Arben Basha

Arben Basha, I Will Write, 1971, oil on canvas, Collection National Gallery of Arts, Tirana, installation view, EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke

Arben Basha (born 1947 in Tirana) is mostly known for his career in and contribution to the industry of Albanian socialist realist cinema. He served for many years as a painter of film sets at Kinostudio “Shqiperia e Re” (the “New Albania” film studio), which oversaw all production and distribution of fiction and documentary films in the country. He became involved in a considerable number of films that were commissioned to reflect on the various propaganda campaigns of the 1970s. His first experience, for example, was with the film Thirrja (The Calling), whose plot centers on a veterinarian researcher. One day while riding in a cab, the man hears an announcement over the radio in which the party calls on professionals in all fields to contribute to the development of Albania’s traditional rural areas. He immediately gives up his position in academia and relocates to a remote village. There he encounters and successfully overcomes multiple challenges and prejudices rooted in the still “backward” mentality of the provinces, transforming himself and helping to transform the place in the process.

Basha’s painting I Will Write was made in 1971, the only period when the party’s grip on cultural life was somewhat loosened and artists, writers, and musicians could attempt to work in ways that slightly deviated from the strict canonical rules of representation that governed cultural production. It was also the time when the national campaign Emancipimi I Gruas (the “Emancipation of Women”) was in full swing. Thus, much of cultural production in that moment centered on the representation of women, with a focus on their newly-acquired positions as members of the workforce in urban factories, academia, and education. Here Basha chooses to feature a high-school student. She’s easily identifiable by the black school uniform she wears (which is missing the tell-tale red scarf of the “pioneers” that was always worn by younger students). In contrast to depictions of young adults at the time, which tended to focus on direct action in the here and now, the younger age of the teenager in the painting situates her in a space of passage, when the future hasn’t materialized yet and one can still dream of it. This, coupled with the more permissive attitude towards culture at the time, made it possible for Basha to paint the young woman in a dreamy atmosphere. He cautiously allows synthetist influences to creep into his style—probably inspired by Paul Gauguin—organizing the surface with flat masses of color and strong lines and contrasts. The figure’s eyes appear mysterious and in shadow, and she’s depicted in a suspended state (no seat is visible), highlighting further the oneiric atmosphere. Both are controversial feats given a canon that required everything to be solidly grounded and shown in the bright light of day. But while the pristine sheets of white paper—a reference to the creative impulse—could be ideologically problematic (there shouldn’t be any hesitation as to what to put on paper), the potential problem caused by their emptiness is foreclosed by the content of the landscape in the background: a mixture of factory buildings and silos, apartment blocks, and lush vegetation bathed in a golden light—an unequivocal source for the “right” kind of inspiration. The story, already written, is merely waiting to find its way onto the blank sheets.

—Edi Muka

Posted in Public Exhibition