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Proofreading Anna Knight

A Brief Overview of Contemporary Art in Albania

by Adela Demetja

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The Specificities of the Local Context

 

When taking a closer look at today’s contemporary art scene in Albania, it is necessary to bear in mind that we are dealing with a very specific and young reality. Until the beginning of 1990s, art in Albania was produced solely under the control of the communist regime and in line with socialist realist principles. Albania had not only been missing most of the modernist and post-modernist developments in the arts, it was also the only country in Europe isolated and inaccessible to most people. The transition from a single party dictatorship into pluralism with the assimilation of a liberal economic system did not happen smoothly. Apart from the collapse of all the state-owned properties, in 1997 the country nearly underwent a civil war, due to the Pyramid Scheme Crisis,1 which lead to a second collapse and massive disorder within the same decade.

 

After the ’90s, unlike other countries in the region that continued to rebuild national identities, Albania was eager to progress by opening up and embracing the European Union. Philosopher and cultural theorist Boris Groys critically observes that communism is understood as a delay in the normal development of the Eastern European societies – “a delay, after which there is nothing left but a clear need to catch up”.2 According to Groys, the post-communist society simultaneously experienced an opening towards pre-communist times, in search of national identity and an opening toward the globalised world and the Western liberal democratic system. At the same time, the opening of the ex-communist countries was favourable to the overall contemporary spirit of globalisation, which is sustained by cultural identities, heterogeneity, and difference. One can only agree with Groys when he interprets this preference for cultural heterogeneity and diversity as a taste dictated by the market.3

 

In the artistic field, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West became increasingly interested Eastern Europe, a shift that was clearly manifested through major art exhibitions4 dedicated to the region. As argued by writer and cultural critic Boris Buden,5 it would be naive to think that the West has been exclusively interested in the developments of the art scene and the art market. Culture and art production have always developed parallel to social, economic, and political processes and are dependent on them. In Buden’s view, the interest in art and culture from Southeast Europe after the 1990s is to be understood in the context of the EU’s Eastward Enlargement policy: “Private industry – banks, insurance companies, large industrial firms, media entrepreneurs, etc. – or those wielding political power who serve their interests, are more than willing, particularly in the name of the holy purpose European integration poses as today, to fill the pockets of the cultural and artistic elite, which are so often empty.”6

Subsequently, the developments in the art field that occurred with the new historical phase in Albania, embodied some of the problematics mentioned that characterise the post-communist condition.

 

 

The Beginning of Contemporary Art in Albania and the Tirana Biennale

 

The young generation of artists of the ’90s was concerned with liberation from the traditional forms of painting and sculpture and the exploration of new media like photography, video, installation, and performance. Artists like Gentian Shkurti and Adrian Paci started using video as a medium for the first time in 1997, to document the personal and collective experiences during the Pyramid Scheme Crisis and its aftermath. The same year, Gëzim Qëndro, a prominent Albanian art historian and critic, became the director of the National Gallery of Arts. Through the gallery, he started publishing PamorArt as the first academic art magazine, which became a platform to analyse and document the current changes in art and to elaborate the specificity of the Albanian post-communist condition for the first time. Curator Edi Muka who graduated in 1991 from today’s University of Arts in Tirana, was one of the first to develop a discussion, questioning the relationship between form and content and the role of art in the new social context.7 He was the first in 1998 to curate group exhibitions with emerging Albanian artists, like the one titled Welcome to Wonderland, at the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana. The same year he curated the Onufri ’98 Prize, an art competition, founded by the above-mentioned National Gallery, to support Albanian artists and which, from 1998, has also included international artists. The award had its 23rd and last edition in 2017 and will no longer be held. The first edition of the prize was awarded to the Albanian artist Alban Hajdinaj by Edi Rama who had become the minister of culture in 1998.8 Rama, who was living in Paris as an artist, along with artist Anri Sala, had returned to Tirana for his father’s funeral, the well-known socialist realist sculptor Kristaq Rama. Over a phone call, the then prime minister Fatos Nano offered him the position of the Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports, an event that would change his life forever, as Rama says,9 and an approach that was to remain, from then on, as an example of the close relationship between art and politics in contemporary Albania.

 

In 1999, Edi Muka curated the first participation of Albania ever at the 48th Venice Biennale including the works of Alban Hajdini, Edi Hila, Gazmend Muka, Adrian Paci, Flutura Preka & Besnik Haxhillari, Edi Rama, Anri Sala, Astrit Vatnikaj, Lala Meredith-Vula, and Sislej Xhafa. This participation was co-organised by Edi Rama and Flash Art magazine.10 In 2001, the first Tirana Biennale titled Escape took place at the National Gallery of Arts and in the exhibition hall named the Chinese Pavilion. It was directed by Giancarlo Politi and coordinated by Edi Muka and Gëzim Qëndro under the chairmanship of Edi Rama, who has also become the mayor of Tirana in 2000.

 

This biennale of young international art aimed to offer an alternative to the big budget art events like the Venice Biennale. Vanessa Beecroft, Francesco Bonami, Nicolas Bourriaud, Maurizio Cattelan, and Hans Ulrich Obrist were some of the thirty-four international curators and artists in charge of selecting the 200 artists, by proposing a group of artists from a specific country or a group of international artists. Suddenly, the whole art world and beyond knew about Tirana.

 

Although the Biennale had a big impact outside of Albania, its influence locally was quite complex. As it turned out,11 Tirana was just a territory that was used to producing a very mediatised art event at low cost and launching a product with the intention of selling it elsewhere. The second Tirana Biennale was organised without the involvement of Politi and was again supported by the City Council. It was curated among others by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Anri Sala, who invited internationally acclaimed artists to paint the facades of buildings, following the action started by Edi Rama in 2000 when he was mayor of the city. The third biennial titled Sweet Taboos took place in 2005 and comprised five episodes curated by Edi Muka and Gëzim Qëndro, Roberto Pinto, Zdenka Badovinac, Joa Ljungberg, and Hou Hanru. By then, the Tirana Institute of Contemporary Art had been established, which took over for the fourth edition in 2009, The Symbolic Efficiency of the Frame, curated by Edi Muka and Joa Ljungberg. Despite the successful organisation of the third and fourth editions and the effectiveness of the event at engaging with the local and international context, no further editions have been held. The fact that the fourth edition was supported only by the European Union, foreign foundations, and private sponsorships, but lacked public funding from Albania, might have led to the end of the initiative. In 2007 Edi Muka and Joa Ljungberg curated the Göteborg Biennale in Sweden, where they have been living and working since.  

 

 

The Current Contemporary Art Scene in Tirana

 

The contemporary art discourse in Albania until the mid-2000s was being developed mainly in the state-run institutions. Independent initiatives start emerging by the latter part of the 2000s, to become in the coming years the primary actors in developing contemporary art discourse. Over the past fifteen years, Tirana has experienced the emergence and disappearance of several independent enterprises, a few of them, such as the Tirana Institute of Contemporary Art (T.I.C.A), the ZETA Center for Contemporary Art and the Tirana Art Lab – Center for Contemporary Art (TAL) have successfully managed to survive and make progress, serving as pillars of the scene.

 

T.I.C.A.12 was the first independent centre for contemporary art, established in 2006 by Edi Muka, Tina Finnas, Joa Ljunberg, Monica Melin, Gëzim Qëndro, and Stefano Romano. Without a permanent location, T.I.C.A, apart from organising the Tirana Biennale, played an important role in supporting the local art scene on a more continuous basis through a diverse programme of exhibitions, film screenings, performances, and collaborations with other Tirana-based initiatives. An important feature of T.I.C.A’s programme has been its international Artist in Residency platform, supporting artwork production for emerging artists and enabling cross-cultural exchange.

 

The ZETA Center for Contemporary Art13, a non-profit exhibition space, was founded in 2007 by Valentina Koça. ZETA has been the only independent structure with a permanent space over the years, hosting exhibitions of established artists like Edi Hila, Franc Ashiku, Ali Oseku, and Lumturi Blloshmi. Additionally, ZETA has organised solo and group shows of young and emerging Albanian and international artists. In 2018, ZETA, which had previously co-organised this event with T.I.C.A, took over the direction of the Ardhje Award for contemporary visual artists from Albania up to 35 years of age.

 

The Tirana Art Lab – Center for Contemporary Art14 was founded by the author of this text in 2010 with the aim of supporting contemporary emerging artists from Albania and the region through residencies, exhibitions, lectures, and publications. The center is process- and research-oriented and aims to resist politicisation, polarisation and neo-colonial practices, which pervade local and/or global contemporary cultural scene. Through past projects like Heroes We Love and current one Beyond Matter, TAL has been the only institution in Albania to receive support from the Creative Europe Programme, as a partner in long-term projects in collaboration with several international institutions.15

 

In recent years, there has been an apparent increase in interest in contemporary art from official state politics, especially since Edi Rama became Prime Minister in 2013. In 2015, the Center for Openness and Dialogue, an art and research institute inside the Prime Minister’s office was established through Edi Rama’s initiative. Including a library and an exhibition space, the centre was inaugurated with a showcase of works by Philippe Parreno, Carsten Höller, and Thomas Demand. The official website16 explains that the centre operates according to a calendar (available on the website), featuring thematic exhibitions organised and based on open proposals, containing themes of public interest. Nevertheless, the exhibition programme so far has not been developed under a clear concept and the selection process has not been made transparent. As a result, the nature of the centre and the way it operates has been strongly criticised.17

In 2018, curator Erzen Shkololli was appointed director of the National Gallery of Arts.18 With the revitalisation of the institution and a programme consisting of high quality exhibitions, the National Gallery has regained its role in elaborating the contemporary discourse in Albania and beyond. During 2019, curators Nataša Ilić and Adam Szymczyk, along with a group of national and international artists have been working on the exhibition Tirana Patience, which is developed in conversation with the existing collection of the gallery in an attempt to reflect on the meaning of exhibiting today.

 

The current socio-political climate has encouraged the emergence of new initiatives like Harabel and Bazament and the re-emergence of existing ones like DebatikCenter for Contemporary Art.

 

Bazament art space established by artist Genti Korini and producer Amantia Peza was inaugurated in March 2018 as a new exhibition space dedicated to contemporary art.19 Bazament focuses on the production of exhibition projects, talks and screenings. So far their main focus has been on the programming of solo exhibitions of emerging and established Albanian artists living in Albania and abroad.

 

Harabel Contemporary Art Platform hosted its first talk in April 2018.20 Founded by artist Driant Zeneli and cultural promoter Ajola Xoxa, Harabel aims to focus on the promotion of public art. One of the main features of the platform is the Artists’ Portfolio Archive including the portfolios of more than ninety Albanian contemporary artists. Harabel’s website also includes a blog, documenting the contemporary art scene in Albania, through exhibition reviews in Albanian and English language, including photo documentation.

 

The DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art (D.C.C.A.)21 was founded in 2003 by a group of young Albanian contemporary artists led by artist Armando Lulaj and launched the same year with a performance coinciding with the opening of the second Tirana Biennale. Since then, D.C.C.A has served as a structure for the production of artworks for the artists involved. This self-organised initiative re-emerged in September 2018 with a website documenting their actions consisting of interventions in the public space and the production of critical art works and theory. The current incarnation of the DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art brings together artists, academics, activists, architects, etc. aiming to document the current situation in Albania, develop strategies of resistance and render the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion within the structures of contemporary art visible.

 

The Tulla Center and the Tirana Ekspres are interdisciplinary venues that have hosted exhibitions and contemporary art events over the years, while other initiatives that no longer exist but have played a role in shaping Tirana’s contemporary art scene in the past include 1.60 Insurgent Space22 and the MIZA Gallery.23

 

The fact that these independent initiatives have ceased to exist is a reminder of the obstacles the independent art scene faces constantly. Public funding is limited and some of the existing initiatives do not get state funding at all, while there is no legal framework that encourages the private sector to support them. In addition, most of the cultural workers running the independent institutions cannot get paid for their work and have regular day jobs. In these challenging conditions in which art is easily subordinated to power, the significant question is: who is resisting and how?

I suggest the answer can be found in the urgencies that drive the formation and the practices of the independent institutions, the methods and procedures by which they function, the meaning their programmes generate, and the discourses to which they chose to contribute.   

 

Adela Demetja

Artist, writer, curator

Tirana / Frankfurt am Main

Notes

  1. The Albanian crisis took place in Albania from 16 January to 11 August 1997. Its main cause was the collapse of the pyramid schemes, causing the country to lose almost half of its GDP. It ended with the fall of the President and a change of government.
  2. Boris Groys, “Die postkommunistische Situation”, in Boris Groys, Anna von der Heide and Peter Weibel (eds.), Zurück aus der Zukunft. Osteuropäische Kulturen im Zeitalter des Postkommunismus, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 2005, p. 36
  3. Ibid., p. 46.
  4. After the Wall,  Moderna Museet Stockholm. 1999; Privatizations – Contemporary Art from Eastern Europe, Kunst Werke Berlin. 2004; In Search of Balkania. Neue Galerie Graz. 2002; Blut und Honig, Sammlung Essl Klosterneuburg, 2003; Balkan Visions, ARGE Kunst Bolzano. 2003; In den Schluchten des Balkan, Kunsthalle Fridericianum Kassel, 2003.
  5. Boris Buden, “Die Erfindung der BalkanKunst”, in René Block and Marius Babias (eds.), Die Balkan-Triologie, München, Schreiber Verlag, 2007, pp. 199-201.
  6. Ibid., p. 201.
  7. Edi Muka, “Impas apo shprese”, PamorArt, Nr 1, March 1998, pp. 25-27.
  8. RTV Klan Arkiv, Shpallen fituesit e konkursit Onufri '98 (20 Dhjetor 1998), 1998,
    youtube.com/watch?v=o5kmTo32reo, accessed 26 January 2020.
  9. See Edi Rama in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Anri Sala, “Edi Rama and Anri Sala”, Artforum, vol. 52, n°. 6, February 2014
    artforum.com/print/ 201402/edi-rama-and-anri-sala-45004, accessed 26 January 2020.
  10. See Massimiliano Giono, “Anri Sala”, CURA. magazine
    curamagazine.com/anri-sala/, accessed 26 January 2020.
  11. See Jennifer Higgie, “Tirana Biennale 3”, Frieze, 15 January 2006
    frieze.com/article/tirana-biennale-3, accessed 26 January 2020;
    and Charles Green and Anthony Garden, “Delegating Authority”, in Biennials, triennials, and documenta : the exhibitions that created contemporary art, Chichester: WILEY-Blackwell, 2016, pp. 209-240.
  12. See tica-albania.org/new/en/, accessed 26 January 2020.
  13. See qendrazeta.com, accessed 26 January 2020.
  14. See tiranaartlab.org, accessed 26 January 2020.
  15. ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Centre Pompidou Paris, Museum Ludwig Budapest, Tallinn Art Hall, UGM | Maribor Art Gallery and Museum of Yugoslav History Belgrade.
  16. About COD, see cod.al/en/?page_id=1833, accessed 26 January 2020.
  17. See Jonida Gashi, “These are (not) the things we are fighting for!”, DebatikCenter for Contemporary Art, December 2015,
    debatikcenter.net/texts/ jonida_gashi, accessed 26 January 2020;
    and Romeo Kodra, “The art from the Lascaux Caves to COD (Center for Openness and Dialogue). Discovering and ‘discaverning’ Edi Rama. Part I”, AKS Revista, October 2018,
    aksrevista.wordpress.com/ 2018/10/31/__trashed/, accessed 26 January 2020;
    and Romeo Kodra, “The art from the Lascaux Caves to COD (Center for Openness and Dialogue). Discovering and discaverning Edi Rama. Part II”, AKS Revista, November 2018,
    aksrevista.wordpress.com/ 2018/11/02/the-art-from-the-lascaux-caves-to-cod-center-for-openness-and-dialogue-discovering-and-discaverning-edi-rama-part-ii-romeo-kodra/, accessed 26 January 2020;
    and Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, “The Unofficial View of Tirana (92)”, Berfrois, 12 July 2015,
    berfrois.com/ 2015/07/vincent-w-j-van-gerven-oei-all-that-frustration/, accessed 26 January 2020.
  18. See galeriakombetare.gov.al, accessed 26 January 2020.
  19. See bazament.al, accessed 26 January 2020.
  20. See harabel.com.al, accessed 26 January 2020.
  21. See debatikcenter.net, accessed 26 January 2020.
  22. See 1995-2015.undo.net/it/sede/9718, accessed 26 January 2020.
  23. See performingtheeast.com/miza-gallery/, accessed 26 January 2020.







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