Hasan Nallbani

Hasan Nallbani, The Action Worker, 1966, οil on canvas, Collection National Gallery of Arts, Tirana, installation view, EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke

Albanian socialist realism encapsulates the art and literature created over a period spanning nearly forty-five years, from the end of World War II to the collapse of the communist regime in 1991. As the term suggests, this approach was borrowed from and inspired by the canons of socialist realism established in the Soviet Union. In Albania, the strictures of socialist realism were implemented ruthlessly, except for a brief period of loosening between 1970–­73. As art critic Gëzim Qëndro has pointed out in his study Socialist Surrealism: “Socialist Realism nourishes the ambition to make really understandable the most powerful engine of History: the Messianic dream. It is not difficult to discover behind the thick surface of the realism of the official art, the unreal core of the eschatology of Communism.” The main feature of this eschatology was the attempt to create the New Albanian Man, a creature embodying all pure social ideals, devoid of the complexity of everyday life. Even landscapes and their surroundings had to be rendered bright and devoid of natural or cultural complexities. What distinguishes this type of homo albanicus is that the project wasn’t supported by the underlying Marxist doctrine, which concentrated on freeing the working class from all forms of suppression. It rather shifted its attention to focus on pure narration and moral grounds, building a new profile of the “perfect” individual within the “perfect” social structure. A networked platform was erected to perform this task and reach this objective, spanning from education to the arts to literature, mobilizing all communication tools available at the time.

Born in 1934 in Berat, artist Hasan Nallbani’s painting The Action Worker (1966) depicts a young woman who has joined the ranks to build the country. The painting is part of a campaign reflecting a precise set of circumstances, following an important political and economic decision of the time. In the mid 1960s, the government organized large working groups to build up the modern urban and rural infrastructure of the country. Unpaid youth—so-called volunteers—were assembled across Albania and sent to work sites for periods between two and six months. Artists, writers, and musicians were also brought in, in shorter intervals, to gather inspiration and learn to depict the “new reality” of the country. In the context of the time, Nallbani’s painting contains some easily identifiable elements. The central figure wears the scarf of the “actionist,” an item that distinguished all youth engaged in voluntary work, which they had to care for and wear with pride. The hoe she’s holding hints at the type of work being performed—in this case, building the rural infrastructure of the country. This is reinforced by the landscape in the background—still barren but with clear signs of its transformation through human labor. But most of all we see a person who is young and brave, proud to be a volunteer for her country and party, countering the gaze of the viewer heads on. She’s wearing what were perceived at the time to be men’s clothes, thus challenging traditional social hierarchies. Shown in full, unconditional embrace of her new status, she’s supposed to bear witness to a deeper transformation—the transformation of people and social relations that communism was supposedly bringing to Albania.

—Edi Muka

Posted in Public Exhibition