre-Communist period.
If you look at the whole arch you will notice that the images on the right hand side go up a metre or two higher than they do on the left. One of the aspects of this piece of work that is noticeable is the way Dhrami merges the images in the story he wants to tell. Figures overlap, we rarely see full figures as another story needs the space. However, a closer look at the top of the carvings of the 1920 story show something different.
Drashovice Arch – the missing images – Mumtaz Dhrami
The merging of the images seems to stop with the four males fighters, and the very top of the design is the celebratory raised gun after the shooting down of the biplane. But there’s something further up. Am I the only one to make out a head, almost at the centre, with possibly something like a gun barrel pointing downwards? To me it appears as if a small group has been erased. If you were to draw a horizontal line across the void under the arch the top of this group would be at exactly the same height as the top of the highest group on the right hand side. I’ve searched but the only picture I’ve been able to see that was taken before 1990 of this arch is of such poor quality that it’s impossible to see what (if, indeed, anything) was there.
The carvings are on these two sides of the four of the arch but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing on the other two.
Carrying on in a clockwise direction, the next panel, north facing, tells the story, that we have already seen in pictures, in words together with symbols that had meaning at the time, that is 1920.
Quite high up the Albanian two-headed eagle seems to emerge from the stone. This is cleverly done as we know exactly what it is without the whole creature being shown. Whereas the left side of is in relief text takes the place of the feathers on the right.
The text reads:
Evropa shkruajnë e thonë, ç’është kështi si dëgjojmë, bënet dyfek në Vlorë, shqipëtarët po lëftojnë, me një mbret dyzet milione. Po me se lëftojnë vallë, me sëpata me hanxharë, dyfeqet lidhur me gjalmë, fishekët në xhep i mbajnë, në tri ditë bukë hanë.
(This is written in Tosk Albanian, so slightly different from what you’ll find in most dictionaries.)
This translates to:
Europe will write and talk about, with rifle fire being heard in Vlora, the struggle of the Albanians against a king of a population of forty million. How they fought with axes, scythes and rifles, held together with string, keeping their bullets back and they eat bread once in three days.
The reference to ‘forty million’ is significant if you remember that even during the National Liberation War of 1939-1944 the population of Albania was still less than one million. Although the road to Vlora, even today, takes about 45 minutes the city is only a few kilometres as the crow flies – the problem is the mountain range in the way. It’s very likely that inhabitants of the coastal town would have heard the sounds of gunfire reverberating in the Shushicë valley.
Poking up, just behind the head of the eagle on the right side are the tops of the weapons used in 1920, that is, an axe, a scythe and an old rifle.
Finally, on the last face, a huge left hand is tightly gripping a rifle close to the muzzle. The forearm disappears and becomes the number 1920, in large numerals. To the left are the dates between which the battle was fought:
5 qershor 3 shtator – 5th June 3rd September
This is followed by the words:
Lufta e Vlorës në vitin 1920 është një epope e shkëlqyer e fshatarësisë patriotike të Vlorës e Kurveleshit, Tepelenës e Mallakastrës e të gjithë popullit shqiptar që hodhën në det pushtuesit italianë.
Which translates as:
The Vlora War of 1920 is a remarkable epic of the patriotic Albanian peasantry from Kurveleshi, Vlora, Mallakastra, and Tepelenë who drove the Italian invaders into the sea.
I’ve found the best place to pick up a furgon that goes along the Shushicë Valley is by waiting beside the road in the square opposite the Vlora Baskia on Rruga Perlat Rexhepi (the Historical Museum is at the Vlora end of this road). Other furgons leave from this point but you want a furgon that comes the centre of town. Just flag down any one that comes from that direction (possibly going to Mavrovë or Kotë) and ask for Drashovice.