Often when looking at a work of art, the first question to pop into the viewer’s head isn’t, ‘What’s it called?’ or ‘What’s it about?’. Rather it is, ‘Who’s it by?’. The more discerning viewer may ask the first two questions, but most will ask the third. Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are some of the biggest names in modern and contemporary art. It is hard to find someone who has never heard of Picasso before. Yet how many could name the title of one of his many paintings?
Picasso is a brand in the same way that fashion giants Prada, Armani, Chanel and Louis Vuitton are brands. When one looks at a suit, most will invariably try to find out what brand or label it is over any investigations regarding it’s intrinsic qualities. It’s the same with other ubiquitous consumer products like Coca Cola. You can buy a cheaper supermarket cola, which may even contain the exact same ingredients, yet it will never have the same cachet as a ‘Coke’.
The following story encapsulates perfectly the power of ‘Who’s it By’. The artist Bansky recently tested this by submitting an original work of art for the 2018 Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London under the fictitious name ‘Bryan S Gakmann’ (an anagram of ‘Banksy anagram’). It got rejected during the selection process. Nobody had heard of this Bryan S Gakmann chap. Yet when Banksy himself was asked to feature a work at the show by the organizers, he submitted the work rejected under his fake alias. After all, it was a ‘Banksy’ in the end.
The Vatican Museums are one of the jewels if not the leading attraction of ‘must see’ sites in Rome. It’s on everyone and their Jack Russell’s ‘to do’ list. Rome is extremely well endowed with historical sites and one could spend weeks if not months trying to unearth most of them. The Vatican Museums are of course most famous for the Sistine chapel as well as the Rapheal rooms containing his frescoes and a large Pinacoteca featuring a treasure trove of landmark works of art. As a consequence of such riches, it is supremely popular and the crowds can be overwhelming.
However the Vatican Museums are an enormous place with a breath-taking collection of art impossible to digest in just one visit. As most people make a b-line for the highlights, lots of work gets overlooked. Interestingly, within the museum complex there is a museum of modern and contemporary art featuring works by Rodin, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Dali, Francis Bacon and several Italian modern artists including Giorgio Morandi, Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana. Yet it was the handful of bronze sculptures by the Italian sculptor Francesco Messina, which caught my full attention.
Messina is considered one of the most important Italian sculptors of the 20th century. His sculptures remind me of Donatello’s when it comes down to their core fundamentals. The most important of these is tapping into the soul and spirit of the subject. Donatello had an immense talent for achieving this and this is what distinguished and separated him from his contemporaries and competitors. What’s more incredible was that Donatello was creating such human and soulful sculptures at the beginning of the Renaissance and several years before Michelangelo. Most of Donatello’s contemporaries had at least one foot still in the Medieval ages. Donatello, on the other hand, was streets ahead. For Donatello it was not just about recreating and resuscitating the great sculptures of the Classical period, it was also about executing feelings and creating sculptures of his subjects in a way where he understood and connected to them.
Messina is a true student of Donatello. His sculptures of Adam, John the Baptist and David all have their roots in Donatello’s David. They are very sensitive and delicate sculptures. Messina, like Donatello, creates his subjects warts and all without any traces of exaggerated mannerisms. Messina’s sculpture of David is far closer to Donatello’s sculpture of David as opposed to Michelangelo’s. Michelangelo’s David for all its dexterous skill is almost too perfect. Donatello’s David is closer to the source and projects a David that is more real and less idealised. Messina’s 1953 bronze sculpture of David is an exceptional creation. His David is like a feral tearaway street urchin from a Jean Genet book. Messina’s David tries to act in a tough ‘too big for his boots’ way carrying a large sharp knife but its all a front and it shows. He’s really a lanky, scared and lost little boy with twig-thin arms. Messina has created a true David with all his strengths but also all his frailties and vulnerabilities.
Messina’s sculpture of a youthful John The Baptist is another gem where he deftly captures his tenderness and humanity; that of a pure and virtuous being. The gaze of the face of Christ in his Ecce Home sculpture is hypnotic and visceral. As is the face and figure of his Mary of Magdalen sculpture. And this is where Messina’s genius as an artist lies; in his ability to crystallise emotion.
Piero Manzoni was an important and influential post World War Two Italian avant-garde artist. Along with his contemporary the French artist Yves Klein, he created new possibilities and further stretched, challenged and tested the boundaries of how far art could go. Marcel Duchamp was arguably the first artist to fully turn upside down hard wired notions of what art should be and he is often referred to as the Father Of Conceptual Art. His infamous Fountain urinal work signed ‘R.Mutt’ from 1917 is one of the earliest ‘Anti-Art’ statements; a mass produced readymade object that he didn’t make, which he appropriated and signed in the name of an imaginary person.
Manzoni’s most famous and controversial work is Merda d’Artista (Artists’ Shit) from 1961. This work comprises of an edition of 90 small round tins containing the artist’s faeces. Or at least that’s what we are made to believe. It has been disputed by one of Manzoni’s collaborators, Agostino Bonalumi, that the tins in fact contain just plaster. Manzoni declared them each worth their weight in gold and priced them as such at $37 (or according to the market price of gold at the time) a pop. Back then it may have sounded absurd, but today Manzoni is having the last laugh from beyond the grave. In 2015, tin 54 was sold at Christie’s auction house for a record breaking sum of £182,500.
When I was in Milan earlier in March this year, I visited the city’s principle museum of modern and contemporary art, the Museo del Novecentro. It features an outstanding collection of important works by the leading artists of the Futurism movement such as Umberto Boccioni as well as works by other important 20th century Italian artists like Georgio De Chirico, Giorgio Morandi and Lucio Fontana. For me though, it was the works on display by Piero Manzoni, which got me excited since it was the first time I saw any of his work in the flesh let alone several of his most important works together in one room. What’s more, the city of Milan is where Manzoni was born and it was also where he made all his groundbreaking works. As well as Duchamp and Klein, he was influenced by the local avant garde scene in Milan at the time; most notably by the anarchist artist Enrico Baj who was a leading member of the Nuclear Art movement.
Other works in the collection by Manzoni include his Corpo d’Aria piece from 1959-60 comprising of a wooden box containing a metal stand, a rubber tube and a deflated rubber balloon. An edition of 45 of these were made. Each one was originally priced at 30,000 Lira. For this work the buyer would inflate the balloon until fully expanded. Alternatively the buyer could ask the artist to expanded the balloon but would have to pay an additional 200 Lira per litre of air exhaled into the balloon. The work is influenced by Duchamp’s 1913 work 3 stoppages etalon/3 standard stoppages where Duchamp dropped three one metre length pieces of string on to a canvas and then glued them where they landed. For Duchamp this particular work, although perhaps not considered his greatest creation, was an important step in his artistic development since in his own words it ‘opened the way to escape from these traditional methods of expression long associated with art’. Manzoni’s ‘body of air’ pre-dates the influential German artist Joseph Beuys’s theory of ‘social sculpture’ and his notion of ‘everyone being an artist’. Beuys’ once said, ‘every sphere of human activity, even peeling a potato can be a work of art as long as it is a conscious act’. This particular work by Manzoni can be seen as a precursor to this in the sense that anybody could partake in the work and also be considered an artist of the work once they’d finished ‘consciously’ exhaling air into the balloon thus leaving their mark on the work. Just as Duchamp’s 3 stoppages etalon piece and his ‘readymades’ such as his Fountain work breaks down the notions of what defines a work of art, Manzoni’s Corpo d’Aria work breaks down the notion of what defines an artist.
The influence of Yves Klein is evident in his Achrome works created between 1957-63. Klein is well known for his paintings and works created using his own invented and patented International Klein Blue (IKB) pigment. In 1957 Manzoni visited an exhibition by Klein entitled ‘Proposte monochrome, epoca blu’ at the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan, which was to have a big influence on his own artistic development. In that same year he made the first of his Achrome works. The beginning of Klein’s fascination with the colour blue came one day on a beach in 1947 with his friends, the artist Arman and the composer Claude Pascal. The famous story goes that while lying down on the beach they each decided to divide the world between them; Arman chose the earth, Pascal chose words and Klein the sky. Klein subsequently declared, ‘The blue sky is my first artwork’. Manzoni, inspired by Klein’s ideas, chose the colour white for his Achrome pieces. Through choosing the colour white, Manzoni picks a neutral colour. A zero colour. A nothing colour. Colourless and that’s the end. Detached. Beyond the most basic form. Choosing the colour white wasn’t about getting to the essence of the colour white. Rather it was a way of cancelling out colour. Of nullifying it. That’s also what the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich achieved with his 1915 Black Square painting by arriving at the point beyond ‘abstraction’, form and the very notion of colour itself. It is a revolutionary work of art along with his 1918 White on White painting, which both predate by almost half a century the Minimalism movement that began in New York in the early 1960s. Manzoni expanded on the ideas behind his white Achrome works in part of a text he wrote entitled ‘Free Dimension’. In this text he declares the following;
My intention is to present a completely white surface (or better still, an absolutely colourless or neutral one) beyond all pictorial phenomena, all intervention alien to the sense of the surface. A white surface which is neither a polar landscape, nor an evocative or beautiful subject, nor even a sensation, a symbol or anything else: but a white surface which is nothing other than a colourless surface, or even a surface which quite simply ‘is’.
Perhaps Manzoni is closer to Malevich than Klein in his vision. This is especially true in the early Achrome works he produced such as one he created in 1958 comprising solely of small white canvas squares. In the following years he began to incorporate other materials such as fibreglass and even bread rolls painted white into the Achrome series. By including these added objects/features, Manzoni, via the colour white, continues the process of nullification and subtraction. The colour white is thus a steriliser of anything it comes into contact with whether its a bread roll or the cotton canvas surface its applied to.
Left: Linea m19, 32 (1959) – ink on paper, cardboard tube
Middle: Merda d’Artista no 80 (1961) – tin box and printed paper
Right: Impronta (1960) – hard boiled egg, ink and cotton wool in a wooden box
Corpo d’Aria/Body Of Air no 23 (1959-60) – wooden box, metal stand, rubber tube and rubber balloon
Albania is not a country that frequently pops on many people’s European travel itinerary. Its way off the Euro Rail grid and it’s one of a small bunch of European countries that isn’t yet a member of the European Union. But this small country located at the bottom west corner of the Western Balkans is a rewarding, authentic and educational experience.
My first taste of Albania was in fact via the newly independent country of Kosovo, which became independent in 2008. In Kosovo at least 90% of the population is Albanian. From the small Montenegrin mountain town of Berane, I boarded a battered bus to the Kosovan town of Peja. I didn’t expect to encounter any significant art of note in this town, but I was delightfully surprised. On a late afternoon stroll through the town, I stumbled upon the Peja Arts Gallery; a large ground floor space with a number of striking paintings by the artist Isa Alimusaj.
Isa Alimusaj solo exhibition at the Peja Arts Gallery
Alimusaj is a notable Kosovan artist who has exhibited his work extensively in the Kosovo region since the 1970s with occasional exhibitions in Serbia, Albania, Macedonia and even Poland. His paintings are vivid and hallucionary dreamscapes; plains of raw and visceral emotions. I could namecheck Munch, Dali or Bosch, but Alimusaj’s style is his own. His perceptions, vision and created worlds are only his and no one else’s. I look at these monumental paintings and think what a hit they would be exhibited in a top-notch gallery in London, New York or Paris. It’s a crime that they are hidden from most of the world.
On my second day in Peja, I chance upon an art studio close to the old Ottoman style Bazaar of the town. Little did I know that the studio in fact was Alimusaj’s. Stacks of his sublime paintings were crammed on top of one another in a small room. Alimusaj himself was in a smaller adjacent room painting. When he recognised me I tried to strike up a conversation. He didn’t speak any English only Albanian and some German. In my substandard German I complemented him on his paintings and told him how much I loved his current exhibition.
A few kilometres outside of Peja town is a beautiful old terracotta-red Serbian Orthodox monastery called the Patriachate of Pec. The jewels of this monastery are the painted 13th century frescoes inside. Even after all this time, the paintings are very potent and alive. I am particularly transfixed on a faded ceiling fresco where the areas of deterioration accidently create a powerful and apocalyptic effect in the blue sky; as if Nikola Tesla entered the scene with his earth shattering Tesla coil. It is unwittingly modern.
13th century fresco from the Patriarchate of Pec monastery
In the Kosovan capital of Pristina, I visit the National Gallery of Kosovo. Opposite the gallery is the National Library of Kosovo; an off the scales futurist-retro style juggernaut of a building so out of sight it makes Antoni Gaudi’s architectural designs look like a row of non-descript Barratt homes. The library was designed in 1982, when Kosovo and most of its neighbouring countries where all once part of former Yugoslavia, by the Croatian architect Andrija Mutnjakovic.
National Library of Kosovo
At the National Gallery there was a solo exhibition on display entitled ‘Groan’ by the artist Zake Prelvukaj. Prelvukaj is a mixed-media artist. There are experimental paintings, photography and video installations on display. Her paintings are expressive, introspective and primal with elements of tribal art from sub Saharan Africa. On the top level floor of the gallery, there are two video pieces by Prelvukaj; one of which entitled Blood-Feud-Vengeance features the artist with her hands covered in blood.
Works by Zake Prelvukaj at the Kosova National Art Gallery
From Kosovo I make my first trip to Albania to the northern town Shkodra, where the Marubi National Museum Of Photography is located. This museum has more than 500,000 photographs in its collection with the oldest dating back to 1858 when the first photographs were documented in Albania. The origins of the museum can be traced back to the painter and photographer Pietro Marubi who was from the northern Italian city of Piacenza. He emigrated to Shkodra in the early 1850s where he founded, Foto Marubi, using old camaras he’d brought with him, which utilized the wet plate collodian process to develop photographs. This was the most technically advanced way of developing images back then having only recently been invented in 1851 by the British inventor and photographer Frederick Scott Archer. The legacy of Marubi’s studio and landmark photography collection was protected and enhanced by the innovative and distinguished Albanian photographer Kel Kodheli (who later changed his surname to Marubi) who first began work at Marubi’s studio in 1885 at the age of 15. Kel inherited the Marubi studio after Pietro’s death in 1903 and was responsible for expanding the collection of photographs in the studio by collecting photographs from established Albanian photographers of the time as well as photographs by lesser known photographers documenting Albanian culture as well as Albanian urban and countrylife. The enormous photography collection as well as the museum’s reputation as the most important museum for photography in Albania is all thanks to him.
Pietro Marubi Jak Bjanku
The most interesting photographs in the collection of the museum for me are the experimental photographs employing collage and cut and paste techniques. Some of these are by Pietro Marubi himself from the 19th century and look very avant-garde; almost Dadaist before the movement was invented.
On my second trip to Albania later in the year in December, I spend time in the capital city of Tirana as well as the old Ottoman towns of Gjirokaster and Berat. In Berat, I visited the Onufri Museum in the old Christian neighbourhood of Kala surrounded by castle walls and located on the top of a hill with an amazing view over Berat. The museum is located within the grounds of the neighbourhood’s largest church, Church of the Dormition of St Mary, which contains a magnificent gilded iconostasis from the 19th century.
Iconostasis from the Church of the Dormation of St Mary in Berat
Onufri was a 16th century Orthodox icon painter and Archpriest of the Albanian town of Elbasan. He is one of the most significant figures associated with Albania’s history of art and the most important icon painter of a group of icon painters working in Albania during the 16th century who wanted to revive the sacred religious icon painting of the past, which flourished before the era of the Ottoman Empire. The collection of works in the Onufri museum are by Albanian Iconographical painters between the 16th and 20th centuries and includes original works by Onufri himself.
An original 16th century wooden icon painting by Onufri
When I eventually reached Tirana, I wanted to tap into the city’s contemporary art scene. During the long reign of the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled the country from 1944 until his death in 1985 Albania was similar to North Korea today; a pariah country completely cut off from the rest of the world. Albanian citizens were not permitted to ever leave the country and those who, against all odds, managed to escape could not return. It was only after the fall of Communism in the early 1990s that the country was finally liberated after decades of isolation.
View over Sheshi Skenderbej (Skanderbeg Square) in central Tirana
One of the most notable Albanian artists of the 20th century is Edi Hila who was born in Shkodra in 1944. He graduated from the Higher Institute of Arts in Tirana in 1967. Yet with the inescapable and stultifying backdrop of the Enver Hoxha regime it was challenging to shine and fully develop as an artist. In 1974 the regime found him guilty of ‘foreign influences’ in his work. It is precisely because of such a strict and authoritarian regime that no art scene could blossom in the country. Albania’s contemporary art scene only began to develop from the early 1990s and even since then it took time, because the country was isolated for so long and no ‘foreign influences’ could seep through. Today in this digital age of hyperconnectivity it’s a different story but back then all forms of international media and communication were suppressed. Nevertheless, some of the pre1990s works of Hila are one of the best representations of a meaningful and enlightened documentation of some of the art produced in Albania during the Communist era.
Since the early 1990s a new generation of contemporary Albanian artists slowly emerged with the artists Adrian Paci and Anri Sala being the most internationally recognized. Adrian Paci was born in Shkodra in 1969. He studied at the Arts Academy of Tirana where he trained as a realist painter. Then towards the late 1990s he emigrated with his family to Italy escaping a period of political unrest which was breaking out across the country. He is currently based in Milan where he lives and works. Paci is a mixed media artist whose whole oeuvre of work comprises of videos, installations, paintings, sculptures and photography. Yet he is best known for his videos, which he began to make around the time he left Albania for Italy. Back in the first half 2013 an important retrospective of his work entitled Lives In Transit was held at the Jeu de Paume experimental art space in Paris and travelled to other cities around the world. Interestingly, I was in fact present at the space in April of that year where another exhibition was also taking place in the same space involving my friend, the Philippine artist David Medalla. At the time I wasn’t familiar with Paci and sadly didn’t properly investigate his show, but I remember a clip from his powerful 2007 film Centro di Permanenza Temporanea, which took place in an airport with a scene featuring a still of a large concentration of people on a solitary unconnected air-stair. Watching this film again there is a strong sense of tension, uncertainty and anxiety in the video; a meditation on the meaning and, perhaps, also futility of life. Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going to? Delving into the depths of these existential themes and questions is uncomfortable. Maybe since most of us are not trained to be mindful of this and prefer to escape and ‘keep busy’ in our cultivated roles.
Adrian Paci Centro di Permanenza Temporanea (2007)
Anri Sala was born in Tirana in 1974. He completed his studies at the Arts Academy of Tirana in 1996 before moving to Paris where he continued his studies at the National School of Decorative Arts and after at the National Studio of Contemporary Arts. Sala, like Paci, is best known as a video artist and began to fully harness this medium in his work around the same time as Paci in the late 1990s. He made his first video work in 1997 entitled Interview – Finding the Words. The 25 minute film features footage of a black and white video Sala found of his mother speaking at a youth movement of the Socialist Party in the 1970s. There is no sound in the original film so Sala tried to restore the missing speech in the film via the aid of a deaf-mute lipreader. When he plays the film to his mother with the reconstructed speech she is embarrassed with her language yet doesn’t distance herself from her socialist beliefs or associating herself with a political movement. The Albanian art writer and critic Stefan Capaliku explains how Sala, ‘enters between the (lost) voice and the (found) figure of his mother, someone who has lived both during communism and political pluralism. He interferes via the reconstruction of lost time, connecting two antagonistic moments.’
Subsequent films made by Sali include, Byrek (2000), which is a 24 minute video showing a traditional Balkan dish, byrek, being made with the recipe written in Albanian on the middle of the screen and Time After Time (2003). His film Give Me The Colours (Dammi i colori) was exhibited at the Tate Modern in London and in 2011, he had a high profile solo exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries.
Anri Sala Byrek (2000)
Whilst in Tirana I tried to locate some of the art spaces in the city which play an essential role in the city’s art scene. Unhappily I didn’t have much luck. On first impressions it seemed that I had perhaps overestimated the possibility of a thriving creative hub in the city. One place I very much wanted to visit, the Tirana Institute of Contemporary Art (T.I.C.A) was no longer in operation when I visited Tirana in December of last year. Considering that T.I.C.A, founded in 2002, was the first center for contemporary art in Tirana and has played a leading role in developing contemporary art in Albania, this was not a good sign. Another art space The Tirana Arts Lab appeared to be in operation and when I visited its webpage an exhibition was taking place, but it seemed to be permanently closed whenever I tried to enter. I later learnt that the owners were away in Germany. Furthermore, I had no luck in finding the Tirana Ekspress cultural centre.
The National Art Gallery of Albania
Yet my stay in Tirana was by no means fruitless. The National Art Gallery of Albania was all in working operation. Situated by the entrance to the museum is a modern white grid installation entitled The Cloud Pavilion designed by Sou Fujimoto. There are over 5000 works of art in the collection. Inside there is a modest room on the ground floor with paintings of portraits and street scenes from the first half of the 20th century. On the next level there are more, larger paintings which are historical and political in subject matter. Surprisingly when I was visiting, there was a large temporary exhibition by Grayson Perry featuring a series of tapestries inspired by the 18th century British artist William Hogarth’s series of works, ‘A Rake’s Progress’.
Sou Fujimoto The Cloud Pavilion
In addition to the Perry exhibition was another temporary in the museum by an Albanian, Kosovo based, artist called Zeni Ballazhi with a body of work across a range of different media. One work features a gilded framed photograph of the skull of an ox with a crown on its head. In another corner of the exhibition is a video projector projecting distorted footage of a human skull x-ray. Elsewhere is a room full of newspapers with a lone car tyre. Ballazhi’s art constantly questions who we are and our relationship with the world. He explains his art as follows; ‘Through artistic creation I seek to rebuild human soul unity, to replenish that soul with energy and tension, in order to transform my relationship with the world. Art addresses the need to introduce all living elements to the world, to enable them to communicate amongst each other, without privileges or hierarchy’.
Zeni Ballazhi The smile of a fake life (2014)
From the National Art Gallery I walk towards the trendy Blloku district located south of the Lana River. On the way I walk past the iconic ‘Pyramid of Tirana’. It once served as the mausoleum for Enver Hoxha until 1991. Today it is derelict and neglected. Ample amounts of graffiti can be found and you can sometimes witness young locals playing on top of the structure.
Pyramid of Tirana
In the Blloku district, I visit a small commercial art gallery called the Kalo Gallery featuring a solo photography exhibition entitled North Korea’s Choreography of Happiness by a Tirana based photographer called Alfred Diebold. The exhibition comprises of photographs Diebold took when he visited North Korea. His photographs offer a fascinating glimpse into a country, virtually off limits to almost all outsiders. The only way to visit this country is as part of a guided tour and even in such a situation one is under immense scrutiny. In spite of these restrictions and limitations, Diebold captures North Korean society debased from some of the propaganda around the country. For example, one photograph shows a group of three locals having a picnic in some park with a greater variety of food than one would expect reading about from such a part of the world. In the photograph I see chicken, bread, apples and some salads too, as opposed to say Oliver Twist style gruel slop.
Photograph taken by Alfred Diebold whilst in North Korea
On the same street is another gallery called the Fab Gallery featuring a solo exhibition by Ardian Isufi entitled Flower Power. The highlight works in this small exhibition space are the large triptych paintings with themes of nature and destruction using bold and lavish amounts of blue, purple and red.
Ardian Isufi The Garden Of Permanent Instability (2016)
The highlight, however, of my time investigating Tirana’s scene involved a meeting the curator and gallery owner Valentina Koca who is a very important figure in the Albanian contemporary art scene and a tireless promoter of promising Albanian contemporary artists via her gallery space, Zeta. Since it was established just over ten years ago, it has played an integral and crucial role in showcasing the works of some of the most gifted Albanian artists. The history of the gallery and all its exhibitions are documented in a handsome hardback book, ‘Zeta: 2007-16’, published in 2016. Nineteen Albanian artists are represented in the book. Albanian modern artist Edi Hila, whom I mentioned earlier, is featured. In fact he has already exhibited three times at the gallery. In the book there are colour photographs of four paintings by Hila; two of which are from 1975. His water colour from that year, Under the Sacks, reminds me of the artist Marc Chagall sharing his loose, surreal and introspective qualities. Each show by Hila at Zeta was curated by Zef Paci, who is an art history professor at the Tirana Academy of Art. One afternoon I met Zef along with Valentina for coffee and tea at a local café in the city. We spoke at length about the history of Albanian art as well as the current art scene in Tirana and the future of the city and Albania in general.
Edi Hila Under The Sacks (1975)
Other Albanian artists in the Zeta book who’s works intrigue me include Albana Shoshi, Enkelejd Zonja and Ervin Berxolli. Shoshi’s painting At The Sea (2008) comprises of a large Albanian family on the beach with two towels suspended from the parasol; of which one represents the flag of the European Union and the other the flag of Albania. On one hand this is a typical painting of an Albanian family on the beach. Yet this is also a political painting too. Albania is not a member of the European Union yet it shares a border with a country that is, Greece. Furthermore, when this painting was created in 2008, the cracks and struggles that the European Union is currently grappling with, had yet to come to the fore.
Albana Shoshi At The Sea (2008)
Enkelejd Zonja is a mixed media artist yet its his hyper realist paintings, which interest me. One of these paintings, In Your Vein (2011), is inspired and influenced by a painting by the Italian master Caravaggio depicting the former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha pulling up his shirt and vest to expose his right nipple whilst simultaneously grabbing the hand of a member of the public, as if it is imitating a pistol with one finger piercing a deep wound in his torso. It is a painting of high drama and very human with each subject painted in a sensitive and realistic way with no exaggerated mannerism. The three subjects in the painting next to Enver are representations of the so called ‘common man’ and are each painted in a style, which donates to the painting a strong sense of gritty realism; this is the aspect of the painting, which shines for me and I am reminded of another painting by Caravaggio; his 1601 painting Supper At Emmaus in the London National Gallery capturing Jesus with two of his disciples who are both depicted very acutely in all their hardcore material poverty and humanism. The man with his hand under Enver’s grip is dressed in dirty, well-worn and little washed cloths; he could be a factory worker, builder or metal welder perhaps. The older man to his right with his head hunched down appears down and out and downtrodden with a face revealing someone who’s ridden through the heavy grime and rough ride of life and has subsequently been severely conditioned and affected by his experiences.
Enkelejd Zonja In Your Vein (2011)
Ervin Berxolli is also a mixed media artist and in the book there are two photographs of prints on wood entitled From The Cycle Icons (2014). In these works I am reminded of seminal experimental black and white photographs I witnessed in the collection of the Marubi museum in Shkodra. The distortions, various marks and manipulations augment the metaphysical qualities of the works and small discerning nuances morph into something more pronounced and take on a greater role. They become haunting and hard to forgot.
Ervin Berxolli From The Cycle Icons (2014)
There is more to Tirana than what at first meets the eye, but through perseverance and an unyielding curiosity the city and its secrets will slowly be revealed.
Earlier this year in September, I spent many days in Sarajevo. Whilst exploring the city I made sure that I set aside a decent portion of time to investigate and discover some of the city’s art. The first place I visited was a cultural centre called the Bosniak Institute. When I visited one Saturday afternoon, there were not many visitors, which was a shame as it has so much to offer and the entrance fee is only a few KMs. One wing of the institute over a few floors consists of a permanent collection of paintings from different decades of the 20th century by Bosnian artists. There is a street painting of a corner of the historic Ottoman style Baščarsija district of the city dating back to 1920 by an artist called Doko Mazalić. Elsewhere there are two Expressionist style paintings from the mid 1950s by the artist Rizah Stetić, one of which is of the main square of Baščarsija where the famous wooden Sebilj fountain is located.
1920 painting of the historic Ottoman style Baščarsija district of the city by Doko Mazalić
Paintings from the mid 1950s of the Baščarsija district by Rizah Stetić
Two other paintings from the early 1960s catch my eye by the artist Ibrahim Ljubovic. The first painting is of a woman with heavy, tired and anxious eyes. A black half chimp half crow beast clings to her shoulders. The background is sombre and bleak; like a vulture’s playground.
Paintings from the early 1960s by Ibrahim Ljubovic
In another corner is a Naive Art style painting by an unknown artist likely created sometime around the middle part of the 20th Century and a tapestry on the wall by one of the stairs. Back on the ground floor level at the entrance is a small but powerful temporary exhibition of drawings documenting the 1992-5 Bosnian War by the artist Mevludin Ekmečić.
Drawings documenting the 1992-5 Bosnian War by Mevludin Ekmečić.
The exhibition, entitled “Drawing the War: Bosnia 1992-1995”, features a selection of barbaric, graphic and nightmarish chronicles of pain, reminiscent of Francisco Goya’s “Disasters of War” drawings he created between 1810-1820 at a time when Spain was struggling with many domestic and global conflicts. Spain is very similar to former Yugoslavia in that both countries are unions of different countries with deep roots. History sadly has a habit of repeating itself and today, with the current push for independence in Catalunya, Spain, in the worst outcome, could face a similar fate to Yugoslavia’s, perish the thought. Examining and studying these drawings in greater detail, they further convey to me the futility and insanity of war. Everybody suffers. There are no winners. In fact life for the so called ‘conquerors’ for me is hell on Earth; I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of Ratko Mladić or Radovan Karadžić and the rivers of blood on their hands. The drawings show victims tortured, dead bodies on the ground with severed heads, a blood thirsty war general clutching a freshly decapitated head by its hairs and the destruction of the historic bridge in the city of Mostar. Each drawing also has written notes by Ekmečić where he describes the horrific images of the war (which he saw broadcasted on TV and in the newspapers when living in exile in Paris) and would then furiously sketch them with black ink.
In another area of the institute is the Mersad Berber green salon featuring a permanent display of paintings donated by Berber. Mersad Berber is one of the best known and greatest Bosnian artists of the 20th century and true master artist in the classic sense. His works have an epic and profound quality to them spanning the great periods of art history from the Classical Greek and Roman periods to the Byzantine, Renaissance and Ottoman eras. His paintings are also spiritual, human and timeless. Observing his works in greater detail, he is a descendent of the old masters and there are subtle echoes of some of the greats like Caravaggio, Zurbarán and even Bosch. This broad palette of art history combined with his own mixed media techniques have positioned Berber as a unique artist with a distinct style. From 1978 until his death in 2012 he taught at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo and his work is featured in London’s Tate Gallery collection.
The Mersad Berber green salon located inside the Bosniak Institute
Paintings by Mersad Berber
The Ars Aevi Museum of Contemporary Art, a concrete Brutalist style building in a part of the city reminiscent of the Barbican in London, has a collection of donated works by global contemporary artists. It is a modest space over two floors with plywood interiors and a transient atmosphere, and gave the impression that the museum is lacking in funds and operating on a tight budget.
The Ars Aevi Museum of Contemporary Art
Yet in spite of this I have read that there are plans to relocate the existing museum and its collection into a new building to be designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. There is a work by the legendary German artist Joseph Beuys in the collection of 100 bottles of olive oil. Two Spanish artists, sculptor Juan Muñoz and Txomin Badiola, each have a work in the museum. Muñoz’s piece is a hanging blue sculpture of a man and two smaller suspended white figures touching the right palm of the blue man.
Joseph Beuys: Ölflasche (100 bottles of olive oil) (1984)
Juan Muñoz: L’Appeso (1998)
Txomin Badiola: Double Trouble 2 (1990)
The Russian-American artist duo Komar & Melamid are featured with their 1995 installation, “50 Proposals for the United Nations”. The historical context of the work is interesting. During the Bosnian War in July 1995, the Bosnian town of Srebrenica fell and experienced the biggest genocide in Europe since the Second World War where over 8,000 civilians were killed. The United Nations had designated Srebrenica a safe zone but failed to protect the town and its civilians from the Bosnian Serb Army. At the time the UN was also approaching its 50th anniversary, yet this anniversary coincided at a time when the UN was experiencing great difficulties and challenges not just with the situation in Bosnia, but also the genocide in Rwanda, which the UN also failed to prevent. The installation features three head busts of Joseph Stalin, George Washington and Jesus Christ.
Komar & Melamid: 50 Proposals for the United Nations (1995)
There are works by some notable Bosnian conceptual artists. The artist Braco Dimitrijević has an installation piece comprising of three black and white framed photographs of historical figures alongside six pairs of black shoes each positioned by the left and right sides of each photograph. Dimitrijević was a key figure in the development of conceptual art in former Yugoslavia during the 1970s. His best known work is his Triptychas Post Historicus installation series of works by famous artists in dialogue with everyday objects and fruits and vegetables.
Braco Dimitrijević: Heralds of Past History (1997)
Two other Bosnian conceptual artists, both contemporaries of Dimitrijević; Edin Numankadić and Dean Jokanović-Toumin, have also donated works to the collection. Numankadić’s installation piece “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, Never” has those words each individually written on four framed black stone slabs propped on wooden crates. He is also the director of the 24th Winter Olympics Museum in Sarajevo, which opened on the year of the Winter Olympic Games in the city in 1984 to commemorate them.
Edin Numandkadić: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, Never (1996)
Toumin’s work on display is simply a quote from an 18th century writer called Avigdor Pawsner, “If you are looking for hell, ask the artist where it is. If you don’t find the artist, then you are already in hell”. This quote is also engraved on the wall by the entrance to the museum.
Dean Jokanović-Toumin: If You Are Looking For Hell… (1993/98)
Elsewhere in the museum are two photographs by the Bosnian artist Nebojsa Seric Shoba entitled “Sarajevo-Monte Carlo”. Shoba lived through the 1992-5 Siege of Sarajevo when the city was surrounded by Bosnian Serb Army troops and it was very difficult for civilians to leave the city. In this period Shoba volunteered as a soldier protecting the city and it’s civilians against attacks from the BSA. The photograph on the right shows the artist as a soldier during the siege and the photograph on the left is of the artist in a similar pose in Monte Carlo wearing casual clothes taken after the war. In the first photograph the artist is thinner and in a constant state of tension and uncertainty with no end in sight to the war. In the Monte Carlo photograph, the artist has put on weight and is more relaxed and non defensive wearing funky clothes. Not so long ago he was in a war zone in a constant state of fight or flight and didn’t know whether he would live or die.
Nebojsa Seric Shoba: Sarajevo – Monte Carlo (1998)
The National Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina, located in an old Austrian-Hungarian era building, has a collection of over 6,000 art works. When I visited there were two exhibitions on display that interested me. The first exhibition on the top floor, entitled Intimacies Of Space, is a permanent exhibition of works by modern and contemporary Bosnian artists and artists from other parts of former Yugoslavia. This exhibition is divided into five themes; “Garden”, “Interior”, “Atelier”, “Landscape” and “Window”. The Bosnian artist Behir Misirlic’s painting Small Part of the Garden (1969) is an ethereal and sensitive composition of meta-morphing forms and nuances, subtle colours and light and dark shades; of captured moments of fleeting beauty most naked eyes fail to perceive.
Bekir Misirlić: Small Part of the Garden (1969)
Green, Green Grass of Home (2002) by the Sarajevo born artist Maja Bajević is a video installation with a poignant story around the themes of identity and loss. In the video the artist is walking in a green field describing her apartment in Sarajevo where her grandparents lived and where she subsequently lived before the Bosnian war. Since the war other people have occupied her apartment and have refused to vacate it. All attempts to get it back have been in vain. In the film, as the artist is walking in the field, she tries to remember the flat and all the memories she has of it in as much detail as she can going from one room to the next with just the mental map of her memory to guide her.
Maja Bajević: Green, Green Grass of Home (2002)
In the “Interior” section of the city exhibition there are three paintings by artists from former Yugoslavia which stand out. Mensur Dervisević’s oil painting “Space” is a desolate vacuum of black, burnt brown umber, pewter, green-brown olive and pale grey hues. In the darkest area of the painting is a lone mirage-like figure; an eternal spirit nailed to its place; stationary and ambiguous. It’s power and presence is augmented by the claustrophobic dark landscape enfolding it.
Mensur Dervisević: Space
Ordan Petlevski’s oil composition “From the Interior” is similar in spirit to Dervisevic’s painting; a highly introspective work in dialogue with the core of the subconscious. The white, beige, dark and light brown middle area of Petlevski’s painting, for me, represents a process of animal metamorphosis. I see a head forming at the top of this area, like the head of a rabbit. A wing is developing at the bottom of the painting protruding the left side of the figure and at the bottom right, if you study it closely enough, you may be able to decipher a vague face with a fire-red opel eye. In the bottom left of the painting there is a gash of orange-red like a ray of light. Look closely and the face of a woman may appear.
Ordan Petlevski: From the interior (1957)
Ljubisa Naumović’s “Interior” oil painting from 1943 represents a well furnished and comfortable living room. It’s painted in a style which reminds me of some of the great early 20th century French painters, especially the Fauvist painters Raoul Dufy and Henri Matisse. “Interior with Open Windows” has a similar loose and free brushwork style and subject matter. Red is the prominent colour in many of Matisse’s interior paintings. In his landmark “The Red Studio” painting, everything is drowning in red. In Naumović’s painting, the dominant colour is green in three different hues; the blue cedar green front wall and three chairs, the olive green floor and right-side wall and the warm spring green bed by the blue cedar green front wall.
Ljubisa Naumović: Interior (1943)
There are three works in the “Atelier” part of the exhibition, which register with me. Two of these works are oil paintings by artists from former Yugoslavia. Antun Sojat’s “From the Studio” is a painting of the artist’s studio with a cold, threadbare, dark and musty tone; a studio with limited to no natural light. Beautiful and tasteful objects such as the vase of flowers or the small grey-green statue and stand of fruits on the desk or the brown painting easel featuring a head bust resting on the bottom are all within a limited framework from which they can shine. There is abundant beauty buts it’s all entrapped and frozen. On the other hand, in Emanuel Vidivić’s “My Old Studio” painting, natural light bathes his studio. He is not kept in darkness. His studio is ample in space with many paintings leaning next to one another by the studio walls. It feels just as much a home than an artist’s studio.
Antun Sojat: From the Studio
Emanuel Vidivić: My Old Studio (1936-8)
Artist Edin Numankadić features again here. The third work of the “Atelier” segment I am going to focus on is an installation by Numankadić called Traces Of War from 1993. This work is significant since it shows the artist’s studio as it was in Sarajevo when the city was under siege. In the other two works I focused on aesthetics and natural light. In this work, those subjects take a back seat. When you are creating art in a war zone and your city is surrounded, questions such as whether you are going to live or die or when will the war end are always at the fore of the mind’s landscape. There is a perpetual state of tension and anxiety.
Edin Numankadić: Traces of War (1993)
In the “Landscape” theme of the exhibition the Bosnian artist Gabrijel Jurkić’s painting “Blooming Plateau” is an epic wide and open landscape space painting of blooming bright yellow white floors under a pure cloudless ultramarine blue sky. The blooming landscape is punctured with snaking blue streams. Distractions are limited but the space offers one the opportunity to reflect and become connected and in touch with their surroundings; like climbing down from the intellect to the earth. Another painting featured in the same theme is Bosnian artist Bekir Misirlić’s “The White Plateau”. The white minimalism associated with the works of the American artists Robert Ryman and Agnes Martin springs to my mind when I study Misirlić’s painting. The lines on the white background, for me, are the metaphysical counterpart to Jurkić’s “Blooming Plateau” painting. It’s as if Misirlić’s “The White Plateau” is a reading and analysis of the heartbeat and vitality of the blooming plateau field in Jurkić’s work. The lines are rarely disturbed and undulate only at occasional intervals. There is little disturbance and volatility.
Gabrijel Jurkić: Blooming Plateau (1914)
Bekir Misirlić: The White Plateau
In the final “Window” section, there is a relief painting by the artist Narcis Kantardzić. Seeing the work from a distance, one could be under the illusion that they are inside one of the traditional old white houses on the Greek island of Santorini. Yet examining the work closer up, the two white buildings on the left and right edges of the painting appear more modern than traditional and the illusion slowly fades away.
Narcis Kantardzić: Landscape (1986)
On another floor of the art museum there is a separate temporary exhibition featuring contemporary artists from Sarajevo and Zurich, Switzerland called “Sarajevo-Zurich: Unlimited 2017”. The first work I see on display in the exhibition is an installation entitled “Nostos Algos/Return Suffering” by an artist from Sarajevo called Adela Jusić, who is also a founder of Association for Culture and Art CRVENA, which focuses on various cultural and feminist projects. She is also a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo. Her installation recreates a living space comprising of a dated Tito era clock, furniture, a framed black and white photograph of a young boy, and three open suitcases and miscellaneous objects scattered across the floor. The artist lives in a house which she rents from a Bosnian family who fled during the start of the Bosnian war in 1992. The family ended up as refugees in Denmark where they still live. The difference now is that they are not refugees any more but Danish citizens. Once a year the family return to the house they left in Bosnia for a week or two. The objects left behind when they fled the war remain. Even though the family come back for such a short period each year, all these objects which they left behind are firmly connected to their memories. The clock and furniture may remind the family of happy times before the war broke out; of perhaps sitting down to meals together with three generations of family members set around the table. Each object has its own energy and connection to the family and triggers mental pictures of moments and events from the past each time the family return to their former home; returning to what they reluctantly and painfully had to leave behind, due to circumstances beyond their control, and to memories they’d since become detached from as they began their new life in Denmark.
Adela Jusić: Nostos Algos/Return Suffering (2017)
The next work from the exhibition I am drawn to is another installation by the well known Bosnian artist Jusuf Hadzifejzović. His work, “Shop of Emptiness”, features two tables and a shelf with used consumer grocery goods such as empty bottles, tins and cardboard containers (originally used to package these goods) transformed into artworks. Some of Marcel Duchamp’s (arguably the father of Conceptual Art) most well known works are his “readymades”; everyday mass produced consumer objects he appropriated and repositioned, turning them into works of art. Duchamp’s iconic 1917 “Fountain” urinal work is one fine example where he appropriated an everyday nondescript mass produced urinal fountain and signed it “R.Mutt”. In Hadzifejzović’s installation the empty disposable objects he presents are his own little readymades directly connected to his daily life. The curator and writer Jonathan Blackwood describes the displayed objects as “mute witnesses to the life of the artist”. Often when we consume, we consume mindlessly and with no awareness. We take for granted what we are consuming. These mass goods fill a very temporary need or urge and once it has been satisfied we forget about what we consumed and almost automatically dispose of the empty contents with no attachment to them. By retaining the empty objects, at least one can contemplate on them even after, in the words of Blackwood, “their original purpose has been filled”. “Shop of Emptiness” is a mindful report on Hadziferzuvić’s quotidian consumption over a period of time in his life; a meditation on his consumption and the particular memories, feelings and mental pictures each empty object conveys to him when they were consumed during those intervals in time.
Jusuf Hadzifejzović: Shop of Emptiness (2012-15)
The established young Bosnian artist Bojan Stojčić, who’s also a professor at Sarajevo’s Academy of Fine Arts, has a photographic display series entitled “No Trace Promises The Path”. The photographs are visual extensions of lines from a book of poems of the same name written by Stojčić. Each photograph is a fleeting execution of specific interventions, situations, locations and emotional reactions. Of the montage of different photographs, one photograph is of a border crossing with queueing cars. At the crossing, the artist intervenes with a small vertical slip of paper with the words, “Fear Has No Border”.
Bojan Stojčić: No Trace Promises The Path (2013-15)
Towards the end of the exhibition, there is a short video installation by the Sarajevo born and Academy of Fine Arts graduate Lana Čmajčanin. Like Adela Jusić, she is also a co-founder and member of the Association for Culture and Art CRVENA. The video, entitled “Geometry of Time”, features 35 different historical maps of the location of Bosnia and Herzegovina from Roman times until the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995 which ended the war in Bosnia and led to the current formation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. During this time period Bosnia’s borders changed frequently. For over 400 years it was part of the Ottoman Empire, then after it was under the rule of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire before becoming part of Yugoslavia. The fall of Yugoslavia and the ensuing Bosnian war leading to the Dayton Peace Agreement resulted in the current Bosnia and Herzegovina state. The numerous interventions in Bosnia and Herzegovina during its history and the changes in its borders are a reflection on the ambitions and desire for power of its colonisers. Bosnia is a country that has always been colonised, never becoming a colonial power itself. In the video, the country becomes increasingly submerged in blackened marks enfolding all of South Eastern Europe. For a country that has been invaded and colonised throughout its history what do these borders really mean?
Lana Čmajčanin: Geometry of Time
By the main city cathedral, I one day visited Galerija 11/07/95, a memorial gallery preserving the memory of the Srebrenica massacre of 11th July 1995 where over 8,000 civilians lost their lives. The permanent exhibition on display features a series of powerful black and white photographs by the Bosnian photographer Tarik Samarah, which documents the aftermath of the massacre. His photographs include graphic images of the skulls and dismembered bones and body parts of the victims dug up from multiple unidentified mass graves.
Photograph by Tarik Samarah from 2002 documenting the aftermath of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre
In the History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina opposite the American Embassy, I visit another photography exhibition, 15 years, of photographs by the Scottish photographer Jim Marshall. The photographs are of specific locations in Sarajevo in 1996, a year after the Bosnian war, and of those same locations 15 years later in 2011. The photographs from 1996 were taken on a modest Nikon 35mm film camera. The effects of the war are very vivid in these photographs; buildings are badly damaged and the city is scarred and mutilated. Yet slowly civilians were beginning to recover from the traumatic and devastating three year siege of the city and could finally experience a level of freedom which they were long denied. They didn’t need to run or hide any more and live under the constant threat of danger. Civilians could at last travel outside of the city. It was during this time that Sarajevo was beginning to heal.
Photography by Jim Marshall from his solo exhibition 15 Years
When Marshall revisited the city 15 years later in 2011, he revisited those exact same locations and took new photographs with a digital Nikon camera. The differences are very noticeable. There are now few traces of the war and almost all of buildings which had been destroyed have been transformed and reconstructed.
This is an essay I wrote towards the end of 2014 about being an artist and living in the context of our digital world. I have made a few changes since then but the general gist of the essay remains the same.
Today art can be split into two categories; “Pre-Internet” and “Post-Internet” art.
All the important and influential art movements are all of the Pre-Internet age. It seems to me that in this current Post-Internet age, there are no real lasting and meaningful art movements. There are of course many interesting artists today creating challenging and original works of art via digital media and who are very much in tune with the zeitgeist and more power to them. Yet there is something I long for which I feel is missing. And this is not strictly limited to artists and art. This applies to (and perhaps to a much greater degree) general living.
Before the internet the main media sources were television/video, the telephone, the radio and the printing press. The internet is all this and much much more. It enables us access to diverse and limitless quantities of information. In order to source information before the internet, most people went to libraries and even these institutions were no guarantee that you would find the specific information you were looking for. But with the internet almost all kinds of information can be accessed without having to travel to libraries or even spend valuable time and money employing people to find certain bits of information. Access to information has been truly democratised (assuming everyone has an internet connection) since the development and growth of the World Wide Web.
Today we have a whole plethora of internet related social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube etc. to communicate/express ourselves through. Before the internet, the only possible ways to communicate with one another apart from face to face, were via the telephone, fax, telegram or via mail (in the form of letter writing which save for a few dedicated souls is well and truly six feet underground as an art). The channels of far flung communication were limited. People were more in the woods with regards to what was happening globally.
People did not lose themselves or devote much of their time to living in “electronic virtual reality”. People actually spent much time reading books, spending their free time outside, having real relationships (we still have real relationships but these are decreasing and I believe in the wake of “hyper-immersive 3D virtual reality” more and more people will be cutting themselves off and almost be living at least half of their entire existence in this new type of virtual world. More and more people will even cease having sexual relationships since the stimulated virtual way will feel even better than the real thing).
Via the array of social media sites there are many different groups that artists join. Too many groups. A humongous vertigo-inducing fragmentation of different groups. In the context of today’s world, everything changes faster than before. This is a faster world. News travels faster. There is less mystery. Life is documented more than ever before. Through the internet, everyone can now express themselves. There are more artists today than before. Art or being an artist is not something that is taboo or contentious anymore. Things that may have been considered ‘renegade’ or less accepted in the past such as being an artist, a musician or traveling around the world are now accepted and quite conventional. To travel around the world for a year as part of a ‘gap year’ is now the done thing.
I think that to be a true artist (a most overused weird) in this current digital age is to leave no traces; no evidence of art or living. To disappear and be an eternal apparition.
Often I don’t have the guts or the humility to leave no traces. There is something intricately hardwired in me about having to ‘be somebody’. Yet as the great Indian sage Juddi Krishnamurti once said, ‘the moment we want to be someone we are no longer free’