Bos/Hrv/SrpShqipМакедонски 14 Oct 15 Albania’s Young Artists Give up on Their Homeland

In a country where the appetite for modern art is minimal and cash is short, ambitious have to shift for themselves to survive - or go abroad. 

Fatmira Nikolli, Ben Andoni
Artist Ardian Pepa in his studio in Tirana | Photo: Fatmira Nikolli

The life of Ardian Pepa, a 35-year-old sculptor in the Albanian capital, illustrates the hardships facing the younger generation of artists in a country that lacks much understanding of art, and where reforms of the cultural sector are only beginning.

He has a studio in the dusty outskirts of Tirana, a suburb with unpaved roads filled with piles of garbage, but his job is not what he imagined.  

Instead of expressing his artistic and aesthetic views through his work, Pepa makes decorations for graves and tombstones. Occasionally he gets a commission from a rich businessman or a hotelier.

But most of his artworks have lain for years on shelves around his atelier, unseen by any audiences, and likely to be forgotten.

It is not the life he imagined as a student at the High School of Arts and the Academy of Arts – that he would win fame and adorn his environment with his creative ideas.

He has never been selected for the few competitions held by the Culture Ministry.

In 2012, he was among the top five artists competing with sculptures of historical figures for the centenary of Albania’s independence.

However, after he was turned down, his unused works returned to gather dust at his atelier.

“Talent is not enough. I have created other works for the Sculpture Park but they remain in the studio. Nobody cares about sculpture parks today,” Pepa sighs.

The few sculpture parks in Tirana are filled with works from the communist era and new ones are rarely added.

The  Ministry of Culture explains that the commissioning procedures for sculptures to commemorate events or individuals are either run by the ministry or by other public institutions, such as the National Art Gallery.

BIRN was informed by the Ministry of Culture that it was preparing a project to turn the space surrounding it's building into a “sculpture and art park”.

The ministry also claimed it was doing all it can to help artists through supporting events, exhibitions, spaces, residential programs, by participating at the Venice Bienalle and by becoming a part of Creative Europe.

It notes that several international festivals take place in Albania, as well as cooperation projects with international art centres, and promises more money for funding contemporary art and still more as a result of increased public-private partnerships.

 "Albania is out of the 'international art system' and we cannot be optimistic about the future or about 'representation' on the world map and international agendas. Budgets for artists keep shrinking more and more."

Ardian Isufi, Professor at the University of Arts.

But this support is not happening quickly enough according to most artists. Pepa has almost lost hope of getting his works purchased in these occasional public competitions.

The lack of commissions and of space to exhibit is not the only problem that artists in Albania face.

No contemporary art museum in Albania exists to focus on presenting the achievements of the younger generation of artists.

The ministry says there is not enough cash in the budget to build a contemporary arts museum. In the meantime, it offers alternative centres, galleries such as the National Art Gallery, revitalized industrial heritage and events held in the open.

Sculptors have to become plain workers:

When the communist regime fell, many thought that life would become beautiful. However, they were wrong. It is still very difficult. Capitalism is not a field full of flowers - everything is business. Art comes last.”

Andi Tepelena, artist

The destiny of a sculptor in Albania is no different to that of any other artists, but Pepa sees it as a more difficult because it costs more money to produce sculptures, while there is nowhere to exhibit or sell them.

The skill that he obtained from the academy where his teachers were familiar names, sculptors with titles like "Master of Labour", and his reputation of a good student have got him nowhere.

“I was fortunate to work since I was a student. Now, I create pre-ordered artworks for which I get paid. I work for businessmen who want sculptures for hotels, houses, bars and restaurants, or in other cases I decorate tombs,” he says.

 

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Albania offers few opportunities for artists to grow, the director of the National Gallery of Art, Artan Shabani, agrees.

“We have a weak art scene because we do not have many structures that promote contemporary art. We don’t have a network for contemporary art, or even a museum,” he says.

Artists that BIRN talked to also claimed that the Culture Ministry makes no real effort to promote contemporary art.

There is no space for artist to express their ideas and no audience because the lack of activities in this field makes the concept of contemporary art foreign to most Albanians.

The painter Helidon Gjergji left Albania in the 1990s and now lives in the US.

Looking at the Albanian cultural scene he says that cultural policy does not encourage the development of public art in Albania

“In a country with healthy legislation, when planning a park, or any kind of public space, together with other elements, some space is left for artworks,” he says.

The lack of public art is a big issue, according to Gjergji, because it should communicate and arouse public interest.

Andi Tepelena, who spent years in Venice before returning to Albania, now organizes the international contemporary art festival, Artkontakt, which has been running since 2007.

For him, the key problem is lack of understanding of contemporary art in sculpture, as audiences expect the realistic presentations of human figures that they are used to.

 “The contemporary artist is a committed artist who presents ‘uncomfortable’ issues… but state institutions often do not care to support this,” he says.  

The well-known sculptor Ardian Isufi, who lectures at the University of Arts, says Albania needs more activities involving both Albanian and international artists.

"There is a lack of activities to help sculptures, which should be organized by the Ministry of Culture and the municipalities. These would let art breath and let artists present their works. We need artworks in public spaces,” Isufi says.

Young artists advised to go abroad:

Beyond Tirana, which hardly fulfills the minimum cultural needs of its few citizens interested in art, the rest of the country is almost completely empty of cultural content. That means hard times for young artists longing for professional success.

Young graduates in art have little to hope for in Albania generally. For jobs, careers, audiences, success and recognition, they need to look in other places.

Besim Tula, an artist and critic respected in the Albanian art community for his independent expression, esteemed also by Edi Rama, the Prime Minister - also a painter by profession - says nothing has changed for artists since the fall of communism.

"I would advise young artists with ambitions not to stay in Albania. It does not offer them any possibilities to express themselves in the visual arts. I can prove it to you: in competitions for jobs in art institutions, priority is given to those who graduated abroad,” Tula told BIRN.  

"For film artists, especially young people, the possibilities are almost minimal. But also it is utopian to think of living just on films as profession. You cannot get alternative sources of financing, while the National Centre of Cinematography has limited funds.”

Ledi Kasapi, young film maker

The bitterness felt by Albanian artists is not only the result of the dysfunctional institutions in a country that for decades had one of the most brutal communist regimes in the world.

The disappointment also reflects the failed expectations and hopes aroused in the arts world by the elections in 2013, which brought to the power Edi Rama, a painter by profession.

Expectations were huge, as Rama comes from a family with an artistic background.

His father, Kristaq, was the most famous sculptor in the communist era. His works are dotted all over the country, but mostly lie in the National Museum in Tirana and the Skenderbeg Museum in Kruja.

His sculpture, “Mother Albania” is considered one of the most representative sculptures of the communist era. It was expected that after the son of Kristaq Rama took power, a new environment for artists in Albania would be created.

"We confront a lack of funds for Albanian literature. It is very difficult for us to work… Publishers do not give money and are not interested in our publications. The lack of publication and encouragement makes many talented authors give up the serious commitment that requires writing, and take other jobs."

Lindita Koman, writer

Yet, after two years of Rama’s government, and after more than two decades since the fall of the totalitarian regime, artists still find it hard, not only to live from what they create but be visible in society.

"There is no market, there are no international activities… no real competition and the greatest misfortune is when politics takes part in estimates. So, I advise young people to leave Albania, because it is better for them to become famous abroad,” Tula continues.

“If had stayed in Albania, we wouldn’t have such successful artist as Anri Sala in France; painter Ardian Paci in Italy and the famous soprano Ermonela Jaho in America and Europe,” he recalls.

“I am sure that in future other young talented people will come back like the ones I mentioned before, but I do not wish them to fail. I advise them to find different ways just of escaping. Even abroad it is difficult, but at least there are more alternatives,” he explains.

Emir Hoxha, an artist and professor of visual arts at the Academy of Tirana, agrees.

“Most of them [young people] are not yet aware that the real opportunities reserved for them are minimal ... The response must be quick before pessimism disappoints their ambitions and expectations,” he says.

This article is funded under the Invisible Art project, supported by the Prince Claus Fund.

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