Albanian police dispersed dozens of protesters who gathered Sunday morning at the National Theater in the capital city of Tirana in an attempt to stop the demolition of the 80-year-old structure, despite a nationwide ban on group gatherings. The Teatri Kombëtar, built in 1939 during the Italian occupation, has been at the center of controversy for years since Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama shuttered the building and proposed its replacement with a €30 million (~$32.8 million) design by the Danish architecture firm the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG).
In an open letter released this week, a group of artists and cultural workers are not only condemning the theater’s destruction but bringing attention to what they deem the “artwashing” of Rama’s politics. The prime minister, who ascended to power in 2013, is also a practicing artist who has achieved status and visibility in the contemporary art circuit, with exhibitions at venues including Marian Goodman Gallery in New York City.
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The letter’s authors, cultural theorist Jonida Gashi and journalist and publisher Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, express concern that mediagenic portrayals of Rama as an artist-politician have served to obfuscate abuses of power by the Albanian government he helms, citing among them the state repression of free press, which has also been flagged by watchdog organizations such as Reporters Without Borders.
The German artist Wolfgang Staehle and Elidor Mëhilli, an associate professor at the City University of New York (CUNY), are among the 36 signatories of the letter so far. Van Gerven Oei told Hyperallergic that many people they approached hesitated to sign for fear of retribution, as they or their family members are employed by the state.
“The rise of Edi Rama’s profile as a practicing artist on the international art scene, aided by a select group of artists, curators, and collectors, instead of drawing more attention to his politics has, paradoxically enough, completely eclipsed them,” the letter reads. The authors go on to censure Rama’s policies, in particular the prime minister’s decision to demolish cultural monuments in Tirana to make way for government-sponsored construction projects.
“The ‘values’ and ‘colors’ of Edi Rama’s work as an artist, his speeches and interviews on the international art scene, and the promotional machinery that surrounds his career differ like day and night from the policies his regime is implementing in Albania,” they write.
Rama arguably first gained widespread recognition in the art world when he undertook colorful renovations of communist-era buildings in Tirana while serving as the city’s mayor in the early 2000s. The project, described by Rama in a TED Talk as “not just an artistic act” but instead “a forum of political action,” is the subject of Albanian artist Anri Sala’s video “Dammi i Colori” (2003), which now resides in Tate Modern’s collection.
But Gashi and van Gerven Oei argue that it is time to “look beyond Edi Rama’s ubiquitous painting of the façades in 2001 and turn our attention instead to his actual, recent policies, in particular in the context of his response to the global Covid-19 pandemic.”
In a phone conversation with Hyperallergic, they noted that the demolition of the theater, which had been in the plans for years, finally took place while the country was in lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, on the weekend before the most severe measures were lifted.
“Rama knew people would come out to protest,” said van Gerven Oei. “He forced people to sacrifice their health for the protection of a cultural heritage and endangered the health of his own police force.”
Completed during World War II whilst Albania was under control of the Italian Fascist regime, the Teatri Kombëtar building was until now an enduring icon of Italian modernist architecture. It also hosted the first high-profile political show trials by the Albanian Communists, functioning as a reminder of the nation’s long period of Communist rule. Though the structure was officially shuttered by Rama two years ago, members of the Alliance for the Theater Protection continued to stage performances there until recently.
A video shared by Sneška Quaedvlieg-Mihailović, Secretary General of the pan-European cultural heritage organization Europa Nostra, depicts a bulldozer amongst the National Theater’s ruins. (Europa Nostra included the building in its recent list of Europe’s seven most endangered heritage sites and has since condemned its demolition in a letter to the EU Council of Ministers.)
During Rama’s two mandates as mayor, Gashi says, Tirana saw a boom in construction accompanied by the transformation of inexpensive apartment blocks into costly, flashy skyscrapers unaffordable to most except for “an oligarchic sliver of the country.”
According to the letter, a large part of the publicly held land on which the National Theater stood will be used for privately owned high-rise buildings and shopping malls. Though Rama touted the design for a new theater produced by BIG on his Facebook page as recently as last night, a definitive timeline for its construction has reportedly been stalled due to funding conflicts. “The government has publicly admitted that it has no budget to rebuild the theater,” reads the letter.
Neither the Albanian Ministry of Culture nor BIG have yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.
“Certainly his neoliberal policies and rampant privatizations are high up on the reasons as to why he has stubbornly pursued this project,” Gashi told Hyperallergic when asked about the prime minister’s motivations. “But I think there’s also an element of Rama wanting to leave a mark on the city. If you want to leave a mark on a country, what better way to do it than urban design?”
Eriola Pira, an art historian and critic who has closely followed and written about Rama’s interventions in Tirana since 2003, believes the demolition of the National Theater is just one blatant example in Rama’s long track record of co-opting art and “the empty promise of progress” to further the interests of private companies.
“Contrary to Rama’s — and Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj — assurances to their international friends, this was never about building a new and better theater for actors by Bjarke Ingels, a darling of technocrats the world over, which they could have built anywhere in town, but about clearing the way for commercial high-rises that would be built alongside it, on prime city real estate. This overreach of power will no doubt be followed by further demolitions or redevelopment of historic buildings in the city center, among them the National Gallery of Art,” Pira told Hyperallergic.
“The 27-month public resistance was as much about preserving this building, full of theater and Albanian history, as it was about protesting the corrupt and autocratic ways in which his vision has come to define the city and who it is for. Last Sunday morning, under the cover of darkness, it became clear to all that it is not for its citizens, activists, artists and that Rama is willing to muzzle, beat, jail, and kill them,” she added, citing reports that protesters were still inside the building as it was being demolished.
Rama has reportedly denied that state police used violence to deter the demonstrators. According to the Washington Post, officers used pepper spray on protesters and some television reports showed a bloodied citizen. Two policemen were also injured in the scuffle.
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“For too long, his art world supporters and enablers have been willfully ignorant or looked the other way,” said Pira. “As of this Sunday, they no longer can ignore his record and anyone who continues to legitimize his political actions as artistic interventions is an accomplice to the suppression of civil rights and democracy in Albania.”
Gashi says the letter will continue to circulate in the weeks to come, and they hope it will garner wider support.
“When you speak about as an ‘artist politician,’ you should know his policies,” said van Gerven Oei. “As far as we are concerned, the discussion about Rama has been completely one-sided, predicated on a single work that he made with other artists in the early 2000s. We need to reassess the relationship between art and politics in his work.”
Read Gashi and van Gerven Oei’s open letter, reproduced in full, below:
An Open Letter to the International Art Community: Stop Artwashing Edi Rama’s Politics
For years we have witnessed how Edi Rama’s ascent to power in his own country has facilitated and enabled the rise of his profile as a practicing artist on the international art scene, especially since becoming Prime Minister in 2013. We are not immune to how attractive the idea of an artist-politician is at a time when mainstream politics has severe difficulties imagining any future at all. The artist-politician sells — both his work and his policies. Our concern then is that the rise of Edi Rama’s profile as a practicing artist on the international art scene, aided by a select group of artists, curators, and collectors, instead of drawing more attention to his politics has, paradoxically enough, completely eclipsed them. The time has come to look beyond Edi Rama’s ubiquitous painting of the façades in 2001 and turn our attention instead to his actual, recent policies, in particular in the context of his response to the global Covid-19 pandemic.
Edi Rama’s government has systematically undermined freedom of speech and expression. Journalists are systematically attacked — both verbally and physically, threatened and blackmailed, and laid off for reporting on corruption and organized crime, or simply for criticising the Rama government. Television programs can and have been shut down abruptly, including Públicus in 2016 just as it was about to air an exposé on the death of Ardit Gjoklaj, a child laborer killed in a work accident on a government owned landfill site. Indeed, entire television channels have been shut down, the latest being Ora News this month for allegedly violating social distancing measures but in fact because it is virtually the only remaining TV station critical of the government. All other major news stations are owned by businessmen close to Edi Rama’s government, while he communicates mainly through social media, including his Facebook video channel ERTV, whose extensive funding sources remain unknown and unaccounted for.
Media watchdog organizations like the European Center for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), the International Press Institute (IPI), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have repeatedly called out the deterioration of free press in Albania. Their condemnation reached momentum at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, when the Albanian government repeatedly tried to push through parliament the so-called “Anti-Defamation” bill, which gives an agency answering to the Council of Ministers the power to fine and even shut down online media with minimal evidence and without any oversight from the judiciary. Around the same time, the Albanian Parliament actually passed an even more disturbing piece of legislation, the so-called “Anti-KÇK” bill, thereby paving the way for the creation of an “elite” police force that, among other things, can conduct electronic surveillance and home searches, as well as stop and detain “suspects” without a court order.
While the violation of human rights by and under Edi Rama’s government is not new, the creation of a legal framework for the abolition or suspension of the fundamental rights and freedoms of Albanian citizens by the executive in toto is exceptionally alarming. Edi Rama has ruthlessly exploited four key moments in order to achieve this. Namely, the institutional and power vacuum created by the so-called “Justice Reform” since 2016, as a result of which Albania has neither a fully functional Constitutional Court nor a functional Supreme Court; the decision of the MPs of the two main opposition parties to rescind their mandates in early 2019, as a result of which Albania does not have a functional parliament; the one-party local elections held in June 2019, enabling the Socialist Party to gain control of virtually all municipalities across the country; and, finally, the catastrophic earthquake of November 26, 2019, and the Covid-19 pandemic as a result of which Albania has been under a state of emergency that is continually extended, sometimes legally and sometimes not, and has seen the ushering in of a slew of draconian emergency measures.
It should come as no surprise then that, in stark contrast with Edi Rama’s own artistic career, cultural life in Albania has become increasingly precarious. Sources of funding for independent cultural producers are scarce and what non-state funding there is gets mostly channeled into the government’s vanity projects. Thus, whereas unaccounted sums of money were spent on the contemporary art center inside Edi Rama’s offices, all other national cultural institutions are systematically underfunded and mismanaged. Cultural heritage is threatened too, especially the Roman and Byzantine archeological heritage of Albania. Similarly, most of the cultural monuments in Tirana dating to the Ottoman period have already been destroyed in order to make room for government sponsored construction projects, and plans are currently underway to demolish the National Gallery of Arts, another architectural landmark and cultural heritage site.
The demolition of the historic National Theatre building on 17 May 2020, only two days before Albania’s severe COVID-19 lockdown was lifted marks a point of no return. Completed by the Italian fascists in 1939, it also functioned as an important reminder of communist rule in Albania, with the first high profile Albanian communist show trial being held inside it in 1945. The theater’s recent demolition came after two years of resistance by actors, writers, artists, and activists, only weeks after the building was nominated one of the seven most endangered cultural heritage sites in Europe by Europa Nostra, and after the European Commission called for dialogue about its preservation. This action was preceded by several unconstitutional and illegal acts at various levels of government, while a constitutional court complaint and an anti-corruption investigation against the ownership transfer of the theater from the national to local government was still pending. A large part of the publicly held land on which the National Theater stood is slated to be turned into privately owned highrise-buildings and shopping malls on the most expensive piece of real-estate in Tirana. The government has publicly admitted that it has no budget to rebuild the theater. This building, and everything that was inside — costumes, props, and archives of more than eighty years of Albanian theater history — was demolished in the middle of the night on Sunday May 17, 2020, accompanied by wanton police violence, shutting down of all electronic communications in the area, and random arrests.
The “values” and “colors” of Edi Rama’s work as an artist, his speeches and interviews on the international art scene, and the promotional machinery that surrounds his career differ like day and night from the policies his regime is implementing in Albania. Therefore, we, the undersigned, strongly call upon those in the international art community whose practices align with progressive politics, ethical work practices, and a critical engagement with civil society, to rethink their commitments – and the validity and honesty of these commitments — when collaborating with and promoting the work of an artist–politician whose practice goes against these commitments and who has shown to be an opponent of progressive, democratic, and inclusive ideals in his own country.
We call for solidarity from the international art world with the citizens, activists, and artists of Albania in condemning the actions of the government of Edi Rama, and a thorough reflection on the ethical and artistic implications of exhibiting and supporting his work and by extension his politics.
Jonida Gashi, academic, cultural theorist, and co-founder of DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art, Tirana
Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, journalist and publisher, The Hague/Tirana/Santa Barbara
Armando Lulaj, artist and filmmaker, co-founder of DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art, Tirana
Adela Halo, public policy analyst and anti-corruption expert, researcher in 18th century history of ideas at Queen Mary’s, London
Elvis Hoxhaj, human rights activist, The Hague/Tirana
Raino Isto, editor, ARTMargins Online
Dritan Hyska, artist, Tirana/Berlin
Alketa Ramaj, artist, Tirana
Ergin Zaloshnja, artist and founder of SPUTNIK fanzine, Tirana
Pleurad Xhafa, artist and co-founder of DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art, Tirana
Wendy Morava, scriptwriter and editor, Tirana
Xheni Karaj, LGBT activist and director of Aleanca LGBT, Tirana
Eriola Pira, curator, Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The New School, New York
Sonila Meço, producer, journalist and TV anchor, Tirana
Adi Krasta, producer, journalist and TV anchor, Tirana/Prishtina
Wolfgang Staehle, artist, New York
Katerina Kolozova, Director of the Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities Skopje, Professor of Philosophy, Epistemology and Gender Studies at ISSH and University American College, Skopje
Elvira Dones, novelist and documentary filmmaker, Switzerland
Vasco Dones, journalist, Switzerland
Marco Mazzi, photographer and painter, Florence
Neritan Sejamini, editor-in-chief, Exit Albania, Tirana
Elidor Mëhilli, Associate Professor, City University of New York, New York
Silvana Toska, Assistant Professor, Davidson College, North Carolina
Adrian Paci, artist, director of Art House, Shkodër/Milan
Eni Derhemi, artist, art historian, and researcher in post-dictatorship Albanian art, Bologna/Tirana
Alice Elizabeth Taylor, journalist and media freedom activist, Tirana
Vjosa Musliu, postdoctoral fellow, Free University of Brussels, Belgium
Barbara Halla, assistant editor, Asymptote Journal, Tirana/Paris
Fatos Lubonja, writer and journalist, Tirana
Diana Malaj, writer and co-founder of activist group ATA, Kamza
Vasilika Laçi, civil rights activist and feminist, Tirana
Lori Lako, visual artist, Florence/Tirana
Besar Likmeta, editor, BIRN Albania
Gjergji Erëbara, journalist, BIRN Albania
Hana Qena, artist and co-founder of HAVEIT, Tirana
Alketa Sylaj, artist and co-founder of HAVEIT, Prishtina
Arbërore Sylaj, artist and co-founder of HAVEIT, Prishtina
Sofia Kalo, anthropologist and researcher, Chicago