The Unofficial View of Tirana (76)


Covers from Albanian communist magazine Ylli

by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

As the editorial board of continent. is contemplating closing down the blog section of the website definitively, I have been looking around for another host for my unconstrained musings on Albanian politics, society, and art. Fortunately the editors of Berfrois, who already published several articles of mine in the past (here, here, here, and here), have been kind enough to offer a modest place among their intellectual jousting to future chapters from The Unofficial view of Tirana. Chapter 1-75 can still be read on continent., for as long as they fancy to keep their servers up in the air. On Berfrois, The Unofficial View of Tirana will henceforth appear every three weeks on Tuesday.

So now back to daily business. A while back I found an online edition of Anouck Durant and Gilles De Rapper’s monograph Ylli: Les couleurs de la dictature. Ylli (The Star) was one of the main journalistic outlets during the communist period (you can still buy old copies at the open air book markets in Tirana, and probably also in the antiquarian bookshops in Fushë Krujë). Durant and De Rapper have done a great job analyzing different aspects of the magazine, including photography,  communist stereotypes and thematics, printing techniques, typography, and socialist realist photography, as well as giving an insight into the production process.

On page 57 they discuss the photo montage techniques, citing from Hamit Boriçi’s Redaksia dhe puna e gazetarit (1986), page 176. (I translate here freely from the French translation, I don’t have the Albanian original at hand):

Photo montage. Generally has a festive character. Also used for specific problems. It’s one of the readers’ preferred types of illustration since it allows for an organization of great ideas around around a determined axis. In a photo montage one can present the great economical and social transformations during a certain time period. Through a photo montage one can present the principle motifs of life in our society. One can also make vertical photo montages. The composition is important because one can show human figures and metallical structure, oil rigs and high tension masts, sheaves of wheat, the houses of culture in villages, harvesters and trains with travelers…, but what is the sense of an overloaded photo montage? One needs ideas, a theoretical and graphical axis, and a political composition.

Now naturally it would be worth our time to discuss the merits of communist photo montage, or, even better, the massive tradition of Soviet-style censorship. Every time someone fell out of grace with “Parti-Enver” (as the Communist Party and Enver Hoxha were usually called, as some kind of two-headed composite creature – in fact, a friend told me that until high school, she believed that “Parti” was the wife of Enver, as Parti is a feminine word in Albanian), every citizen was called upon to erase the “collaborator,” “spy,” or “revisionist” in question from the photographs in Ylli. An exhibition of the many different popular modes of erasure in itself would be exquisite – but that’s an aside. No, I wanted to discuss as a more contemporary example.

President Bujar Nishani taking a stroll

Last Friday, on the occasion of the national holiday Dita e Verës (Summer Day – yes it’s already summer here), President Nishani posted an image of himself on his official Facebook page, seemingly taking a stroll in the garden in front of the Presidential Palace. Now Nishani is generally known not to be his mother’s smartest child. His speeches generally sound like written by a 10-year old, his notoriously politicized staff managed to mix up the Italian with the Bulgarian flag, and in his last Christmas speech he wished everyone a “happy resurrection.” And yes, his appointment was anti-constitutional although everyone seems to have forgotten it. The image, which was quickly pointed out to be a photo montage, was accompanied by a short blurb of typical grammatical awkwardness.

Summer Day, the beautiful traditional holiday for all Albanians, and not only within national borders, is a celebration of optimism and hopes that spring up with the rejuvenation of nature. More or less each of us has the need for the spring colors and sounds that our people, since ancient times, has underwent today. The wish that naturally rises in the heart of everyone of us, is that Summer Day would bring in each of our hearths pleasure and peace now and forever. I wish you, dear fellow nationals, a happy holiday for the entire people.

The image that goes with this rather clumsily formulated wish shows President Nishani walking in his garden, in front of an olive tree, with the palace in the background. Now I am not very familiar with other heads of state openly using photo montage technique to accompany their holiday wishes, but let’s have a look at it from the perspective of Boriçi’s criteria.

We seem to be dealing with a montage starting from a background showing the Presidential Palace showing red carpets indicating an impending official visit, although the absence of any other flag but the Albanian one suggests that is probably not a foreign dignitary. On the building we see the national crest with left and right the hideous golden-rimmed eagle/fireworks/snake logos that signaled the 100th year of independence in 2013. So the backdrop of the image can be dated to last year. Through this dramatic temporal shift, Nishani perhaps wants to remind us of Summer Day in 2013, when Albania was still under the regime of his beloved mentor and friend (?) Prof. Dr. Sali Berisha, and this hallowed holiday was not yet politicized by the evil forces of the Socialist Party, mercilessly recruiting innocent school children to participate in political spring rallies. Note also the absence of any sheaves, high voltage masts, and oil rigs in the background. Nishani must be either unaware of the enormous technological and social advancements of the Albanian nation, or he puts a higher value on the development of real estate, showing solely the immaculate architecture of the former Embassy of the Soviet Union. Moreover, except for the guard, people are notably absent in the background. Perhaps Nishani wanted to symbolize his loneliness, or the isolation the presidency entails, even though the presence of the guard seems to indicate otherwise. The guard rendered exceptionally small in comparison to Nishani’s head, and recalls the way in which power relations were expressed in slave-driven societies such as Ancient Egypt; a single bite of Nishani’s well-proportioned mouth would be enough to swallow at least half of the guard’s body.

The second plane of the photo montage is an old olive tree, an eternal sign of peace. In reality, Nishani doesn’t have any olive trees in his front garden, perhaps he would like to have one? Or maybe he imagines he has one? The only other tree significantly present on his Facebook account is a Christmas tree. Perhaps he would like to “correct” his mistaken Christmas wish from last year with this universal symbol of reconciliation? Anyhow, there is a clear relation between the olive tree and his wish for “pleasure and peace” to arrive in our homely hearths on this Summer Day, but the plaque with the unreadable inscription at the base of the tree seems to suggest that this message is more complex. This is not just an ordinary olive tree, it is a monumental olive tree. We do not know what this olive tree commemorates: perhaps Nishani’s forefathers, fallen in heroic battles against the Ottomans or Fascists, perhaps a peace treaty signed or allegiance sworn on another warm day in spring. However, Nishani’s imposing figure prevents us from reading the inscription in its entirety. Perhaps he does not want us to read it, or maybe he is making a broader statement about the irrelevance of proper language skills. Or he merely wants to suggest that it is not necessary to know one’s history; it suffices to take respite in the shadow of the age-old trunk.

Now finally we arrive at the foreground, consisting solely of Nishani’s figure. The different lighting and angle in which this part of the montage was photographed emphasize the separation between the president and the background. Whereas the olive tree blends in well with the rest of the garden, even casting a curiously thin shadow on the grass, Nishani is fully separated from his environment. Moreover, he does not cast any shadow. It has been observed that in the Albanian socialist-realist painting tradition, Enver Hoxha is always depicted without shadow. Perhaps Nishani fancies himself to stand in this shadowless tradition? Does he want emphasize the reality of the olive tree which integrates itself seemlessly in the composition, and his own “out-of-jointness”? Nishani walks away from the flag and the red carpets, with the diagonal between the bottom of the flag and the top of his scalp running parallel to the edge of the lawn. Does he want to suggest that for the execution of his office, one sometimes needs to turn his back on national symbols, but rather look ahead into the future? We can find a clue in two words in the final sentence of Nishani’s message, “bashkëkombës” (fellow nationals) and “mbarëpopullor” (entire people, implying also Albanians in Kosovo, Montenegro, Greece, and Macedonia). In turning his body away from the Albanian flag, Nishani somehow implies a “post-Albanian” future, one in which perhaps all of Albania will be sold to the bourgeosie and landowning classes led by his political master, or unnecessarily antagonizes its neigbors for the sake of “reunification.” So to conclude our socialist-realist analysis, according to Boriçi’s terminology, the graphical axis of palace-olive tree-Nishani perfectly coincides with the political axis of real estate-obscured peace-shadowless puppet. Thus Nishani’s Summer Day wish continues the great tradition of political compositions in Albanian photo montage.

About the Author:

Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei is a Dutch philosopher, writer and conceptual artist.