March 13, 2003

Albanian Dissident Discusses Artwork

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Maks Velo, Albania’s most famous modern artist and dissident, spoke of his life and exhibited several paintings in McGraw Hall yesterday. The lecture was part of the Cornell Council for the Arts “Art and Politics: Politics and Art” initiative. After being arrested and interrogated by the Communist regime in 1978 for his modern artistic tendencies, Velo had much to say about the horrors of dictatorship and its ability to suppress creativity.

Elidor Mehilli ’04, the organizer of the lecture and member of the Society for European Affairs has been working on getting Velo to come speak for the past three years. After meeting Velo at a book signing in Albania, he arranged for the artist to come lecture at the University.

“In Albania he is the most famous artist and architect at the moment. In Albania, his [coming to Cornell] has been promoted very much. Everyone knows about it,” Mehilli said.

The lecture began as Mehilli introduced Velo. But Velo did not take the podium, because he does not speak English. Instead, Mehilli presented a short description of Velo’s life while the artist sat modestly beside him.

Mehilli described Velo as “a creative spirit under an inhumane regime.” When Velo began painting and sculpting after his junior year in college, the Communist regime immediately took him into custody for questioning. Velo even had transcripts of the judge’s rulings available at the lecture.

Translator Adela Kalenda ’04, read one ruling aloud as one example of the many critiques deeming Velo’s artwork illegal. This passage critiqued Velo’s painting of an old woman. “This portrait … [shows] a degeneration of the mother’s figure, a deformation of the features. We see a special extension of the neck. Wrinkles have been accentuated and the eyes have a sad look. Through this portrait the painter has expressed poverty and pessimism as well as a miserable spiritual state.”

Velo told the audience that the painting was simply a portrait of his grandmother. “I was interested in necks,” Velo said, explaining why the woman’s neck was so long.

“Maks was sent to Spac, an infamous concentration camp where he was jailed. He did construction and manual labor there,” Mehilli said. While in prison, Velo’s creativity didn’t cease. He continued to experiment with available materials; in desperation, Velo carved figures from fruit.

William Culley ’06, said in response to the lecture, “I was impressed by his resilience and accomplishment as an artist who not only sustained, but refined his abilities through 10 years of imprisonment and intellectual suppression by the Communist government of Albania.”

Mehilli read aloud a passage from Velo’s autobiography. In it, Velo denounced socialism. He said, “It didn’t let you breathe. Dictatorship regimes surpass art. They surpass the evil. The image of dictatorship goes beyond reality.”

Several poems were also presented, one of which Velo wrote in prison. Velo described time in prison as, “waiting for a future when you have no past … Waiting for a start when nothing matters anymore.”

Of the slides Velo showed, several explored relationships through human gestures. One piece depicted the terror of communism: it showed a row of faceless people with a long rod pierced through each of their hearts, connecting them to one another.

Velo’s lecture was organized by the Society for European Affairs at Cornell University, with the support of the Student Assembly Finance Commission, the Dean of Students, the International Students Programming Board, the Government Department, and the Society for Humanities at Cornell.

Archived article by Jessica Liebman