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Friday, July 24, 2015

Edi Rama

Communist Albania before 1992.                              
Prime Minister of Albania
Even in our era, few artists have become world leaders; though some leaders have become artists (as with George W. Bush). President Eisenhower also painted, as did Winston Churchill. But all of these world leaders took up painting as a hobby long after they'd achieved some degree of fame. Edi Rama was a painter first, a professor at the Albanian Academy of Arts, born in Tirana, the capital of Albania in 1964. Albania fell under the Soviet realm of influence after WW II. Rama, therefore, grew up under Communist rule, in a highly isolationist society, strictly regulated in a manner not unlike North Korea today. Only in the fine arts was there any sign of outside ferment, and only then at a subterranean level. As in most communist countries the arts were seen as a tool of the state. One had only to gaze forlornly at what passed for urban architecture to assess the drab, colorless, desolate "state of the arts" in Albania (above). The communists were mostly preoccupied with building concrete bunkers by the hundreds of thousands, in every part of the tiny country to note the irrational paranoia which gripped the nation's leaders. Estimates are that there are today one bunker for every four Albanians (below). It was the one thing the Communists did well. Demolition experts say they are nearly impossible to destroy.

No Communist official ever explained just who or what their
hundreds of thousands of bunkers were intended to defend against.
Some of the domed reminders of Albania's bunker mentality have been painted bright colors and even turned into homes. Most are simply abandoned eyesores (above). In fact, under communist rule, most of Albania was an eyesore. As a young man, Edi Rama turned his talents not toward a moribund art world but to sports. He was a member of the Albanian National Basketball Team. Then, during the late 1980s, his basketball skills waning, Rama turned to art, having some success displaying his work both in Albania as well as France and the United States. He also co-wrote a book, Refleksione, featuring his art. Then, in 1989, everything changed.

With the fall of the Berlin wall, 1989, the Communist nations went down like dominoes.
Edi Rama by Enobar
Communism collapsed as a viable political system in Eastern Europe, first in Poland, then in other Soviet bloc countries like dominoes toppling along the backside of the iron curtain, culminating in the fall of the Soviet Union itself on Christmas Day, 1991. By 1992, the heavy hand of Communist rule was lifted from Albania. And, much as was happening in Tito's Yugoslavia, political chaos ensued. At first, Rama was a part of the democratic movement in his country, but soon, disillusioned, he had a falling out with the snarled leadership of the new freedom movement. Now married to a young actress, Rama took his wife and their son, leaving Albania for France where his career had shown some promise. However, in returning to his native country in 1997, he was physically assaulted just outside his home and nearly beaten to death. Welcome to politics Albanian style!

A new look for the city of Tiran--,
What happens when a painter
becomes the mayor.

As so often happens when a repressive regime falls, once the dust settles, the new leadership often comes from the academic intelligentsia. In Albania, that included Edi Rama. He was asked by the then Prime Minister, Fatos Nano, to become Minister of Culture. Shortly thereafter he set about razing illegal structures built during the communist era, and embarking upon an ambitious course of urban planning. During this time, Tirana and other cities in Albania were just plain ugly. So, being a painter, he set about creating brightly colored designs for the horrid communist buildings, translating the drab to daring (bottom). As every politician, and virtually every artist quickly discovers, you can't please everyone. However in Rama's case he pleased enough of the citizens of Tirana to see him elected mayor in 2000, then to a second term in 2003, and a third term in 2007, before becoming his country's Prime Minister. The nice part about being an artist/politician is that you can design your own campaign materials from buttons to billboards and busses (below).

Who could resist voting for a man brave enough to paint his
campaign bus purple, red, blue, yellow, white, orange, and green?
A Rama doodle, on official
Prime Minister stationery.
Today, Rama is much too busy painting the town pink (among other eye-catching colors) and in fact, governing the entire country of Albania as Prime Minister, to do much in the way of personal art. However he still tends to doodle a lot (left, and in color, no less) while brightening the spirits of not just Tirana, but now all of Albania. The before and after shot (below) and the yellow apartments, (below, right) are quite striking, but not at all exclusive to Albania. When we traveled to he former communist country of Estonia a few years ago, I saw much the same tendency there, with entire, windowless facades of communist "architecture" painted a single, shade of lime green, for example. I must admit, however, nothing we saw there could match the wild boldness of the artist who became a politician.

Before and after Edi Rama, Tirana, Albania.
The Yellow Apartments,
More recently, Rama has had to turn his artist's instincts toward a new, much more pressing problem, the looting of his country's cultural heritage, especially the art of many small, local churches around the country, where security is woefully lacking or, in fact, nil. Religious icons and other works of art were being stolen by large art theft organizations, then smuggled from the country to be sold to unscrupulous or unwitting buyers for enormous profits. Below, Edi Rama inspects art confiscated from a sizable ring recently nabbed by police.

As many as 1,000 works of art, that were destined to leave the country.
Tirana tints, the ultimate giant canvas for a painter.


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