The Albanian painter Enkelejd Zonja (guest artist at Villa Romana 2012) in conversation with Angelika Stepken
You work with quite large-scale figurative painting formats, depicting surreal scenes that seem to be burdened by history/stories. The recent paintings are worked up from a dark ground, and the people, puppets and skins are staged in a strange public-private space. What relation does this world of your paintings have with the internal/external world you are living in?
Actually, in the recent paintings my intention was to play with a different tonality. At first I wanted them to be monochrome, but I found the process a bit boring. So I thought that maybe I should put some colour into them. It was a kind of need to change something in relation to what I had done before. I mean different in terms of the tonality of colour, but sticking to the same approach as that of the past paintings and how I see the things around me.
The recent works are rather uncontrolled compositions, in the sense that they do not relate a specific story, because I’m not interested in telling a story, but just in creating a very complex moment, or modifying and breaking the logic of narration.
I like to surprise myself by inventing something that I have never seen in a certain way in real life. I try to invent something using different stories as inspiration – from history, from childhood, from the media and internet to everyday life, books and so on. All the images that strike me and that stick in my mind create a kind of chaos, where intuition plays a fundamental role in selecting images or states in order to create another chaos on canvas.
So in one way or another what is external becomes internal, and what is internal becomes external again, but in a different form that does not really exist and does not necessarily have to be deciphered or understood.
I just want to create a state, a state full of dark secrets, parody, metaphors and violence. These states seem to me to be like nightmares provoked by this world and the age I’m living in.
You studied at Tirana Art Academy, which was founded in the sixties as a school for social realism. Do you refer to a particular tradition of painting? Has there been a new evaluation of painting in Albania since the 1990s?
Is there any painter you look up to, and do you have any particular ideals? If so, who and what?
For almost forty years fine art in Albania focused on figurative socialist realism painting and sculpture as a propaganda tool for the communist era. The system then changed in the 1990s, beginning a very confusing period in art. After a long period of isolation, artists were hungry to learn about that lost period of modern art and to make up for lost time as quickly as possible. This led to many mistaken interpretations of what the contemporary is all about, in every field of art.
I would not say I am inspired by any traditions of painting in Albania, and I cannot fit my practice into any Albanian tradition. Actually I do not even know what to call tradition here, because we do not have a long history of fine art.
I do not think that any kind of new evaluation is taking place at the moment. I am looking out for one, but I just do not see it. There is no new evaluation of art at all, not only in the visual arts, including the medium of painting, but in all forms of art. Nobody cares about art here. I am sorry to be so direct, but it is the truth.
Seven years ago, when I decided to study visual arts, I knew nothing about the history of art. I was a soccer player for more than ten years in a professional team, but at the same time I was very curious about visual art.
I always felt I had something different inside me that I wanted to express. So I put everything, including the soccer career, behind me in order to discover my hidden passion, which was painting. In some ways I can claim to be a self-taught artist.
I cannot say I have any special artistic idol, but there are some artists whose practice I have drawn upon and referenced. From the outset I liked Magritte, then Francis Bacon, Jörg Immendorff, Edward Hopper, Paula Rego and so forth.
After you finished at art school you stayed for a while in Stockholm, and now you have been in Florence for two months. What are these residencies abroad good for?
As a living Albanian artist, this opportunity for travel and engagement with other cultures is a very important experience. The Albanian art scene is a bit isolated – it is not in the loop of international communications, especially that of the contemporary art system. In this context, a residency abroad means new communication, new knowledge of art and culture, and a new mentality.
Meeting other artists, having discussions with them, living with them, sharing ideas, and visiting museums and galleries enables you to see yourself in a different dimension. The contacts and being part of an international art network are important too. And of course a residency is a time for total concentration on work, for reflection, research and development without having to worry about financial problems and the stresses of everyday life.
In Florence you worked in your studio a lot. But at the same time you had all these other neighbouring artists from Germany, Egypt and guests from other parts of the world. And then there is Florence, with its immense repository of art history. How did you spend your time? What have you taken back with you?
The time in Florence passed very quickly. I spent most of the time in my studio. When I saw the studio next to the living room I thought: Wow, this is a great opportunity to work all day long. But at the same time I was very curious to get to know the city, and the other artists and guests.
I visited almost all the museums and other historical places of Tuscany. Besides, looking at the big Renaissance masterpieces in the Uffizi and Pitti museums was an amazing feeling. I knew them from books, but being in front of these art works and looking at the colours, the composition, the light and the brushstrokes made a big impression on me.
I had some really good discussions about my work with the other artists, and I was interested to get to know their work too. So we did some nice studio visits, and shared ideas. With other friends we also made some trips to other cities and towns around Florence as well. I will not forget the trip to the Cinque Terre and to Pistoia. So I am happy to have met and got to know these friends. And of course the whole unforgettable atmosphere of Tuscany will remain in my memory.
Since 2008 you have had several exhibitions in Albania and abroad. Is there a growing art market in Albania? As a Tirana-based artist, what do you need in order to move forward?
I do not think there is really any art marketing in Albania. There are a few art institutions, a few private galleries that promote contemporary art, but no art collectors, so we cannot say there is really an art market in Albania. The artist does everything on his own, from promoting his own art pieces through to selling them.
I think you need some positive energy in order to carry on doing art. The financial aspect is also important. On the other hand, there is no such thing as part-time art in my view. I think it is important that I exhibit my work not only locally but also internationally. In this way I will be able to communicate more widely. I don’t know where all this will lead to, but I’m not worried. I know that this is my personal need to work, and I will continue to work no matter what it takes.