Interview with Edi Muka on his research in Albania
In many cases gender representation in the socialist period was marked either by the continuity in or the transformation of traditional gender roles. Could you describe how and which tradition was continued or transgressed under socialism? The re-establishment of nation-states in the 1990s coincided with a return to conservative agendas. How do artworks created after the 1990s address traditional gender patterns?
Albania emerged from World War II with an almost non-existent institutional structure with a majority of the population living in rural areas dominated by extremely traditional structures and deeply rooted beliefs. The biggest challenges to be faced were in the northern part of the country, where society was much poorer, isolated, and controlled by clans and families. The most notorious code shaping social and family life was the infamous “Kanun” of Lekë Dukagjini-a sort of “constitution” which described in minute detail the rules and regulations according to which life should be lived. In this document the issue of gender is clearly reflected in the status of woman as “bare life”-someone held in such low esteem that they were not even considered worthy of being killed as a result of a feud (such as in blood revenge, which was the primary form of feuds at the time), but whose life and death were completely controlled by men at all times.
Thus the dawn of the communist era in the country brought about a radical change regarding gender issues. The main “action”-so to speak-undertaken by the new government, labeled the “Movement for the Emancipation of Women,” was to move women out of the homes and into the factories, and to involve them in the massive construction projects for building railways, power plants, etc. From a theoretical point of view this move embodied Engels’s thesis regarding the emancipatory role of labor. On the other hand, the new regime desperately needed a new and extensive labor force-the only way to achieve this was to supplement it with women.
The pragmatic character of the “Revolutionary Movement for the Emancipation of Women” was visible in a very simple and common fact encountered on a regular basis even today: no women occupied important positions of leadership, and no more than two or three women were represented in the higher ranks of the Politburo or other governmental positions.
However, the shift toward “emancipation” had a very strong impact on society. It was met with very strong resistance: young women who dared to join the national building projects were even killed (as portrayed in the monuments to the heroines of Mirdita). Thus, in a way, one can say that the current state of gender relations in Albania (which still remains a very male-dominated society) is due precisely to those years and the program of the regime at that time.
In terms of the art scene it took many years before artists started to reflect a little a bit on gender issues. The development of the art scene was primarily characterized by an insane rush towards abstract art-once the forbidden fruit-and later on, by the forming of a new generational identity that reflected on many aspects of the rapid developments but ignored gender issues almost entirely. It was not until very late-2003, 2004, 2005-that the first gender-sensitive works appeared on the scene. These works emerged more as an intuitive reflection of the artists towards certain phenomena of society, rather than as part of any program, group, or specific ideology. Worth noting here are works by Suela Qoshja, who has produced work related to poignant social problems (such as women trafficking), Enisa Cenaliaj, who made a performance reflecting on the position of (women) workers in the former textile industry, or an older generation artist, Lume Blloshmi, who uses pointed satire to reflect on the entirely male-dominated Albanian society by caricaturing politicians. The very increase in the number of women artists signaled a new possibility for a different sensitivity, albeit one that didn’t reflect upon any concrete platform or ideological concerns.
Could you address the emergence of the heroine in Albanian art? Through which narratives and in which genres do women no longer appear as assistants and apprentices but occupy a central position in the artwork? Has this iconic move coincided with emancipatory discourse?
Oh yes, it definitely has. It is very interesting to trace the emergence of the heroine, from the rise of the figure of the woman in Albanian Socialist Realism, its “demise” in the waning years of that period, and finally its disappearance during the last 18 years. In 1999, Gëzim Qëndro curated a very interesting exhibition, Socialist (Sur) Realism in which he used chronology not only to follow the dates when the paintings had been made, but also to trace precisely those narrative changes, from the beginning to the end of the period in 1991. In this genre of art one can clearly see how women move from the corner of the tableau, standing behind their men, to taking more and more of a central position until they occupy the center of the composition, always together with men. Also one can easily trace the change in their social position, role, and importance through the paintings, even though, having lived through that history, one knows that it doesn’t really reflect reality. From the position of obedient, subservient housewives, women begin their climb up the social ladder first appearing as partisan heroines, then as equal combatants, and later as builders of socialism, engineers, teachers, etc. The higher they climb, the closer they move towards the center of the composition.
After that women also began to appear in public monuments commemorating historical events, for instance the murdered girls from Mirdita and the monument Heroines from Mirdita dedicated to them, or monuments of a more symbolic stature, such as the renowned Mother Albania monument erected at the cemetery of the martyr’s of World War II in Tirana. However a relationship clearly exists between the representation of women in art and the discourse on emancipation.
Eduard Muka, Research Albania
Eduard Muka is an art critic and curator. He is co-director of the Tirana Biennale, a co-founder and curator of the Tirana Institute of Contemporary Art (TICA), and curator and artistic director (together with Joa Ljungberg) of Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art. He was director of the International Center of Culture in Tirana from 1999, and was in charge of the international programme of Tirana’s National Gallery from 2001 to 2006. Eduard Muka has curated several shows with Albanian and international artists, among others the Albanian Pavilion at the 48. Biennale di Venezia, 1999, and exhibitions in Tirana, Milan, Berlin, Stockholm, Tel Aviv, and New York. He has published extensively on contemporary art in exhibition catalogues as well as international art magazines such as Perpjekja, PamorArt, FlashArt, Springerin, Camera Austria, Manifesta Journal, or Frieze.