Conversation with Sculptor Muntaz Dhrami

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Monumenti i Pavaresise, photo by P. Cici, from the November 29 issue of Zeri i Popullit

I recently had the pleasure of meeting with sculptor Muntaz Dhrami for the second time, and he was able to clarify several questions I had regarding the Vlore Independence Monument (relatively unimportant ones, but the answers to which nonetheless shed further light on the genesis of the artwork).

First, Dhrami explained that the initial maquette that was approved by the commission did in fact include the figure of the flag bearer. I had been uncertain about this detail, since the only photo I have found of an earlier version of the monument is cropped in such a way that the top of the boulder (and thus the flag/flag bearer) are not visible. However, Dhrami did explain that initially the flag itself had been much different–it was not, as Hoxha would later take issue with in his letter to the sculptors, “flamuri i betejave”. Furthermore, in the final version of the monument, the figure of the flagbearer was sculpted exclusively by Dhrami and Shaban Haderi, as Kristaq Rama had recently fallen and suffered a head injury that made it impossible for him to work on the flag bearer.

The pieces of the monument were cast in bronze in Tirana, then transported to Flora, where the sculptors mounted and welded them. Dhrami recounted that the final piece of the monument that needed to be mounted was Qemali’s head. When the sculptors completed work mounting the head, they quickly returned to Tirana to continue work on other projects, neglecting to remove the ropes that had been used to lever the head in place from around Qemali’s neck. A concerned official immediately called Tirana, claiming that the sculptors had symbolically ‘hung’ the national hero. The misunderstanding was apparently resolved without incident, but it demonstrates a humorous level of paranoia and a heightened sensitivity to any symbolism, no matter how ambiguous or unlikely…a kind of sensitivity that is still evident today (let us only recall the Skenderbeu i Qafe-Kasharit).

I also asked Dhrami about the accuracy of Hektor Dule’s characterization of the four warriors as a Tosk, a Lab, a Kosovar (or simply a northerner), and a Myzeqar. He confirmed my hunch that the figure of the Myzeqar was not intended to be read with as much specificity, and that while the idea of alluding specifically to the four different regions of Albania (as Dule interpreted the monument) was–in his opinion–quite logical and in the spirit of the work, it had not been the specific intention of the artists.

Additionally, Dhrami informed me that after Hoxha’s visit to the studio of the three sculptors–during which time he made the observations and critique that he would later elaborate in his letter to the artists, published in Drita in June of 1969–the artists completely reworked the maquette of the monument from scratch, taking into account Hoxha’s suggestions, which Dhrami considered to be well-reasoned and productive. Hoxha never saw the reworked version of the monument until the final work was installed and inaugurated in Vlora in 1972. Dhrami interpreted this as a sign of the dictator’s faith in the skill and experience of the three sculptors; he explained (as we had discussed briefly when I met him last summer, that Hoxha’s suggestions had been just that–suggestions–and that the dictator had left the final decision about how to carry out any changes that seemed necessary or appropriate in the hands of the artists. When the monument was inaugurated, Hoxha congratulated the sculptors on the work they had done, saying that they had done well.

There are two interesting aspects to Dhrami’s description of the exchange. The first is that he was still able to quote to me, verbatim, lines from Hoxha’s letter (although of course it was reprinted in last year’s MAPO, with an introductory text explaining that it had been ‘discovered’ in the state archives–a truly ridiculous assertion that both Dhrami and I chuckled over). The second is that Dhrami considered the exchange between the dictator and the artists to be relatively two-sided; in the studio (as referenced in his letter) Hoxha seemed to have implied the need for the presence of a partisan, which the sculptors protested at the time, and which Hoxha later clarified-he did not wish for a partisan to be included, merely for the monument to link the past struggles of the Albanian people together, to unify these conflicts into a single narrative. This, as I have argued elsewhere, is one of the aspects that makes the monument so significant, and it was interesting (and self-satisfyingly encouraging) to hear Dhrami characterize the exchange as significant precisely because it offered an example of how Albanian artists could best engage in the visualization of Albanian history through the medium of socialist realist monumentality.

My conversation with Dhrami also touched on other topics, including the Mother Albania monument, but as these observations will feature in an essay for the upcoming Albanian Lapidar Survey catalogue, I will direct the reader to that publication (due out late this year).

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