Restoration of ‘The Albanians’ – National Historical Museum, Tirana – or not

Facade - National Historical Museum - Tirana
Facade – National Historical Museum – Tirana

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Restoration of ‘The Albanians’ – National Historical Museum, Tirana – or not

For the second time in less than a decade the facade of the National Historical Museum in Tirana is obscured by scaffolding and sheeting. As on the previous occasion (in 2012) the reason is, supposedly, for the renovation of the ‘The Albanians’, the huge mosaic that celebrates and commemorates the struggle for independence through the ages, the victory over Fascism and the construction of Socialism.

Under normal circumstances such work would be a cause for celebration. The mosaic is a wonderful example of Socialist Realist Art and captures the spirit of the nation at the time it was created in 1982. However, this Albania in 2021 and nothing is that simple.

The present work in progress also asks a number of questions. If, indeed, there was work done in 2012 to repair the damage caused by time and the weather why was it so badly done that it has to be done again nine years later? Was the ‘restoration’ of 2012 nothing more than an excuse to cover up the revolutionary work of art at the time the country was ‘celebrating’ the hundredth anniversary of Independence from Ottoman rule? Events would have taken place in Skenderbeu Square and for the present capitalist rulers of Albania the image of the mosaic as a backdrop to the sham celebrations would have been an ‘inconvenience’.

What was certainly the case was that chunks of the mosaic seemed to be dropping off at an alarming rate and the more pieces that fell the weaker the the rest of the structure would become. Structural damage was obvious as soon as the scaffolding was removed short after November 2012, adding credence to the ‘conspiracy theory’. This situation was pointed out in a post on this site two years ago in September 2019.

As with many of the monuments that were identified in the Albanian Lapidar Survey (many of which have already been described on this blog) ‘The Albanians’ has suffered from both conscious neglect as well as episodes of political and cultural vandalism.


The Albanians Mosaic - National History Museum, Tirana

The Albanians Mosaic – National History Museum, Tirana

and up to 2020

'The Albanians' - Mosaic on the National History Museum, Tirana

‘The Albanians’ – Mosaic on the National History Museum, Tirana

At the beginning of this century one of the five original creators of the mosaic (Agim Nebiu) was paid to destroy his own creation. So much for the integrity of the artist. During that act of destruction Nebiu changed three significant aspects of the original design. He removed; the large, gold outlined five pointed star that was behind the head of the central female figure; the small golden star that was situated between the heads of the doubled-headed eagle (that being the official flag of the Peoples’ Socialist Republic of Albania); and the book from the right hand of the central male figure, replacing it with what looks like a sack (the book would have represented both education and the written works of Enver Hoxha). In the process Nebiu created the most amazingly shaped flag.

So the question I’m posing here is ‘What sort of restoration will be carried out this time?’ The chances of the original imagery and intention being re-created is only marginally more likely than that of an ice cream surviving very long in Hell.

But there are further possibilities of ‘re-writing’ history. The War of National Liberation against the invading fascists, first Italian then the German Nazis, was led by and principally carried out by Albanian Communists. This fact is indicated by the images of the red star on the headgear of the figures on the right of the mosaic. As has happened on a number of lapidars these red stars could be made to ‘disappear’ and therefore ‘deny’ the Communists the victory.

There’s obviously a change going on in the official approach to the Socialist Period in Albania. The present (September 2021) ‘Archive’ exhibition of Socialist Realist paintings and sculptures in the National Art Gallery, the covering up of those paintings that have, for years, formed the permanent exhibition in the gallery and the closure of all the rooms and galleries devoted to the National Liberation War in the National Historical Museum itself all seem to indicate that the involvement of the Communists in the war is going to be completely obliterated.

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Political Vandalism and ‘The Albanians’ Mosaic in Tirana

'The Albanians' Mosiac at the National Historical Museum, Tirana

‘The Albanians’ Mosiac at the National Historical Museum, Tirana

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Political Vandalism and ‘The Albanians’ Mosaic in Tirana

The wonderful and impressive ‘The Albanians’ Mosaic, which has looked down on Skenderbeu Square, in the centre of Tirana, from above the entrance of the National Historical Museum since 1982, is starting to show it’s age. Less it’s age, in fact, but really the signs of intentional neglect which is tantamount to an act of political vandalism.

The last time it was really ‘cared for’ was when one of the original artists involved in the construction of the mosaic (Agim Nebiu) used his skills and ‘expertise’ to attempt to depoliticise the work of Socialist Realist Art. At that time (which I still can’t say exactly when) the large, gold rimmed, five pointed red star which used to exist behind the head of the principal female character, at the centre of the mosaic, was removed. Also taken out was the smaller, gold-outlined star that sat above the heads of the double-headed eagle, the only difference between the flag of the present, capitalist state of Albania and the flag of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania.

Also removed – for me inexplicably – was the book that the male, to her right, clutches closely to his chest with his right arm. Although it would have been impossible to have seen so from street level, this would probably have been one of the books of Enver Hoxha, leader of the government and the Albanian Party of Labour from the first days after liberation to his death in 1985. (Another mosaic, this time in Bestrove, has an image of a child carrying a book of Enver Hoxha‘s works closely to her chest.)

Nebiu did a ‘good job’ – it’s very difficult to realise the original from what exists now, apart from a few areas where the colours don’t exactly match, and those unaware of the original will notice nothing. For his efforts he got his thirty pieces of silver. And people wonder why intellectuals were sent to the camps in Siberia.

The mosaic was also covered for some time at the end of 2012, just before the centenary of national liberation from the Ottoman Empire. But if any remedial work was carried out then it was very slip shod and almost immediately the mosaic showed increasing signs of decay.

One of the most obviouslt damaged areas

One of the most obviouslt damaged areas

And that decay continues. At an ever increasing pace.

Places were the ceramic tiles have fallen away have been obvious to the naked eye for some time and the iron framework upon which the whole structure rests has also started to poke its rusty face through the imagery. However, the majority of the decay wasn’t really encroaching on the actual figures in the picture. That’s different now as damage can be seen to the figures and their dress, especially in the lower third of the art work.

The iron framework shows through

The iron framework shows through

And that’s not a surprise. It receives no shade whatsoever from the blazing summer sun and for many of the summer months at the heat of the day the tiles would almost certainly be too hot to touch. Come the winter months temperatures below zero would be normal, especially at night, when ice crystals would form behind the tiles and force them away from the framework to which they are attached.

This alternating between extremes of temperature would have existed in the eight years of the mosaic’s existence before the fall of the socialist system in 1990 but efforts would have been made to keep matters of dis-repair under control. Also it would have been relatively new in the 80s and assuming care had been taken in its construction then it would have been able to withstand such variations in climate.

Cracks in Socialism and Albania marching forward

Cracks in Socialism and Albania marching forward

Although in the last couple of years a huge amount of money has been spent on renovating the immediate area – and it must be admitted that (at least at present) the new look, pedestrianised and car free Skenderbeu Square is a joy to walk through. But not a lek has been spent on the mosaic.

Damage appearing the length of the monument

Damage appearing the length of the monument

This must be intentional. The cowardly aim of the politicians, of whatever hue, to let the mosaic fall down – so as to avoid the accusation of artistic and cultural vandalism. If a sizeable chunk of stone was to fall and kill a foreign tourist as s/he was entering or leaving the museum all the better. Blame could then be apportioned on those who came up with the project in the first place – both the actual artists involved and the system of Socialism itself.

Unless there’s a radical change in attitude – which is highly unlikely – I doubt whether tourists to Albania will be able to enjoy and appreciate this unique example of Socialist Realist art on a visit to Tirana for many more years into the future.

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‘The Albanians’ Mosaic, National Historical Museum, Tirana

'The Albanians' - Mosaic on the National History Museum, Tirana

‘The Albanians’ – Mosaic on the National History Museum, Tirana

More on Albania ……

‘The Albanians’ Mosaic, National Historical Museum, Tirana

‘The Albanians’ mosaic on National Historical Museum, Tirana, is one of the finest examples of late Albanian Socialist Realism still to be seen in the country.

For most visitors to Albania the example of Socialist Realist art they would have seen is the mosaic, called ‘The Albanians’, situated above the main entrance of the National Historical Museum in Skënderbeg Square, Tirana.

The work is the result of a collective of five Albanian artists – Vilson Kilica, Anastas Kostandini, Agim Nebiu, Justin Droboniku and Aleksander Filipi – and was completed in 1980 for the opening of the museum.

This is huge, covering 400 m², and dominates one end of the main square in Tirana. Fittingly, as it decorates a historical museum, it tells the story of how Albanians have fought against invasion and occupation throughout the centuries. Being one of the smallest states in the Balkan region (until the former Yugoslavia was broken up into smaller and even smaller western friendly ‘nations’) Albania was considered fair game by whatever was the dominant imperialist power around at the time.

Before talking about the mosaic in some detail a quiz question. Take a look at the picture at the top of this post and see if you can work out what is particular to the three women depicted, in a form that you are unlikely to see in any capitalist country?

On the left as you look at it is concentrated almost 2000 years of defiance towards the invaders, going back to the Roman Empire, which later changed to Byzantine control, that being usurped by the Bulgars, from what is now modern-day Bulgaria, in the 7th century. The major, and longest, running battle was against the efforts of the Turkish Ottoman Empire to control the small mountainous country, this being the period when Skënderbeg became the national hero. All these invading cultures have left their mark on the culture, architecture and language of the Albanians. Also among this group is the representation of Albania’s Declaration of Independence in 1912 – the man in a suit with a piece of paper on his hand is Ismail Qemali.

On the right is depicted a very specific and the most recent and most successful National Liberation struggle, the one against, first Italian and later German, Fascism between 1939 and 1944. The red star on the caps of three of the four individuals indicate they are Communist Partisans, where armed men and women fought side by side.

The trio in the centre represent, what was then the present in 1980s Albania, workers in control of their country, the red flag flying, the guns in the hands of the workers and united they are marching forward to a Communist future. That march has been halted, temporarily, but there is still an element of hope depicted in the determined way the trio are walking towards the viewer.

However, what you see is not the original. Sometime after 1990 (I’ve yet to discover exactly when ) the mosaic was ‘depoliticised’, at least partially. There were probably those who wanted to see the total destruction of the mosaic (as has happened in other places, such as the wall of the National Library just across the square from the Historical Museum and the monument to the ‘Four Heroines of Mirdita’) but the compromise was, nonetheless, cultural vandalism.

And the ‘artist’ responsible for this crime was one of the five who created it in the first place. The criminal’s name is Agim Nebiu. He didn’t do so for any political reason, he did it for money. Like so many artists he was/is cheap. One of the problems with ‘intellectuals’ and ‘artists’ under Socialism is that they are so ‘special’ (or they think themselves as such) that they throw a hissy fit if they are expected to create something which might not fit into their ‘artistic’ sensibilities.

If from a working class or peasant background they would never have had the chance to learn their trade if it were not for the Socialist Revolution but once having gained those skills they turn their backs on the people who provided them with previously unheard of opportunities. They adopt the attitude of many ‘artists’ under the capitalist social system, that they should be ‘free’ to ‘express their creativity’. That they hold no debt to those workers who have enabled them to have the luxury of a higher education. When someone throws thirty pieces of silver on the table they grab them with both hands. They declare that now they are ‘true artists’, not following the diktats of the state. They are no such thing. At least prostitutes are honest.

Stars are crucial to Albanian Socialist Realist Art. They determine the meaning of the story. There is no shadow of a doubt that the Fascists would not have been thrown out of Albania, by the Albanian people themselves, if it were not for the political direction given to the struggle by the Marxist-Leninists, those members of the then Albanian Communist Party (later to be renamed as the Party of Labour of Albania).

The self-proclaimed ‘king’ Zog fled when the Italians landed in Durres in April 1939 and lived in luxury in Britain. The nationalists of Balli Kombëtar sat down with the Nazis and were bombarded by the Communist Partisans from the hills of Sauk. True partisans, like young Liri Gero – a true daughter of her country and living up to the meaning of her name (Freedom) and who was tortured to death by the odious Nazis – followed the Communist banner. On that banner was the golden star of Communism.

That star was anathema to the counter-revolutionaries who gained power after 1990 and throughout the country that symbol, so hated by capitalism and its lackeys, has been the target of official and unofficial vandalism.

The mosaic is an example of the official.

Below is a detail of the original mosaic, as it was planned and executed by the group of five artists in 1980.

National Museum Mosaic - original

National Museum Mosaic – original

Notice that there is a large golden star above the head of the woman in the centre of the picture. If you now look at the close up of that middle section below can you spot an anomaly?

Mosaic on National Historical Museum - detail

Mosaic on National Historical Museum – detail

Doesn’t the flag look a strange shape? Flags are normally rectangular but this one looks like it’s a piece of cloth cut totally at random. That’s because the corner of the flag between the woman’s head and her upraised rifle is where the star used to finish. What has happened is that the gold star pieces of ceramic have been removed, replaced by reddish pieces and then a bump of red inserted between the original folds of the flag and the corner. If the flag followed its original shape the corner would have been behind the woman’s head.

The pieces of ceramic are also a slightly different colour and they have a different orientation to the originals. It must have been difficult to get exactly the same pieces at least 20 years after the original was installed – not least because all the factories that would have made the original tiles have been closed down and now lay derelict.

You’ll notice the same disparity if you look above the twin eagle heads on the flag. During the Communist era there was a small gold star here and that also has been obliterated, but a close examination of the area shows that something is amiss.

A third change is to the depiction of the male character on the right of the central female.

Originally he carried a red book in his right hand, holding it against his chest. In the vandalised version he carries something that looks like a sack. This is plainly ludicrous. In all forms of art, especially Socialist Realist art, everything has a meaning. Carrying a book means education (denied the majority of the population before 1944 and something that was a principal aim and achievement of the Socialist society – although there has been much privatisation of education in Albania in the last 25 years the popularity of the annual book fair in Tirana in November shows the love that still exists for books within the country). Carrying an empty sack means … what? The same as in the empty sack … nothing!

To have just removed the book would have meant that the character would look strange. Why have an empty hand across his chest. In the context of the three of them marching it would be more realistic if his right arm was hanging down by his side as people do when marching when not carrying anything.

To have changed his stance would have been a major task indeed so Nebui took the easy way out and substituted the book with the sack.

If it is easy enough to understand why the stars were removed it begs some interesting questions when we talk about a book.

This is tantamount to book burning – which did take place outside what is now the Adrion book shop just across the square during the counter-revolution of the early 1990s. To me it’s also symbolic of the attack on education for all, at the state’s expense, a principal of all Socialist states in the past but something which has also been privatised in all post-Socialist states. Education is now a privilege and not a right.

When I first went to Tirana in November 2011 the whole of the front of the building was covered with scaffolding, which was finally removed in time for the Independence Day celebrations on the 28th. I don’t know what sort of work was carried out on the mosaic but what surprises me is that the red stars on the caps of the Communists have survived.

Now the answer to quiz posed at the beginning. ALL the women are carrying arms! OK, there’s only three of them but that’s still a hundred per cent. And this is quite common in the depiction of women in Albanian lapidars, such as in Fier, Lushnjë, Saranda, Librazdh, Pishkash, the,sadly destroyed monument to the Four Heroines of Mirdita, the first Party Cell in Proger, Liri Gero and the 68 Girls of Fier, the Drashovice Arch and many others yet to be written and posted.

But apart from the ‘official’ re-writing of history we have neglect. Just from the street it is possible to see that the mosaic is starting to crumble. Bits are falling off and there’s obviously no concern to repair a unique piece of art, even from the Social Democrat government at present in place. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Tony Blair, the traitorous warmonger who was able to woo the British population to his mock Tory politic, now ‘advises’ his protégé, Edi Rama, himself the son of an Socialist sculptor and a trained artist, but basically a philistine more intent on self-enrichment than the preservation of his country’s culture.

Close up photos show just how bad the deterioration has become.

At the same time I don’t have a problem with this. I think this mosaic is one of the finest pieces of Socialist Realist Art in Albania but the present population doesn’t deserve it. I see no reason why works of art that celebrate the working class and its struggle for Socialism should exist in a country where the vast majority of its young people want to leave in order to live in a capitalist ‘heaven’, many of its young women populate the brothels of Europe and their principal export is vicious, murderous gangsters. (There’s study to be made why post-Socialist societies produce such scumbags.)

Wonderful as such art is, and making a statement that has yet to be fully developed, celebrating the working class in a manner that has never been made before, a working class that doesn’t struggle for a better future doesn’t deserve such art.

Let them live with the banality of the celebrity culture, reality TV, cake making competitions, Coca Cola and McDonald’s. Until they attempt to change the world for the betterment of themselves and those that follow that’s all they are worth.

The slideshow below shows some of the detail of the mosaic and also, sadly, signs of neglect and cracks in the design itself. If something isn’t done soon we will find pieces of ceramic falling on the heads of those entering the museum.

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