Interview with Andri Ibrahimi from Tirana Ekspres

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Tirana Ekspres,the alternative art space of Albania’s capital, was founded in 2011 by its current coordinator Andri Ibrahimi. Nowadays, the centre is not only active in the area of art, but also in that of environmental issues and ecotourism. However, in 2011 it all started with the aim to break the state monopoly on art, as Ibrahimi elucidates: “The government ran all cultural organisations back then. There were no private NGOs. Back then you only had the national theatre, the national museum, etcetera. Now different centres like Tirana Ekspres are opening. I can’t judge, because I am too subjective. Other people could describe our place in Albanian society more objectively and independently.

 

During many years, we had to move from space to space. Not by choice. The first venue was destroyed by the municipality. This was an industrial area, which we squatted. Artists were building a community and everything was happening there. The second location was too expensive and the building of the third one was sold. But we adapt and try to look on the bright side of being able to work in different areas with different people, but around the same main topic.

 

We’re currently making an animated movie about an old legend. Our target audience are kids from five to twelve years old. One of the movies is about money. We will start with 100 dollar and keep changing it to LEK and back. So after a fixed amount of exchanges, the money will have disappeared.

 

“Many young artists are no longer afraid to pursue their passion and develop their talent because they have the space we created for them.”

 

We are connected to a lot of other organisations in Tirana. I know all people in the arts field. Now more people are independent so there is less collaboration and people tend to work alone. It is not competitive. It can’t be, because there is no market. No artist can sell his or her work. Many young artists are no longer afraid to pursue their passion and develop their talent because they have the space we created for them. Back in the day, the national galleries were the only opportunity to hold exhibitions. Without a CV, you didn’t get in. So underground artist never got any attention.

 

“Artists under pressure perform better. They break the rules and push boundaries.”

 

The government doesn’t support us. Yet. Independent is not a popular word because independent people speak their minds. This is not what the government wants. They support some NGOs, but only in order to control them. However, artists are getting angry, the water is boiling. It’s true, though, that artists under pressure perform better. They break the rules and push boundaries.

 

“We want to decentralise the approach to culture. Every area should have at least a cultural centre where young people can go and learn for free.”

 

I think the actual government, the people who are leading the country today, are connected to the people who had power in the old communist system. They grew up in those days so they want to have the same kind of control. In the same way we want people to engage with culture in a way that is similar to how things were during the communist days. During communism, there were cultural centres in every neighbourhood where kids could learn artistic skills for free. Nowadays, everything is privatised, so you have to pay. We want to decentralise the approach to culture. Every area should have at least a cultural centre where young people can go and learn for free. We are all connected to the system we grew up in.

 

I am a businessman, I sell coffee for a living. A lot of money from my business goes to Tirana Ekspres. Others who run the organisation do the same. I have to do this to make a living. But my social duty is Tirana Ekspres. I believe everybody should do something for the community.

 

“There is a kind of passivity in the Albanian civil society. During communism everything was public. So you were forced to think about the community. Now people focus on their own personal space.”

 

My desire to do something for the community came easily, because many things are missing here. Public services, for example. We created a network of volunteers to clean beaches. It’s not hard to find motivation, because on every beach you find mountains of plastic. First you go cleaning by yourself, and then you realise you need more people. However, there is a kind of passivity in the civil society. During communism everything was public. So you were forced to think about the community. After 45 years of being forced to think like that, people now focus on their
own personal space. So if someone has trash, they throw it outside and close the door. Not their problem. That is a mentality that we are starting to change now. People need to think about the community again.

 

Ecotourism started in 2012 when we started focusing on environmental issues. We first wanted to clean a specific beach. Afterwards, we created a small camp. Now we developed ten local businesses overthere, runned by local people. 70% of the visitors are foreigners, 30% are from Tirana. Our goal was to teach the local community how to make a living with ecotourism. We received 7000 EUR from a partner NGO. We will first upgrade this project with electricity and water. But no Wi-Fi or cellphone services. We need no technology over there.

 

“Our youth is coming up with a lot of good ideas. Things are moving. We are late, but we can run fast. Where others need 40 years, we need 15.”

 

We use Facebook a lot in Albania and we use it to mobilise people as well. Albanian people go to Facebook before they try Google. If you post on Facebook that you’re going somewhere, it will have an effect. We are not Germany or France, we are with just three million people. Three million cousins. I know half of the country personally. I can call anybody and find what I need. In Albania a lot is possible. We sit and drink coffee. If someone has an idea and the idea is good, it should happen, no? Good things are popping up. We are a country of young people. Average age is 27, a lot younger than the rest of Europe. And our youth is coming up with a lot of good ideas. Things are moving. We are late, but we can run fast. Where others need 40 years, we need 15.

 

“We are inspired by and connected to several European movements, but at the same time we are very detached from them.”

 

We are inspired by and connected to several European movements, but at the same time we are very detached from them. I have studied law in Italy. When you are in Europe and you see what happens, it is sometimes confronting to come back and see that nothing has happened over here. We can learn and help each other, I believe in this idea. It’s a matter of education. Only kids can change the future, we’re already educated in a certain way.

 

Economy and money are very dominant in the minds of people here. I ask the same question to every Albanian I meet, after the coffee, of course. “What is the more important thing? People or money?” 90% of the people responds with ‘money’. They don’t understand money is a tool created by people. I believe in people, but we have been so poor and now we feel like we can do anything. I think this attitude will pass, because people will learn. I am hopeful for the future. When I was twenty years old, I could have been one of the richest people in the country by inheritance. But I believe I can live without wealth and I believe and hope people will understand this as well in time.

 

“I don’t believe in institutions, I believe in citizens.”

 

From 1991 until now – that’s 26 years – we have created thousands of NGOs in Albania. They have been consuming (receiving and spending) two billion dollars in private settings. They stole the money of the public. They didn’t do anything for the people. If I had the voice, I would put pressure on the civil society as an independent leader to address the way in which they spend their money. But these people are not in it for the same reasons I am. I don’t want to face these people. These thieves. I don’t believe in institutions, I believe in citizens.

 

In Albania there are no free media. The government controls them. The only free medium is Facebook, but even on Facebook subversive messages are hidden or blocked. There are some alternative options, some web pages and blogs. They are rated as independent media. The goal of the media should be to document the problem. Here is the problem, now who’s going to fix it and who is responsible?

 

Organizata Politike is the only organisation that goes against the cultural policy of the government and is funded by a Swedish foundation. They have a utopian vision on communism. I share that vision, but I know it’s an unrealistic vision. If we had conscience, we could apply these ideas and perhaps be more like the Northern European countries. These countries are an example for me. And not only because of the well-fare state, but because of their conscience. What did Marx say? “You have to give to the community what you can and take from the community what you need.” I have the opportunity to work for the community. For this you need a conscience. This is what I want to create: the conscience of young people. Conscience is the main important value we should have.

 

“When I’m talking to people, I focus on keywords such as citizenship. Or synergy, love, positivity, community, work, solidarity. They make people think.”

 

Language is always developing. Literally. The words are moving. So we don’t use the old communist language. It’s new. I can’t change my language personally. I am what I am. When I’m talking to people, I focus on keywords such as citizenship. Or synergy, love, positivity, community, work, solidarity. They make people think and people are the power. Words are just an injection of oil, to make the train move. But if the train has no people in it, society won’t move. Small countries are easier to move. Revolutions start in neighbourhoods. Facebook, coffee and talking. The keywords of communication.

 

Our constitution is based on the French model. It is not yet adapted to us. We are a tribe. We have our own ways of doing things. An old lady was pushed of the road by a car. The family of the lady went to the man who did this and said: “Now, you are in blood with us”. You have to pay the blood you took with your own blood. This happened two months ago. They did not kill him, because his father is a prosecutor. He spent 150,000 EUR to pay the blood debt. These examples show why government is not strong. Politicians act like this too. We don’t have ethnic or religious tensions. Never had them. Perhaps with Slavic people? Or Greek? Because our country used to be bigger. They cut our country off. These tensions are political. The Balkan is an invented name by Europe. We call ourselves Illyrian. Balkan means ‘forehead’.

 

“We don’t need the European project.”

 

We don’t need you. We don’t need the European project. Once we enter this project, we’ll have to pay for everything. Taxes, water, parking… We may have better education, healthcare, but we won’t be free. We’ll be slaves. We don’t believe in that. We want to be free. Half the population is living in the mountains. Nobody will collect taxes over there. They will shoot you.

 

The only things that give me hope are my children. And the community becoming more connected and stronger.”

Interview by Victoria Deluxe
Photos by Sam David

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