We're wasting a lot of time
The painter Edi Hila (guest artist at the Villa Romana in 2007) in conversation with Angelika Stepken
In the summer of 2007 Edi Hila spent two months as guest artist at the Villa Romana. The result was a number of paintings that were heavily influenced by his experiences in and memories of Florence. In 1974 Edi Hila travelled to Florence for three months on behalf of the newly launched Albanian state television corporation, in order to take up an internship with Italy's national broadcasting company, Rai. After a commissioned work fell out of favour, when he returned to Albania he was sentenced to indefinite forced labour and was forbidden from ever exhibiting his work under the Hoxha regime. He produced his paintings over the course of over two decades, away from the eyes of the public. During this time of internal exile, his art was mainly influenced by his memories of his hometown Shkodër, near Albania's northern border, which had once had humanistic tendencies. After the collapse of the Hoxha dictatorship, Edi Hila accepted a professorial post at the National Art Academy in Tirana, where he had studied in the 1960s. He became one of the most influential and liberal teachers for a young generation of Albanian artists. In the 1990s his work turned to motifs that addressed the sometimes violent processes of transformation in Albania. Yet his paintings are always suffused with an ethereal quiet, their motifs bestowed with a veil of the unreal and the fictitious.
Edi, in the summer of 2007, you were one of the first international artists to be a guest at Villa Romana. You found yourself face to face with your 1970s experiences, when the new Albanian State Television sent you to Florence to study the RAI’s techniques. Not long after your return from Italy, you were banned from working and exhibiting your paintings. How did it feel, being back in Florence more than thirty years after this incident? And how did you return to the kind of painting you’d developed following your stay here in Florence?
Coming back to Florence after 34 years wasn’t so simple for me. Emotionally, I can divide the experience into two stages: a first nostalgic moment, because I saw the city again, the churches, Piazza della Signoria, the Arno, the pensione where I was staying. I savoured the good wine again and many other moments had stayed in my memory for years and years. The second moment is more related to the professional realm: rediscovering the great masters of the Renaissance who “were very close to me” when I returned to Albania. It was a really tough time. I came back to pick up a train of thought I’d left half-finished, no doubt with a lifetime’s experience and perhaps with artistic experience that I hadn’t possessed in the past. For me, the trip to Florence was a great opportunity to better understand the direction that my creativity was taking, and try to explore my relationship with art, and more specifically, to try to answer the many questions I asked myself, aware that I wouldn’t be able to find the right answer in books, or any other art study sources, but only through direct contact with real examples, felt deeply within, silently, without any verbalized formulation; I was trying to find my personal code of creativity.
Your painting always oscillates between the threshold of metaphysics, on the one hand, and melancholy, on the other. Although you approach your subject as a witness to reality. Where does this artistic approach come from? And what fostered it? I remember how you told me about your youth and your relationship with the modern humanistic tradition in Shkoder before the Hodscha regime.
A person’s provenance, the tradition of the place, is certainly crucial to the formation of every individual. Shkodra was an exceptional city at the time. The Communists feared that the conscience of the citizens would be awakened. In the Albania of that time, a city that already had many libraries and schools, that had already cultivated a relationship with poetry and art, and which boasted a generation of great photographers of international level (the Marubi), was not well looked upon by the Regime. My first exhibition after Communism was a series of paintings on the idea of the citizen of Shkodra, persecuted and then made to disappear. All these real and imaginary atmospheres related to the subject pushed me in a natural way toward melancholy and metaphysical situations... Religious education, whose figurative representation owes much to classic expression, also made its mark on me. Even though in terms of relevance, when it comes to inspiration, origins and the reason for this artistic attitude, my means of expression, technique, and formal language have always drawn on the classical language.
After liberation, however, you didn’t leave Albania like many other people, like many of your students from the Fine Arts Academy in Tirana. Why did you stay?
I don't know, maybe it was mainly because of my parents and family responsibilities. At the time, I was teaching at the Academy. I already had a job. I thought that democracy was a guarantee for our cultural and artistic future. I believed that we could do something in our country too. I believed in the magic of change, in freedom, in communication, in the West, in art, and in a better life...?! However, I’d never thought that it would be so hard to bring democracy to Albania. Now it's late, too late. Every day that passes I feel it moving further away. I really believed in the possibility of creating new atmospheres and the possibility of slowly cultivating new values, which we need so badly, but if we continue like this it’s going to be almost impossible, because communism still shows its head from time to time. We're wasting time, a lot of time.
You taught Adrian Paci, Anri Sala and many other artist who have garnered international acclaim for their work. What do you teach? Do you have a message for those who teach young artists?
It’s really hard to answer that question. Pedagogical ”technique” is linked to the fact that until now our Academy was nothing more than an Academy of Socialist Realism. It wasn’t just the program. Many of the professors had that mentality as well. Outside the Academy, many artists were averse to every kind of contemporary form or idea. The level of information, possibilities for workshops, exchange between professors and students, between our academy and other western academies, were all non-existent. It was too early. Those years were difficult but at the same time, interesting. In this context, my main concern was to find the right way to explain these phenomena. In the 1990s, nobody knew anything about the concept of post-modernism, and worse still, the idea of installation, video art or photography as artistic mediums was almost unacceptable. They weren’t considered art. Accepting another programme at the Academy, based on another structure, with three or four dimensions, wasn't easy. In this transitory situation I did everything possible to ensure that these intelligent talented young people wouldn’t take the wrong road. I tried to guide them toward an atmosphere without programming. I told them that only by believing in their own truths would they find the “new”. And if you ask me what message I have for teachers, it’s just as hard to find an answer. My pedagogical behaviour was actually conditioned by my students. I respected every one of them. Each student to me is a proposal unto itself. In my opinion, a teacher’s work in an art school is a creative activity.
What’s the situation like today at the Academy? I remember a few years ago that even among the teachers there were still tensions of “historic” proportions between those who let themselves be easily seduced by the market, and those who played a role in the local and national networks. What has changed in recent years?
When the political system changed, the reference criteria also changed. Comparisons with other countries, with the art system, with criticism, and a series of relational communication elements that we had no knowledge of before, revealed the backwardness of many teachers and artists (as you say, a “historic” number), diminishing their resistance. Their only means of survival was to take power, to control the institutions and activities for their own interests. Giving a political taint to artistic activities and creativity means destroying it. As for the market, on the other hand, this is something random that remains outside the art system. The only change in the Academy was the Bologna Charter, which generated numerous difficulties within the school system because it is a stretch that has nothing to do with an art school.
What has changed in recent years for the contemporary art audience? Museums, galleries, project spaces, international exchanges?
Without a doubt, the Biennials in Tirana, Onufri international and a few other sporadic activities have played a very important and positive role for contemporary art audiences. Generally speaking the public accepts contemporary art. Young people have the necessary predisposition. On the other hand, there's very little in terms of museums, very few international exchanges, few projects, but above all, a lack of motivation. For example, I often wonder whether it makes sense or not for someone to exhibit their work these days: no gallery can guarantee minimum sales. There's no criticism. There's only one tired collector who rarely buys and possibly at a ridiculously low price, according to his personal and unrefined taste.
You speak Italian. You worked with a gallery in Milan. What’s your relationship with Italy today? How do you see the current situation?
Currently, I don't work with Italy very much, but I've been working with a gallery in Paris for two years, the JGMgalerie. The question you asked me first, about why I didn't leave the country, has a lot to do with this issue: it's true that I should already have put a distance between me and that country... It's not enough to communicate through emails, or via the internet. You have to communicate directly. Villa Romana was an important experience for me. It gave me food for thought that continued to make me think after as well, an experience that stayed with me. It was a complex situation, but without a doubt, a profound and spiritual one. A great experience. Thank you!
What are you dealing with in your painting these days? And the reasons? The artistic aspects?
Lately, I've been working on themes that arise more or less from the current situation, loaded with political tension. At the moment, I’m preparing a series of urban situations, forgotten and pain-filled cities and suburbs. At the same time, I want to do another series on the problem of violence. But the problems that one person lives with are not necessarily interesting to other people as well.