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‘Beyond the Grave / Përtej Varrezave’ Symposium Summary

In the summer of 2018, the Laboratory for Albanian Arts and Culture (LACA) organized a symposium entitled Beyond the Grave [Përtej Varrezave] dedicated to the topic of dead body politics in Albania. Held on August 3 at Zeta Art Gallery in Tirana, the symposium considered the ways that shifting cultural landscapes, alterations of the built environment, patterns of commemoration, and processes of historical erasure intersect in the context of modern Albania. Taking anthropologist Katherine Verdery’s now-classic analysis of the political role played by dead bodies as a starting point, the symposium examined the interplay of memory and history before, during, and after socialism in Albania. 

Presenters at the symposium included Stavri Çifligu, Arba Bekteshi, Raino Isto, Pleurad Xhafa, Kailey Rocker, and Lory Amy. Their presentations analyzed phenomena ranging from the transformation of Tirana’s memorial spaces during the modernization of the city center; to the function of public death notifications posted at specific locations around Tirana; to the postsocialist-era construction of memorials commemorating youth killed during the period of the communist regime. An audience of artists, anthropologists, curators, and members of the public contributed to a lively discussion around these and related issues. 

Symposium Budget*
Own contributions:
Planning and organization 108.9exch rate x 4people x 100$ = 43,560 ALL
Talks/Presentations 7 presenters and moderator x 100$ x 108.9 = 76,230 ALL
Gallery staff: 12,555 ALL
Lunch & coffee: 8,116 ALL (Arba Bekteshi)
Own contributions total: 140,461 ALL
In-kind contributions:
Venue: 12,555 ALL
Lunch & coffee: 16,232 ALL American Council Bursaries (Raino Isto and Kailey Rocker)
Event total: 169,248 ALL
*LACA is committed to transparency in the sphere of arts and cultural programming. We have made every effort to reflect all the funding sources that made this event possible.

“You Be My History for Me”: Research Project Summary

This post presents a short summary of Raino Isto’s current research project associated with LACA. It is one of a series of short biographies by the founding members of LACAdetailing their current research projects. 

Broadly speaking, my research focuses on the ways that socialist monumentality developed in various contexts in Southeastern Europe during the period of late socialism (roughly the 1960s through the 1980s), and on the ways that contemporary artists respond to socialist monumental heritage in the postsocialist period. One of my current projects focuses on the ways that Socialist Realist art in the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania figured the female body, with a particular focus on sculptural production in the late 1960s and early 70s. I am particularly interested in public sculptures of women who were considered to be ‘martyrs’ for the socialist cause—because they were executed by fascist occupiers, because they were killed by anti-communist factions within Albanian society, or because they died while laboring for the ‘building of socialism’ in the country. These women were figured as sacrifices for the creation of a new form of society, and the methods by which their sacrifice were presented to the public can—I think—tell us a great deal about the stakes that inhered in the materiality of women’s bodies during socialism.

Socialist Realism has been described by some authors (cf. Christina Kiaer 2005, and 2014) as an art form that sought to create a ‘collective body,’ a social multiplicity that was unified affectively and emotionally in various ways. Others have pointed out the ways that Socialist Realism used images of gender difference to reinforce social hierarchies and solidify the emotional resonance of the leader cult (cf. Reid 1998). However, the majority of focused studies on the relationship between Socialist Realism and the gendered body have examined the 1930s in the Soviet Union. Sustained engagement with the question of the representation of gender difference in the fine arts (and even in popular culture) in non-Soviet countries, and in the late socialist period, is still lacking. Furthermore, the Albanian case has suffered from particular neglect; few studies (for example, Ikonomi and Woodcock 2014; Prifti 1975) have attempted to understand how gender was actually constructed in socialist Albania, or how the rhetoric of women’s emancipation interacted with other regimes of representation either within the country or abroad.

My investigation focuses on a monument inaugurated on October 24, 1971, in the northern Albanian town of Rrëshen, commemorating the ‘Four Heroines of Mirdita.’ Marta Tarazhi, Prenda Tarazhi, Shkurte Skuraj, and Mrikë Lokja were four young women killed by anti-communist reactionaries in the north of Albania during the early years after the socialist regime took power in the country. All four of the women had played roles in the socialist project of women’s emancipation in the relatively conservative, historically Catholic Mirdita region, and likewise all four had travelled to central Albania to work on railroad construction as part of a project to integrate women living in the north into socialist life by involving them in the processes of industrial modernization. The story of their deaths became an important aspect of the narrative of women’s emancipation, a project that dictator Enver Hoxha sought to emphasize especially during the country’s Cultural Revolution (carried out in the late 1960s and early 70s). The monument to the Four Heroines, a figural ensemble created by four sculptors, was inaugurated during a period of intensified monumental construction in Albania, and the process of its creation was frequently cited as an exemplary instance of collective artistic production.

Looking to work such as Tatjana Aleksić’s (2013) analysis of the significance of sacrificed bodies for community construction in Southeastern Europe, I consider how Socialist Realist sculpture—a figurative paradigm that necessarily grappled with the proper role and relationships of bodies to each other—addressed the material, affective valences of female bodies, especially when those bodies were created by male sculptors. In addition to the Four Heroines of Mirdita monument, I examine artworks commemorating Shkurte Pal Vata—a young woman who died while working to construct a railroad in central Albania—and Bule Naipi and Persefoni Kokëdhima—two women who were killed by the Nazi occupation in Albania. I also consider the significance of these works in relation to Janaq Paço’s nudes, which the artist was famously ordered to destroy, because they represented decadent, bourgeois sensibilities. From these case studies, I work towards establishing a broader theory showing the ways that socialist artworks depicted the sacrifice of women’s bodies in ways that allowed for both the materialization and deferral of historical responsibility, narrative significance, and affective labor.

Raino Isto received his PhD in Art History from the University of Maryland, College Park. His dissertation is entitled “Monumental Endeavors: Sculpting History in Southeastern Europe, 1960–2016.” He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, working on connections between socialist monumental production and postsocialist contemporary art.


Aleksić, Tatjana. The Sacrificed Body: Balkan Community Building and the Fear of

Freedom. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.

Ikonomi, Luljeta, and Shannon Woodcock. “Imoraliteti në Familje: Nxitja e Ankesave të

Grave për të Përforcuar Pushtetin e Partisë në Revolucionin Kulturor Shqiptar.”

Përpjekja 32–33 (Spring 2014): 153–180.

Kiaer, Christina. “Was Socialist Realism Forced Labor? The Case of Alexandr Deineka in the 1930s.” Oxford Art Journal 28: 3 (2005): 321–345.

Kiaer, Christina. “Lyrical Socialist Realism.” October 147 (Winter 2014): 56–77.

Prifti. Peter. “The Albanian Women’s Struggle for Emancipation.” Southeastern Europe

2 (1975): 109–129.

Reid, Susan E. “All Stalin’s Women: Gender and Power in Soviet Art in the 1930s.” Slavic Review 57:1 (Spring 1998): 133–173.

Symposium: Beyond the Grave – Përtej Varrezave

Beyond the Grave: A Symposium on the Politics of Dead Bodies in (Post)Socialist Albania

How do the bodies of the dead affect political actions and discourses? How have practices of commemoration changed from the period of late socialism to the present context of postsocialist neoliberalism? What signs of death prevail in communal spaces, and how do they shape the lives of residents? How do images of the deceased affect the shape of public space in postsocialist contexts? How do the dead, as points of interconnectedness, influence the (re)constitution of sociality of the living? How do we (re)claim the lives and preserve the memories of socialism’s victims? Since the publication of Katherine Verdery’s The Political Lives of Dead Bodies in 1999, the topics of (re)burial, exhumation, and commemoration in formerly socialist countries have remained central to anthropological, historical, and artistic investigations of (post)socialist society. Commemoration and monumentalization were key aspects of many socialist identity-building projects, especially given the centrality of the antifascist struggle to the narrative of socialist states. At the same time, traditional modes of commemoration also continued and developed during the socialist years in more localized, unofficial, secretive ways. After the end of socialism, official and unofficial modes of remembering alike have both been revived and have changed as modes of memory and ideas about the body have transformed.

This symposium seeks to investigate these themes in the context of Albania, examining both official and vernacular culture. The presenters consider the diverse ways that the dead have been and are remembered, and how these memories shape the field of politics, broadly understood. The presenters hope to offer a ground from which new scholarly endeavors, new policies, and new artistic inventions might productively develop in Albania.

Përtej Varrezave: Një Simpozium mbi Politikat e Trupave të të Vdekurve në Shqipërinë (Post)Socialiste

Në çfarë mënyrash ndikojnë trupat e të vderkurve te veprimet dhe diskurset politike? Si kanë ndryshuar praktikat përkujtimore nga periudha e socializmit të vonë deri në kontekstin e pranishëm të neoliberalizmit postsocialist? Cilat shenja të vdekjes mbizotërojnë në hapësira të përbashkëta, dhe si formësojnë ato jetët e banorëve? Si ndikojnë imazhet e të vdekurve në formësimin e hapësirave publike në kontekste postsocialiste? Si ndikojnë të vdekurit, si pika ndërlidhwse, në (ri)themelimin e socializimit ndërmjet të gjallëve? Si mund të (ri)pohojmë jetët dhe të ruajmë memoriet e viktimave të socializmit? Prej publikimit të librit Jetët Politike të Trupave të të Vdekurve nga Katherine Verdery në 1999, çështjet e (ri)varrimit, zhvarrosjes, dhe përkujtimit në shtete ish-socialiste kanë qenë në qendër të humultimeve dhe investigimeve antropologjike, historike dhe artistike në shoqëritë (post)socialiste. Përkujtimi dhe monumentalizimi kanë qenë aspekte kyçe të shumë projekteve socialiste me qëllim ngritjen e identiteteve të caktuara, sidomos kur bëhet fjalë për qendërsinë e luftës antifashiste në narrativën e vendeve socialiste. Në të njëjtën kohë, mënyra tradicionale përkujtimi gjithashtu vazhduan dhe u zhvilluan përgjatë viteve të socializmit në mënyra më të lokalizuara, jo-zyrtare dhe të fshehta. Pas fundit të socializmit, mënyra përkujtimi si zyrtare dhe jo-zyrtare janë rijetësuar dhe kanë ndryshuar si mënyra të memories, dhe idetë mbi trupin janë transformuar.

Ky simpozium ka si qëllim investigimin e këtyre temave në Shqipëri, duke ekzaminuar kulturat si zyrtare dhe vernakulare. Prezantuesit konsiderojnë mënyrat e ndryshme në të cilat të vdekurit janë kujtuar dhe kujtohen, dhe si këto kujtime formësojnë fushën e politikave, në kuptimin e saj më të gjerë. Prezantuesit shpresojnë të pajisin me një bazë nga e cila përpjekje të reja akademike, politika të reja, dhe ndërhyrje të reja artistike mund të zhvillohen në mënyrë produktive në Shqipëri.

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