Inis Shkreli unlocked the large iron door and opened it before stepping back and ushering us in. She is the daughter of the Albanian painter Lec Shkreli, an artist who has been active for more than half a century and who had his first exhibition while still at the university.
The scene that unfolded was a modest apartment, covered almost from floor to ceiling in vibrant colors and shapes. As we walked inside, it took a moment for us to adjust to the onslaught of the senses. Women dressed in traditional clothing speaking in pink, orange and green, wild landscapes of purple and blue, and characters from Albanian history in bold reds, blacks and grays.
Lec met me as I stood by the door, shaking my hand and inviting me into his studio. A faint smell of turpentine hung in the air as I sat with my back against a wall. For a few moments, I was quite lost for words as I struggled to understand my surroundings. The canvases were of all sizes and cuboid variations. Some were leaning against the wall, others nailed and hung, and some remained largely unfinished on large easels.
We were served herbal teas and chocolate cookies while my daughter chased the family cats around the balcony.
Lec Shkreli was born in Tirana in 1942. His family, like his surname, was originally from Shkodra in the north, an area that is reflected in much of his work. He studied at an art school in Tirana between 1956 and 1960, under the direction of famous painters Sadik Kaceli and Abdurrahim Buza.
In 1965 he graduated from the Higher Institute of Arts in the studio of Gurri Madhi and Vilson Kilica. During these studies, he established and maintained close relations with the famous sculptor Odhise Paskali, to whom Shkreli attributes the maintenance of his artistic career.
He quickly rose to fame for his work, and his pieces were chosen for numerous national exhibitions and received awards. His works of socialist realism have even been featured on stamps, quite an honor then and today. Today, 14 of his pieces are exhibited at the National Gallery in Tirana. Apart from that, and later in life, his work has been exhibited in Paris, Rome, Ankara, Moscow, Berlin and even as far away as Beijing.
But becoming an artist during the Albanian communist regime was not easy. Staying in favor was even more difficult.
Between 1944 and 1991, Albania struggled with an oppressive Communist regime led by dictator Enver Hoxha. Many artists, intellectuals and writers have been purged. They found themselves imprisoned, persecuted and even executed. Others were successful in continuing to work as long as they followed strict instructions and guidelines from the state.
Shkreli was one of these. He explained that from school he was taught, literally, to paint in lines. All of his work had to be realistic and could not be considered abstract or modernist. It also generally had to represent the socialist utopia Hoxha dreamed of, despite the grim reality. The heroes were painted with torn muscles and impressive stature, while the majority of the population starved to death.
He explained how many of his exhibits had been rejected or found not to comply with the Albanian state’s demands. In one case, he remembers meeting Hoxha, who placed a hand on his shoulder and congratulated him on a piece. Shkreli knew that the dictator’s approval could mean the difference between freedom or death, and as Hoxha’s hand rested on him, he found himself somewhat frozen with fear.
But as an artist, Shkreli struggled to restrict himself to the binding guidelines of communist Albania. He found himself painting wild and creative pictures, ones that would see him locked up in Spac, a prison labor camp in the north if caught. Instead, he hid them inside his house, hiding, hoping for a time when they would see the light of day.
Her daughter Inis explains that knowing these dangerous secrets was a huge burden to carry as a child.
“Imagine you’re only four years old and carrying this with you, hiding something in your house that could destroy everything,” she says.
Many have not been so fortunate.
Edison Gjergo was an Albanian painter famous for his work far from the constraints of socialist realism. It was heavily influenced by Modernism and Cubism, with a hint of the style favored by the Communists. Sadly, he was arrested in 1975 and spent eight years at Spac, his only crime being to pursue his artistic ideals.
Convicted of agitation and propaganda, many of his friends and family were also arrested. After his release in 1982, he lived only seven more years, under the surveillance of a vast network of Communist spies.
Shkreli couldn’t risk leaving his family behind, and traumatized by what happened to his friend Gjergo, he hid his art and his dreams of true expression, where no one would find them.
My questioning of the communist years continued. As with many of them that I interview, getting them to open up about these times can be difficult. It comes, without a doubt, from decades of enforced silence and a deep distrust of anyone outside the walls of the family.
Inis explains it perfectly.
“We have all been brought up in such a way that everything that happens inside the family does not leave the walls of the house. Secrets of the family, stay within the family, ”she said.
But as I persisted, the artist began to open up. He explained how Kristaq Rama, the father of current Prime Minister Edi Rama, used to visit his studio.
“He helped me in one way or another. He gave subtle advice on what was acceptable or what would not be accepted by the party.
This advice was very well received, although Rama – himself an artist and sculptor – would later sign the death warrant for the poet Havzi Nela and a young man from Dibra, Enver Osmani.
After more than 30 years of working under the strict conditions of the politburo, in 1991, Shkreli was finally free. When communism fell, its work flourished and its subject matter extended beyond that of muscular heroes and “happy” workers.
Now he paints with every color imaginable. He travels to villages and towns to paint the scenery and the people, and there isn’t a single restriction on what and how he can create. His work not only serves as an anthropological study of his country and its people, but it represents the sense of enlightenment and hope felt by many when democracy, however fragile, arrived.
Shkreli paints profusely. No subject is off limits, and it’s almost like he’s testing himself in terms of style and color with every canvas he touches. After living so long under harsh restrictions, the joy he feels for his new-found freedom is palpable with every brushstroke.
No longer painting for dictators and communists, Shkreli’s work hangs on the walls of some of the country’s best-known public figures and businessmen. His work is desired by those who adore the mix of traditional subjects and modernist style. They are also in demand by those who want to hang something really beautiful and unique on their wall.
Now Shkreli also teaches students. He educates them in both conventional and unconventional styles. I can only imagine what a young student would think upon entering his studio. If I were them I would be impressed and hope that just one iota of Shkreli’s talent and artistic eye rubs off on me. When it comes to inspirations, there aren’t many more inspiring than him.