B-side and Wavelengths - Two Artistic Approaches from an Albanian Perspective
The Tirana Art Lab Viewpoint
When I was approached in October 2017 by Frank Baumann from the Goethe-Institut in Belgrade, with an inquiry for the Tirana Art Lab to participate in a regional project dealing with Forced Labour during the German occupation in the Second World War artistically, for a few minutes I felt quite challenged. Challenged for several reasons; firstly due to the distant historical period that I as a curator and the Albanian artists were invited to reflect upon; secondly due to the differences between the German occupation of Albanian territories compared to that of Montenegro and Serbia; thirdly due to the unconventional approach to historical events through artistic forms; and fourthly because of the commissional nature of the assignment. Indeed, it took me some time to examine the undertaking from several points of view and to express the interest of the Tirana Art Lab in participating in the aforementioned project. Finally, the decision was grounded in the Tirana Art Lab’s mission itself, which is to focus on projects that initiate and support new productions by contemporary artists, that critically engage with artistic, cultural, and social issues of transitional and contemporary societies. We believe that the contemporary present is the result of the past and that we participate in the shaping the future.
In this sense the project Missing Stories. Forced Labour under the Nazi Occupation in South East Europe. An Artistic Approach. fits well with our ongoing interest in facing or re-elaborating the past through artistic discourse. An interest that was initiated with the long-term regional collaboration project Heroes We Love. Ideology, Identity and Socialist Art in the New Europe, which took place over the years 2016 and 2018. It is also compatible with our mission to develop projects that engage with artists whose work is process- and research-oriented. By doing so we hope to approach peculiar topics like significant historical events through a deeper and wider perspective while keeping the balance between aesthetics, ethics, politics, and poetics harmonized. Although commissioned works of art can sometimes be understood as limiting or imposing, we and the artists believe that they offer an opportunity both from the financial and urgency point of view to produce high quality art works that serve a purpose as well.
The Albanian Context
Contrary to other territories of the region that were under occupation for a longer period of time, the Nazi occupation of Albania was short and lasted from September 1943 until November 1944, following the capitulation of Italian forces. While the autonomous Albanian government – set up by the Germans – was collaborating with the occupiers, several resistance groups, most actively with the National Liberation Movement (NLF), did not accept the occupation and did fight against it. The Germans undertook a series of offensives against the NLF including the Winter Offensive which put the NLF in considerable difficulties but did not manage to destroy them completely. Through the different offensives many people were captured, killed, and serious damages were caused. Nevertheless, the NLF continued its attacks on the Germans and on 17th September 1944 Tirana was liberated. The partisans entirely liberated Albania from German occupation on 29th November 1944. Although during the German occupation many Albanian political prisoners were captured and many were killed, the Wehrmacht did not officially implement Labour Service in recruiting workers for the Reich like in Kosovo where the Commissioner for Labour Service was active. Nevertheless, many of the political prisoners were kept in detention camps in Albania or sent to concentration and labour camps outside Albania. Among them are 133 Albanians who died in the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria, while many were liberated by American troops on 5th May 1945 and returned to Albania. The names of the 133 Albanian victims are mentioned on the memorial board at the Mauthausen Memorial. Among those who returned was Beqir Zhepa who was captured when he was 14 years old for collaboration with the partisans in Peza. Kudret Kokoshi, a well-educated young man, who was elected Head of the Committee of Intellectual Youth of Kosovo, was captured in May 1944 for antifascist activities and was detained in a camp in Pristina before his deportation to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp. He also returned to Albania, and both Zhepa and Kokoshi, as many other returned prisoners, were imprisoned again by the Communist Regime for agitation and propaganda and collaboration with traitors.
A transport list from August 1944 of individuals arrested by the Nazi Regime in Kosovo, detained at a holding camp in Pristina waiting to be deported further to the Reich, includes 789 Albanians, Serbs, Bosniaks and Jews, whose fate is unknown. The stated reasons for being captured are, among others: communist; hostile to Germany; partisan and transferred as a communist from an Albanian prison.
From those who were imprisoned in Mauthausen and survived we know that the prisoners were exploited in the production of bricks and stones for Hitler’s monumental construction projects. The Mauthausen and Gusen quarries were sites of forced labour and places of annihilation in equal measure.
The Artistic Approach
Guided by the curatorial approach of the Tirana Art Lab and the specificity of the Albanian case during the Nazi occupation I invited two emerging Albanian artists to create new art works for the project.
Donika Çina usually works with video art, video installation, and short movies. The subject of most of her works is she herself, her biography and the story of her family or those surrounding her. In her works she compares what has happened and what is happening from the different perspectives of the involved. First, she investigates the physical and the emotional aspects of a situation to then further proceed in elaborating more universal questions and themes like the gain of social status and how it is perceived or judged by society. Her works often concentrate on capturing those specific moments where the inner perception of the individual and the exterior collective consciousness clash. By dealing with real stories and characters as well as historical events her works often operate in the field of historical documentation. The process plays an important role in her practice and she aims at simultaneously documenting formal aspects while experiencing it. One of Çina’s most significant works is the Untitled (Family Tree), a 45-channel video installation reconstructing the genealogical tree of the artist from her mother’s side. The 45 videos are stand-ins for the 45 members of the family and give a place to every member of the 4 generations, including people who passed away and children, albeit not all of them speak. The power of this work consists in its ability to reflect on the political, social, economic, and historical changes of Albania during the last 100 years, from an individual’s point of view.
For Missing Stories. Forced Labour under the Nazi Occupation in South East Europe. An Artistic Approach, Çina has developed the video installation B-side which is a continuation of the work Untitled (Family Tree), and which reconstructs her father’s genealogical tree and story. As a starting point, B-side takes the murder of the artist’s great-grandfather by the Nazis during the occupation of Albania. Consisting of interviews that Çina has done with relatives of different generations, the work gives us an overview of the evolvement of events and their impact on Albanian society since the Second World War. Notions of nationalism, heroism, and victimhood among others are questioned, while memory as a fixed concept is being put under examination.
Remijon Pronja’s practice encompasses videos, installations, paintings and drawings that shed light on social issues and contemporary states of being, such as phobias, homesickness, migration and sense of loss. By using language and music as a metaphor, his works – although reflecting on the conditions of the society he is part of – obtain a universal dimension. His works intentionally create a paradoxical atmosphere that aims to bring the audience out of their comfort zone in order to confront them with a reality that they consciously or unconsciously escape or avoid. Although the topics he deals with are politically charged and at times evoke distress and pain, his poetical approach invites the viewer to find their own way in approaching and dealing with them. One of Pronja’s most recent mixed media installations, Someone Made a Choice, takes as a starting point the fate of those who tried to escape from the country during the Communist Regime by swimming over lakes and the sea to Albania’s neighboring countries. Pronja was particularly influenced by a story of a young man who managed to escape alive and travelled to the United States of America in order to become a priest. By using sculpture and drawings and the element of water as a connecting element, Pronja manages to create a work that reflects on the past of his country and at the same time on the contemporary European migration crisis.
For Missing Stories. Forced Labour under the Nazi Occupation in South East Europe. An Artistic Approach, Pronja has developed the video installation Wavelengths which aims to reconstruct and retell the story of Abedin Beqir Destani who was captured by the Nazis and deported to a concentration camp somewhere between Slovenia and Austria, probably a sub-camp of Mauthausen near the Loibl Pass. Thanks to his profession, he managed to survive while working as an electrician, and finally returned to Albania alive to be then imprisoned again by the Communist Regime as a war criminal. Now the story of Abedin Beqir Destani is being told by his son and his two grandchildren. In the work Wavelengths, Pronja tackles several issues which are relevant for our project in general; firstly he retells a story of a man representative for many others whose destiny is still unknown; secondly he highlights the problems and limitation of reconstructing historical narratives; and thirdly he makes us aware of the impossibility of visualizing the horror of such a horrific chapter of human history as the Holocaust, the Shoah, and the Nazi crimes against humanity.
Pronja’s ability to tell stories through objects is well-demonstrated in this new work where the meaning of the used object is transformed and transferred in order to create a variety of interconnections within the work.
With these two artistic approaches from an Albanian perspective we hope to give to the broader project and viewers in different countries the possibility to interconnect with these specific stories and situations. Only through connection is it possible to share and create awareness of the realities of others even when they date back in history.
 Bernd Jürgen Fischer, Albania at War, 1939-1945, (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1999), p. 195.
 “Abschlußbericht der Deutschen Wehrmacht in Albanien, typescript in the National Archives, Washington DC, Captured German Records, Roll T501/258”, Translated from the German by Robert Elsie, Albanian History, http://www.albanianhistory.net/1945_German-Wehrmacht/
 Alice Elizabeth Taylor, “The Albanian Who Walked from Mauthausen to Hoxha`s Stalinist Hell,” exit, 27th October 2018, https://exit.al/en/2018/10/27/the-albanian-who-walked-from-mauthausen-to-hoxhas-stalinist-hell/
 See article about Kudret Kokoshi, https://sq.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kudret_Kokoshi
 “Prisoners of Nazis in Kosovo”, Translated from the German by Robert Elsie, Albanian history, http://www.albanianhistory.net/1944_Prisoners-of-the-Nazis-in-Kosovo/index.html
 See “Forced Labour in the Quarries”, https://www.mauthausen-memorial.org/en/History/The-Mauthausen-Concentration-Camp-19381945/Forced-Labour-in-the-Quarries
Adela Demetja is a curator and author born in 1984 in Tirana, Albania. She, holds a master in “Curatorial and Critical Studies” of Städelschule and Goethe University, Frankfurt/Main Germany. Demetja was firstly trained as a painter and studied from 2002 to 2006 at Academy of Art in Tirana, Albania.
She is the director of Tirana Art Lab – Center for Contemporary Art, Albanians leading independent art institution, which she established in 2010. As an independent curator she has organized, managed and curated numerous international exhibitions and events in different European countries and the US. In 2018 she was awarded the CEC ArtsLink International Fellowship and was a curator in residency at Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, Oregon, US. In 2016 she was appointed curator of Focus: Ex- Yugoslavia and Albania at viennacontemporary international art fair, Vienna Austria. In 2015 she co- curated the Third Edition of the International Contemporary Project Biennale D-0 Ark Underground taking place in the anti-atom shelter build by Tito in Konjic, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Other thematic exhibitions she has curated include: „9 Hours Away“, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, US; The aesthetic of the small act, at Action Field Kodra Festival in Thessaloniki, Voices of Truth, in Villa Romana in Florence, Italy. As an Author she has been writing exhibitions reviews, catalogue text and articles for different online platforms and publications in Albania and Europe.