Robert Pichler showcases flashback to early 1990s Albania

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times July 14, 2017 09:23

Robert Pichler showcases flashback to early 1990s Albania

Story Highlights

  • “A coffin crossing the stream! Is it empty or full bodied? Must be weightless since that step of the man carrying the coffin feels so lightly and rightly nailed in the hole of the rock, as if a butterfly had stopped to fuel from the mouth of a flower. The coffin is weightless but the whole picture is so charged with weight, you feel like you have swallowed a grey cloud...,” says curator Edit Pula about one of Robert Pichler’s pictures

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pisch 2TIRANA, July 13 – Back in the late 1980s just before the collapse of the country’s communist regime, Austrian historical anthropologist and photographer Robert Pichler was a student when he first visited Albania.

“I first came to Albania as a student in 1989. At that time, it was already clear that the communist project had failed – the economy was in decay and the society under constant surveillance,” says Pichler who has returned to Albania almost three decades later to showcase the pictures he took in the early 1990s in northern Albania when he conducted research on societal changes, tracing rituals in some of Albania’s poorest areas.

“The people I met were scared, but curious to get in contact with me. This first journey has left its mark on me and I was eager to get back to this country as soon as possible,” says the Austrian scholar.

His “flashback, Albania in the 1990s” exhibition was launched on Thursday this week at the Tirana bus station of northern Albania destinations to travel to the historical museum of Bajram Curri, where it will remain open for two months until early next September.

The exhibition is a major event for Albania and the northeastern Albania region of Tropoja, one of the country’s most underdeveloped, but with wonderful natural destinations such as the Valbona River and its valley attracting thousands of tourists.  Back in 2016, the valley was rated by the National Geographic as one of top great outdoors globally.

Edit Pula, the Albanian curator of the exhibition, says that Pichler’s exhibition focuses on mobility and northern Albania with its rituals, social relations as well as the life of people in the margins of society.

“Through Robert Pichler’s photographs we would like to evoke our collective memory, not as nostalgia but as a point of reference of the missing time – that of a time without awareness,” she says.

For almost five decades under communism until the early 1990s, when the country shifted to a multi-party system and market economy, Albania was Europe’s most isolated country led with an iron fist by late Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha.

Robert Pichler’s exhibition at the historical museum of Bajram Curri town in the region of Tropoja will be open from July 14 to September 9, 2017.

Robert Pichler

I first came to Albania as a student in 1989. At that time, it was already clear that the communist project had failed – the economy was in decay and the society under constant surveillance.

The people I met were scared, but curious to get in contact with me. This first journey has left its mark on me and I was eager to get back to this country as soon as possible.

This opportunity came in spring 1992 when I received a scholarship for doing research on societal changes in northern Albania. But conditions in the meantime had changed dramatically.

Albania was facing a turbulent transformation which made it difficult to focus on research; I got absorbed by the social turmoil. It was a complete re-start but without knowing where the journey would lead to. For many it had been a struggle to survive, to cover the most basic needs, but at the same time there was this incredible urge for what had been withheld for so long: the freedom to think, to move, to express oneself and to consume the achievements of the technological modernity. The country was flooded by goods from abroad, hypermobility set in and cars, wagons, cyclists, carts and pedestrians moved along the streets that turned into caravans, and bazaars arose at every corner. For me it was a relapse into circumstances that I only knew from the stories of my grandparents: the supply bottlenecks in food, water and electricity but at the same time this great strive to establish something new. I often heard people say that Albania could become the Switzerland of the Balkans, the conditions had always been there, but the fate had not meant well with the country, but now it’s time would come.

While everyone moved forward, I started looking for historical connections, for the reasons for this special way Albania had undergone. But also to look for the abyss, the destiny of those left alone and the outcasts. The immense attention and interest, helpfulness and respect I received, increased my curiosity in the country and its history and made me return regularly ever since then.

Robert Pichler is historical anthropologist and photographer. His main fields of research are family and kinship, migration and transnationalism, and social and political history of the 19th and 20th c. in Southeast Europe. He is researcher at the Department for Balkan Studies at the Academy of Sciences in Vienna and lecturer at the Center for Southeast European Studies in Graz.

Edit Pula

The early 1990s were a period when apart from the documentation of major political events – like student protests, the first democratic elections, hunger-strikes, the fall of the statue of Hoxha, the mass exodus by land and sea or breaking the fences to exile to foreign embassies and so on – the general daily life remains underexposed even to our own eyes.

I find it fascinating that while we, Albanians were just living the transition without a conscious realization of how we were changing or “voyeur” our existence with a camera at hand, a young Austrian student arrives in Albania and does exactly that. He takes pictures of the continuity of Albanian life, beyond Albanians’ self-absorption with the political events, -the food we ate, where we slept, where we went, how we went there, where we destroyed, where we constructed, how we mourned, how we wed!

Taking into account the vivid recurrence of past experience that the pictures evoke and the invitation to be temporarily stationed between times of now and then, gave birth to the idea of an exhibition on the move with an opening at an intercity bus station. The minibuses Tirana-Bajram Curri via Kosova will wiz through the urban and rural roads of North Albania carrying on their belly the people of Now, and on their backs the testimonies of Then.

Mobility is thus one main topic of this exhibition. The other one is Northern Albania, the rituals, the social relations as well as the life of people at the margins of society.

Through Robert Pichler’s photographs we would like to evoke our collective memory, not as nostalgia but as point of reference of the missing time – that of a time without awareness.

Edit Pula is a visual artist and curator from Tirana, currently working also as the culture advisor to the Mayor of Tirana. Her curatorial work is very much focused on Albanian heritage and how to present tradition in new contemporary ways.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times July 14, 2017 09:23