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.
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.
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
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)
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.
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.
To date the majority of the lapidars that have appeared in this blog have been those which have had an artistic or architectural ‘merit’, that is they have been designed by those who have had training in their art and wanted to express meaning via the structure itself rather than have the reason for the monument written on an attached plaque.
This means that probably more than two thirds of all the lapidars in the country were structures that could have been created by competent bricklayers and others in the building trade. But even in that style they would range from something akin (and the same size as) to a trig point on a mountain to something that comprised of a short wall to the side of which there would rise a pillar, or two. On the pillar would be attached a red star and to the wall a plaque with the names, dates and occasion the lapidar had been constructed at that particular place.
It was towards the latter part of the 1960s that sculptors, artists and architects started to really get involved in the construction of the lapidars. This was the occasion of Albania’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ and this lasted from, roughly, 1966 to 1986. At some time in the future I’ll try to put together a chronological table of the artistic lapidars to illustrate how they developed in both scale and complexity.
That doesn’t mean to say there weren’t public works of art, over and above the simple lapidars, before the 1960s. Andrea Mano’s Monument to the Partisan in Tirana was inaugurated in 1949. Odhise Paskali’s Shoket – Comrades was installed in Përmet Martyrs’ Cemetery in 1964. But both these sculptors were from the pre-liberation, pre-revolutionary era. Their approach was traditional, especially that of Paskali’s creation in Përmet which is very reminiscent of countless images of the deposition of the Christ from the cross to be seen in innumerable art galleries and Catholic churches throughout Europe.
It was only when the sculptors and artists, who had been trained by the likes of Mano and Paskali, reached their maturity as artists, together with the campaign of the Cultural Revolution (which was in essence a campaign to change the mentality of the Albanian workers and peasants) did a uniqueness, an innovativeness, appear in the public monuments that were created throughout the country. This was a twenty year period when sculptors such as Muntaz Dhrami, Hector Dule, Shaban Hadëri, Kristaq Rama and many others created their finest work.
BUT we should not forget the less ‘impressive’ structures that were in virtually every town and village (as well as in isolated locations in the countryside and mountains) in Albania as these were all monuments to the memory of those men and women who had fought against the fascist invaders from Italy and Germany and whose sacrifice made the Liberation of the county on 29th November 1944 at all possible.
On the other hand to talk about all of them would serve no purpose and would be very repetitive. Tragically, many of them have been either damaged by outright political vandalism or have just been allowed to lose the battle against the elements. For those interested in a particular lapidar or area of the country one or two images of all those listed in the Albanian Lapidar Survey can be seen in Volumes 2 and 3 produced at the conclusion of the project.
However, in order to give an idea of these simpler lapidars what follows is a description of those that still exist in Tirana. The fate, condition and respect given to these monuments in the capital is indicative of that in the rest of the country.
Perhaps one thing to stress here is that of the creators of these more ‘humble’ lapidars there is no record of who designed, created or constructed them.
To the victims of Fascism – Tirana market
The first one on the list you won’t be able to see. It existed up until 2016 when a new and very un-Albanian market was created on the site. In place of incorporating the lapidar into the design of the new structures the local/national governments sanctioned the demolition of the monument.
Victims of Fascism – 01
You couldn’t say that the lapidar (and those whom it commemorated) was being treated with a great deal of respect, as it would have been in the days of Socialist Albania, but it was being ‘tolerated’. It consisted of a pillar (about 4 metres high), which was wider at the top that at the bottom and from the lower part of the pillar, at 90 degrees to each other, there extended two short, low walls (again about 4 metres long).
This monument was meant to be seen from the outside of the space created by the walls as it was upon this front there were attached two marble plaques into which had been carved – and then painted in gold the following;
Victims of Fascism – 03
Më 22 tetor 1942 u var në litar Shyqyri Ishmi
On October 22, 1942, Shyqyri Ishmi was hanged
Victims of Fascism – 02
Më 29 shkurt 1944 u var në litar Muhamet Gjollesha
On February 29, 1944, Muhamet Gjollesha was hanged
This indicates that the reason for the lapidar to these victims of the Nazis being in this location was because they would have been hung in public, as was the norm of first the Italian and then the German fascists in an (in the Albanian context, failed) effort to intimidate the local population. This would seem to indicate that this space (just off what is now called Avni Rustemi Square), therefore, had long been a public market.
This is not exactly the monument that was first constructed here.
Victims of Fascism – 06
Notice here that the wording on the face of the walls is different from the more modern picture. Although it’s difficult to say from such a poor reproduction (the only I’ve so far been able to acquire) the lettering could well have been made up of individual bronze letters, inset into the concrete. When chaos and anarchy replaced the stability of Socialism in the 1990s anything that wasn’t nailed down, and often that which was, would be stolen by someone desperate enough to gain a few lek.
However, someone at some time in the intervening years had paid for and had had installed two simpler plaques to commemorate the two young people who had died at the hands of the Fascists. It had also been painted white (whereas the original seems to have been just the bare concrete) and the indented star at the top of the pillar – on two sides – had been painted red (the southern facing side slightly more faded than its northerly companion). This indicates that there was some sort of respect for the past. What changed to allow it to be demolished I don’t know.
Victims of Fascism – 04
But in its latter days it provided an anchor point for an electricity cable and a bit of shadow for the goods in the summer. If, as is obviously the case with this one, a lapidar had survived the chaos of the 90s it was more than likely just accepted as part of the environment, few caring especially of its significance but at the same time not doing any conscious damage.
Victims of Fascism – 05
The authorities saw an end to that.ast
Fighters who fell from the bullets of the Nazi occupiers
The next lapidar is a very simple affair, being a tall, narrow, truncated pyramid which commemorates those from the neighbourhood who died in a confrontation with the Nazis at the beginning of 1944.
Fallen fighting the Nazis – 03
On one of its faces there’s a large marble plaque bearing the date and the names of those who died in the battle.
Fallen fighting the Nazis – 02
The wording is;
Në shënje kujtimi luftëtarëve që ranë nga plumbat e pushtuesve naziste me 28 shkurt 1944. Gjergj A. Frashëri, Skënder A. Kosturi, Trajan S. Pekmezi, Viktor S. Gjokoreci
In memory of the fighters who fell from the bullets of the Nazi occupiers on February 28, 1944.
Gjergj A. Frashëri, Skënder A. Kosturi, Trajan S. Pekmezi, Viktor S. Gjokoreci
This looks like the original plaque. Now the letters are filled in with gold paint (not done very professionally) which I don’t think would have been the case originally.
The colouring of the stone work is ‘interesting’. Originally it would have been just the plain, unadorned concrete – or perhaps painted white. The present colouring is to go with the building beside it. Monuments to those killed in the struggle for national liberation from the fascists are now become colour co-ordinated to fit in with the chosen colour scheme of the bar beside which it stands.
Fallen fighting the Nazis – 01
It will be interesting to see if, in the future, the new (or present) bar owner decides on a different colour scheme the change will be applied to the lapidar as well.
Place where Qemal Stafa was killed
Qemal Stafa was one of the founding members of the Albanian Communist Party (later to be called the Party of Labour of Albania) on 8th November 1941 and was the head of its Youth Section until his death, in this location, on 5th May 1942. After Liberation that date was chosen as Martyrs’ Day, to commemorate all those who had fallen in the War for National Liberation against the Italian and German fascists.
Qemal Stafa 03
This is a simple structure, with slight embellishments. It consists of a low wall (about 4 metres long) and on the left hand side two rectangular columns rise up to about the same height, that is about 4 metres. These columns are on either side of the wall and the one at the back is slightly taller. On the face of the wall is a plaque with the words;
Këtu më 5 maj 1942 me lufte me fashiste ra Heroi i Popullit Qemal Stafa
Here on May 5, 1942, during the anti-fascist war, the People’s Hero Qemal Stafa fell
Qemal Stafa 02
This is not original as there are signs that there had been other attachments, possibly individual letters, carrying the same message. This plaque is well made and the lettering, which has been coloured in gold paint, is done professionally.
Another point to make is that the whole structure was made of concrete and then faced, on all sides, by white marble. Apart from a missing piece at the top of the front column the monument is generally intact.
I would have thought that in the original design there would have been a red star attached somehow at the top of the columns. There’s no indication of anything being attached to the faces so it might have been a stand alone, metal star attached to the very top.
There’s a little bit of graffiti to the left of the plaque but there are no signs of any substantial damage.
Although originally this would have been standing alone, with little close by. Now it’s right in the middle of a large street market.
However, dying as he did before Liberation Stafa doesn’t have the same enemies as those who survived to fight for the construction of Socialism. There are a number of locations, including the main sports stadium (which was demolished in 2016 and I don’t know if a new one that had been proposed was eventually built, where it might be if built and what it might now be called) and a high school on the Durrës Road in Tirana that bear his name.
I think this element of respect which he still has in Albanian society accounts for the fact that even though getting close no street trader has the nerve to use the space in front of the actual monument (which isn’t the case in other locations I’ve visited in the country), prime though it might be.
Monument to Mina Peze
‘Humble’ is not really an appropriate word to describe the lapidar to the honour of Mina Peza. Although not particularly large it’s different from virtually all other lapidars in the country. Unfortunately, I don’t have any information about when it was created as that would say a lot.
Unlike the other lapidars in this post the one in the street that still bears her name has obviously been designed. There are four distinct, component parts.
First it sits on a small platform that’s three steps up from street level. This platform and steps are all faced with red (steps) and cream (platform) marble. There’s a bit of careless damage to one corner of the steps but that’s about all.
Then there’s a tall, rectangular column, perhaps three metres high. This is faced in white marble. This stands separate from the rest of the monument, a metre or so in front.
Then we have a huge piece of stone where the rough edges are clear to seen but the top has been levelled off to take the final part of the structure which is a curved piece of concrete that has been faced with white speckled, red marble. Towards the top left corner of this curved marble a white marble plaque takes the place of the red slabs, thereby maintaining a smooth surface.
On this plaque are the words;
Këtu në 17 shtator 1942 u vra ne krye të demostratës së grave nëna patriote Mine Peza
which translates as
Here on September 17, 1942, the patriotic mother Mine Peza was killed at the head of the women’s demonstration
The stand-alone column has indications of some small holes towards the top and this is where a star might have been placed. (As I’ve written elsewhere the stars were the first target of the reactionary, counter-revolutionary hoards when the breakdown of order in the 1990s provided them with the opportunity to carry out their vandalism.) Also someone has painted a red and black (anarchist) sash from just below the base, diagonally, to just below the top. This has now faded somewhat.
This wouldn’t look out of place in a minimalist art collection, very much out of character to all other Albanian lapidars. But who designed it or when is still a mystery. It all feels very locked in now, there being bars and fast food outlets very close (there are a lot of bars and fast food places in Tirana). I assume originally it would have stood on the corner of the street with very little close by and with a much greater opportunity to appreciate the design.
The story of the demonstration
In the summer of 1942 the National Liberation Movement had assumed broad proportions. The prisons were full of patriots. To ease the situation, the fascists exiled some of them to the desolate islands of Italy. In conformity with the instructions of the Albanian Communist Party the secret anti-fascist organizations of the prisoners which operated inside the prisons organized protests and resistance to the fascist measures. Protests were held in February 1942, in the prison of Elbasan, in May and August in the prison of Tirana, and later, in Vlora. The biggest demonstration was the one held by the prisoners of Tirana, which took place in the afternoon of the 17th of September, 1942, just one day after the opening of the National Liberation Conference at Peza. This demonstration was of particular importance because it was coordinated with a demonstration held by the anti-fascist women of Tirana, in support of their imprisoned sons and brothers.
The events took place as follows: the prisoners refused to give up their comrades who were to be deported. Fighting with the carabinieri broke out in the prison. The prefect of Tirana was called to the scene. Meanwhile, about 100 women began a demonstration outside, in front of the prison. The fascists were in a critical situation. The order was given to break up the demonstration of the women by force. From their fortified posts, the guards opened fire on the women. Several were wounded, while one of them, the Heroine of the People, Mine Peza, was mortally wounded. Her comrades lifted her and carried her through the city streets. Mine Peza died while the demonstration was still going on. The people have dedicated a song to the heroism of Mine Peza and her comrades: Down with the terror, oust the occupier, we Mothers can no longer bear it! Let us smash the cruel iron bars!
New Albania, No 5, 1977
On the corner of Rruga Mina Peze and Rruga e Bogdanëve.
National Anti-Fascist Liberation War Headquarters
This is a squat, square monolith about 2 metres high sitting on a platform, twice as wide as the monolith, which is four steps up from pavement level. Each corner is inset to break the monotony of the square and at each changing angle there is a strip decoration of light brown marble. At the base there is the effect of three thin layers, the middle inset from the other two, which replicates the decoration of the sides of the block. On the left side of the platform there is a thin border with small, low, circular laurel bushes. At each end of this border there’s a small, low level light to illuminate the area at night.
On the side facing the road there’s a white marble plaque with the words;
Këtu ka qenë baza më e rëndësishme e L.A.N.Ç. (Lufta Antifashiste Nacional Çlirimtare) me emrin Baraka e Nushajve nga këtu jepeshin orientime për luftën e qarkut të Tiranës dhe mbarë vendit
which translates as
Here was located the L.A.N.C’s (National Anti-Fascist Liberation War) most important base by the name of Baraka i Nushajve. From here were sent out orders for the Tirana district and the whole country
This plaque looks original and although there are some marks on the marble it is in a generally good condition.
This is a strange one in that although given its own space it is so hemmed in with the surrounding trees (much more substantial than when the lapidar was erected) it seems to be made invisible, especially in the day time when I’m sure that many people pass by without even knowing it’s there.
In Rruga Sami Freshëri, just a short distance on the Lana River side from the new police station.
The representation of the last military action of Vojo Kushi, Sadik Stavaleci and Xhorxhi Martini in Albanian Socialist realism is an interesting one as it has been depicted in a number of formats so offers a (possibly) unique opportunity to compare how the event has been presented to the Albanian people, history and posterity. Although the sacrifice of the three is commemorated it is Vojo Kushi who is in the forefront of these representations, his last action of storming an Italian tank being an act of bravery that has transcended even the counter-revolution of the 1990s.
Vojo Kushi 1918-1942
There’s also much more information available about Vojo. He was born in Vrakë, near Shkodër on August 3rd 1918 from a Serbian minority which was suppressed under ‘King’ Zog, one aspect of whose rule was to ban names with Serbian suffixes. At that time there was no unified Albanian Communist Party and it was in Shkodër where the first Communist revolutionary organisation was established. However, all Communist Parties go through difficult struggles before (and after formation) and it wasn’t until November 8th 1941 that the Communist Party of Albania (later to become the Party of Labour of Albania) was formed in Tirana. Vojo was chosen as a member of the regional committee and also appointed as commander of the local guerilla unit. Apart from other activities he was tasked with the discovery and elimination of traitors and collaborators.
Sadik Stavaleci 1918-1942
All I know about Sadik was that he was born in Kosove (considered then and now as part of Albania) and obviously seemed to have joined the partisan/guerrilla movement soon after the Italian invader had entered the country.
Xhorxhi Martini 1921-1942
There’s not a lot more I’ve been able to discover about Xhorxhi. He was from Tirana and the youngest of the three People’s Heroes to have died on that day.
On October 10th, 1942, due to either a mistake on their part or more likely due to the activity of collaborators, spies and traitors (always to be found ready to creep out from under the rocks in any struggle for national liberation) the three found themselves surrounded in the Red Hills district of Tirana. After a 6 hour battle, during which time they were facing up to six Italian tanks, running out of ammunition and wounded, it was at this time, knowing they had nothing to lose, that Vojo Kushi carried out his suicidal attack. Running out of the building he shot a number of soldiers before he jumped up on to the turret of a tank and attempted to throw a grenade into the hatch he was trying to open. So exposed he didn’t last long out in the open.
Vojo Kushi – Odhise Paskali
The first piece of art to commemorate the event was put on show to the public in 1949 and is a bust of Vojo Kushi by the sculptor Odhise Paskali (whose other public works include ‘Shoket – Comrades’ at the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Permet). Whether it is in its original location or not I can’t say for sure but it has obviously been kept well and has had a recent coating of gold paint. It also sits on a new pedestal with the words ‘Heroi i Popullit, Vojo Kushi, Tarzani, 1918-1942’ on the plaque. This translates as ‘People’s Hero, Vojo Kushi, Tarzan, 1918-1942’.
This is a classic bust of the time, a head and (cut off) shoulders view of a man in his early twenties. His head is held high, he’s confident and looks into the distance/future. What is very distinctive about Paskali’s representation, and I’m not sure where he picked it up, is the very pronounced quiff, that extends over his forehead like the peak of a cap. This is not particularly the image you would get from the two photos I’ve seen of Vojo but this style has been picked up by other artists, particularly the (unknown) sculptor of the bas-relief a few streets away.
If the bust is the original the plaque certainly is not. Placing the word ‘Tarzan’ in the description acts to take away the politics of the whole episode. There is an increasing move to ‘renovate’ lapidars and other monuments throughout Albania but in certain places there is a definite agenda of de-politicisation being followed. What this agenda seeks to demonstrate is that these individuals were patriots fighting for the liberation of the country from the foreign invader. The fact that during the National Liberation War the invader was the Fascist, first the Italian and then the German, is conveniently forgotten as, in the forefront of that struggle, was the Communist Partisan Army. In Albania today many don’t say ‘forget the war’ they say ‘forget who led the country to victory’. By putting that simple word ‘Tarzan’ on the statue they seek to infantilise, fictionalise and mythologise into insignificance the actions of those Communists who refused to surrender.
There’s a sense of irony in the present location of the statue. Vojo has his back to a Euro Lloto pop-up store. Here Albanians can gamble on an infinite variety of events in sporting fixtures, a quick way for most (the off the street punters) to become poor and an equally quick way for others (the shop owners, either in Albania or elsewhere) to get rich. Considering that in the 1990s many hundreds of thousands of Albanians were cheated out of their personal wealth and privatised land through criminal Pyramid Schemes its interesting that so many still see their future through touching the big one – such places are all over the country.
Vojo Kushi amongst the debris
(In June 2019 I came across the image above on the Albanian Lapidar Survey tumblr blog. Don’t know exactly when it was taken but assume quite recently. What’s being demolished is a cheap and nasty betting shop come gambling den. There were a lot of them around a few years ago. Whether the demolition is due to a political decision or just one of new buildings wanting to take the space I don’t, as yet, know. What is certain is that it is unlikely to have any effect upon the Albanian desire to ‘get rich quick’. They haven’t learnt from the pyramid/Ponzi schemes that robbed so many ordinary Albanians of the little they had in the early 1990s.
When I last saw the bust it was in a good condition – but it looks slightly neglected in this picture. The bulldozer is evidently attempting to miss it but that doesn’t mean it never got damaged in this exercise. It should be valued as a work of art even by the present government and political establishment in Albania. The Peoples’ Heroes and Heroines are still, in the main, respected and this is also the work of one of Albania’s most renowned (internationally) sculptors – Odhise Paskali. I’ll try to remember to check its fate when next in Tirana.)
Rruga e Dibrës, just south of Sheshi Selvia
41° 19′ 58.0080” N
19° 49′ 21.7200” E
Vojo Kushi – Zef Shoshi
There are, at least, a couple of paintings of Vojo Kushi. One is a simple full length portrait by Zef Shoshi. I don’t know the exact date it was painted nor where it might be at the moment, I’ve never personally seen it on display. Here he is placed in an urban environment, presumably somewhere in Tirana. This is a simple, figurative painting, showing a young man, with a determined expression on his face, looking out of the picture, into the future. The impression of determination, and anger, is reinforced by his clenched fists, his arms hanging down at his side. In this painting he looks very different from the other representations of him in Tirana. Here art is used as a record of someone who died fighting for his country.
The other, more famous, on permanent display in the National Art Gallery in Tirana, is a different affair. This was painted by Sali Shijaku in 1969 and is a huge painting, measuring 200 x 300cm. It depicts a recognizable Vojo Kushi performing his final act of heroism for which he is well-known, that is, just about to throw a grenade into the hatch of an Italian tank (depicted at the top of the post).
Discussing this painting is where the understanding of Albanian Socialist Realism becomes more complex. The painting follows the conventions of political art: it represents an event that actually took place; the individual is recognizable; it serves to commemorate and celebrate an heroic act, a sacrifice, that occurred during the National Liberation War; it seeks to inspire the viewer (especially the young); it declares that the act was committed by a Communist; and it tells the history of the Albanian people.
But, and this is a big but, it is fantastical. Most of the painting is quite dark, a good half of the background and the tank itself (which is in the bottom foreground). There are white flashes in the background indicating either fire or smoke, giving the impression that this is in mid-battle.
It is when we get to Vojo himself that things become strange. For some reason he has lost his shirt and is bare from the waist up, apart from what looks like a cape, fluttering out behind his left shoulder. This cape is red and either represents the red flag of Communism or the Albanian Partisan flag (although it’s not possible to make out the black, double-headed eagle). This flag/cape isn’t attached to his body in any way, one corner just resting over his raised right arm.
His left hand grips the edge of the hatch lid, giving the impression he has just wrenched it open and in his raised right hand is a grenade, ready to throw it inside the tank. The image and what he is attempting is OK but why is he dressed in such a way? Not only is he bare-chested he is also bare-footed, his right foot on the barrel of the tank’s gun, his other foot out of sight as he straddles the turret. The other aspect that is strange is the lighting. A shaft of light comes from some unidentified source at the lower right of the painting, illuminating his upper torso and thus separating him from the dark background.
I think all these devices cause to separate Vojo from the ordinary man and woman. When you look at the picture you get the impression that he has flown there like some sort of superman (the red cape adding to the image of the character in the American Marvel comics). The lack of even a shirt or shoes indicates that nothing can harm him, that he is impervious to the bullets of the enemy. But he wasn’t. If this picture depicts anything at all it’s the last moments of a partisan willing to give his life for the cause of freedom from fascism. The way the light shines on his face is reminiscent of some Christian religious paintings and the cape, as it gives a backdrop to his head, resembles a halo (a common artistic device that Christian painters stole from the Roman Empire – amongst many other tropes).
As I’ve written before, until workers are able to freely develop a manner in which to represent themselves, free from the influences of the past, such an interpretation will always be possible.
However, it was obviously a favoured painting in the past, it being chosen to be one of the paintings that were depicted on Albanian postage stamps (although the reds are always much brighter in printed sources than the original).
Vojo Kushi – postage stamp
To the best of my knowledge the monument to the action on October 10th, 1942 is located close to where things actually happened, although building development in recent years has meant that it’s now slightly hidden away on a quiet street corner.
Vojo Kushi Lapidar
It’s a relatively small lapidar following a typical design. There’s a concrete base which has a column just over two metres tall on the right hand side. The concrete is covered with marble slabs – but these have fallen away in a few places. Half way up the lapidar is a marble plaque (which looks original) which bears the words:
Herojte e Popullit – meaning People’s Heroes
Above the words there’s a star and this star, and the letters, are picked out in gold. There’s a little bit of vandalism on this plaque, a felt tip pen has been used to fill in the star and there’s a tiny figure of a man between the words Vojo and Kushi.
To the left of the column a bronze bas-relief is attached to a concrete panel. This is just over a metre high and just over two metres long. On it is depicted a version of the attack on the tank seen already in the painting by Shijaku.
However, the dynamism of the relief is different. Vojo is virtually sitting on the barrel of the tank’s gun which is pointing to the left. Vojo’s left hand is stretched out fully in front of him and is gripping the closed edge of the turret hatch. In his right hand, which is fully stretched out behind him, is a grenade. He is keeping his profile low, as it would have made sense in reality, offering a smaller target to the enemy.
There’s a repetition of the image in the Shijaku painting as although not completely bare-chested he is only wearing a ripped shirt, which is in tatters, but which also flutters out behind him, creating the image of a flag or a banner.
Although the face is in profile it’s quite recognizable from images of Vojo. However, things are slightly strange when we look at the very top of his head where it, and his hair, extend above the main body of the bas-relief over the top of the concrete. This produces a three-dimensional effect on that small part of the sculpture. This also includes a huge quiff, even more exaggerated than that on the Paskali bust on Rruga e Dibrës.
The sculpture is in a reasonable condition, not seeming to have suffered from any malicious vandalism but merely suffering from lack of care, as are many lapidars throughout the country.