Enisa Cenaliaj

 “Once upon a time...” Enisa began her story about her performances to me. Once upon a time, she created a performance wherein she stood upon a pedestal in the Kombinat neighborhood of Tirana – a pedestal upon which Stalin once rested – dressed as a worker from the iconography of Socialist Realism – and greeted the workers as they emerged from what used to be the Kombinat Stalin Textiles Factory after work. She started the performance at 3:30PM, just as the workers were leaving, and a banner nearby displayed the message: “welcome, dear workers.”

The workers, however, didn’t necessarily feel welcomed by Enisa’s performance. The reaction was strong: twenty years after the fall of the communist government in Albania, they commented: “we don’t need any more statues.” Some children threw stones. The locals, the intended audience, didn’t understand the context, and weren’t necessarily familiar with the phenomenon of performance art.

Enisa was motivated to create the performance following the changes she noticed in this working class area of Tirana after the fall of communism. Changes were taking place in the country, and this area, that was once for workers, was now becoming a new commercial center, and the disconnect between the business owners and the works was striking. It was no longer an area for workers – I didn’t even produce textiles anymore, although it was still called a Textile Factory. The performance draws attention to, and demands recognition of, the working people who not only depend on this area for their livelihood, but make it what it is.

Enisa Cenaliaj, Welcome Dear Workers, 2005

Enisa Cenaliaj, Welcome Dear Workers, 2005

Another performative work by Enisa also draws attention to the contrasts between life during the communist era and that of the new era of capitalism. While participating in a workshop in Switzerland for six months, she brought her family with her – virtually. This was in 2005, before photoshop had really taken on and Instagram selfies populated our visual culture. Dragging around life-sized photographs of her family members, she photographed them in front of major tourist sites in Switzerland. Many who saw the photos didn’t even realize that they were manipulated. Her family even framed some of the photos and showed them to friends with a laugh, bragging about where they “had been.”

Enisa missed her family, but not just because she was away in Switzerland. She missed the meaning and nature of family during the communist era. At that time, with a regimented work day of eight hours, security provided by the state, and little opportunity for travel outside of Albania’s borders, there was much more time for family. Nowadays, as in every competitive capitalist environment, people have to work long hours, many people go abroad to earn more, or broaden their horizons, and the family unit has become more disconnected and fragmented.

This is a tale I have heard quite often in Eastern Europe. While it is obvious and easy to denigrate the previous system, there were advantages to it, and things that are missed or have been lost in the transition. I have often heard artists wax nostalgic about “the good old days,” when there was a system to fight against (which inspired artists to produce challenging works and forced them to find creative ways to do it), and unlimited time in which to do it. So Enisa, with her traveling family two-dimensional family members, has captured this nostalgia precisely and poignantly, in the same way that her worker's statue created a monument to the communist-era worker, once the hero of the socialist state.