Choices to Be Made: An Interview with Sead Kazanxhiu

Sead Kazanxhiu (b. 1987) is an Albanian Roma artist working in Tirana, Albania. Born in the village of Baltëz, near the city of Fier in central Albania, Kazanxhiu’s work deals with the personal and political aspects of both Albanian and Romani identities. Kazanxhiu works primarily in painting, performance, and installation, and his art explores both his own personal search for cultural identity and the unique sociopolitical situation facing Roma communities in contemporary Albania. He has created installations dealing with Romani struggles for housing stability in Albania, as well as addressing the challenges related to Romani inclusion in political decision-making in the country. Kazanxhiu’s efforts and explorations highlight the diversity of identity in Albania—the artist uses his investigations of his own individual identity as a way to suggest the myriad linguistic, visual, cultural, and historical heritages that characterize modern Albania. I spoke with him in the summer of 2016 about his recent works and his thoughts on the relation between politics and the Albanian art scene in recent years.[1]

Sead Kazanxhiu: This project relates to the idea of the Roma resistance. The idea of the work is to create a discussion, to provoke those people who are working with these projects today, with this ‘resistance,’ if we can call it resistance. We can’t call it resistance because it doesn’t come from the bottom up, but it’s pushed from this middle, from the NGOs. I call them the ‘middle’ because the top is the government and the politicians. That’s why I don’t see a resistance that has the old meaning of the word ‘resistance,’ because today it’s pushed by the NGOs and the politicians.

Raino Isto: It’s still working within the system. You still have to apply for grants, and do projects, and hold activities, and give certificates, and so forth.

S.K.: Even when protests are planned, it doesn’t somehow come directly from the community; it comes from NGOs and donors and so on. Which is not bad, but still, there has to be some way to have continuity. When you resist, when you do something to resist, you have to take it to the end, you can’t stop halfway. That’s why I have a lot of confusion, after doing my research. Sometimes when you read too much, you know, you confuse yourself. That’s what has happened with me now, doing research for this project.

R.I.: When you said before that your were trying to provoke, are you trying to provoke the people in the middle, the NGOs? Or to provoke in general?

S.K.: That’s a good question, because if you say you want to provoke, you have to find a target. But, I think that provocation doesn’t always have to have a single target. For example, I also want to raise the subconscious of the Roma itself, like the grassroots. I mean maybe its difficult to try to do that with this kind of conceptual art, with the symbolic, but we have to try to educate people to understand this kind of communication. So, when I speak about raising the self-confidence or the consciousness of the community, that also means raising the consciousness of those NGOs, because they are part of the community too. So, the society I live in will see what I do, maybe not every day, but they will see, and this is a kind of provoking and challenging, making people see things in a different way, which can also create continuity. Because if I said that the government is my target, I won’t get anywhere…I will just be doing things for them. I will end up in the role of an NGO, trying to get the government’s attention, and then when an NGO gets the government’s attention, it shuts them up with some funds, and that’s it. I don’t know, I’m just trying to understand things first myself, reading and doing research, and then afterwards perhaps spreading them to other people.

R.I.: What do people in the Roma community here in Albania think of your work? Have they had a reaction to it?

S.K.: It is not like there is a constructive reaction. Of course, if they see something, they like it. But the idea is that it has to be beyond liking something, agreeing with something.

If this doesn’t happen with the people who are active for the Roma cause, I’m afraid that it wont happen in the community more broadly either. But, again, I don’t want to repeat myself, but if my work achieves a kind of continuity and a kind of standard—and it doesn’t have to be just me as an artist, there have to also be other artists, musicians, actors, painters, and moviemakers—then this will stimulate peoples’ imagination, seeing different perspectives. And that’s why it’s not only about an individual, because that individual can do his job, but there has to be a kind of ensemble that makes it stronger.

R.I.: So, these are the same paintings I saw when I came before, but before the chairs were empty?

S.K.: Yeah. Sometimes, you, know, when you miss particular things, you have this kind of emptiness. So then you want to put those things in your work. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. But in this case I think it was a good idea [to put the clothes in the paintings] because now viewers wonder about what the owners of the clothes are doing, they might be having sex or whatever, but you think about them. So, in the background, you have the house where they live, and then you have the clothes. It’s the contemporary moment of Adam and Eve. They are in front of the apple, in the central work, and it seems as if they have escaped from this life and they are in the Garden of Eden.

R.I.: We have talked before about colors your use of color. I’m curious what you think about color, given that it is such a popular topic in Albanian art today, in part because of Edi Rama’s promotion of his painted buildings. Before, you mentioned that people tend to think of the Roma as a ‘colorful’ people, in terms of their dress, but that that isn’t really true.

S.K.: There is this traditional saying: don’t respond in the same way that they speak to you. But in this case, I am answering in the same way that they are expecting, giving people the colors they are expecting from a Roma artist. But, being a Roma myself, and having years of experience studying textiles—and my diploma was actually on the traditional Roma way of dressing—I found out from interviews with my family and research that this idea of the exotic and colorful Roma dress is a myth. The reality is simply that each Roma mother or grandmother became a kind of ‘fashion designer’ for their children or grandchildren, making clothes and finding whatever materials they could. In fact, when you see old Roma clothes, they are very simple. In fact, they often just dressed the way people did in that society at that time; it wasn’t as if there was a sharp distinction in the manner of dress. Of course there were particular groups of Roma, like the Gabo Roma, or the Ola in Hungary, that had specific ways of dressing. But it wasn’t really to distinguish themselves as Roma. Of course there were particular groups of Roma, like the Gabor Roma, or the Ola in Hungary, that had specific ways of dressing. But it wasn’t really to distinguish themselves as Roma. For example, the Gabor Roma in Romania dress like the northern Albanians, with the big dress, and the shamia, the scarf. And you can see this in Hungary too. But in Roma villages, there isn’t really a specific way of dressing, like some people imagine in this exoticizing way. So that’s why I decided, ok, if you want colors, I’ll give you colors!

But also, there’s something else. Maybe I’m being too philosophical. It’s also this: we are not victims. The Roma are not victims, but we are seen as victims. And we are brainwashed to think of ourselves as victims. So when I paint something from history, I don’t want to emphasize victimhood, I want to give it life.

R.I.: So that it doesn’t just appear mournful.

S.K.: Yes.

R.I.: Do you choose the colors just based on what you have, or what paints you can find? Or do you plan out the colors and then look for specific paints to create them?

S.K.: That’s a good question. I can’t say that I plan much. I usually just look at what I have. Sometimes I plan that, for example, I want to work with a particular color, like brown, and I will start with that. But usually it’s just: I find it, I like it, I use it.

Sead Kazanxhiu, 8 për 8 Prillin [8 for the 8th of April], 2013, installation at the entrance to Albanian Parliament. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sead Kazanxhiu, 8 për 8 Prillin [8 for the 8th of April], 2013, installation at the entrance to Albanian Parliament. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
R.I.: I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about your piece 8 për 8 Prillin [8 for the 8th of April].[2] I know we talked about it before, but I think it is an important piece.

S.K.: The installation 8 for the 8th of April was done in 2013, and it was a project that I did as part of a fellowship that I had that year. The project was to block the entrance of the Albanian Parliament with these big tractor wheels painted with the colors of the Roma flag [red, green, and blue]. There was this funny coincidence, because the tires had ‘Goodyear’ written on them, so it was like the culmination of a ‘good year’. It was a good experience, because the installation gave me the opportunity to understand how things were working with the involvement of Roma in public institutions, because it was the year of the ‘Roma Decade.’[3] I wanted to do something in relation to this, and it turned out that the best way to do it was with an installation—because the protests here only work if you are a political party. You have to be a political party to have enough people to make a protest matter, but then it still doesn’t work because then the party is protesting, not the people. And that’s why I chose to go and install these eight big tractor wheels at the entrance of the Albanian Parliament. It was a way of symbolically blocking them—not really making their lives difficult, because you could just pass around them without any problem. I wanted to kind of exaggerate the issue, to show them that, okay, we Roma may be relatively small in number, but the issue of Roma involvement isn’t a small one. It can’t be ignored. There was this sign, that the government put up, for the Roma Decade, and they were supposed to actually do something, but they didn’t. I’ll tell you about it: there were all these activities and so forth, since it was the official International Romani Day, which is why I called it 8 for the 8th of April, because of the importance of that day. The installation was supposed to stay there for the whole day, but the police came—just the way they normally do, just to show up and make you feel pressure.

R.I.: How many police came?

S.K.: It was a minibus with four or five police, something like that. One of them, he was kind of the head of the group, and I was trying to complain to him. He was smart, trying to figure out how to negotiate with me. One of the other ones was like, ‘Come on! We left a very important operation just because of this garbage you put here in front of the Parliament! You have to move them.’ I told him, ‘I can’t move them.’ Then I called someone else who was in charge of organizing activities related to the International Romani Day, and they came, but the police still wanted us to move the installation, so I told them: ‘I won’t move them until I get an interview. This is the only way I’ll move them.’ The police said, ‘Okay, but can you just move them to the footpath that runs perpendicular to the entrance to Parliament?’ I said, ‘No, I can’t move them,’ so they said okay. I got an interview, which was good because it opened up the work to a bigger audience. Then, this other policeman, who had been standing there very straight and stern, he helped me move the wheels over to the footpath. So that’s the story of the 8 for the 8th of April installation. But I mean, you can do anything here with art, but the only feedback you’ll get is from a few artists or professors. For example, one of my professors, Vladimir Myrtezaj, he’s a friend of Edi Rama’s, he told me ‘Bravo!’ because it was the first installation done in the entrance of the Albanian Parliament. That was really the only feedback I got, and somehow for me it didn’t feel like I really accomplished something. But it was good because I’ve been able to continue this way of exhibiting. After that, I made another exhibition, with 2,500 small houses installed in front of the Prime Minister’s building (one of the iterations of Shtepizeza [Little Houses], 2014).[4]

R.I.: Yes, I’ve seen the photographs of this installation.

S.K.: Because I believe we don’t have to just try once and then give up, you have to create a kind of continuity. I mean, at the moment, I’m alone in this—because there’s another Roma artist from Albania who lives in the UK, but he isn’t very involved here in Albania—but I think in the future, there will be other artists who will continue in this way. Maybe not exactly like I do, but in other ways.

R.I.: When you do these installations, do you have friends help you? For example, to move the tires, or to install the small houses?

S.K.: I mean, for 8 for the 8th of April, there were some friends and artists, but mostly I was alone, and I had to call some people to help me. But people came, some friends and some people who were just passing by, sometimes ignoring it, like always happens. But at the protest that I did about housing, the installation in front of the Prime Minister’s building, there were some activists and some members of the community who had problems with housing. But not many people. Because they don’t really believe that as a single person, using art, you can change something.

Sead Kazanxhiu, Shtepizeza [Little Houses], 2014, installation. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sead Kazanxhiu, Shtepizeza [Little Houses], 2014, installation. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
R.I.: One of the things that I liked about the installation of Shtepizeza was that, in the photographs, it looked visually interesting and compelling. I

Sead Kazanxhiu, Shtepizeza [Little Houses], 2014, installation. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sead Kazanxhiu, Shtepizeza [Little Houses], 2014, installation. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
think this is one of the possibilities of these kinds of works, because of course as you said, sometimes people don’t come, or they just ignore it in the moment, but also afterwards the event is preserved. I think this is important especially with the houses, because they were so small, but in photographs the smallness of the houses against the massiveness of the Prime Minister’s building makes a strong statement after the fact, in the photos.

S.K.: Yeah. You know what was interesting about the installation about housing: the same policeman came, the guy who came to 8 for the 8th of April, and we became like friends. My idea, originally, was to put them not on the sidewalk but on the stairs of the Prime Ministerial building, but it wasn’t possible. I was trying to resist a little bit, but they said it wasn’t an option, so we decided to put them on the sidewalk instead. We just kind of put them in a pile.

Sead Kazanxhiu, Shtepizeza installed in from the Prime Minister's building in Tirana, Albania, 2014. Photo from Gazeta Shqip.
Sead Kazanxhiu, Shtepizeza installed in from the Prime Minister’s building in Tirana, Albania, 2014. Photo from Gazeta Shqip.

R.I.: That is funny that it was the same police officer.

S.K.: Yeah. And my cousin, who is always organizing protests, now he knows her and when he sees her, he’s like, ‘Oh, you came again!’

R.I.: Do you thinks that’s a good thing, even though it might not completely change his mind, that at an individual level there is this one person who is comes from the side of authority but now he is personally involved because he knows the people who are protesting?

S.K.: Yes, I think this is good, because when people see that you ask for something, and you don’t retreat from that position, they see that you are sure what you are asking for. And I think that that can influence—maybe not too much—but it can influence an individual person. Because they see that these people are taking it seriously, that it’s not just about making a show or whatever. That these people are seriously suffering, and that’s why they are doing it. And then you can build a kind of trust, with the authorities or whoever. Then, if the authorities understand that, they can see that maybe something really has to be done. That’s why I believe in trying to establish continuity.

Sead Kazanxhiu, A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid, 2015, performance. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sead Kazanxhiu, A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid, 2015, performance. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.

R.I.: I would also like to talk about your performance A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid [2015].[5] I think you did it once at Tulla Cultural Center in Tirana and once somewhere else. You’ve done it at least twice?

S.K.: The performance was only done once publicly, at Tulla. It tried to record the performance here in my studio, to document it, but the space wasn’t good, so I asked the guys from Miza Gallery if I could film it there. But at Tulla was the first time it was performed for the public. The idea of this ‘Romani phuv’ [‘Romani land’] performance also came from thinking about housing, but also from living in a place where even though you are an Albanian citizen, the other side might not see you as being Albanian. Because people will ask about your story, and it will come out that you aren’t denbabaden Albanian [having a long Albanian heritage]. Even if you are a person whose family has been here for centuries, still they won’t see you as Albanian. And the Romani phuv as an idea came from reading some books by Nicolae Gheorghe, he’s a sociologist from Romania. I was inspired by what he says when he talks about the politics surrounding Roma issues: he says ‘there’s a choice to be made and a price to be paid.’ When you make a choice, of course there’s something you have to agree to. So that’s why I took this as the title of the performance. And I also wanted to provoke discussion about the issue of a territory. I believe, from my own experience as a Roma activist, that Roma never fight for their own land. That concept doesn’t exist for us. Of course, we Roma fight in other countries, like in Albania—our great grandfathers and grandfathers contributed to the fight for Albania, but they weren’t fighting on behalf of the Roma issue or anything. They were fighting because they were in this country and saw themselves as part of this country. So bringing the ‘Romani land’ into the discussion—if you bring this up in the European parliament, there will be a big mess, of course, because there are people who are afraid to speak about this, even if they think about it. For example, if we go further back to 1971, to the first World Romani Congress, people like Faik Abdi, Slobodan Berberski, and many other Roma activists wanted to speak about a Romani land. One of the proposals was Šutka [Šuto Orizari], which is a municipality in Macedonia populated by Roma, the mayor there now is a Roma. Faik Abdi was the first Roma MP in the Macedonian Parliament. This kind of discussion happened back at that time; now, Grattan Puxon and a few others write about this, but it is less discussed. So I wanted to raise this issue to show that we don’t have to be afraid to speak about things—it’s not that I want some kind of ‘Roma territory,’ but I want to provoke people in the Roma community as well to talk about this. The idea of moving around all the time, this is something that people do for economical, or social, or maybe even political reasons. If you read about how Roma first came to Europe, they were pushed from one place to another; for example in the Netherlands, at one time there was a practice that if you could kill a Roma, you would get a free beer. So the movement of the Roma is something driven as much by historical conditions as anything else; it’s not just some exotic practice. But this issue of a ‘Romani land’ is something that many Roma activists are afraid to talk about, but me—I’m not part of an NGO, so I can use my ‘freedom of speech and express my thoughts and ideas about it. I want to raise this issue of what it feels like to have your own land. For example in Baltëz, my village, the Roma have their own land.

There’s another thing I wanted to say about the performance. The kind of mud that I used in the performance, it’s a special kind of mud, it has a story, especially in the Roma communities. Nowadays it’s used for medicinal purposes, but before these shops for that kind of stuff existed, and it was difficult to find this mud. The Roma call it shishik, in Albanian they call it baltë krëri. People used it to wash their hair, and to wash their bodies. But when I did an interview with some old Roma women, they told me that there were some rules about going and taking this kind of mud. You couldn’t live near the mud, because if you lived near it, it would get polluted. So the people lived far away from it, and only the old women knew how to go and get the mud. When the women would go to gather the mud, they would take food with them because it was a long way, but you couldn’t eat immediately before taking the mud, because this would contaminate you. And you had to wash yourself before gathering the mud, in case you had lice or something. This was the paradox that was funny and interesting to me: you also had to wash your hands before taking the mud. So: they would go early in the morning to gather the mud, they wouldn’t eat before gathering it, and they would wash their hands before touching it. Which is funny because now in Albania we have this word baltosje [making muddy or dirty], but in this tradition, mud is actually cleaner than people think! So that’s why, in this performance, I used this shishik, because it’s a very intimate material, and I believe it’s cleaner than what politicians mean when they talk about baltosje. In fact, baltosje can clean you!

R.I.: So, this mud comes from a swamp, or near a river?

S.K.: You can find this kind of mud in the hills, I think, and near rivers, I don’t know exactly how they find it. But it’s not clay like you would use for terracotta or something. It’s different. Also, in older times, women would eat this mud when they were pregnant; this was crazy to me! And they would also use it to put on children, like a cream.

R.I.: When they go to find the clay, it’s soft? I ask because the clay you used in the performance is hard, and you were breaking it up.

S.K.: Yeah, the clay has a kind of gray color, but it’s also hard and you need to soften it with warm water; this is what they did to prepare it.

R.I.: Like you did.

S.K.: Yes, that’s why I did it.

Sead Kazanxhiu, A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid, 2015, performance. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sead Kazanxhiu, A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid, 2015, performance. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.

R.I.: Is this practice something that is regionally unique, or is it a practice that exists outside of Albania too?

S.K.: All the Roma who lived in the villages were using this mud. They all knew about it, if you go to Roskovec, if you go to Levan, or to Baltëz—my village—or to Morava in Berat and Grabian in Lushnja…I really regret it because my father’s uncle’s wife was the expert on this mud, and I wanted to do an interview with her. It would have made her very happy—because my father also told me, when the women would put shishik in their hair, it made the hair very beautiful because the clay made it healthy. I wanted to do an interview with her because she was very old, and had cooked her whole life using fire, because the family was very poor, and I wanted to go with her when she went to collect the shishik. Because I thought it would remind her of that time. But when I went to the village, my family told me that she had died, and I thought ‘what a loss!’ However, there are still other women who know how to gather this mud. It’s also interesting because the name of our village is ‘Baltëz.’[6] I don’t know how it got that name.

Sead Kazanxhiu, A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid, 2015, performance. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sead Kazanxhiu, A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid, 2015, performance. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.

R.I.: How old is it as a village?

S.K.: I don’t know exactly how old it is. Baltëz was like forestland before, but somehow they made it flat. The Roma, the Vlah, the xoraxaja or horahaja (muslim Albanians) and Dasa (the christian Albanians) were the first to live there. Later, people of Bosnian origin and Kosovars came too. In Baltëz, the Roma were in a place called Matkëz, it’s known for this manë [mulberry] tree, with those small fruit; it’s the tree of the Roma.

R.I.: As an artist, do you feel like you have something like a duty towards a community, either broadly or narrowly construed, or do you just feel like it’s something you’ve chosen, but you don’t feel compelled by a community?

S.K.: Of course, I feel a kind of duty because I am a part of this community. This is my artist’s statement: I am an Albanian Romani artist, and I have to dig through my identity and contribute to where I belong, through promoting my culture, through raising my voice about things that are happening in my own way, in a visual way. For example, I’m not a musician, so I can’t speak as a musician, but for example African American musicians made a great contribution to the culture in America. I cannot trust someone—a painter, a moviemaker, or an artist—who doesn’t also live what he does. So I stand by what I believe in. It doesn’t matter, even if people don’t think I’m an artist it doesn’t matter to me. I can call myself just a worker or a politician, because I believe that art is also politics. I think that we can use art to influence politics. I’m not talking about the art that is used by politicians.

R.I.: Since we’ve come to this issue of art and politics, what do you think about the relationship of art and politics in Albania today? Because some people say that there is a big problem now because art is being used so much to promote politics, that it’s more difficult to be an artist working in relation to politics. Because any art that you do might come to be related to or used by politicians for their own purposes. So I’m curious what you think about this.

S.K.: I don’t know if you saw this, but at CEU [Central European University] recently there was this discussion about politics and art, called something like ‘Why Politicians Hate Artists.’[7] They were saying that it’s not that politicians hate art, it’s that they only promote that kind of art that they think is part of ‘their vision’. So automatically, the other artists won’t be included. Here in Albania, it’s like that: politicians don’t hate artists; they promote that kind of art that promotes their view. Of course, the government can pretend to give you a stage to speak about whatever you want, but still you won’t actually have that possibility, because you will face a compromise. As we spoke about before, if I were to do a show at the COD [Center for Openness and Dialogue],[8] the only condition for me would be that I wouldn’t tell them beforehand what I would exhibit. I would just say, ‘I agree to make an exhibition here.’ But this couldn’t happen, because there is a curator there, and this necessarily introduces the influence of politics in the space. So, that means that as an artist, you have to make a compromise, because you will have to choose which works to exhibit there with the curator. They control this through talking about the necessity of ‘respecting the quality of the space’ and so forth, but it’s also a way of letting them prevent you from exhibiting anything they don’t want you to exhibit. And politicians hide behind this notion that ‘there has to be quality art, and we must respect standards.’ This creates this idea that there is competition for quality, but that’s not really true. Here in Albania, in the art scene, there isn’t really competition; there are friendships and connections between people, but not competition. I mean, this viewpoint is questionable, but I don’t believe there is competition. They create the idea that there is, saying, ‘oh yes, you must apply for this and that, and it will be reviewed carefully,’ but it doesn’t really come down to a competition.

R.I.: Now that we are talking about exhibiting works, I wonder if you think that in Albania there is something more effective about works that occupy public space, like the small houses or the tires in front of the Parliament. Do you think that there’s something more effective about artworks in public space than artworks shown in a kind of ‘white-box’ gallery?

S. K.: I’m for both sides. But, in the case of Albania—and I came back to Albania because I wanted to contribute something here, because I’m still young, because I still believe that things can be changed—if we talk about wanting to change the Albania art scene, we have to go outside the gallery. When we do things in a gallery, there is only a small circle of people who come. I don’t want to just do exhibitions like that; we have to go to the public, and the public is on the street, or in institutional buildings, outside them. Until now, we artists have kind of created a space between the public and artworks, putting them in a gallery. But, the gallery can only stay in one place; it can only be this one thing in one place, and many people won’t come to galleries. If you do works in public space, you can catch both the government and the public, speak to both of these audiences. It’s also a way of protesting. I think you can’t just make art for the people who are educated, who read a lot. You also have to make it for the majority. In Albania, it’s the right moment to use more public art. In many countries, it has become a normal thing, but here not so much. Many Albanian artists still like this idea of the gallery. Why? Because it seems difficult to exhibit in galleries here, because there are so few, so artists want to push to do this. When something is difficult, you want to challenge yourself to do it. But you forget that you could challenge yourself just as much exhibiting in an outside space. Even paintings—there are ways to exhibit paintings in public space. I mean, I’m not a street artist; it’s not just about street art. It’s about showing your thoughts not only to a small group, but to a larger group as well. Even if they just pass by, and ignore it, at least you are trying.

We have this kind of thinking that galleries are good, that they are good for the culture of the city, but I think that art needs more than galleries. When I have exhibited in galleries, people came who knew about art and the exhibitions. No one came who didn’t already know about these things. But when I exhibited in public spaces, like the Parliament entrance or the street in front of the Prime Ministerial building, there were also people who were totally ignorant about art that came up, and asked questions, and touched the sculptures. These weren’t the people that you think ‘oh, I want this person to come to my exhibition’—because if you exhibit in a gallery, that’s how you think, like ‘ah, the ambassador or whoever came to my exhibition!’ And I’m not interested in that kind of thinking anymore.

R.I.: Have you ever done anything with public spaces besides those in Tirana?

S.K.: Yes, before I went to Budapest, I was in Fier and I did this project with recycling, and installation about recycling. I did it in three different cities: in Korça, in Fier, and in Durrës. I got together with two other artists who finished the academy with me, and we gathered people from the communities and using recycled materials we made installations. In Korça it was good because it coincided with the Korça Beer Festival, so lots of people saw it. In Fier we did the same thing; we did this workshop with young kids and then did these installations. The theme was about the Roma community contributing to the environment in Albania. It was this way of showing that we contribute something to the culture and the environment in this country. In Durrës when we did it, we exhibited them in this open are where the partisan monument is. It was very interesting because we were just trying to give the community a way to think about their space, and they made this installation using newspapers, they made a table and a chair from the papers. It was a kind of symbolic recycling, like the way the news comes in from places, and gets processed by people, and then produces something new. It was the same with the newspapers: they got processed into something new.

 

[1] This interview was conducted in the artist’s studio in Tirana, on 20 June 2016. The interview was conducted in English; the present transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

[2] A video of the installation can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5e_Z0PPc-E (accessed 9 July 2016).

[3] For information on the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015, see the initiative’s website, http://www.romadecade.org/decade-documents-decade-progress-reports (accessed 9 July 2016).

[4] A video of a different iteration of the installation can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dgXZvOR8sw (accessed 9 July 2016).

[5] The performance can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Wz48wNe350 (accessed 9 July 2016).

[6] The word ‘baltë’ in Albania means mud or clay.

[7] See “Why Do Governments Hate Artists?”, a short article discussing one of the conversations that took place as part of CEU’s School of Public Policy’s annual conference (this year entitled The View from Here//Artists and Public Policy), https://spp.ceu.edu/article/2016-06-16/why-do-governments-hate-artists (accessed 25 July 2006).

[8] The COD is a multipurpose center opened last year in the first floor of Albania’s prime ministerial building. It includes an exhibition space, as well as a library and a space for video projection. See the Center’s website, http://cod.al (accessed 25 July 2016). The space has generated controversy in discussions of contemporary Albanian culture. The government claims that it represents a space for artistic ‘dialogue,’ including critique of the current political leaders in the country (such as Prime Minister Edi Rama, himself an artist). However, others note that the space is essentially used as ‘artwashing’ by politicians, and does not actually present a space for substantive critique.

Ushtria Popullore në Artet Figurative

Today’s post is a special one: a complete scan of the 1969 publication Ushtria Popullore në Artet Figurative [The People’s Army in the Figurative Arts], a massive publication featuring paintings, sculptures, prints, and posters chronicling the glories of the Albanian People’s Army. The book should be invaluable to anyone studying Albanian art and culture in particular, or socialist realism in general.

Ushtria cover

The album features a number of works I’ve never seen published elsewhere (including works by Edison Gjergjo, Danish Jukniu, and Isuf Sulovari) and, with over 100 illustrations, represents on of the largest collections of visual art published during socialism in Albania. Some of the images are in color, others in black and white, and their quality varies drastically, but some of the reproductions are quite clear and details are visible.

Happy reading!

Beyond (The Grid)

There are two ways in which the grid functions to declare the modernity of modern art. One is spatial; the other is temporal. In the spatial sense, the grid states the autonomy of the realm of art. Flattened, geometricized, ordered, it is antinatural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature. In the flatness that results from its coordinates, the grid is the means of crowding out the dimensions of the real and replacing them with the lateral spread of a single surface.—Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” October 9 (Summer, 1979), 50.

Shaban Hysa, Më Tej [Beyond], 1969, National Gallery of Art, Tirana
Shaban Hysa, Më Tej [Beyond], 1969, National Gallery of Art, Tirana
I admit that I had never looked closely at Shaban Hysa’s Më Tej [Further], 1969, hanging in the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana, Albania. The work—which I have elsewhere seen reproduced under the title Elektrifikimi, and referred to a one panel of a triptych, though I have never seen the other panels that supposedly accompanied it—always seemed a rather straightforward image: a man and a woman, standing just to the left of center, consult a large piece of paper, either a map or a set of engineering plans. The man gestures with one arm out towards the space over the viewer’s right shoulder, indicating the expansive work to come. He is speaking. The woman listens attentively, her eyes following his gaze, her hands holding the expanse of paper that contains the plans, the designs, or the outline of the territory that will soon be included (indeed, is already included, but only conceptually) within the painting’s purview. In a truncated space to the left of the figures, a welder completes the skeletal structure of a tower for electrical cables, while to the right, this time in a space that seems to descend too quickly into the abyss of the valley behind them, another figure directs a crane that moves another such electrical tower towards its final position. At far left, more workers ascend scaffolding, and behind all the figures in the painting stretches first a bare valley crisscrossed by large trucks and finally a mountainous wilderness devoid of greenery: grey stone against a yellowish sky.

I remember having noticed, before, the way Hysa’s painting looks unfinished; particularly in the figure at right, the work gloves are left as a mass of brushstrokes that lack a clear delineation, and even the folds of the back of the worker’s shirt. The same is also true is areas such as the woman’s hand at center, as it grasps the map or engineering plans. (For the purposes of brevity, I am going to refer to it throughout as map. As we will see below, I do not think there is a tremendous difference between a map of territory and a set of plans for the construction and placement of electrical towers, especially not given what is actually shown in the space of the piece of paper.) These areas of loose brushwork also stand out, and particularly as unfinished, precisely because of the thinness of the paint in these parts of the painting. Elsewhere, for example in the stone upon which the figures stand, the brushwork is just as free and—at close range—abstract, but it is thick with layers and layers of paint that suggest the materiality of the rocks they also depict.

Likewise, in certain areas, Hysa has utilized a meticulously linear technique, for example in the rendering of the steel beams of the towers under construction. However, in some cases, he has left the pencil lines used to plan the layout of the lines, their points of intersection and extension. Indeed, in some cases (again, particularly in the figure at left and the tower he gestures the crane to position) it looks as if these pencil lines have actually been applied on top of flat areas of thin color, as if Hysa had laid down a ground, then planned out his lines, then decided to leave both thin ground of paint and lines visible without covering it over in a more meticulous fashion. This gives the painting the look of being incomplete, but as far as I know it was regarded as completed and the version reproduced in several publications during socialism was the same version that now hangs in the National Gallery. Thus, I can only assume that Hysa quite intentionally allowed many areas of the painting to retain an unfinished look, to show the thin layers of paint and even the canvas beneath, to emphasize in places the pencil lines that index the artist’s arrangement and re-arrangement of forms and their contact. In a way, this aesthetic fits perfectly with Socialist Realism, as perfectly as it did with the other Modernists (too numerous to name) who allowed the image to appear in its ‘finished’ state still bearing the marks of its conception and creation. What better way to articulate the labor of creating a work of art?

As I examined Hysa’s painting more closely (I admit, I had started to look at it because I wanted the cleaning lady to stop following me so I could covertly snap a photo of another image; I never got the photo of the other image, but I did get a detail of Hysa’s painting), I saw something I never had before. Almost directly in the center of the canvas lies the zone occupied by the map the woman is holding. We can see nothing of the images or words that may appear on it, and indeed much of what we see is the inverse of the paper, a sickly green expanse of loose brushstrokes thinly painted…and there, showing so clearly through this thin stretch of paint, so centrally placed that—in person—I could not understand how I had ever missed it before: the grid. A neat crisscrossing of lines that correspond in no way whatsoever to the forms that are painted over them, left not even as a trace of the specific preparation of the surface to receive the map, but indeed solely to reference the preparation of the surface to receive an artistic image, no particular one.

Shaban Hysa, Më Tej [Beyond], 1969, National Gallery of Art, Tirana (detail)
Shaban Hysa, Më Tej [Beyond], 1969, National Gallery of Art, Tirana (detail)
Obviously, the presence of these lines suggests graph paper, suggests the cartographic, geometric division of the map (and indeed, this is why I assume the piece of paper to be a map, rather than a set of engineering drawings), but at the same time the abstract of the grid from the three-dimensional form of the map indicates the ontological priority of the grid itself in relation to the finished painting. The grid in Më Tej indexes not only the process of artistic creation, the preparation of the canvas with a set of lines to facilitate the copying of a drawing that will later be filled out with paint, but also the absolute anti-naturalism of socialist realism’s vision. It is left, I think, so blatant in its pseudo-presence, to show precisely the ambiguous metaphysical gap that exists between the work of socialist realist art and the perceived object of naturalistic painting (‘the world’).

As Rosalind Krauss famously puts it in her obsessive study of the grid, “the grid does not map the space of a room or a landscape or a group of figures onto the surface of a painting. Indeed, if it maps anything, it maps the surface of the painting itself” (Krauss, op. cit., 52). However, this ‘surface of the painting’ as it is emphasized by the grid is not any straightforward entity; the grid possesses, as Krauss asserts, a decided ambivalence: it seems to be both rooted in materiality (pointing to the existence of the painting itself as surface upon which paint is dispersed) and spiritual (pointing to the abstract realm of absolute ideas cherished by painters like Mondrian or Malevich).

This same ambivalence exists, I think, quite clearly in other forms of socialist realist art in Albania, where art is called upon (and the artist is tempted) both to reflect a kind of purified, simple, and universally accessible materiality and to index the schema of the sacred, to partake in the spiritual elevation of the religious icon. (See, for example, Gëzim Qëndro’s reading of Odhise Paskali’s sculpture Shokët, in “The Thanatology of Hope,” in Lapidari, ed. Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei (New York: Punctum Books, 2015), 61-66.) And it is, it seems, one of the central issues raised by Hysa’s Më Tej. Even the title, Më Tej, suggests the gesture towards another level of understanding and being, an index of a beyond that bears either a merely horizontal relation (as the grid of the map suggests) or else (also?) a hierarchical relation (as the grid beneath the painting suggests).

However, the grid here is not merely a self-referential or circular encapsulation of a (tautological kind of) statement art makes about itself. The grid in this instance, showing through the layers of the image in its center, has a quite specific relationship to reality (which I want to distinguish from ‘the world’ as a phenomenological setting that only sometimes coincides with ‘reality’). The grid unfolds in a space that is situated immediately prior to the figures’ current attention: they have looked at the map, and now they look out at where the unfolding grid of electrification (another grid that is both tangible and material, yet also somehow ineffable) will lay over the country. This grid will leave its trace on the unyielding stone of the mountains, much as the words etched on the stone at far right (“25 Vjet Çlirimit” [25 Years of Liberation”]) mark the passage of time and the expansion of man’s influence over the landscape.

The grid suggests not just that the expansion of the electrification is in some sense already present in some nascent (or ontologically superior) form long before the territory itself that will be the subject of the material grid of power lines. It also suggests that the progressive expansion of the grid is in some way not a narrative one. The grid at the center of Më Tej in fact simultaneously effects a certain undermining of chronological progression, suggesting an eternity or timelessness that is the other of socialist realism’s assertion on dynamic transformation and progress. Hysa’s painting, as an image of the Albanian socialist reality (which is not to say, an image of the Albanian socialist ‘world’), emphasizes the irreducible schism between the grid as an element of the expansion (to infinity) of the socialist space and the static pre-existence of that space at an ontologically privileged level. The construction of the electrical field is both necessary and redundant—it makes material and explicit a dispersion that on the one hand must always be physically instantiating and thereby multiplying itself, and on the other hand has no need of instantiation precisely because it remains in the realm of foundational myth, without beginning or end.

Ultimately, the thinness of the paint in the region of the map seems to allow the grid to emerge at the conceptual heart of Hysa’s painting, and so its appearance as the logical (as opposed to the compositional) underlying force of the composition, and in this way the grid as eternal paradigm seems somehow the stronger reading in Më Tej. However, as I have tried to suggest, the ambivalence remains unresolved; the role of and emphasis on the grid is ambiguous. This is perhaps one of the reasons behind the intentional incompleteness of Hysa’s painting: it allows the polysemy of the grid to fuse with the polysemy of the ‘reality’ presented, with maximum effect. This effect, of course, is missed if we merely look at the image in reproduction where these details are lost and the material circumstances of the painting are covered over.

A question posed by all Realist art, at some level, is: “What is reality? Where can it be found? What is our access to it? What is its relationship to our lives, to our art, to our politics, to our ethics?” The success of Realist artworks—whether they are Socialist Realist, or Photorealist, or New Realist, or Capitalist Realist—depends to a large degree, I would argue, on how successfully the work poses these questions, how deeply it pushes them, not necessarily in the direction of resolution, but in the direction of their own proliferation and epistemological sophistication. Shaban Hysa’s Më Tej raises precisely these kind of questions in the context of Albanian socialist realism. It asks, what is art’s access to reality, and does that access place it before the unfolding project of socialism, or after? Does art possess a narrative power that depicts—in a robust and accurate way—the dynamism of “building socialism,” or does it precisely precede and even undermine all narrative forces, in favor of an eternal instantiation of a fundamental principle? Does the grid, with its metaphysical priority, intervene before our experience of the socialist reality—the point at which is becomes, for us, a ‘world’—or after, emergent in the unfolding of territorial and material-ideological expansion?

Above all, Hysa’s painting reminds us of the importance of looking closely at socialist realism. To quote an omnipresent phrase from the American system of transport, one of which I was recently reminded by a book I sat down to read on the same day that I visited the National Gallery and saw Më Tej: “if you see something, say something.”

Lirizmi që Merr Jetë…: Llambi Blido’s Shënime për Pikturën dhe Skulpturën

This is the eighth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. 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. 

Llambi Blido_shenime per pikturen dhe skulpturen_cover image

Today’s text is the complete volume Shënime për Pikturën dhe Skulpturën, published in 1987 by Albanian artist and critic Llambi Blido. Blido is quite an interesting figure in his own right; as a painter and as an illustrator of children’s publications, his works often experimented explicitly with stylistic strains of Modernism that—by the mid-1970s in Albania—came under harsh institutional criticism as ideologically dangerous. (See, for example, his Vajza në Pultin e Komandimit [Young Woman at the Controls](oil on canvas, 1971), hanging in the National Gallery of Art in Tirana and visible here. Toni Milaqi’s text “Emancipimi i Gruas dhe Ndikimet e Huaja” provides an insightful overview of Blido’s career and significance. An interview with Blido from 2009 is available here.)

Blido’s Shënime për Pikturën dhe Skulpturën is a collection of essays written, it seems, throughout the artist’s career up to that point, thought since the original sources and dates of the essays are not given, it is a bit difficult to determine their chronology. Some (particularly the exhibition reviews) are clearly from Drita, the weekly publication of the Albania Union of Writers and Artists, while others may have appeared in Nëntori (the aforementioned Union’s monthly journal) or elsewhere. Despite the lack of information about original publication (and indeed some may not have been previously published), the breadth of the sort essays is impressive and insightful. Blido’s writings span both analyses and interviews, and he engages with many of the greatest figures from Albanian twentieth-century art, including Abdurrahim Buza, Kristaq Rama, Mumtas Dhrami, and Vilson Kilica. While the book is not illustrated, images of several of the major works discussed can now be found floating around the internet. Blido’s observations are particularly enlightening given the specificity of many of his aesthetic discussions (a specificity sometimes—often intentionally—lacking in official discourses on art from the socialist period); he discusses the details of color and composition, and asks important aesthetic and ideological questions based upon these formal observations.

Happy reading!

 

 

A Style and a Half or Half a Style?: Modernism, Socialist Realism, and Postmodernism in Albanian Art

Vilson Kilica realist? Më 1960 ai ishte një nga themeluesit e Institutit të Lartë të Arteve, të cilin ai e drejtoi. Në ateljenë e tij, një portret i presidentit të vjetër Hoxha tregon që ai di t’i pikturojë gjërat ashtu siç janë, por të gjitha vepra të tjera të tij afirmojnë vizionin e pastër dhe subjektiv të botës. Dhe për të, arti është një problem individual, e në asnjë mënyrë kolektiv. Herezi? [Vilson Kilica, a realist? In 1960, he was one of the founders of the Institute of Arts, for which he served as director. In his atelier, a portrait of the former president Hoxha shows that he knows how to paint things as they are, but all his other works affirm a pure and subjective vision of the world. For him, art is an individual problem, in no way a collective one. Is this heresy?]—Denis Picard, in Connaissance des Arts, 1990[1]

Vilson Kilica, Peisazh, 1993
Vilson Kilica, Peisazh, 1993

Among Boris Groys’ most famous formulations is that of socialist realism as “a style and a half,” occupying a middle position between the modernist avant-garde of the early 20th century and the postmodernist ironic eclecticism of the latter part of the century.[2] Indeed, reading Groys—still probably the most oft-cited Western theorist of socialist realism—one has the impression that the acceptance of socialist realism [hereafter: socrealism] as a legitimate subject of study is based firmly (and solely) upon its role as theoretical, political, and visual fodder for the subsequent Moscow conceptualists and heroes of Sots Art. Groys’ analysis of socrealism has been the subject of a number of critiques, both in terms of its reading of the relationship between the avant-garde and socrealism and its reading of the relationship between socrealism and postmodernism, and my purpose is neither to summarize these critiques nor to add to them. Rather, I would like to pose a question that might seem to some to be straightforward and  even retrograde: What can we say about Modernism after Socrealism—in the case of Albania in particular? In a history of styles, how do we do justice to modernist paintings done in the wake of the system of socrealism? How does socrealism change the relationship between modernism and postmodernism? Is such a ‘belated’ modernism[3] a style and a half? Half a style?

Zef Shoshi, Grup Portret Zadrimoresh, 2004
Zef Shoshi, Grup Portret Zadrimoresh, 2004

The corpus I want to understand is not so much those ‘modernist’ paintings done in Albania during the period of socialist control, during which socrealism as the mandated style—and which were often ether condemned or kept secret, but which in some cases were celebrated as exemplars of socialist art. Instead, I am concerned with how we might understand the art (and in this case, I am most concerned with painting) created in the late 1980s (after Enver Hoxha’s death in 1985), the 90s, and the early 2000s that might be described as ‘modernist,’ much of it created by artists who began their careers as socrealists. (I use the term ‘modernist’ here in the vaguest and most uncritical sense, as a descriptor for art that tends towards abstraction [though it is still often figurative]; is concerned with formal experimentation more than content; and often embraces subjectivity or universality, or both in spite of their apparent contradictions.) What can we say about this art and its stylistic significance? What do we say about Zef Shoshi’s (seemingly unending) images of Zadrimoret ? About Vilson Kilica’s colorful surrealist landscapes? The question will, no doubt, be uninteresting to many readers, and I should like to elaborate some of the potential objections to this investigation, if only to make it clear what I am not concerned with understanding or criticizing. First, of course, one could ask: what is the use of trying to fit a belated, post-socrealist, pre-postmoderist modernism into a history of styles anyway? Hasn’t the history of styles long been an implicit enemy of the study of non-Western modernisms (and even of early-20th-century American modernisms), since it often inevitably privileges teleological narratives of the purification of stylistic paradigms (in regions where artists nearly always mixed the most diverse styles), not to mention continually drifting close to the trap of tying visual properties to ideological schemas in stable systems? Aren’t we art historians well and truly done with such a formalist enterprise, and aren’t we better off for it?

The answer, I think, is no on both accounts. I will not fully elaborate all of the reasons for the continued relevance of this question here, but one is of particular significance here: the history of styles is a global history, and it is a history of abstract ideas as much as of localized agencies, forces, and differences. The well-founded critique of the global history of styles is that, at best, it misses the specificities of the local and, at worst, it subsumes local specificities to dominant (Western) paradigms. Unfortunately, this critique often takes the form of a call for histories ‘radical contextualized,’ which both assumes that such contexts are actually and significantly present for particular works of art and often paradoxically implies that the only way to recover the importance of marginalized art histories is to discuss them on a political, social, and visual level almost totally divorced from that of the global history of styles.[4] Insofar as I am quite interested in the specificity of the Albanian case, I am here also interested in using it to help tell a much broader story about the temporal emergence of modernism and its possible chronological positions in a history of styles.

The second objection (or set of objections) that might be raised to the investigation of post-socrealism Albanian modernism as modernism is that this approach 1) heroizes modernism as the escape from the artificial confinements placed on painting under the socrealist system;[5] 2) perpetuates the idea of a country like Albania as ‘behind’ in the global cultural trajectory, since it has only recently produced modernist painting; 3) [the implicit corollary to the previous objection] reveals that there is nothing much of interest in such painting from a stylistic point of view, since it only repeats what has been done before elsewhere (at best it is significant in a ‘radically contextualized’ political-artistic history;[6] and 4) devotes too much attention to a (be)late(d) modernism and ignores the very real work to be done on modernist painting in Albania before the advent of socrealism. Against this set of objections I have little to say except that they represent points of views and approaches that are not immediately of interest to me. What I am interested in is the possibility of discussing modernism as something ancillary to socrealism in both a chronological and a conceptual sense, something that builds upon socrealism rather than being distorted or erased by it. Furthermore, I am interested in thinking more critically about how modernism-after-socrealism might continue to serve a real stylistic political function in a time when critical attention is more squarely focused on both ‘postmodern’ and ‘contemporary’ art.[7]

Vilson Kilica, Fushe e Blerte, 2008
Vilson Kilica, Fushe e Blerte, 2008

I doubt that many would insist that modernism (or, let me say for the moment, Modernism) is insignificant in the current and recent Albanian political context (and argue instead that the Albanian politico-cultural context is purely ‘postmodern’). Modernism’s current relevance—both stylistically and philosophically—is continually reaffirmed by debates surrounding public aesthetic policy in Albania, from the designs for the 2012 Monument to the Anniversary of Independence, to the aesthetics of projects like Bunk’Art, to Edi Rama’s own state-as-a-work-of-art political paradigm. No amount of metacommentary (of the kind, for example, represented by Anri Sala’s documentation of Rama’s projects) can completely displace recent examples of public art from the realm of modernist aesthetics into the realm of postmodernist post-aesthetics.

However, I hope that my present argument amounts to saying more than “We—or at least, Albanians—are still in Modernism; we never escaped it” (a decidedly unsatisfactory assertion at best). The traditional art historical trajectory sees the formalist concerns of modernist painting (as abstract expressionism, or as art informel, for example) in terms of an escape from the explicitly political contexts of the wars and subsequent totalitarian states, and a new kind of traditional reading of socrealism credits its explicit politicization of aesthetics with the postmodernist realization that ‘everything is political.’[8] What would it mean, however, to set alongside those general accounts of stylistic trajectories, and to take seriously, these three propositions: 1) Socrealism (as a realism) can predate modernism.[9] Alternately, it can come into being as an early, embryonic form of modernism rather than a late one; it can be “half a style” and not only “a style and a half.” 2) Positioned at in the earlier stages of modernism, socrealism is not so much partially responsible for the political awareness of postmodernism as it is partially responsible for the political awareness of later forms of modernism. In other words, it is not simply that socrealism inherits the philosophies of the avant-garde: it also forges the avant-garde. 3) With and in contrast to 2), socrealism doesn’t just help to create the collective, politically-aware positions that characterize some postmodern artistic practices; it also helps create the possibility of the modern artist as individual creative subject. This creative subject can be alternately conceived as radically political (a politician-artist like Edi Rama being a [perhaps worn out but still quite accurate] prime example), or as apolitical and ‘free’ from social pressures. This third proposition in effect reverses the implicit logic of Denis Picard’s quotation used to introduce my essay: there (in quite a cliché manner, but that does not mean it is any less critically relevant) the “pure and subjective” vision of art as an “individual problem” is considered primary, and any “collective” distortions are subsequent. Instead, let us entertain the possibility that socialist realism does not construct a collective aesthetic epistemology (for example, by effacing, subjugating, and distorting a more primordial individual artistic subject-position), but instead generates the individual subject, and with it the style of the individual artist, as something secondary.[10] Thus, the modern (or Modern) artist is the supplement of socrealism, not the reverse. Socrealism is not always something added on en route to postmodernism; sometimes it is modernism that is added on.

This was, perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly precisely the claim of socrealism in Albania: the collective made possible the individual aesthetic personality of the artist. Kujtim Buza states it most clearly:

Në qoftë se M. Dhrami realizoi me sukses skulpturën “Lart frymën revolucionare”, K. Rama “Shote Galicën”, H. Dule kompozimin “Brez pas brezi”, Sh. Hadëri “Herojt e Vigut”, etj., kjo ndodi sepse personaliteti i tyre krijues u poq në mes të kolektivit, u farkëtua në shkollën e madhe të kolektivit. [If Muntas Dhrami successfully created the sculpture “Lart frymën revolucionare”, Kristaq Rama the work”Shote Galica,” Hektor Dule the work “Brez pas brezi,” Shaban Hadëri “Herojt e Vigut,” etc., this happened because their creative personalities matured in the midst of the collective, were forged in the great school of the collective.][11]

To a certain extent, taking seriously the model I have suggested here amounts to a structuralist reading of art history, where modernism and postmodernism always exist as stylistically or thematically distinct possibilities that need not conform to any teleological progression. I am certainly not opposed to such a framework, and I think it moves beyond certain teleologies that—no matter how much we insist they have been debunked—still guide the writing of 20th-century art history. However, I also want to suggest—in my use of the Derridean vocabulary of the ‘supplement’—that a reassessment of the chronology of modernism, socrealism, and postmodernism does more than enrich our understanding of a structure: it also destabilizes and redoubles a set of conceptual and aesthetic categories that (and here the ‘radical contextualization’ will slip back in) have too often been considered primarily in the context of Western Europe, Russia, and/or America, and only secondarily (supplementarily) in places like the Balkans. This destabilization might result in a fresh set of questions regarding the presence or absence (read: the interiority or exteriority) of modernism, socrealism, and postmodernism to each other both in the 20th century and in the 21st—questions that the chronological placement of socrealism as “a style and a half” cannot ask. What would it mean to write socialist realism as the effaced origin of a (be)late(d) Modernism, and to see that Modernism as interwoven throughout every attempt to go beyond it, every postmodernism? In this context, I think we might find a new significance in the (both valorized and decried) colorful geometric landscapes, abstract partial torsos, and Fauvist folk scenes of Albanian modernist art in the decades around the turn of this century.

Zef Shoshi, Malesor i Qeshur, 2009
Zef Shoshi, Malesor i Qeshur, 2009

This might seem a rather unsatisfactory conclusion, but I mean the previous discussion as an incitement to discussion rather than a definitive statement—not least because it seems that relatively little has been said about the (allegedly naïve, at worst hopelessly kitsch) emergence of modernism[12] in the past three decades in countries like Albania. Allow me to close—with a sort of footnote—by returning to Groys, who refers to the work of the Russian ‘postmodernists’ as “post-utopian,” suggesting that the utopia envisioned by the early 20th-century Russian avant-garde was ‘realized’ in a sense by socrealism, and that contemporary artists work in this fallout. Something in this implies (although I do not think this is Groys’ point) a spatio-temporal incompatibility between the failure (or the end) of utopia and the practice of modernist aesthetics…as if modernism can only prefigure utopia and all that comes after utopia is either ‘postmodern’ or ‘contemporary.’[13]  If the interior of the body of Modernism continually—and absolutely—reforms itself, why not consider the utopian dreams of socrealism yet another block of ‘becoming-Modern’? What kind of temporality would we have to conceptualize to envision stylistic modernism after utopia?

[1] Qtd. in Vilson Kilica: Një Jetë në Krijimtari (Tirana: Studio Kilica, 2012), 10.

[2] See Groys, “A Style and a Half: Socialist Realism Between Modernism and Postmodernism,” in Socialist Realism Without Shores, ed. Thomas Lahusen and Evgeny Dobrenko (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 76-90. Of course, Groys is quite explicit that socrealism is a modernism, albeit one “of a very particular kind” (76). Thus, the significance of socrealism is also argued based upon its realization of particular principles inherent to modernism and the modern project or experience more broadly.

[3] I use the term ‘belated’ with a great sense of aversion and caution, but I think it is appropriate. While I think the term is often misplaced in discussing developments in Eastern European art of the (earlier) 20th century, there is a sense in which any modernist art coming in the final decades of the century (to say nothing of the 21st) is ‘belated’ not in the sense that it comes after the same developments have occurred elsewhere, but that it comes after developments that elsewhere, it preceded. For example, if it is generally the case that socrealism grew out of and ultimately against modernism, what can we say about modernism that grows out of socrealism and ultimately against postmodernism?

[4] These are, of course, extreme positions, and they most certainly should not imply either that all those who seek ‘radical contextualization’ adhere to these ideas, nor that ‘radical contextualization’ is unhelpful. It is. However, as an art historical strategy, it often displays an aversion to overarching discussions of style that are still helpful in understanding art history in the longer view. After all, it is not necessarily likely that subsequent histories of the 20th and 21st centuries will see the shift from modernism to postmodernism as we do, or even that they will see them as distinctly as we do.

[5] The quotation at the beginning of this essay is emblematic of this heroization of painters as ‘modernist’ (as opposed to ‘realist’.

[6] The implication being that one misses out on what is being done by actually innovative artists if one focuses on those who merely uncritically repeat or dabble in earlier paradigms. This may be true, but it is far more convincing from an aesthetic/art-critical standpoint, and less so from one that attempts to theorize as inclusive a history as possible. The more problematic side of this objection is when it also carries the implication that what we can all agree on is that such belated (or worse, pseudo-) modernist painting from contemporary Albanian painters is bad. I disagree that it is all bad, but that is not the point: questions of style are not all questions of  aesthetic merit, and I am not interested in aesthetic merit.

[7] In fact, I consider the designation ‘contemporary’ to be quite helpful in contradistinction to ‘postmodern,’ but  often theorists of contemporary art avoid using the label for art that seems squarely rooted in the presuppositions of  earlier modernisms. This is, in my view, a bit too limited; I would prefer that the term ‘contemporary’ also included the (set of rather uncritical) revisitations and re-appropriations of modernism that are often found in chronologically ‘contemporary’ and postmodern art. (I prefer it to a term like Svetlana Boym’s ‘off-modernism’, which, while I think it is accurate and appealing, seems to somehow imply that the off-modern is not coterminous with the contemporary…and in many cases it is.)

[8] Recently, for example, the relationships between the political position of socrealist art and that of contemporary art in China have been discussed by Liu Ding and Carol Yinghua Lu, in ” From the Issue of Art to the Issue of Position: The Echoes of Socialist Realism,” e-flux 5 (2014), available from http://www.e-flux.com/journal/from-the-issue-of-art-to-the-issue-of-position-the-echoes-of-socialist-realism-part-i/ (accessed 1/7/2015).

[9] When I say, in the context of Albania, that socialist realism can predate modernism, I do not mean to imply that Albanian culture existed in some vacuum where modernism did not penetrate. This was manifestly not the case, since nearly all of the earliest modern painters in Albania were educated abroad. However, there is a difference between a style being practiced by some and a style achieving heightened significance in society. The point is not that there was no modernism in Albania before socrealism, but that socrealism was part of the development of modernism, and not a break away from that development (either in a regressive sense, or in the sense of prefiguring what would come after modernism).

[10] We can of course still be suspicious of this individual creative artist, and the search for his or her origin, but we gain a new understanding of the origin of the myth of such a figure.

[11] “Puna Krijuese Kolektive në Fushën e Arteve Figurative,” Drita, September 27, 1970. Here too, there is the danger of imposing the kind of binary that theorists like Jameson impose, wherein ‘first world’ cultural production starts from subjectivity, and ‘third world’ cultural production starts from collective political analogies. However, one need not embrace such a rigid framework to extract valuable insights from the idea of beginning from the collective

[12] Note that I do not say “return to modernism.” if it is, in some cases, a return, a retreat from the excesses of postmodernism, I think that this is not always the case. Precisely because the movement I am suggesting here is not teleological, I do not think it is necessary to view the appearance of something very similar to (if not identical to) modernism in contemporary works as a ‘return.’

[13] Of course, the dream of utopia shows up in many ‘contemporary’ works, and I do not think that these works are all (or even mostly) modern.