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Stirring Portraits of Communist Albania's Women Recall Different Reality


Visitors stand in front of the painting "The Brigadier" by Albanian artist Spiro Kristo during the documenta 14 art exhibition in the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens, Greece, May 9, 2017.

Three women stare down from the gallery wall — colorful, defiant and imbued with a spirit of working for the many not the few.

They are a brigadier, a factory worker and a youth volunteer with a hoe. They are paintings of socialist realism. They are also all Albanian women from the time of Enver Hoxha, who created one of the world's most closed societies until his death in 1985.

Visitors to Greece's capital have a relatively rare opportunity to see Hoxha-era art on display outside its regular home in Tirana's National Gallery of Art.

The portraits are part of documenta 14, the Kassel, Germany-based exhibition of Western European modern art that this year is being hosted both in Kassel and Athens.

Hundreds of documenta 14 displays are to be found in museums across the Greek city until July, with the three women portraits among the offerings at EMST, the National Museum of Contemporary Art located in the old but renovated Fix brewery building.

A visitor walks past the paintings "The Turner," left, by Albanian artist Zef Shoshi and "The Action Worker" by Hasan Nallbani during the documenta 14 art exhibition in the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens, Greece, May 9, 2017.
A visitor walks past the paintings "The Turner," left, by Albanian artist Zef Shoshi and "The Action Worker" by Hasan Nallbani during the documenta 14 art exhibition in the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens, Greece, May 9, 2017.

The paintings — by Spiro Kristo (1976), Zef Shoshi (1969) and Hasan Nallbani (1968) — draw you in and can inspire.

But they were also political, more than acceptable to Hoxha, who saw threats from the West, Russia, the then-Yugolavia and just about everywhere.

In a sense, they are modernist icons for the only society in the world that was officially atheist.

As Edi Muka, an Albanian art critic and curator, notes of Shoshi's factory worker, "representations of motherhood as constitutive of women's central role in religious art are carefully removed."

Hoxha-era paranoia was to be found everywhere from spikes in vineyards to deter potential enemy paratroopers to more than 700,000 concrete bunkers across the country, housing soldiers on guard for potential attack.

So it was not all easy for painters. Not far from the three women, documenta 14 has hung a 1971 painting "Planting of Trees" by Edi Hila.

It depicts blissfully happy young people planting trees for their country.

Too blissfully happy, perhaps. Almost "expressive dancing," in the words of the painter.

"My work stepped out of the contours of socialist realism," Hila told Reuters in Tirana. "Generally in those works the positive, the hero, is in the center. ... The compositional structure was different so this hurt their taste."

Hila, deemed to be in need of re-education, ended up being sentenced to work as a loader on a chicken farm. His drawings from that time — showing a different kind of realism — are also on display in Athens.

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