The Vlora Independence Monument and the Politics of Socialist Albanian Sculpture, 1962–1972
Author: Raino Isto
Editor In Chief ARTMargins Online
On 9 August 2013, an article appeared in the Albanian newspaper Mapo, with the title ‘Enver Hoxha, the True Originator of the Independence Monument in Vlora’. The article’s subheading proclaimed, “For the first time, the letter written by Enver Hoxha to sculptors Kristaq Rama, Shaban Hadëri, and Muntas Dhrami, describing how the Independence Monument should be realised, has been uncovered. The dictator intervened to overshadow the figure of Ismail Qemali and falsify history“1.
A brief contextualisation followed, accompanied by a notation that the exchange could be found in Albania’s Central State Archive, together with the text of two letters: an open letter from socialist Albania’s dictator Enver Hoxha to the sculptors and a response from the artists (dated 26 June and 10 July 1969, respectively). This was not, by any means, ‘the first time’ these letters had been discovered: they had both been published on the front page of the weekly cultural periodical Drita (The Light) in July of 1969.2 Subsequently, the exchange between dictator and sculptors was cited in numerous articles and conference papers during Albania’s socialist period, and Hoxha’s letter was collected in a volume of his writings on literature and art.3 Despite its misleading character—its claim to have discovered a secret history that was not secret at all, but in fact overt—the Mapo article is invaluable because it indicates the intricate network of anxieties that characterize contemporary attempts to understand the ways that art, politics, and history were interwoven in socialist Albania. Specifically, the Mapo article raises questions about the kind of history was being constructed during Albanian socialism, who was constructing it, and how artistic practices were intended to contribute to the narration of that history.
The Mapo article appeared less than a year after the hundredth anniversary of Albanian independence from the Ottoman Empire (on 28 November 2012), an anniversary that included extravagant festivities in the southern port city of Vlora, where national independence had first been declared in 1912. The locus of these festivities was Flag Square, Vlora’s central plaza, a public space dominated by the seventeen-meter-tall bronze Independence Monument. The sculpture depicts Ismail Qemali, the Ottoman statesman who headed the assembly that first announced Albania’s independence, flanked by a collection of warriors belonging to different cultural and geographic groups, as well as a figure representing an intellectual from the period of the Albanian National Awakening. Rising behind this group is a towering boulder, atop which stands the massive figure of a flag-bearer, holding aloft the streaming flag of the Albanian nation, with its double-headed eagle. The monument—first officially commissioned in 1962, but not inaugurated until 1972—has long been a touristic landmark and source of national pride, both for the decisive moment it depicts and for its aesthetic qualities.
There is a great deal to be gleaned from the way history is visualized in the sculpture, and in particular from the way it balances the role of the heroic individual (Ismail Qemali) with the role of the collective (the geographically diverse milieu surrounding Qemali). This navigation between the individual and the collective as agents of history, however, was also an important aspect of the Vlora Independence Monument’s conceptualisation and creation. In other words, the Vlora Monument is significant not so much for the way it represents history (in this aspect it is quite similar to many other nationalist monuments created since the late nineteenth century across Europe), but for the way the process of its production modelled the collective effort that supposedly characterized the building of Albanian socialism. As the Mapo article would have it, Enver Hoxha’s intervention in the monument’s realisation was primarily an attempt to obscure Qemali’s role in creating an independent Albanian state, presumably in order to elevate the perceived relative significance of Hoxha’s socialist state as the agent responsible for consolidating and narrating a shared Albanian history. In fact, the situation was far more complex: the exchange of letters, which followed a visit Hoxha made to the sculptors’ studio in the summer of 1969, modelled both the artistic process and history itself as collective endeavours. The publication of Hoxha’s letter marked the first time that the Albanian dictator’s aesthetic commentary and participation in the creative processes of state artists were made public, and in the ensuing years it was held up as an example of the dictator’s concern with art’s importance, as well as his guiding role as cultural critic.
My purpose in the current article is to examine the way this letter exchange—and the studio visit that it made the public aware of—functioned to shape the perception of art’s relationship to political power in socialist Albania. I explore the kinds of agency that were attributed to the dictator, to state sculptors, and to the monumental work of art, and consider how the narrative surrounding the letter exchange served to conceptualise the process of creating art in socialist conditions as inherently collaborative. Finally, I consider the way this collaborative model of agency was metaphorically extended to history more broadly, and the ways the socialist present in Albania was framed as the paradigmatic field of in which history could be not only represented but also simultaneously enacted in the creation of works of art. Monuments—as artworks that almost necessarily involved cooperation between commissioning committees, groups of sculptors, and architects—were sites where the collective and collaborative character of both building socialism and framing socialist history could be emphasised by official discourses. In the current study, I take the Vlora Independence Monument as a key example of the way socialist monuments staged the collective construction of both past and present.4
- Aida Tuci, ‘Enver Hoxha, Ideatori i Vërtetë i Monumentit të Pavarësisë në Vlorë’, Mapo, 8 August 2013. All translations from Albanian to English are by the author, unless otherwise noted.
- See Enver Hoxha, ‘Në gurrën e pashtershme e jetëdhënëse të krijimtarisë së popullit në do të gjejmë atë frymëzim të madh për të realizuar vepra të bukura e madhështore për popullin tonë’, and Kristaq Rama, Shaban Hadëri, and Muntaz Dhrami, ‘I Dashur Shoku Enver’, both in Drita, 13 July 1969.
- Enver Hoxha, Mbi Letërsinë dhe artin: nëntor 1942 – nëntor 1976, 8 Nëntori, Tirana, 1977, pp 297–301
- In this aspect, the present study differs from a number of other studies on monuments in socialist and totalitarian regimes, too numerous to list here. The current study is primarily concerned with charting the ways that different kinds of collaboration both amongst artists, and between the state (and the dictator) and artists, were framed to metaphorically represent the kind of co-operative engagement that supposedly also characterised the ongoing construction of the socialist present.