PART I | 1988–2017 | THE LIMEWASH AND THE CORRIDOR | Donika Çina and Bia
Rruga Myslym Shyri is the main shopping street in the city centre of Tirana. Named after a national hero, the street maintains the rhythm of an increasingly fast capitalist culture, while surrounded by an architecture taking us back to communist times. All around, reflecting these new, emerging economies, there are the colours of Tirana: some that the citizens’ have chosen, others by institutions, and others by artists invited by the latter.1
In the midst of all this there is Bia a woman who makes as sure to be popular in the city as much as she does not waste time delivering details of her personal story. All she does, methodically and untiringly, is to teach everyone and everything a method: her method. Every day she cleans and paints the entrance of her house looking out to the streets, with lime wash. Without any help or external advice, she keeps her façade clinically white, a gesture that displays just how unfit she is for urban dwelling. She does not allow anyone to cross paths with her work, or ruin it in any way, a defence strategy that needs a fair amount of direct, and not always gentle, communication with passers-by.
It’s 2017 at the ZETA Center for Contemporary Art. Managed by Valentina Koça who opened it in 2008, ZETA was the first independent and non-profit space to open in town. We are in the middle of an exhibition opening and the artist, this time, is not present, or at least she was until a moment ago. We know that we should find Donika Çina2 somewhere, but we are busy chatting on the balcony, where everyone is smoking. Inside, a mural video installation suggests that something is happening, remotely. Donika, in collaboration with Austrian fellow artist Katharina Stadler, without announcing nor asking for permission, went out of the gallery, during her own opening, to repeat a gesture, and that was Bia’s gesture. Born in 1988 in Korça, Donika graduated from the Art Academy in Tirana in 2010, and since then she has been part of Tirana’s young art scene. When Bia passed away in 2014, Donika had been reflecting on how to incorporate Bia’s method within her artistic practice, the gallery space, and the interaction with the audience, trying to connect the private and public space, individual and collective choices, the everyday and the unexpected time of digital information.
At the opening, looking at the screen, we wonder why we are not there, too, cleaning like Bia. The artists – on the other side of the monitor – wonder if someone is looking at them back in the gallery while the security cameras that are installed near Bia’s house record them. While a man stops to stare at them suspiciously, Donika thinks about her time spent in corridors while she worked freelance for a construction company as a decorator. Every day, Donika spent many hours in spaces where people only used to pass by, guessing their personality from what she defined as “the creation of a routine by a repetitive gesture”: from the one who left the rubbish outside for days, to the one who preferred the shoes to sit in the corridor, to those who kept the volume of the TV too loud to be contained within the walls of the house. She has a flashback to these working hours, and thinks about how she came up with the idea of producing this artwork. As if, somehow, Bia can be a concept that is part of all of us. (to be continued in part four)
PART II | 1949 / 2001 | INTANGIBLE MONUMENTS | Eleni Laperi
Between 1946 and 1991 in Albania there was a communist regime, led by dictator Enver Hoxha. The Higher Institute of the Arts was founded in Tirana, the capital city, in 1960 and it was promoted in 1991 to University Level, which is the reason now we call it the Academy of Art. Since the start, until today, the Higher Institute of Art was hosted by the rationalist architecture of the Italian fascist occupation of the country (1939–1943). When it opened, Erika Strazimiri used to be the Institute librarian. Erika was originally Italian but remained in Albania throughout the period of the communist regime. Her husband Gani Strazimiri was an architect and founder of the Institute of Monuments and Culture in Albania. Erika, with the elegance and attention of the meticulous librarian, as former students described her, probably understood that her role could have been that of creating intangible monuments (that at the time were politically forbidden by the regime) by simply sharing books with exceptional students who had a similar attitude towards knowledge.
One of them was Eleni Laperi who, in 1967, was admitted to the Higher Institute of the Arts. She used to travel every day from the countryside, where she lived with her family, to the city centre. Because she could speak different languages, she formed a friendship with Erika, a relationship that allowed Eleni to gain access to books that were often forbidden to others. Later, she better understood that the teaching they were given at school was partial. But despite her young age, Eleni started sharing the forbidden books with her classmates and translating texts such as the Surrealist Manifesto (1924) into Albanian, sometimes putting her friend Erika at risk.
In the ‘70s after she finished her studies, Eleni was assigned a job, like everyone else during the regime. After a few years of design work for the magazine of the League of the Women, Shqiptaria e Re. In the early ‘80s the State Institutions imposed an even stricter inspection on workers. Since Eleni had always “thought outside the box”, she was sent to work in a factory where she had to make labels, because, as the Party thought, she had to be “educated”.
In 1992, just after the end of the regime, Eleni started to work as a researcher at the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana. Although she was only 45, she was considered too old as a woman to take on the lead of a national institution but she was nonetheless satisfied and happy to collaborate with former director Gëzim Qendro and with the Albanian art scholar and writer Suzana Varvarica. Taking advantage of the possibilities that the internet could afford in the mid ‘90s, Eleni understood that she had to learn everything all over again from scratch. Together with the gallery team she travelled to museums in Romania and France, participated in board discussions at the MOMA in NYC, and, in so doing, learned about educational programs in museums and how to curate an exhibition based on theme and medium.
In 1994, along with other women such as above-mentioned Suzana Varvarica and artist Lumturi Blloshmi, Eleni founded the Women Artists Association in Tirana and in 2000 she was given the chance to open a space – LindaArt – funded by the Swiss foundation Pro Helvetia. Immediately afterwards, in 2001, Eleni curated the exhibition of women artists titled Dare to Be Different showing, among others, the work of Tanja Ostojič3 – the first Serbian artist to show her work in Albania, although this fact is still barely acknowledged today.
Thus Eleni created another monument that until today has remained intangible – maybe this was because, in my view, the exhibition did not attract the attention it deserved from the contemporary artists that dominated the art scene in Albania in the following years. At any rate, Eleni should be credited for making the idea of performance art more accessible in Albania through Ostojic’s work. The work presented at the first exhibition she curated in Fier – a town situated approximately 100 km southwest of Tirana4 – was Ostojič’s Looking for a Husband with EU Passport (2000–2005), with the title printed under the photograph of the artist completely nude and shaven. Ostojič recalls that Eleni had to fight hard for the work not to be censored. For some men there, the problem was not the nakedness in the photograph but the fact that at the time, in Fier – and in many other areas in Albania – it was common practice to arrange marriages for girls, or even sell them. Eleni managed to keep the work within the exhibition, although at the opening, the City Major had to close his eyes when he faced the artwork.
Only one year later, in 2002, Ostojič came back, this time to Tirana, where she was again invited by Eleni.
At the Women’s Art Center, LindArt, Ostojič held an intense workshop that ran for ten days, where they worked for twelve hours a day. For Ostojič the goals were: deliver a condensed history of performance art; initiate the participants on working with their bodies, stories, and installations; and finally deliver an exhibition of the works made through the workshop, along with a public talk and dinner during the opening of Onufri’s exhibition at the National Gallery.
Artist Lumturi Blloshmi attended the workshop, after which, she started to do performances. To this day the work that Eleni Laperi developed during those years remains an intangible monument to be visited, I would suggest, more often that it has been until now.5
PART III | 1944–2004 | THE LIE AND THE DECORATION | Lumturi Blloshmi
Lumturi Blloshim’s father was an Officer of King Zogu’s Army and he was executed by the Communists when she was only two months old in 1944.6 After Lumturi lost her hearing following a bout of meningitis, she went to primary school and that is where she told her first lie. Her brother was a brilliant painter and so she stole one of his pictures to show in front of the class how good she was. That was the moment she had to prove her talent for the first time. When she decided to enter the Higher Institute of Art, Lumturi performed the best drawing she could, but it was not enough. Her family past and her father’s story were against the ideology of the ruling Communist Party, so the reason for her dismissal was not her talent, but the fact that she was ‘politically implicated’ as explained to her by the school director who at the time was Vilson Kilica. On this occasion, she managed to gain access by telling the truth. Lumturi was brave enough to send a letter directly to Nexhmije Hoxha – the wife of the former dictator Enver Hoxha – telling her that during the war, while Nexhmije was supporting the Albanian Communist Party, which she joined in 1941, the mother of Lumturi protected her from the Germans by hiding her in her house. Since Nexhmije had been assisted by Lumturi’s family, now it was her turn to return the support, and this was the way in which Lumturi finally succeeded in entering the Institute. After she finished her studies, Lumturi was sent to work at Mihal Durri Plant, a publishing unit, to be a retoucher, a job which did not require any study, which proved that Lumturi still carried the weight of her family past. To be able to paint, Lumturi had to be part of the League of Artists to which, for a while, she was denied entry, again owing to her family’s political involvement. In 2004 Lumturi went to request her special state pension for artists, only to discover that it was slightly higher than usual. Earlier, Abaz Hado, who was the director of the National Gallery during the regime years, had denied her the references required to receive the pension, because she was never given any titles or decorations. So Lumturi asked Xhanfize Keko, who had recently been awarded a decoration, if she could borrow his medal for one day. Then she went home and painted herself nude, with the medal in place of her sex. To this day Lumturi is grateful to director Abaz Hado for having given her the idea for the painting.7
Since then, Lumturi has continued to pursue her research and experimentation, combining performative actions and painting, and drawing on her wit, political engagement, and resistance.8
PART IV| SOMETIMES IN THE FUTURE | THE HARD DRIVE | Donika Çina
The day after the opening at ZETA, Donika was eager to watch the material recorded by the security camera that she had placed near Bia’s home. To save the files, she bought a brand new hard drive. But when she opened it, she did not find a single file, as if Bia had somehow managed to use limewash even inside the device. After speaking to some technicians, the artist discovered that the only way to retrieve the information would be through a meticulous and clinical procedure called “ricovero in camera bianca” or “white room recuperation”, which was not possible in Albania. Yet, Bia was to find a home roaming through the different geographies and histories of Donika’s work, which she describes as: “a layering process towards taking a stand”.
And if a conversation can be considered as an alternative geography, maybe an intimate one, the files inside Donika’s hard drive were copied first in my imagination, which is that of a European artist living and working outside European political and economic boundaries. After spending almost eleven years in the UK, during almost four years in Tirana, I tried to unpack a form of truth to learn from, while trying to clarify the position that my work and research was taking, again. It takes time – or at least I believe so – to learn how to take a stand in a place, a history, a social context that it is not straightforward to describe as “one’s own”. The colours and the scattered, chaotic energy coming from the city can sometimes be blinding. And when you are lost, without colours, sounds, or meanings, it is possible to carve a potential out of life experiences: Erika the librarian, micro architectures, Bia, artworks, Donika and Lumturi, or laboratories which have informed contemporary art history, Eleni and Tanja as artists but also as women. The reason could simply be to keep up the fight of being “unfit” within a certain system, while still hoping to have the right to fail – as men do – and upholding a duty to elegantly shout our stories and make them our history, projecting far beyond the legacy of a given patriarchal system.
Digging into archives and communities, Valentina Bonizzi’s work highlights issues of social justice in relation to the politics of time in specific contexts. Bonizzi holds a Master of Research in Visual Practices from Glasgow School of Art and a PhD (AHRC funded) from the University of Dundee (Visual Research Centre).
She has taken part in exhibitions in galleries and museums internationally and she is the winner of the 2019 Gjon Mili Biennial & Award curated by João Ribas at the National Gallery of Kosovo, in Pristina.
Bonizzi has notably published with the Journal for Flusser Studies, What Legitimates Photography? (2015) and the Mauritius Catalogue at the 56th Venice Biennale: When You Realised You Were a: White. European. Male (2016).
- When Edi Rama, currently the Prime Minister of Albania, was elected Mayor of Tirana in 2000 he launched the project known as “the colours of Tirana” on the international scene. The idea consisted of colourfully painting the generally grey buildings of the city. Rama’s idea was later extended as a curatorial commission to local and international artists who were invited to participate in the Tirana Biennial in 2003, the year in which Rama was re-elected Mayor of Tirana, this time as a member of the Socialist Party.
- See donikacina.com
- Originally from Totovo Uziče, a town in western Serbia, Tanja Ostočic was born in 1972 in former Yugoslavia and is currently based in Berlin. Working predominantly with performative actions and processes, Ostojič adopts the perspective of migrant women, often working on social and political power relations.
For more info: tanjaostojicshop. wordpress.com
- Until the early 2000s, it used to take around four hours to drive from Tirana to Fier. Today, with the new road, it takes approximately two hours, half the time.
- Even today, the work that Eleni Laperi did with the Centre for Women Artists with the exhibition Dare to be Different in Fier (2001) and the laboratory Confrontations with Tanja Ostojič in Tirana (2002) is hardly known. For instance, the only presence of Ostojič in Tirana is generally associated with the Tirana Biennale in 2003 – invited by curator Edi Muka – and where ultimately the artist’s work was censored.
- King Zogu (born Ahmet Muhtar 1895–1961) ruled Albania from 1922 until 1939, the year when Mussolini proposed that he establish the Italian military protectorate of Albania. After he refused the proposition, the fascist invaded the country and Zogu consequently fled the country.
- The story of Lumturi Bloshmi for La belle revue was written in reference to an interview conducted by Eleni Laperi in January 2020 for this article
- See harabel.com.al/lumturi-blloshmi/