Albania Is a Land of Artists

Maks Velo is an Architect Painter. The oldest and perhaps best-known among Albania's artists, Mr Velo has recently exhibited his work at the National Art Gallery in Tirana. Mr Velo was born in Paris to an American mother. He and I speak in French. He is closing his exhibition "Retrospektive" the following Sunday. After ten minutes of conversation Mr Velo and I walk to Bar Epiri on Rruga Murat Toptani, where according to waiter Gerold, Mr Velo usually drinks cranberry tea at seven o'clock in the evenings five times a week. Mr Velo explains to me that he is as much an architect as he is a painter. The prolific Albanian was also imprisoned during Enver Hoxha's dictatorship. If Ali Oseku is a philosopher, Maks Velo is an intellectual. Between the years 1978-1991 Mr Velo was either imprisoned or suffered from forced labor. During our conversation at Bar Epiri the Architect Painter reminds me about his rebel perhaps contrarian nature during the communist regime.

We walk together for 10 minutes, reaching what is perhaps his most controversial design as an architect completed in 1975, a five story apartment building located in the intersection of Rruga e Dibres and Rruga Bardhok Biba strictly east of Tirana International Hotel. Although the building is in very poor condition, it is evident that Mr Velo spoke against Enver Hoxha's communist regime through his architecture, for which he would be subsequently severely punished. I take for granted that he is assisting major construction projects in Tirana, he says he is not. Big construction projects are fundamentally speculative, he suggests. A warning for the Mayor of Tirana follows: invest in restoring Mr Velo's masterpieces. A warning for construction developers and urban planners follows: listen to the most experienced architects for the city's sake and that of its citizens.

In the morning of a rainy Saturday 10-October-2015 I head off to Kafe-Bar Albert, located on Rruga e Kavajes 59, west of Tirana International Hotel. At 11H00 sharp I meet the owner and manager Bujar Kapexhiu, better known as Maestro Caricaturist Bujar Kapexhiu. Mr Kapexhiu is Albania's most celebrated political cartoonist. He is also a comedian, movie director and theater actor. Throughout his extensive career Mr Kapexhiu has illustrated thousands of protagonists for daily newspapers and weekly magazines. Kafe-Bar Albert is a two story Irish-pub-type bar off which walls Mr Kapexhiu hangs hundreds of portraits of his closest friends, many of whom are artists and politicians.

In the early 1990s Mr Kapexhiu was Rector of the University of Arts, in which current Prime Minister Edi Rama was a Professor. At the time Mr Rama's critical writing against the political establishment was starting to overshadow his painting. Mr Rama would set aside an artistic career to become Minister of Culture in 1998 and Mayor of Tirana in 2000. The current Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Arts, Artan Peqini, wonders if his Faculty is producing politicians or artists, since many contrarian and rebel artists later become attracted toward political circles. Soprano Singer and Professor of Canto at the University of Arts Shqipe Zani, who started singing opera at the age of 21 in 1974, encourages the Ministry of Culture to support financially the launch of the philharmonic orchestra inexistent in Albania. Maestro Caricaturist Bujar Kapexhiu was a leading actor in four movies, in two of which he co-starred along with Actress Tinka Kurti.

"Tana" is Albania's first action movie released in 1958. The movie presents a love story between Tana (rehearsed by Actress Tinka Kurti) and Stefan (rehearsed by Actor Naim Frasheri). I meet Actress Tinka Kurti at Bar Ciak 001 on Rruga Vath Koreshi on Wednesday 7-October-2015. Bar Ciak 001 Manager Ilir Hunci welcomes us in his cinematographic establishment, designed in honor of Albanian movie stars. For Mr Hunci the legacy of Albanian cinema depicted on the walls of Bar Ciak 001 "proves to today's generations that the Albanian cinematography has a precious tradition on which it can continue to grow in the future".

Actress Tinka Kurti was born in 1932 and today lives in a humble neighborhood on Rruga Mihal Grameno. "Tana" was her first movie as a cinema actress. I ask Ms Kurti if during the production of "Tana" she ever fell in love with the then handsome Naim Frasheri. In the movie Tana and Stefan finally kiss, the first, last and one and only kiss featured in an Albanian movie during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. Ms Kurti remembers that Naim Frasheri told her she liked her "like he liked his mother". Zhduku! (get lost!) she replied, and that put an end to a potential emerging romance between actor an actress. She mentions that her favorite actor is Anthony Quinn, her favorite actress Meryl Streep, her favorite director Francis Ford Coppola and her favorite movie "Gone with the wind". Past stars now live a humble life when and where they deserve to recuperate their first-row seats in the theater of democracy.

It was 1947 when Actress Tinka Kurti first arrived in Tirana from Shkodra. One night at the age of 15 she accidentally arrived in a classical house (where today sits the Carlsberg Hotel), and listened to Tonin Arapi playing the piano and Klotilda Shantoja singing, immediately falling in love with the music. In what she recalls is her lifetime's defining moment, she knew she would subsequently devote her passion to the artistic profession. This classical house (formerly the Carlsberg Hotel, known today as Xheko Imperial) was the dormitory of the Fine Arts Academy. She was expelled from the Fine Arts Academy only after four months, for refusing to recite a poem for Josip Broz Tito, the then emerging political figure of the former Yugoslavia. She would subsequently play the leading actress role in a myriad of theater plays and 19 motion pictures.

Three days later I walk to Actress Tinka Kurti's one bedroom apartment on Rruga Mihal Grameno. From the outside the apartment looks modest, humble. No elevator forces me to walk upstairs two floors. I knock on the door and Albania's most celebrated actress opens the door, the scenario, I feel like I am in Broadway. She looks radiant. The apartment looks cozy and comfortable. The purpose of my visit is to take a look at the actress' photo albums and her numerous diplomas, awards and prizes. I sit down in the living room's sofa. Underneath my glass an engraved message defines Tinka: "she is a bundle of energy, good fun and can turn her hand to anything, a lady of many talents".

The actress offers me a Raki, this week's third, which I accept without hesitation. It might be Albanian hospitality. I think to myself, perhaps we can invite Painter Ali Oseku to join in. Imagine a similar scenario with Mia Farrow and Woody Allen in New York City. It would never happen if it weren't Albania.

Three hours later I kiss Ms Kurti's hand and say "au revoir Madame". Albania's greatest actress is above all and after all Albania's greatest woman. How much style and class inhabit the 83 year old lady. Bravo! Ms Kurti for showing all of us that "age is just a number" and that you deserve perhaps to be called the World's best actress alive. Long live Actress Tinka Kurti and long live Albania... This week's lesson is final: when I grow up I want to be a painter, not a banker.

Jointly published by Albanian Daily News.