The Unofficial View of Tirana (93)
Lapidar dedicated to Qemal Stafa in Tirana. Photo by Marco Mazzi.
by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei
A bit over a year ago, while documenting the partisan monuments from the Albanian communist period, I got a phone call from the Ministry of Culture: whether I can send them a list of the twenty most important monuments to restore. I tried to explain, politely, that I was only halfway through the documentation project, and moreover, that the concept behind it – as they could have read in my funding application – was that each monument would be treated equally; each site of commemoration, no matter whether well-kept or completely destroyed, was treated with the same attention. In other words, I did not think of them in terms of “importance.” “Please come tomorrow to present your project to some people of the Ministry and the Institute of Monuments, they want to restore a few for the 70th anniversary of the Liberation.” It felt like an order. I was to give a slide show presentation to a group of civil servants about lapidars. Actually, I had talked with the new director of the Institute of Monuments in the preparation phase of the project, but she didn’t seem too interested in it; after all, none of the sites I was documenting fell under the protection of the Cultural Heritage Law, and were therefore outside the competency of her institution. But surely enough she was “interested” now.
Inauguration of Qemal Stafa’s lapidar on May 5, 1969.
Naively expecting a conference room, a projector, and an audience, I instead only found the director of the Institute of Monuments together with a specialist, no projector, and no room. No one from the Ministry even bothered to show up. I flipped open my laptop and suggested we watch the presentation on my computer. “Can’t you just give us a list? Of the most important ones? We don’t have much time.” I tried to explain that there was not much data left in the archives, and that even figuring out “the important ones” required a set of criteria that would take a while to draft. I flipped through the slides, talking about the different types of damages, locations, materials, the few historical facts I could ascertain. The specialist wrote down every location I happened to name. “We just need twenty to restore. [Deputy Prime Minister] Peleshi told us to do something with them for the anniversary.” I tried to explain some of the problems of restoration, the absence of a legal framework, and the fact that many of the monuments are in fact on private or privatized property. “What about that one?” The director pointed at the lapidar of Qemal Stafa. “We can do that one.” (Qemal Stafa had been a communist youth of the resistance against the Italian fascists “lucky” enough to have been killed before the beginning of the National Liberation War or the reign of the actual communist regime. So he never got his hands dirty and was therefore ideologically “safe”). I explained that the monument was surrounded by wholesale shops, and that moreover its bronze inscription and star had been removed. “Are you going to put the star back?” I asked, “because if that’s your idea of restoration you better think well about what that would mean in the current political climate.” She insisted I give her a list. I refused. In the end, nothing came of the plan to restore twenty monuments.
The Monument dedicated to the First Brigade in Pishkash, June 2014. Photo by Marco Mazzi.
A month ago I drove south to Pogradec to meet a friend. One of my favorite monuments is somewhere halfway along the road, on the right side: the monument dedicated to the First Brigade in Pishkash. Not only is the history surrounding this monument most interesting (see Giakoumis & Lockwood’s contribution to the first volume of Lapidari), it is – or rather, used to be – one of the most impressive monuments in Albania, a giant star with elaborate bas-relief, cut from local limestone. Unfortunately, someone – A local mayor? A national politician? A construction company? – had restored it, ostensibly in preparation for the 70th anniversary of the Liberation. And this someone had restored it in the only way in which Albanian public officials seem to know how to restore: paint it white.
The Monument dedicated to the First Brigade in Pishkash, July 2015. Photo by Marco Mazzi.
All the details and intricate shadings of the original limestone had been obliterated by a bright, monochromatic blur. Instead of blending in with its natural environment and the basement, the star had become a reflective stain amid the lush green of the surrounding trees and bushes, a giant bird dropping that had incomprehensibly landed on a flight of unrelated stairs. Socialist surrealism, to borrow Gëzim Qëndro’s term. I felt sad and angry about this senseless act of destruction, but there was nothing to be done.
The Enver Hoxha Museum a.k.a. the Pyramid, April 21, 1989. Photo by P. Kumi.
A few weeks ago, Rama-protégé Erion Veliaj became the new mayor of Tirana. I have written before about his slightly pathetic attempts to emulate the great helmsman of propaganda, and referred to his “amphibian” esthetic sensibility. Somehow these two unfortunate aspects came together in a perfect iconoclastic storm, when he decided that his first acts as a mayor needed to take place in the field of public monumentality: 1) repairing the ugliest piece of commemorative debris in the center of Tirana, the Independence Monument; 2) announcing an Albania-Kuwait Friendship Monument, in the words of the Kuwaiti ambassador: “the work on the monument will be completed in the near future by an international company [sic!] and will reflect the close relationship between the two sides and their fruitful development in all fields, political, economical, and cultural.” In other words, our eyes will have much to fear; 3) “provisionally” repairing the Pyramid in the center of Tirana. He even made a nice propaganda flyer about it (point nr. 4):
“7 Concrete Things in 7 Days,” propaganda flyer of Tirana Municipality.
The precise formulation of this flyer should not escape our attention: “7 Concrete Things in 7 Days.” The word “concrete” here carries the same ambiguity in Albanian as in English. In fact, all seven “action points” have to do with construction, with building, with more and more concrete in public space. Even seemingly innocent plans such as new “parks” are always accompanied by more construction work. And when casting a prudent, sideways glance at what this man has dared to call “repairing the Pyramid,” the monstrosity of Veliaj’s “concrete things” becomes even more apparent. In his unfathomable wisdom, the municipal master of bad taste has decided that the Pyramid be painted completely – grey.
In an unholy marriage of the Albanian restoration imperative “throw some paint at it” and his passion for the “concrete,” Veliaj chose neither white nor black but fifty shades of godforsaken grey. It is honestly beyond me what has driven him to proudly display this “work” on his Facebook page, accompanied even by the injunction to “help us keep it clean!” Because if you indeed yield to the unmentionable forces of darkness and in some type of perverted reenactment of Sala-Rama’s Tirana Façades project of more than a decade ago decide to paint Tirana’s most important landmark – a landmark that in spite its ruinous appearance at least was an unsafe playground for children and springboard for aspiring Banksies – then make sure it is at least a single, monochromatic shade. It is just painful to the eyes, a rape of the senses to witness the Pyramid suffer under the meaningless abuse of the colorblind, especially since it is juxtaposed to the epitome of cosmopolitan and cultured taste, manicured and eternally hydrated “off limits” public lawns, and a perfectly preserved – and already indefinitely closed – center for “openness and dialogue.” Instead of indulging in color testing the new ranges of industrial paints of his construction friends, Veliaj could perhaps muster the courage to tell his overlord that it is the Pyramid that is still called “International Cultural Center Pjetër Arbnori,” and that compared to the enormous investments into its over-signified neighbor, his own “concrete thing” just simply comes across as tragic and criminal.
About the Author:
Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei is a philologist, director of project bureau for the arts and humanities The Department of Eagles, and runs multilingual publishing house Uitgeverij. For Berfrois he writes a regular series on the state and concept of Albania, where he lives and works most of the time.