Niko Xhufka- Ritme të Jetës Shqiptare [1976]

Today’s post is a full scan of Albanian photographer Niko Xhufka’s album Ritme të Jetës Shqiptare [Rhythms of Albanian Life], published in 1976. Xhufka was one of the finest photographers working in socialist Albania, and his works evidence the originality and aesthetic force of Albanian documentary and socialist realist photography during the socialist years. 

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Most studies of photography as it has developed in Albania have focused either on earlier phtographers, such as the Marubis, or else have treated socialist photography in the country as little more than a means of propaganda. Xhufka’s images are striking because they are so obviously ‘artistic’–richly indebted to and conscious of a tradition of avant-garde, realist, and socialist realist photography–even as their ideological content is plainly legible. It is truly impressive to survey this collection of works and see Xhufka shift effortlessly between dynamic, abstract compositons that recall Russian avant-garde photography; clear and legible compositions emphasizing the narrative clarity of socialst realism; and sweeping aerial landscape panoramas. 

While the entire album is a treasure, my favorite image is certainly a pair of juxtaposed photos entitled Zëvendësimi (Myzeqe) [Transplantation (Myzeqe)]. The first of the images shows a pair of storks nesting atop a twisted tree against a background of gray, flat fields. In the second image, the stork’s nest sits atop the skeletal structure of an electrical tower, and bottom edge of the photo is filled with stalks of grain or hay.  The image succinctly pictures the ‘modernization’ of Albania carried out under socialism in a way that is both iconographically and compositionally striking. 

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* Several years ago, I first came across Xhufka’s work at propagandaphotos, and I am indebted to that blog for drawing my attention to a truly amazing artist. This interview with Xhufka offers important information on his work, process, career, and life.

The Question of Actually Existing Communism: A Response to Romeo Kodra

This post comes from some thinking I have been doing (for quite some time, in fact, though perhaps not with the rigor I should have) in response to two posts by Romeo Kodra, on the blog AKS Revista. In essence, both posts concern the appropriateness of the use of the adjective “communist” to describe the period between 1944/45 and 1991 in Albania. The posts in question, “Albanian Lapidar Survey: Lehtёsia e papёrballueshme e pёrdorimit tё konceptit ‘komunist’” and “Communism Never Happened … edhe nё Shqipёri,” argue that there is something both wrong and more than slightly insidious in describing the culture of socialist Albania as “communist.” The particular context that Kodra singles out for critique is the publicity and terminology of the Albanian Lapidar Survey, conducted by Departamenti i Shqiponjave and recently documented in the three-volume catalogue Lapidari.

Given that I am a contributor to the catalogue, and that I am one of those singled out for critique in Kodra’s second post—since I use terms such as “communist regime,” “communist art,” and “communist state,” among others, in my essay in the catalogue—I would like to offer a defense of my thinking vis-à-vis my use of the term. I certainly cannot presume to speak for the other authors represented in the Lapidari catalogue, nor for Departamenti i Shqiponjave, and it may be that others’ reasons for using the term “communist” (perhaps ‘lightly,’ perhaps not) are quite different from my own. Two things bear saying: first, this post is meant in the spirit of dialogue—I am quite willing to entertain and be convinced by counterarguments, but I think there is a certain justification to my use of “communist” as an adjective in the contexts for which I am chastised for using it; and second: I realize that this response might come entirely too late. It has been several weeks since the second of Kodra’s posts, and more than half a year since his first critique. I can only say that thought on some issues takes time to unfold, and I hope that the delay is not taken as a sign that I do not value the critique presented by Kodra’s writings—quite the opposite. I also apologize for not responding in Albanian, although I honestly feel that my knowledge of the language would not permit me to respond as fully as I wish to do; the hypocrisy inherent in such an excuse is acknowledged, and I bear the weight of it.

In the first of his posts, from June of 2014 (“Albanian Lapidar Survey: Lehtёsia e papёrballueshme e pёrdorimit tё konceptit ‘komunist’” [“The Unbearable Lightness of the Use of the Concept ‘Communist'”], Kodra raises a very important set of issues surrounding the precise implications of using the term (or, specifically, the concept) “communist” to describe a period of Albania’s past that I consider to be the time from the end of the Second World War (or the ‘National Liberation War’) till the very beginning of the 1990s. It seems to me that Kodra is both concerned about the potential vagueness of the term (what is ‘communism’ anyway? who ever claimed that Albania was communist? and therefore why use that term?) and the specifically negative and sensationalist meanings that the word has taken on in a number of contexts in 21st-century Albania. I quote Kodra at length: “Opinioni im ёshtё se me anё tё gogolizimit tё termit konceptual “komunizёm” kanё kaluar nё shoqёrinё shqiptare lloj lloj konceptesh, qasjesh, praktikash fashistoide, nё rrafshin e shkencave sociale, humane apo edhe nё tё pёrditshmen e jetёs publike, qё nё njё botё normale dhe demokratike, siç ёshtё ajo e Bashkimit Evropian nё tё cilin shpresojmё tё bёhemi pjesё, as qё mendohet se duhet tё ekzistojnё. [“It is my opinion that alongside the transformation of the conceptual term ‘communism’ into a kind of boogeyman [in discourse], there are also a whole set of concepts, approaches, and practices of a fascist variety that have entered into Albanian society in the fields of the social and human sciences and even in everyday life. These concepts, approaches, and practices are not the kind that we should even imagine should exist in a normal, democratic world of the kind represented by the European Union, the kind of world we hope to become a part of.”]

Allow me to set aside the characterization of the European Union as a “normal, democratic” world[1]—as an American, my opinion on this matter is of little import regardless, since I have no pertinent experience living in the EU—and say that I am quite in agreement with Kodra’s critique. I do often hear the term communism demonized in an entirely polemical way in Albania (though this is perhaps as much as result of the move towards the EU as not), and I would like to avoid using the term in the way that it is used, say, by the organizers of exhibitions like Bunk’Art or Shtëpia e Gjetheve [House of Leaves]. (These latter two museums are also singled out in Kodra’s second post for their misuse of a rhetoric on “communism.”) It is entirely true that there is a sensationalism surrounding the term that cannot be avoided—though this does not mean that it cannot be engaged through the use of the term in less sensationalist ways.

There are a few defenses I will not permit myself, but that I wish to lay out so as not to be seen to be hiding behind them. The first being that I wrote my essay for the Albanian Lapidar Survey imagining an international audience, not simply an Albanian one—and therefore both the potential understandings of the term “communist” and the dangers of its use are even broader. (In conservative America, for example, the damage done to any image of Albania 1944-1991 might be significantly increased though the use of the term “communism”—but then, I am guilty of calling myself a communist in numerous public venues, and so be it. I do not use the term pejoratively.) The second defense I cast aside is the assertion that—in America at least—many of us simply use the term “communist” (as in “communist state”) when perhaps, strictly speaking, we should not—since communism was always a utopic possiblity and not an “actually existing” state. (I will return to this utopic possibility below, since it forms the crux of why I do use the term “communist.”)

Kodra seems concerned that the use of the term “communist” (or “communism,” which I think are two actually quite different things, but perhaps in Albanian this is not true) obscures “the simple fact that communist Albania never existed” [“faktin e thjeshtё sepse Shqipёria komuniste nuk ka ekzistuar asnjёherё“]. Perhaps it does. Nonetheless, I would like to ask (either Kodra or anyone in deep agreement on the issue): what are the alternatives? One obvious term/concept that suggests itself is “socialist,” the term most often used by the regime itself to describe Albania’s condition ca.1944-1991. In fact, in my writing, I have often attempted to limit myself to the use of the term ‘socialist’ in place of ‘communist,’ for precisely this reason. However, I find myself equally unsatisfied with this term: it ultimately preserves nearly all the vagueness and—at least in America—many of the potentially negative and sensationalist connotations. However, at the level of usage by the Albanian 1944-1991 regime, it at least has greater historical accuracy, and perhaps that is the reason it should be used. Another possibility is “Marxist-Leninist,” which I find dissatisfying because it seems to simply link a more specific context (Albania in the years of Hoxha’s leadership and immediately afterwards) to a very general set of philosophical principles that were taken up and applied in numerous contexts—but then, so was “communism,” and I have used that term. So perhaps Marxist-Leninist is the answer. However, it seems to me that it would take some heavy discursive work for “Marxist-Leninist Albania” to become a term that a broad audience could conceptualize…but perhaps the work should be done by those of us who write on this period.

Along similar lines, the term “Enverist” (or “enverist”) could be used. This would acknowledge the specificity of Hoxha’s version of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism-Maoism (the list could go on, of course). This seems to be one option Kodra would prefer, since he uses the term “Albanian Enverism” in his second post. However, I protest this term on the grounds that it treats the collective manifestations of culture and politics (I am interested specifically in culture, but of course they cannot be separated) of Albania 1944-1991 (or 1944-1985?) as solely the product of Enver Hoxha in some essential way. This to me seems equally sensationalist.[2] Kodra clearly wants to divide the negative associations of Enver Hoxha’s regime from the term “communism”, but this seems to me to simply transfer any negativity to the construct “Enver Hoxha,” as if he was the sole actor and bestower of meaning in “communist” Albania. Yes, I would like to preserve the potential of communism as a way of acting, believing, thinking, and living that is quite separate from Enver Hoxha’s method of cultural and political existence. However, I think this is done not by using alternative terms/concepts, but simply by acknowledging that the term “communism” (or “communist”) does not have a single hard and fast meaning. It most certainly does not always mean that the reference is to “actually existing communism.” I think I can say, of myself, that I have never used the term “communist” to imply that something (a sculpture, a painting, a regime, a dictator) corresponded completely with the concrete actuality of a communist reality. And this is precisely because I do not believe “communist” reality (or even “socialist” reality, but this is a separate conversation I am happy to have with Kodra or anyone who desires) to be something that appears concretely in the world in an empirically verifiable way. Quite the opposite.

To put it plainly: I regard all “communist” discourse as utopian, which is to say I regard it as taking up an attitude towards the world that posits an impossible endpoint that one nonetheless comports oneself towards. I realize that some (indeed, many) believe that communism is something that could be ‘realized’ in a way that would not merely be representational or utopic. I politely disagree, and I stake my use of the concept “communist” on this. When I have used the term “communist” to describe art or politics relating to the creation of art in Albania 1944-1991 (for this is the field I study), I mean that this is an art, a politics, a regime, a culture that takes up a particular attitude towards a utopian future reality of “communism”—a future that is never realized.[3] Communism is not a (and was not) a condition that ‘actually existed’ and made the things ‘within’ it “communist”; rather, “communism” as a horizon makes certain things “communist.” I hope that this at least clarifies my use of the term, and the futural quality of the Albanian art and culture I have used it to describe.

In his speech “Shkrimtarët dhe Artistët Janë Ndihmës të Partisë për Edukimin Komunist e Njerëzve Tanë” [“Writers and Artists Help the Party to Achieve the Communist Education of Our People”], delivered in December of 1974 at the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the People’s Republic of Albania, Enver Hoxha stated that “Marxism-Leninism leads the people [of the world] towards the new life, towards socialism, and towards communism.”[4] This forward-directedness, the motion towards an unachievable utopia  that nonetheless stands as the final term in any list of social transformations, is the meaning I intend to capture with my use of the term “communist.” Perhaps it is not the right word, but it seems at least as appropriate as the others I have considered here.

I hope that this post makes clear my use of the term “communist” to both my readers and to Romeo Kodra. I thank him again for raising the issue—and pressing it—and welcome a discussion from any and all parties about the way we might treat the valences of the term “communist” in a way that respects the weight of responsibility associated with that use—and does not simply linger in sensationalism.

[1] It is perhaps enough to say that I do not know why the EU should be the standard for ‘normal,’ not am I clear on why exactly it should be exalted as a place where “communism” is not sensationalized as a term.

[2] Likewise, the term “totalitarian” has sometimes been applied to Albania 1944-1991 (or some subsection of this period), but seems equally—if not more—sensationalist. I should also like to point out that I am also unsatisfied with the implication that everything ‘bad’ about Albania 1944-1991 should be blamed on Hoxha and his government, as if there were nothing good about ‘enverism.’ Likewise, speaking of “Albanian Stalinism” seems equally weighted with negative connotations. In short, I find myself at a loss to propose an alternative term that would not suffer the same fate as “communism/ist.”

[3] One could, of course, say that Hoxha’s regime never legitimately aimed at this utopic future horizon of communism…but this is to ignore the regime’s rhetoric, and I would argue that that very rhetoric created a reality that—at least in part—unavoidably looked to a utopic communist future.

[4] Hoxha, Mbi Letërsinë dhe Artin (Tiranë: 8 Nëntori, 1977), 476.

‘Dëshmi e asaj që ishte por që s’mund e s’duhet të jetë’: Bunk’Art, History as Touristic Itinerary, and the Infantilization of Collective Memory on the 70th Anniversary of Liberation: A Placeholder

I call this a placeholder in the sense that it represents a set of very preliminary ideas about a topic that I think no one can effectively respond to only a day after it happened. Still, all analyses have to begin somewhere, at some point. Call it a rant, but one that is intended to spur conversation—and to further my own thoughts about the issue—and by no means to exhaust the rather vast number of things that could be said about Bunk’Art. As always, insights are welcome.

Yesterday, so the official story goes, Albania took another step on a long and painful road of transition, out of the obscure darkness of its communist past and into the light of transparent democracy. A vast underground bunker constructed in 1978[1]—during the country’s socialist period—to house the leaders of state in the event of an atomic attack by the Soviet Union or America has been transformed into museum and artistic installation space that will be open to the public until December 30. The installation opened yesterday, with a ceremony that included speeches by Minister of Defense Mimi Kodheli and Prime Minister Edi Rama. The American ambassador Arvizu and German ambassador Hoffman were present, among other dignitaries.[2] Today some 2,000 visitors (including, as the Albanian media and the Bunk’Art website excitedly proclaim, numerous foreign tourists) made the trip to Tirana’s periphery (in a special, free bus leaving from alongside the National History Museum) to visit the site. The event (again, as enthusiastically reported by the Albanian media) has already begun to receive attention in the foreign media.

Perhaps the most salient image from the opening event was of Rama delivering his speech, standing on a stage littered with four concrete domes that recall the thousands of concrete bunkers that inhabited (and in some places still inhabit) even the remotest reaches of Albania’s communist landscape. These concrete domes were colorfully decorated with painted images recalling children’s drawings—floating flowers, puffy clouds, and simple boxlike houses with picket fences.[3] On a backdrop behind Rama loomed the logo for the installation, a semicircle fractured into irregular planes of pure, bright color, with a red door at its center topped by the red star of communism. Below this logo, the name of the exhibition, BUNK’ART, was accompanied by the phrase “70 vjet pas çlirimit” [70 years after liberation], a reference to the liberation of the country from fascist occupation. If the connection between the country’s more than 40 years of socialist history and a stage with several concrete bunker-forms covered in childish imagery was not immediately apparent, I can only assume that this was part and parcel of the confusing and confused spectacle orchestrated at the opening (and, it seems, endemic to the installation as a whole). There are certainly any number of insightful analyses to be made of Bunk’Art, and the present discussion is meant to focus on only a few: the diagnosis and treatment of past traumas through the model of the touristic itinerary and the infantilization of the notion of collective memory in the process of navigating this itinerary.

Insofar as I find it difficult to find a spot to begin an analysis of Bunk’Art, even having set the above limits upon my investigation, I would like begin rather arbitrarily with a curious translation. During his speech, Edi Rama made the (tremendously fraught) statement, “Sot, ne jemi dëshmitarë se kemi çelur derën e një thesari të kujtesës sonë kolektive.” [My translation—certainly a bit awkward: ‘Today, we are witnesses to the opening of the door to a treasure of our collective memory.’] When the BBC reported on the event, Rama’s speech was glossed with this quotation: “We have opened today a thesaurus of the collective memory that presents thousands of pieces of the sad events and life under communism.” Now, the term ‘thesaurus’ does literally mean ‘treasure’, so that the translation of the word ‘thesar’ (Albanian for ‘treasure’) is understandable, if awkward and not, I think, true to Rama’s intention. Nonetheless, this confusion—emblematic of the whole confusing scenario of the opening and the installation in general—is a productive one, since it invites us to consider Rama’s quotation more closely. For what could be more appropriate than the image of past not as treasure but as a treasure-house of words, of concepts, and what more fitting counterpart to the confusion of the installation’s concept than he image of flipping through a thesaurus, looking for the right words, getting lost in a sea of synonyms and losing any straight line of thought.

The most cynical response to Rama’s statement—and the obvious one—is to pass it off as evidence an undisguised and callous greed: Bunk’Art, already a hit with Albanians and especially with foreign tourists, if we can believe the media, is a ‘treasure’ in the most banal sense of the word: a source of actual and symbolic/cultural capital on the world stage.[4] Cynical though it may be to take this reading, it is also, I think, very much what Rama is getting at. In his speech, he asserts, “Këto mjedise janë trashëgimi e një kulture të jetuari që, ju siguroj, do të tërheqin shumë herë më tepër turistë sesa ç‘mund të tërheqë ajo Shqiponja e tmerrshme që kanë vendosur tek rrethrrotullimi i doganës.” [‘These premises are the inheritance of a cultural way of living that, I assure you, will draw a good deal more tourists than that awful eagle at the traffic circle at Dogana [imports].’] On Twitter, the day of the opening, Rama declared “Bota e nendheshme e diktatures do kthehet ne nje haperise atraksioni historik, kulturor e turistik pa asnje dyshim” [‘The underground world of the dictatorship will, undoubtedly, turn into a historic, cultural, and touristic attraction.’] Thus, the language used by Rama (who has, in the media, already become the de facto curator and author of the exhibit, despite the fact that the idea has numerous sources and has been under discussion in a number of circles for some time) describe the opening is that of history-as-touristic-attraction. This is the ‘treasure’ of the bunker and the collective memory it supposedly embodies.

I am being more than a little unfair, for I am attributing to Rama’s rhetoric a confusion it may not really contain, that between history and memory.[5] However, it is undeniable that the two intermingle in Rama’s speech, sometimes emerging as interchangeable and other times as separate. The question of collective memory will concern me below; what I wish to examine first is the idea of traversing history (one’s own history, or another’s) as a touristic endeavor—for that is precisely how Rama characterizes Bunk’Art. “Është vetëm fillimi sepse ne kemi një projekt për të krijuar një intenerar historik dhe turistik të nëndheut komunist dhe njëkohësisht për ta kthyer këtë intenerar, në një intenerar të imagjinatës krijuese, duke synuar nga njëra anë çlirimin dhe nga ana tjetër pjellorinë e kujtesës sonë kolektive.” [This is just a beginning because we have a project to create a historical and touristic itinerary of the communist underground and at the same time to turn that itinerary into an itinerary of the creative imagination, with the goal of both liberating and harnessing the fecundity of our collective memory.’] The project of coming to terms with the past is the project of establishing a touristic itinerary—what could be more profoundly and problematically Modern than this project? Were not many of the exemplary Modernist projects (we need only think of the relationship between the colonial, the primitive, and the past in so much Modernist cultural production) precisely the projects of ‘tourism of the creative imagination’? Now, Rama emerges as the quintessential Modernist-as-statesman, a role he has long courted (though I think he has never been forthright about its modernity—for it is, I think, in no way ‘post’-modern).[6]

The Modern touristic itinerary is certainly open to a number of different ‘tourists’—from foreigners, to Albanians living (or born) outside of Albania, to those who live within in the country, and who may or may not remember the Hoxha years—but what is unavoidable in this model is the transformation of history—lived or otherwise—into capital fueling the global tourist industry. Tourism has been an important aspect of Rama’s time in office—his policies have often been focused on Albania’s coastal regions, but here the language of touristic development falls squarely in line with a project to mine the imaginary of a people (here conceived as having such a unified imaginary, or ‘unconscious,’ if you prefer). As he puts it, the hope behind Bunk’Art is ‘to create new spaces: new spaces of the imaination, of thinking, of living together, through the power of art.’  [“…për të krijuar hapësira të reja [:] Hapësira të reja të të imagjinuarit, të të menduarit, të të bashkëjetuarit përmes fuqisë së artit.”] This is certanly a worthy goal, and one in keeping with Rama’s prior projects, at least at the level of its rhetoric—what is new is the idea that the primary way to orchestrate this encounter is through the vague distance and ignorant enthusiasm of the tourist: not just the tourist of someone else’s past (that is an easy enough position, I can tell you, as someone who has often been a tourist in Albania), but as the tourist of one’s own past.

It is not only the transformation of the encounter with (communist) history  into a touristic itinerary that is key to Rama’s project—it is also held together (insofar as it holds together) by a psychoanalytic model of collective memory, as I have already mentioned. Thus, traversing the itinerary of history is more than a simple hermeneutic exercise; it is self-diagnosis, self-diagnosis of the collective of its own imaginary, through the consumption of the past-as-commodity (in this case, the communist past as commodity). The ideal consumers for this commodity, however, are not so much adults—in Rama’s rhetoric—as children. Here (what I can only imagine to be) the logic of bunkers decorated with childlike drawings becomes clear. Rama makes it very clear in his speech that Bunk’Art is, in an important way, ‘for the children’—for those who cannot remember the time of communism, who cannot understand what the isolation of communism was like.[7] Thus, in a way, Bunk’Art as an itinerary is not only about the Modernist project of tourism—it is also about the Modernist ideal of a return to youth, to innocence, to ignorance of the past that only adults can know. And yet here we come to the impasse: if Bunk’Art is about coming to terms with history, how can it also be for those who did not live that history, who do not remember it, unless the goal of its diagnosis is to make its tourists children, so that they may both forget and be taught again how to remember?[8] In other words, collective memory will be most effective when it returns to the imagined zero-point of childhood, among the flowers and puffy clouds and box-houses,  and then consumes history as touristic itinerary.[9] From this perspective, what seems ‘infantile’ about Bunk’Art—the fanfare, the bright colors, the bright lights, the confusion, the desire to do everything all at once—must be considered quite intentionally so: part of its explicit goal it to infantilize the collective memory of the Albanian people.[10]

Having been at pains to find a place to begin, I am also at a loss as to how to end, so I will simply say that this analysis—provisional, as I have said before, all too desperately retreating from saying anything really controversial—is meant as one attempt to think critically about Rama’s project and the real and symbolic appropriation of the communist past in Albania. One hopes that other, more thoughtful and thorough, analyses are already being written. [Thanks to certain acquaintances more well-read and attentive to the discussion of this issue than I am, I would like to draw attention to two thoughtful analyses of the issue: here at Postbllok and here at Peizazhe të fjalës.]

I intend to return to these thoughts in the coming week(s), but for now they stand as they are—a call to think critically about Bunk’Art and what it means to treat the past as tourism, to infantilize memory.

[1] The tunnels were begun earlier, in 1972.

[2] Several news clips show Rama guiding Arvizu through the various rooms of the bunker, explaining them (in English to Arvizu).

[3] One can only assume that some pun on communist dictator Enver Hoxha’s assertion that Albania was a “fushë me lule” [field of flowers] was intended.

[4] This is not the place to enter into a deep discussion of the way the communist past has been and is being appropriated as cultural capital in Albania. Suffice it to say that—unsurprisingly—this practice is very much ubiquitous at the moment. There are others more qualified to comment on this at length and in detail than I am.

[5] This too is a debate that I prefer not to enter into here—so I will instead merely gesture at its existence and go blithely about my way.

[6] Most recently, at Creative Time, Rama trotted out his now rather repetitive tale of his time as mayor of Tirana and his artistic projects there. One (read: I) feels an almost painful nostalgia for those days, looking at the image of him standing before flowery bunker-forms.

[7] “…që s’e kanë jetuar atë kohë. Nuk mund ta imagjinojnë, edhe duke ua treguar me fjalë, sesi Shqipëria e vogël mund të ishte një botë e tretë e izoluar nga dy botët e tjera, nga Perëndimi dhe nga Lindja, që luftonte, në mënyrë imagjinare, me imperializmin amerikan dhe me social-imperializmin sovjetik.”

[8] Apologies are no doubt in order for the truly egregious use of italics.

[9] I am reminded of a quote often attributed to the author Henry Miller: “The thing is to become a master and in your old age to acquire the courage to do what children did when they knew nothing.”

[10] In case it is not clear, I am quite suspicious of all claims of collective memory, and I am not claiming that Rama’s project ‘distorts’ some ‘true’ collective memory—rather, it is one way of most assuredly creating it. the problem is that this is not how it is being discussed.

Ta Vlerësojmë Drejt Letërsinë për Femijë si Mjet i Fuqishëm i Edukimit Komunist- Nëndori Mars 1971, Plenumi për Letërsinë për Fëmijë

This is the fifth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism (and 20th-century art in general, because socialist realism is some of the 20th century’s most intriguing art). Initially I had planned to write thorough descriptions and analyses of the content of the documents, but I barely have the time to scan them, much less write extensive commentaries. 

Nendori 9_Mars 1971 coverToday’s volume is an excerpt from the March 1971 volume of Nëndori, featuring the discussions at the Plenum of Albanian Union of Writers and Artists devoted to children’s literature. This topic is particularly interesting (to me, at least) because it gives us a glimpse of the function of socialist realism functioning as part of the education of ‘pioneers’ (as children of the socialist era were called in Albanian communist discourse). The essays are by authors, poets, and artists including Bleri Dedja, Naum Prifti, Kolë Jakova, and Agim Faja. Agim Faja’s essay, “Illustrations in the World of Children,” will be of particular interest to scholars of the visual arts. Faja writes:

Illustrations, the companions of a story, are stations that help the reader to expand his imaginings of the people and settings described in a book. They are necessary for both novels and for volume of short stories, and I believe that the time has come for us to publish well-illustrated books as well, just as elsewhere such volumes have recently achieved new successes. But illustrations are even more necessary for children’s books; the dynamic flow of life, with all its complexities, should be represented not only in children’s literature, but also in the illustrations for such books. […] For our illustrations to reach a worthy level of realism, I believe that our illustrators must spend time wandering from school to school, from schoolyard to schoolyard, from nursery to nursery, from neighborhood to neighborhood, drawing different types of children and gathering raw material. (39, 42)

I’ve also scanned a photo essay by Petrit Kumi called Fytyra të Grave Tona [Faces of Our Women] that appears in this issue, as well as a review of the Portraiture Exposition that opened on February10, 1971 (written by Andon Kuqali).

Happy reading!

“Për Një Pasqyrim më të Thellë e të Gjithanshëm”: Nëntori, March 1986: Plenum of Albanian Union of Writers and Artists

This is the fourth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism (and 20th-century art in general, because socialist realism is some of the 20th century’s most intriguing art). Initially I had planned to write thorough descriptions and analyses of the content of the documents, but I barely have the time to scan them, much less write extensive commentaries. 

Nentori 3 1986

Today’s volume is an excerpt from the March 1986 volume of Nëntori, featuring the keynote address and excerpts from the discussions at the Plenum of Albanian Union of Writers and Artists held on January 27, 1986. The keynote address was given by sculptor Muntaz Dhrami, and is entitled “Për Një Pasqyrim më të Thellë e të Gjithanshëm të Realitetit Socialist në Pikturë.”

Of particular interest is Agim Faja’s ” Kërkesa më të Mëdha Ndaj Gjinisë së Peisazhit” [“Greater Expectations of the Landscape Genre”], where he argues:

The reflection of our socialist reality presupposes a full and beautiful interpretation of our new landscape, of mines, factories, work yards, and industrial complexes, of out new cities and our transformed nature. This interpretation must be all the more emotional, all the more diverse, executed with a deep artistic understanding. When the painter, like a true poet, chooses to depict simple motifs, studying and fully understanding the scope of nature, he brings [to his art] a fineness of detail, brings facts and original impressions. Even if he returns to the same motif, he always discovers new nuances. …The true artist never conceptualizes nature as an inorganic body. (44)

It is interesting to compare and contrast Faja’s ideas with another statement on the ‘landscape’ of socialist Albania, from more than a decade earlier, by Kujtim Buza in Përmendore të Heroizmit Shqiptar (1973):

Wherever one looks in Albania, one sees a landscape of stone, of marble, a landscape of bronze. It is the new landscape of the fatherland.

I think it is important to consider how these two landscapes reinforce each other, and work against each other, in the history of Albanian communist (and post-communist) art.

The Nëntori volume also includes Sterjo Spasse’s essay “Epoka që më Ndriçoi Udhën e Krijimtarisë [The Epoch that Lit My Creative Path]”, and a review of a retrospective show dedicated to the painter Sali Shijaku.

Happy reading!

 

 

Shadows of Hands, or, The Dictator Born From the Sign: Brief Comments on the Representation of Enver Hoxha’s Body in Spiro Kristo’s Shoku Enver Hoxha Gjatë Luftës Nacionalçlirimtare

As part of a recent project, “Talking Back to Dictators: Reading Art and Culture In, Through, and Against the Writings of the Great Leaders,” I’ve been spending more time thinking about representations of dictatorial bodies—and particularly the body of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s communist dictator. This observation grew out of this research. As always, thoughts are welcome!

In this brief essay, I would like to nuance a commonly made observation about the representation of Enver Hoxha in paintings produced during his regime, namely: that he does not cast a shadow. This observation, on the whole, is quite accurate, and my purpose is not to dismiss it, nor to suggest that it does not raise a plethora of important questions about the material and metaphysical status of the body of the dictator. However—like all good observations—it is not absolutely true, and I think we may learn just as much by looking at these cases in which it is not true. In particular, I want to consider the significance of the shadow cast by Hoxha’s hand in Spiro Kristo’s Shoku Enver Hoxha Gjatë Luftës Nacionalçlirimtare [Comrade Enver Hoxha During the National Liberation War], of 1974 (originally in the Museum of the Ministry of Internal Affairs; I am unaware of its current location).

Before I discuss Kristo’s painting, however, I want to begin by considering how the phenomenon of Hoxha’s immateriality manifests itself in Albanian socialist realist painting. Let us a classic image of Hoxha: Zef Shoshi’s official portrait, which was frequently reproduced in official publications, especially in the editions of Hoxha’s writings. In Shoshi’s image, Hoxha sits at his desk, dressed in his familiar grey suit and red tie. Hoxha’s upper body forms a stable pyramid, his hands resting gently—weightlessly—on the surface of his desk, which holds a number of carefully placed and clearly delineated administrative accessories. We come upon Hoxha as he is about to write: his right hand holds a pen to a blank sheet of white paper laid out before him on the desk. He appears either deep in thought or else suddenly distracted: his gaze looks out of the image to our right, missing us. The moment is uncertain: is he composing the first word of a letter, an official memorandum, an entry in his diary, mapping out the text in his mind before he begins to write? Or has he been distracted by some stray thought, some sound, perhaps even by the entrance of someone who has come in behind us to bring news to the Dictator of the Proletariat. In either case, Hoxha’s poise is exemplary: his face betrays neither the strain of thought nor surprise. His eyes are open and attentive, their darkness in contrast to the muted grays of his suit, hair and the wall behind him drawing us to ponder the purpose behind his look. On the desk before him, his left hand gently holds the upper left corner of the page in place, while his right hand rests just as gently upon the paper, holding a pen close to the surface of the center of the sheet.zef shoshi_enver_hoxha

In no small part, the perceived weightlessness of Hoxha’s figure comes from the fact that he casts no shadow. True, the light that bathes the room comes from no definable source (though it illuminates the right side of the dictator’s face more than the left), but nonetheless there is no trace of a shadow cast on the wall behind Hoxha, either by his body or his chair. Furthermore, at the point where Hoxha’s hand meets the paper, pen gripped firmly and purposefully, there is only the vaguest hint of a darkening in the white surface of the paper. Even at the very edges of Hoxha’s right hand, Shoshi’s soft and meticulous shading gives virtually no hint that the dictator’s hand exists as a material form obeying the laws of illumination. That Hoxha casts no shadow places him in a world apart from us, either more or less real than ours (or both at the same time).[1]

This is, undoubtedly, the standard for images of Hoxha produced during his regime: a brief survey of portraits and history paintings by Vilson Kilica, Sali Shijaku, Shaban Hysa, Kujtim Buza, and others will confirm that Hoxha never casts a shadow. Or doesn’t he? The first thing to be said, an issue I think is extremely important but which I do not wish to dwell upon here, is that figures in socialist realist paintings more often than not do not cast shadows in general.[2] Thus, Hoxha is part of a general rule. However, it is more fruitful to consider the counterexamples that prove this rule, one of which is Spiro Kristo’s Shoku Enver Hoxha Gjatë Luftës Nacionalçlirimtare (1974). Here, we see Hoxha as a young commander,[3] presumably in the headquarters of the resistance: he stands at left, a map at his back and a table before him, where his left hand rests on yet another map. A rifle and binoculars hang on the grey wall to his left, and documents, a lamp, an ashtray, and notebooks clutter the surface of the table. The lighting here is once again quite vague, but the source clearly comes from the upper right side of the canvas, high over both our and Hoxha’s heads (not at all from the lamp at the desk). The map on the table disappears out of the frame at lower right, while its bottom edge is folded over the edge of the table against which Hoxha stands. A magnifying glass rests on the map, and black and red arrows mark the movements of the occupiers and the resistance. Hoxha holds a red pencil in his right hand, lax, while his left is firmly planted on the map, at a swirling cluster of arrows (presumably near Tirana). And there is the shadow.

Spiro Kristo_Enver Hoxha gjate luftes ncl_1974_1

It is slight, let us make no mistake, but also distinct: here, at the tips of Hoxha’s fingers, Kristo has used the deepest black found in the image, present in only a few other places (the black arrows on the map, a few folds of Hoxha’s shirt, the shadows in his hair…). The shadow is quite necessary aesthetically, for it differentiates the flesh of Hoxha’s hand from the colors on the relief map. At the same time, it accentuates the tips of his fingers, which end the dynamic diagonal downward movement of his straightened left arm; the fingers are pressed so firmly against the map that their joints bend inversely, the index finger concavely and the knuckle of the middle and ring fingers convexly. Even the tip of his thumb, pressed to the map, casts a small but distinct dark shadow. If the hand, and its shadow, are necessary to link Hoxha’s monumental body to the map itself, this is also the case because his gaze (in some ways, similar to Shoshi’s portrait) is not focused on the surface before him, but gazes off the right side of the canvas, looking at something we cannot see. As above, Hoxha seems to pause suddenly in the midst of an action, caught up in thought, looking at nothing. Here, however, his body is anchored to the map, and it takes on a material aspect through its connection to the map, where it casts a shadow.

Spiro Kristo_Enver Hoxha gjate luftes ncl_1974_2

Spiro Kristo_Enver Hoxha gjate luftes ncl_1974_3

            Why the map? I want to argue that Kristo’s emphasis of Hoxha’s hand as a material object touching the map is not accidental. What Kristo depicts is the becoming-material of Hoxha’s body in the presence of the representation of Albania. If we place the image alongside a host of paintings in which Hoxha’s feet, planted firmly upon the soil of the fatherland, cast no shadow, the significance will become clearer. The dictator does not become material when his feet touch the earth, he becomes material out of that most simulacral of simulacra: the map of the territory that does not yet exist (the future socialist ‘utopia’ of Albania). In this case, we might say that it is the map that precedes the dictator: out of the swirling represented motion of troops on the map, out of the flat surface made to mimic dimension, Hoxha emerges as something tangible. He is not simply historicized (his role in the war made the key element of the so-called National Liberation War [WWII]); his ‘reality’ (in the haptic sense) is a function not of the nation itself (whatever that might mean), but of the sign for the territory of the nation. is existence becomes material not at the level of interaction with everyday objects so much as at the level of meta-representations of the world. Kristo’s painting, and his depiction of the dictator’s hand with its shadow, gives us a glimpse of Hoxha taking material form in the higher realm of maps, the realm of surfaces and images that precedes our own.

Is it any wonder that amongst us, before us, at his desk about to write, he casts no shadow?

[1] For one discussion of the metaphysical significance of Hoxha’s body and the realm of appearances, see Gëzim Qëndro, Le surréalisme socialiste: L’autopsie de l’utopie (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2013).

[2] Stylistically, this is no doubt in part due to the tremendous debt owed to Impressionism, where intense light and dark give way to light as pure colors. This cannot of course fully explain the ideological significance of a world without shadows.

[3] This is also, I think, important: we see Hoxha here before his apotheosis: he is nothing superhuman, or beyond human, quite yet. Of course many images depictng Hoxha in the war years show him without a shadow. Some however, like this one and Guri Madhi’s Formimi i Shtabit të Përgjithshëm, portray parts of his body casting a shadow.

“Do të Kapërcehet e Shembet e Vjetra edhe në Art”: History of Albanian Socialist Realist Literature

This is the third in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism (and 20th-century art in general, because socialist realism is some of the 20th century’s most intriguing art). Initially I had planned to write thorough descriptions and analyses of the content of the documents, but I barely have the time to scan them, much less write extensive commentaries. 

HeLShtRS

Today’s volume is Historia e Letërsisë Shqiptare të Realizmit Socialist [History of Albanian Socialist Realist Literature], edited by Koço Bihuku and published in 1978. While the text deals exclusively with literature, it is nonetheless invaluable for a consideration of socialist realist visual culture in Albania, since it establishes both general principles regarding the elements of he socialist-nationalist narrative, and identifies the canonical works of this narrative. I’ll give the last word to Comrade Enver, quoted in the introduction:

The new content that gives our socialist realist literature its force is found in the reflection of the new socialist reality in its revolutionary development within the contradictions of the times, which give literature and art their necessary drama and conflicts.” (14)

Through the positive hero, the new triumphs in life; therefore, it triumphs in art. The old is overcome and destroyed in life; therefore it is overcome and destroyed in art. A living symbol of creative labor comes into existence; therefore, in art as well a hero will be born to inspire the masses with love of labor, with the spirit of sacrifice and selflessness in the service of socialism.” (18)

Happy reading!

…I promise the next post will actually be an analysis of something.