(Note: I have chosen not to include any images of the art from the exhibition as it is something you need to see in person, to really appreciate.)
A new exhibition has opened in one of Albania’s most unique art spaces. Galeria e Bregdetit located within the grounds of the Hotel Picasso in Radhime is running its first season of exhibits, culminating in its latest offering “Sazan, No Man’s Land”.
Curated by ‘Tukuru Kuturu’ which consists of friends and collaborators Niku Muçaj who is based in Basel and Elian Stefa whose family own the hotel. Stafa has curated a number of exhibitions both here and abroad, and published a book called Concrete Mushrooms on ‘taking back’ Albania’s several hundred thousand communist-era bunkers. Mucaj who also collaborated on the book, decided the corporate world was not for him and decided to pursue a passion for creating, presenting, curating, and pioneering the aesthetic arts instead.
The artists involved in the exhibition are Abi Shehu, Dritan Hyska, Gerta Xhaferaj, Giaime Meloni, and Helidon Gjergji.
Together they have developed a vision for the nearby island of Sazan, the inspiration and topic of their latest artistic venture.
Sazan is a small island that sits in the Strait of Otranto, straddling the border between the Adriatic and Ionian Sea. With a surface area of just 5.7 km2, it is visible from Salerno, Italy and a large portion of the coastline around Vlore.
The island was once known as Sason and has been a highly strategic base for many centuries. The Romans, Greeks, Byzantines, Ottomans, British, Italians, and of course, the Albanians have all utlised it in various ways. Its last use was as a base for the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The Soviets turned it into a submarine base and a chemical weapons plant but after the fall of Communism in 1992, this came to an end.
Today the structures on it lay in ruins- Mussolini’s villa, and an underground network of tunnels, military barracks, and countless bunkers, dotted around the island. Much of the coastline and territorial waters are now a National Marine Park and are protected by the Albanian government
Having been long abandoned and the island itself being only open to tourists on day trips (around 600-700 a day visit via boat) much of the architecture and concrete structures are being reclaimed by nature, crumbling back into the earth as they are overcome with leaves and vines.
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The exhibition is the first of three steps that seek to transform the island of Sazan into a creative space where art, culture, and community can thrive. Elian explains to me that they will turn the island into a temporary settlement where creativity can intermix with nature, isolation, and heritage, whilst maintaining the area as a permanent open air museum.
In the future they plan to run artistic retreats on the island where artists can create installations directly in the environment. They also hope to work on improving the paths and trails around Sazan to encourage hiking and exploration. This idea to reclaim the land for creative and cultural purposes whilst respecting its history and the way it has become intertwined with nature is key to their vision.
Sazan No Man’s Land is what Tukuru Kuturu call a “reconnaissance mission”. The five photographers visited the island over two expeditions to photograph what they found in their own unique style. The exhibition presents their work alongside Soviet era maps recovered from the island, research, and a video of a man recounting his time on the island.
The gallery space is split into two sections- the first is painted bright white from floor to ceiling and forms the perfect backdrop for these intriguing images. The second half of the gallery has a rough map of the Bay of Vlore, Karaburun, and Sazan painted on the floor and it presents military maps and video footage against bare bricks and concrete providing a stunning visual contrast between two elements of the exhibition.
At first glance, the exhibition is simple, aesthetically clean and presents an intriguing look at this mysterious island, but the more time you spend exploring it, studying the images within, and talking to the curators, the more layers you can peel back. Things that once appeared one way, now appear in a completely different light, and you start to notice more fascinating details and ‘easter eggs’ that you did not notice before.
All of the images that have been included in the exhibition have one thing in common- at first glance they are all fine examples of photography, but as you take time to appreciate and understand them, each one tells a complex story of the past, the present and the future of the island. Each of the five artists has managed to encapsulate the vision of the project within their images- be it the way nature and time devours and reclaims, the contrast between human life and the harshness of the environment, or the way that art and national identity can be found in the most unlikely place.
Some use subtle digital manipulation to highlight a certain prevalent societal ill, others use diametrically contrasting images that appear worlds apart at first before you appreciate their synergy. Some create an ephemeral feel leaving you unsure if it is watercolour or digital image, itself a demonstration of the differences between manmade and natural beauty. Other images disturb and enchant, and the maps from the Cold War Era provide a further element of mystery.
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The exhibition runs until the 22nd of September and if you are interested in art, culture, history, or architecture, then visiting is a must. I highly recommend staying in the hotel as well- full of art by local artists and a location for artistic retreats and workshops, it is a friendly and unique space.
After viewing the exhibition and meeting the people behind it (as well as discussing the project at length over some raki), I am excited to see the next phases of the project. I hope that this exhibition and the vision they are presenting will stand them in good stead for getting the help and support they need to reclaim Sazan island and to retain it as an outdoor museum, creative space, and an island for people to explore and enjoy for years to come.
This article was originally published on The Balkanista.