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?
Rubiku: My second project is quite political. It’s about art and the power and wealth it brings to dangerous people. The biggest dictators have always had a wonderful taste for art. Adolf Hitler, Ferdinand Marcos, the Shah of Iran –- they all surrounded themselves with beautiful works while they were exterminating people. I want to show how art can erase memory. I will make charcoal drawings of the faces of 12 dictators and we will erase the etchings. The artistic media that they enjoyed while in power will become their destruction.
Q: What will you do once back in Albania? Has your experience here influenced your plans for the future?
Rubiku: The issues of gun control and the feminist movement are very different here. In Albania, there is no control over guns at all and they have been flooding in since the 1990s, when we had no government at all and there was a war across the border in Kosovo. We have gone from a country with no prisons for women to having a huge population of women who killed their husbands with the guns coming in to the country. They do this because they are victims of domestic violence, or their children are victims. But nobody talks about the situation for women in Albania. I’m going to talk with them and express their stories through artwork -- through drawing and sewing images of how their life could have been if they hadn’t been driven to kill. There are so many problems of gender in such a young democracy. This is just one example of how if a state is not ready for democracy, there can be chaos.
Q: You often incorporate embroidery in your artworks. Is this a historic type of expression in the Balkan countries?
Rubiku: All of the Balkan region has a Muslim background and a rich tradition of embroidery – Greeks, Serbs, Macedonians, Kosovo Muslims. It was common from the days of Ottoman rule for women to gather and sew together when the men were socializing in the cafes. It is also a way for women to help their families economically. They can create something to sell without having to leave the home.
Q: What is your mission as an artist? What stamp do you want to leave on the world?
Rubiku: I’m such a tiny person. I don’t see myself as taking on something so big as a “mission." But you do need a wider view of the world if you want to improve it. The problem with politicians is they see only what is happening today and what needs immediate attention. If you want to have a better world in 30 years, you need to get to work on that now. I hope that the generation in power in 20 years will not look at the borders and differences that divide the world but at the things that unite us.