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Albanian Art in the 1990s: the Post-Communist Era

by Dr. Ermir Hoxha, University of Arts, Tirana

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 marked the last phase of the USSR’s and the whole Eastern bloc’s existence. Its fall brought about a new global political and economic order. In the same year, communist Albania remained the most isolated country in Europe. In fact, the whole twentieth century had been difficult for this Balkan nation. The Albanians gained their independence in 1912 and faced many challenges trying to lay the foundations of a modern state. After World War II, their country became part of the communist bloc.


Albanian art reflected all of this. The first half of the century was a journey towards realism, often with a romantic touch. During the second half, visual art had to serve a political purpose, and so the journey towards realism found a socialist touch. In fact, starting from the 1960s, the state controlled almost every aspect of daily life, as well as the artists themselves, the themes they worked on, and the style and dimensions of their works.


Later on, in complete isolation for more than three decades, Albanian artists working within Socialist Realism had to design their careers around themes like The New Man, The Cult of the Leader, or the Socialist daily “paradise”. In this vortex, the artists understood Modernism (Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism) in their own way, mostly in secret, from reading old books. During the early 1970s, they employed a form of Modernism known in Albania as Formalism that never compromised the subject, only its form.


At the end of the 1980s, the dust of the Berlin Wall was felt strongly by Albanian artists who took advantage of the system’s increasing laxness and were influenced by the international movements in the Eastern bloc. This way, they reignited the dialogue with the “classics” of Modernism, as had happened previously during the 1970s. Amid the exhibitions they held, the discussions and the hope for change, one thing was certain: for Albania, there was no turning back.


The collapse came in 1991 when the whole system was shocked first by strikes and violent protests, and later on by the fall of the dictator’s monument and thereby the collapse of the communist regime itself. The political changes that followed inevitably brought fundamental changes to the artistic system. The old aesthetic, thematic and functional concepts were overthrown. It seemed that everything would have to restart anew. This was, in fact, true. As the artists participated in exhibitions both within Albania and abroad, they put on show their latest aesthetic experiments, often as a natural continuation of the works they had done in secret during communism.


Sponsored by the first buyers, both foreign and native, these works were a clear expression of the artists’ making up for lost time, when they had been under the strict rules of Socialist Realism. Conditioned by long isolation far away from Western artistic developments (both modern and postmodern), for the artists it was natural that their confrontation with the state would now be replaced by a dialogue among themselves. They gravitated once more to the Modernist forms from the beginning of the twentieth century, frequently daring to go further towards more abstract compositions or towards an erotic or religious existentialism. In essence, they were simply experimenting with the forms of Modernism denied to them during the socialist period.


Having gone through decades of rules governing theme-style, standardization and stereotyping, this dynamic explosion of styles and mediums is easy to imagine. On the other side, a feature not so easily imagined was the responsibility that came with the freedom of creating a work of art. The theme-style individualism of the artists was no longer confined to the borders of Albania. Their art could be displayed in Western galleries where it was judged by other parameters and rules. All this “burden” was channelled through the euphoria of the first years of democracy, at times with personal exhibitions as well as group ones in the National Art Gallery and in other galleries both in Albania and abroad.


 Gazmend Leka: The Night of the Strong Men,

sepia pencil on paper, private collection, 1991


As artists slowly moved away from their early heroes and began searching for their own artistic individualism, by the mid-1990s, they became aware that the history of art (which used to be a provincial one) had become a globalised history, with new actors and new rules. As an old painter  put it: “During the period of Socialist Realism, Albanian painters would look at each other, whereas now they look at the world”.

As a consequence, they proposed other formats that were at times more formal or more conceptual. In parallel with “traditional mediums”, they developed new mediums such as   installation art, video and performance, encouraging the creation of a new sensory language which had been part of the contemporary, international art scene for decades. The ideas often started in the Art Academy in Tirana where they would be “cooked” in an experimental lab and then “served” in the halls of the National Art Gallery or in other outdoor environments.

Although for many of them, this period is considered blurry and utterly experimental, each of them is defined by the dynamism of that first phase of artistic experimentation.


In the years that followed, some of the enthusiasm of the 1990s would be encapsulated in several national and international events which were organized in the capital and in ever greater sizes, and which attracted the curious Western eye drawn to the paradoxes and the energy of a country where post-communist depression coexisted with a troubled contemporaneousness.

Edi Hila: Mother from the series Homage and Image, acrylic, canvas,

Silva Agostini collection, 2000


 Starting in 2001, events such as the Tirana Biennial or the “Onufri” competition were accompanied by other events within Albania or abroad, where the search for a new aesthetic was made clearer, both in format and definition. As the new millennium commenced, the Albanian art scene also started to reflect on its communist past, in both material and spiritual senses. This new tendency continues to be present today in the works of many young artists, raising a series of questions that are still part of the discussions among scholars. As time went by, many artists returned from abroad; others left the country.


During this process, as Albania continues its search for stability and tries to get through a long transition, Albanian artists are trying to rebuild a dialogue with the past as well as with themselves, conscious that the vast world of art would always be a hard and sometimes impossible destination.





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