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Global Voices: An artist's take on dictatorship's legacy

April 10, 2013|By Carol J. Williams
  • Anila Rubiku, who grew up in Stalinist Albania, shares her views on how to express dictatorship's legacy through art with visitors to her weekly workshops at the Hammer Museum in Westwood.
Anila Rubiku, who grew up in Stalinist Albania, shares her views on how to… (Courtesy of Angat Gaada )

Anila Rubiku grew up in a country that no longer exists, at least not the isolated, repressed and paranoid state that was Albania before Eastern Europe’s anti-Communist revolutions.

The Balkan country that broke away from its iron-fisted mentors in Moscow, Beijing and Belgrade to pursue an even more Stalinist path has changed dramatically in the two decades since democracy began making inroads. But the scars of despotism remain visible on the landscape and in the mentality of Albanians, tens of thousands of them having endured unimaginable brutality in “re-education camps” during the long post-World War II dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.

Hoxha sowed fear among the 3 million inhabitants of his remote Adriatic Sea enclave with constant warnings of imminent invasion by Albania’s real and imagined enemies. He studded the coastline, borders, mountain ridges and crossroads with 750,000 steel-reinforced concrete bunkers to resist the onslaught that never came but left Albanians forever wary of the outside world.

Rubiku, now 42 and serving a stint as artist-in-residence at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, has embarked on a mission to illuminate the dark pages of her country’s past with weekly workshops that bring to the curious her unique eye on social and human connections. During a break from the three-hour sessions at the museum in Westwood, the artist who divides her time between her recovering homeland and the international art scene in Milan recounted how dictatorship left its mark on her life, her art and her outlook.

Q:  How are you incorporating into your work at the Hammer Museum your experiences coming of age in one of the world’s most repressive countries?

Rubiku:  No one here has experienced what I did, being brought up in the most absurd country in the world. Before communism, my family was rich. But my mother and father started their life together with only a spoon and a knife. The whole society was extremely poor. Albania had no infrastructure, no opportunity for business or free enterprise. Especially people involved in culture had no support. Yet when people were starving, the government built these bunkers all over the country. It was a way to make us afraid and insecure. We need to tell these stories through our projects, so that people won’t forget our history. Especially in this city that doesn’t seem to have a huge memory.

Q:  What are the challenges of bringing your work to Los Angeles, which is so different from your homeland? Is it difficult for you to communicate and identify with people in this frantic, highly urban society?

Rubiku: Identity is a fragile thing. When I go back to Albania now, so much has changed that I am a foreigner there, too. But when I’m in Italy, I still feel like a foreigner. I don’t know that I will ever feel where I belong, although I always look at my environment from the point of view of a European. People there see each other in the street every day when they are walking. They don’t spend so much time in cars. It’s very difficult here to bring people together. There’s no opportunity for connection – they are inside their cars or inside their homes and they don’t see each other unless they make an appointment.

Q:  How will you change that outlook through your work here?

Rubiku:  I like the museum’s open door and the opportunity to invite people in to produce art, not just look at it. I got the idea for my first workshop –- I call it “City of Light” -- from looking at the big spread of lights around Los Angeles the first time I landed here. All those lights represent families in their homes, but you can’t see them. Walls protect what’s inside. What I’m doing is bringing the inside out. Every home has a place to eat and a place to sleep. The sleeping place in an Afghan home might be a rug instead of a bed, but we have the same needs. The home is one of the things that connects us. [Visitors to the free workshops draw furniture and fixtures and pets on the outside of white cardboard cutouts that are folded into shoebox-sized house shapes. They then perforate the lines of their drawings and embroider the domestic scenes on the houses that will be part of a miniature village installation].

Q:  You have a wide range for expression, having staged exhibits of the bunker replicas and hats on which thoughts are written and explorations of eroticism and feminism. What else do you plan during your time at the Hammer?

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