By Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei
An “Apolitical” Artist for “Apolitical” Times – Ministry of Culture Awards Servility with Biennale Spot

During the first Rama government the Ministry of Culture made a single serious attempt to decouple the Albanian representation at the Venice Biennial, one of the most prestigious art events in the world, from nepotism and corruption. The main strategy for doing so was the installation of an independent jury composed of international experts that would evaluate a series of proposals after an open call.

As a result, Armando Lulaj, known for his critical work into Albania’s communist past, was elected to represent Albania at the 56th Biennial in 2015. The jury was chaired by art theorist Boris Groys, and further included Kathrin Rhomberg, Adrian Paci, and Albert Heta. Neither Groys nor Rhomberg has previously dealt with the Ministry of Culture or Albania. Lulaj’s exhibition made crucial links between the past dictatorship and the current political system, and was, as a result, obstructed by Kumbaro’s ministry from beginning to end.

For the 57th edition in 2017, Leonard Qylafi was selected. The jury was this time already much closer to the Ministry’s orbit. It was headed by Julia Fabenyi, a director at the Ludwig Museum in Budapest, parachuted by right-wing extremist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who had previously collaborated with the Ministry on an exhibition of Albanian artists. It further included Marco Scotini, the curator of Lulaj’s exhibition in Venice, who had developed close personal relations with Minister of Culture Mirela Kumbaro. The rest of the jury consisted of Kosovars and Albanians. In other words, it was a jury that would elect the candidate “preferred” by the government. And indeed, different from Lulaj’s work, Qylafi’s work had the advantage of being not overtly addressing any contemporary political or social issues that could “embarrass” the government. Harmless paintings in a harmless exhibition.

Now this year the Ministry of Culture has gone down another level and has fully dispensed with any pretence of independent selection and artistic quality by selecting Driant Zeneli as the representative of Albania at the 58th Venice Biennale. No public competition was held and no independent jury nominated. Zeneli was simply announced as artist with a project called “Maybe the cosmos is not so extraordinary.” After furnishing an installation in Rama’s propaganda museum Bunk’Art 2, the Ministry of Culture quickly promoted him, despite his lack of experience as curator or organizer, to director of Mediterranea 18 in 2017, in which he made clear from the beginning that he wanted an “apolitical” exhibition. He wrote:

For once, art should not be made only for criticism or provocation, but rather, it should be made with the task of recycling (instead of proposing) new alternatives.

He subsequently spent his time with Ajola Xoxa, wife of Tirana mayor Erion Veliaj and aspiring “influencer” with too much dirty money on her bank account, setting up a rather incomplete archive of Albanian visual artists under the name Harabel, while organizing events with government-favored (and mute) artists such as Anri Sala. In other words, he has made himself perfectly at home in the incestuous circle of artists surrounding the Rama government.

Do not expect from Zeneli to speak out against the permanent underfunding of independent culture in Albania. Do not expect from Zeneli to condemn the debilitating tastelessness of “art” projects such as covering industrial heritage in lady bugs. Do not expect Zeneli to join the dozens of actors and cultural producers in protecting the national cultural heritage of the National Theater against massive government corruption and fraud.

In fact, do not expect anything from Zeneli at all.