Edi Hila in conversation with Angelika Stepken
Edi, when you spent the summer of 2007 as a guest artist at the Villa Romana, you reencountered your own personal history from the nineteen-seventies. What did you feel at the time? How did it find expression in the paintings you made after your residency?
That is true, my return to Florence after thirty-three years was not all that easy. In terms of feelings, I was able to differentiate between two distinct states: one was nostalgia because I was able to see the city again, the churches, the Piazza della Signoria, the Arno, the good wine, the small hotel I lived in at the time, and everything else from that time that has remained in my memory all these years. The other was more of a professional nature: to reencounter the great masters of the Renaissance that I felt very close to during the dark years in Albania. I was now coming back to continue a dialogue that had been left incomplete, but with a lifetime of artistic experience that I did not have back then, of course. For me, the trip to Florence was a huge opportunity to better understand what I was doing artistically, to rethink my relationship to art, and to reevaluate certain questions that I had posed to myself and whose answers I could not find in books or other study material, but only in direct engagement with the actual works: felt profoundly, in quiet, and without any verbal formulation of any kind. In this way, I tried to discover the personal code of my own creativity.
Your painting tends to hover on the threshold between metaphysics, melancholy, and a testimony to the present. From where does this artistic approach originate? I remember the stories you told of your youth in Shkoder before the Hoxha regime, in a city that was deeply humanist…
Certainly the tradition that one comes from is fundamental to any education. At that time, Shkoder was a special city. Communism was afraid of its civic consciousness. It was a city that had cultivated libraries and schools, and poetry and art. It had a tradition of artistic photography on an international level (the Marubi) and other values that the regime did not especially like. The first exhibition that I put up after Communism consisted of a series of paintings of the citizens of Shkoder, their persecution, and their disappearance. All these atmospheres were connected to the theme in either a real or imaginary manner and led me in a natural way to melancholic and metaphysical situations. Then there was a period of religious education, which carried traces of classical expression into figurative representation. To this day, if you ask me about the roots of my artistic approach, its means of expression, and technical methods, this classical experience gives me a certain orientation.
Following the liberation from the Hoxha regime, you did not leave the country, as did a hundred thousand other Albanians-including many of your students at the art academy in Tirana. Why did you stay in Albania?
I do not know. Maybe my parents were the main reason-family responsibility. And I was a professor at the art academy, so I had a job. I believed that democracy guaranteed a cultural and artistic future. I believed in the magic of change, in freedom, communication, the West, art, a better life… I never thought that democracy would be so difficult for Albania. Now it is too late, too late. I feel this distance with each passing day. Communism crops up again and again. We are losing time, a lot of time.
As a professor, you taught Adrian Paci and Anri Sala, for instance, as well as other young Albanian artists that later went on to have international success. What do you teach them? Is there a message you pass on to young artists?
How should I answer that? To this day my pedagogical technique is connected to the fact that our academy was nothing more than an academy for Socialist Realism, and not only in its curriculum, but also in the mentality of many of the professors. Outside the academy as well, artists reacted against every idea and form of contemporary art. There was nothing like a platform for information and workshops, an exchange between professors and students, or between our academy and other academies-there was nothing like that yet, it was still too early. Those were years that were both difficult and interesting. It was a situation in which I was concerned about naming and explaining phenomena the right way. During the 1990s people here knew next to nothing about conceptual art and Postmodernism; even worse, was that installation, video art, and photography were not accepted as artistic media. And so I did everything possible to make sure that intelligent, talented young people did not embark on the wrong path. I tried to guide them by creating an atmosphere around them that was free of simpletons and by explaining that they have to believe in their truth, because that was the only way they would find anything truly new. My teaching behavior was determined by my students. To me, each student is a proposition to themselves. In an art school, the teacher’s job is a creative activity.
How is the situation in the academy today? I remember that these “historical” tensions still prevailed among teachers up until a few years ago. Who was able to adapt to the market, and who played what role in the local and national networks.
After the change in the political system, things automatically began operating according to different criteria. Coming to terms with foreign countries, the art system, criticism, and a whole new set of relational and communication elements that we didn’t know anything about in the beginning drove many backwards teachers and artists away, and so the resistance gradually became weaker. For them, the only way to survive was to attain power, to control the institutions, and activities for their own interests. They destroyed the creative atmosphere by giving these activities an element of political militancy. Regarding the market, that’s an accidental process outside of the art system. The only real change at the academy is the Bologna reform, which creates a whole new slew of problems within the school system and has nothing whatsoever to do with an art school.
Has public reception for contemporary art changed over the past years regarding museums, galleries, project spaces, and international artistic exchanges?
The Tirana Biennial, the Onufri International Art Festival, and a few other sporadic activities have played an important and positive role for the public perception of contemporary art. Generally speaking, the public accepts contemporary art, and young people have a predisposition to this. In terms of the museums, international exchange, and projects-. there isn’t much happening there, almost nothing in fact. The main problem is that the motivation is lacking. I have thought it over a thousand times-whether or not there’s any point to assembling an exhibition right now. There is not a single gallery around that can guarantee even the smallest sale.
What do you explore in your painting? What motifs and what questions?
I investigate themes that emerge from the current situation, which is charged with political tension. Right now, I am preparing a series of city scenes of streets in forgotten, painful peripheries. At the same time, I am working on another series about the problem of violence. What you experience and feel is not always an interesting set of problems for other people, however.