For years we have witnessed how Edi Rama’s ascent to power in his own country has facilitated and enabled the rise of his profile as a practicing artist on the international art scene, especially since becoming Prime Minister in 2013.
We are not immune to how attractive the idea of an artist-politician is at a time when mainstream politics has severe difficulties imagining any future at all. The artist-politician sells — both his work and his policies. Our concern then is that the rise of Edi Rama’s profile as a practicing artist on the international art scene, aided by a select group of artists, curators, and collectors, instead of drawing more attention to his politics has, paradoxically enough, completely eclipsed them.
The time has come to look beyond Edi Rama’s ubiquitous painting of the façades in 2001 and turn our attention instead to his actual, recent policies, in particular in the context of his response to the global Covid-19 pandemic.
Edi Rama’s government has systematically undermined freedom of speech and expression. Journalists are systematically attacked — both verbally and physically, threatened and blackmailed, and laid off for reporting on corruption and organized crime, or simply for criticising the Rama government.
Television programs can and have been shut down abruptly, including Públicus in 2016 just as it was about to air an exposé on the death of Ardit Gjoklaj, a child laborer killed in a work accident on a government owned landfill site. Indeed, entire television channels have been shut down, the latest being Ora News this month for allegedly violating social distancing measures but in fact because it is virtually the only remaining TV station critical of the government.
All other major news stations are owned by businessmen close to Edi Rama’s government, while he communicates mainly through social media, including his Facebook video channel ERTV, whose extensive funding sources remain unknown and unaccounted for.
Media watchdog organizations like the European Center for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), the International Press Institute (IPI), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have repeatedly called out the deterioration of free press in Albania.
Their condemnation reached momentum at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, when the Albanian government repeatedly tried to push through parliament the so-called “Anti-Defamation” bill, which gives an agency answering to the Council of Ministers the power to fine and even shut down online media with minimal evidence and without any oversight from the judiciary. Around the same time, the Albanian Parliament actually passed an even more disturbing piece of legislation, the so-called “Anti-KÇK” bill, thereby paving the way for the creation of an “elite” police force that, among other things, can conduct electronic surveillance and home searches, as well as stop and detain “suspects” without a court order.
While the violation of human rights by and under Edi Rama’s government is not new, the creation of a legal framework for the abolition or suspension of the fundamental rights and freedoms of Albanian citizens by the executive in toto is exceptionally alarming. Edi Rama has ruthlessly exploited four key moments in order to achieve this.
Namely, the institutional and power vacuum created by the so-called “Justice Reform” since 2016, as a result of which Albania has neither a fully functional Constitutional Court nor a functional Supreme Court; the decision of the MPs of the two main opposition parties to rescind their mandates in early 2019, as a result of which Albania does not have a functional parliament; the one-party local elections held in June 2019, enabling the Socialist Party to gain control of virtually all municipalities across the country; and, finally, the catastrophic earthquake of November 26, 2019, and the Covid-19 pandemic as a result of which Albania has been under a state of emergency that is continually extended, sometimes legally and sometimes not, and has seen the ushering in of a slew of draconian emergency measures.
It should come as no surprise then that, in stark contrast with Edi Rama’s own artistic career, cultural life in Albania has become increasingly precarious. Sources of funding for independent cultural producers are scarce and what non-state funding there is gets mostly channeled into the government’s vanity projects. Thus, whereas unaccounted sums of money were spent on the contemporary art center inside Edi Rama’s offices, all other national cultural institutions are systematically underfunded and mismanaged.
Cultural heritage is threatened too, especially the Roman and Byzantine archeological heritage of Albania. Similarly, most of the cultural monuments in Tirana dating to the Ottoman period have already been destroyed in order to make room for government sponsored construction projects, and plans are currently underway to demolish the National Gallery of Arts, another architectural landmark and cultural heritage site.
The demolition of the historic National Theatre building on May 17, 2020, only two days before Albania’s severe COVID-19 lockdown was lifted, marks a point of no return. Completed by the Italian fascists in 1939, it also functioned as an important reminder of communist rule in Albania, with the first high profile Albanian communist show trial being held inside it in 1945.
The theater’s recent demolition came after two years of resistance by actors, writers, artists, and activists, only weeks after the building was nominated one of the seven most endangered cultural heritage sites in Europe by Europa Nostra, and after the European Commission called for dialogue about its preservation. This action was preceded by several unconstitutional and illegal acts at various levels of government, while a constitutional court complaint and an anti-corruption investigation against the ownership transfer of the theater from the national to local government was still pending.
A large part of the publicly held land on which the National Theater stood is slated to be turned into privately owned highrise-buildings and shopping malls on the most expensive piece of real-estate in Tirana. The government has publicly admitted that it has no budget to rebuild the theater.
This building, and everything that was inside — costumes, props, and archives of more than eighty years of Albanian theater history — was demolished in the middle of the night on Sunday May 17, 2020, accompanied by wanton police violence, shutting down of all electronic communications in the area, and random arrests.
The “values” and “colors” of Edi Rama’s work as an artist, his speeches and interviews on the international art scene, and the promotional machinery that surrounds his career differ like day and night from the policies his regime is implementing in Albania.
Therefore, we, the undersigned, strongly call upon those in the international art community whose practices align with progressive politics, ethical work practices, and a critical engagement with civil society, to rethink their commitments — and the validity and honesty of these commitments — when collaborating with and promoting the work of an artist–politician whose practice goes against these commitments and who has shown to be an opponent of progressive, democratic, and inclusive ideals in his own country.
We call for solidarity from the international art world with the citizens, activists, and artists of Albania in condemning the actions of the government of Edi Rama, and a thorough reflection on the ethical and artistic implications of exhibiting and supporting his work and by extension his politics.
Feature image: Blerta Hoçia.
This open letter was originally published by Hyperallergic, here. It has been signed almost 200 times at the time of publishing. The original signatories are listed below, while further signatories are being added, here.
Jonida Gashi, academic, cultural theorist, and co-founder of DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art, Tirana;
Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, journalist and publisher, The Hague/Tirana/Santa Barbara;
Armando Lulaj, artist and filmmaker, co-founder of DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art, Tirana;
Adela Halo, public policy analyst and anti-corruption expert, researcher in 18th century history of ideas at Queen Mary’s, London;
Elvis Hoxhaj, human rights activist, The Hague/Tirana;
Raino Isto, editor, ARTMargins Online;
Dritan Hyska, artist, Tirana/Berlin;
Alketa Ramaj, artist, Tirana;
Ergin Zaloshnja, artist and founder of SPUTNIK fanzine, Tirana;
Pleurad Xhafa, artist and co-founder of DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art, Tirana;
Wendy Morava, scriptwriter and editor, Tirana;
Xheni Karaj, LGBT activist and director of Aleanca LGBT, Tirana;
Eriola Pira, curator, Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The New School, New York;
Sonila Meço, producer, journalist and TV anchor, Tirana;
Adi Krasta, producer, journalist and TV anchor, Tirana/Prishtina;
Wolfgang Staehle, artist, New York;
Katerina Kolozova, Director of the Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities Skopje, Professor of Philosophy, Epistemology and Gender Studies at ISSH and University American College, Skopje;
Elvira Dones, novelist and documentary filmmaker, Switzerland;
Vasco Dones, journalist, Switzerland;
Marco Mazzi, photographer and painter, Florence;
Neritan Sejamini, editor-in-chief, Exit Albania, Tirana;
Elidor Mëhilli, Associate Professor, City University of New York, New York;
Silvana Toska, Assistant Professor, Davidson College, North Carolina;
Adrian Paci, artist, director of Art House, Shkodër/Milan;
Eni Derhemi, artist, art historian, and researcher in post-dictatorship Albanian art, Bologna/Tirana;
Alice Elizabeth Taylor, journalist and media freedom activist, Tirana;
Vjosa Musliu, postdoctoral fellow, Free University of Brussels, Belgium;
Barbara Halla, assistant editor, Asymptote Journal, Tirana/Paris;
Fatos Lubonja, writer and journalist, Tirana;
Diana Malaj, writer and co-founder of activist group ATA, Kamza;
Vasilika Laçi, civil rights activist and feminist, Tirana;
Lori Lako, visual artist, Florence/Tirana;
Besar Likmeta, editor, BIRN Albania;
Gjergji Erëbara, journalist, BIRN Albania;
Hana Qena, artist and co-founder of HAVEIT, Tirana;
Alketa Sylaj, artist and co-founder of HAVEIT, Prishtina;
Arbërore Sylaj, artist and co-founder of HAVEIT, Prishtina;
Sofia Kalo, anthropologist and researcher, Chicago.