Zef Shoshi

Zef Shoshi, The Turner, 1969, oil on canvas, Collection National Gallery of Arts, Tirana, installation view, EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke

Zef Shoshi (born 1939 in Tirana) is one of best-known portraitists of Albanian socialist realism. He studied painting at the “Ilya Repin” Institute of Art in St. Petersburg, bringing home a strong “classicist” bent that marked his painting style throughout his career. Shoshi’s major portrait of Albanian communist dictator Enver Hoxha from the 1970s—together with Odhise Paskali’s bust of the leader from the same period—became visual landmarks that defined the iconography of the era, the first appearing in most school books, the latter adorning every home in the country.

Shoshi also showed a deep affection for depicting rural life and was attracted by decorative folk art and costumes. In contrast to his representations of historical themes or compositional tableaus, his portrait work is unique because of his inability to avoid an almost personal relation to his models, allowing their inner worlds to shine through. His 1969 painting The Turner is a case in point. At that time, the party leadership’s efforts were concentrated on the industrialization of the country. The continuous focus on the youth of Albania as the motors of this transformation follows several orchestrated campaigns in the preceding years: namely the massive numbers of young “volunteers,” tasked with building the urban and rural infrastructure of the country through unpaid work; and the 1967 campaign to forbid and thus eradicate religion from public and private life, accompanied by the official declaration that Albania was the only atheist country in the world. Ideologically, both campaigns had to be presented as grass-roots movements, as if initiated by the Albanian youth in response to the “needs of modernizing the country” and the demand to “fight the obscurantism represented by religion.” Concurrently the end of the 1960s brought the opening of factories and production lines that required a more specialized workforce and a shift of the focus of propaganda. As with the previous campaigns, artists and writers were mobilized to depict scenes of factory life and the large construction sites all over the country, showing the vitality of Albanian youth.

Shoshi’s painting complies with all prerequisites of the context. Classical representations of motherhood as constitutive of women’s central role in religious art are carefully removed in the new canon. Here Shoshi depicts a young woman, a factory worker at her work station. Following his realist education, the artist paints the machinery in minute detail, keeping clear spatial perspectival relations and giving center stage to the figure, depicted in an impeccable working uniform. Yet her portrait conveys a slight vulnerability, untypical for the New Human of Albanian socialism. Although she doesn’t shy from her position, a sense of fragile innocence that comes with youth pervades her face. If other depictions of workers were supposed to arrest the viewer with their stern gaze, The Turner functions through the opposite effect—here the gaze is soft and her posture determined, but her air somehow insecure. It is real; it is human. This was probably the reason why even the Hoxha, the Albanian leader, wanted his portrait painted by Shoshi—he too wished to appear with that special human/god essence, which only divinities are made of.

—Edi Muka

Posted in Public Exhibition