Niku Alex Muçaj / Vangjush Vëllahu / Roland Runaj

South by the Sea, is a yearly showcase of southern voices in contemporary art. This year’s exhibition is the second edition, featuring three works originating from the south of Albania which reflect on the invisible legacy of a people’s movement. 

It was exactly 30 years ago, on August 8th 1991, that a 150 meter long ship by the name of Vlora reached the shores of Bari- Italy, while overflowing with 20 thousand newly liberated Albanians dreaming of brighter opportunities. The recent collapse of the Iron Curtain had changed the relationship between East and West Europe, reuniting a continent split on ideology, and repaving the roads of trade and migration that had artificially collapsed since WWII. By then, generations of Albanians had learnt the italian language by illegally capturing television signals from across the sea, and the lifestyle coming through the grainy screens had become their version of the American European Dream. On the other side of the Adriatic, the unprecedented televised live images of the ship arriving, were indistinguishable from the horror flicks which populated TV screens of that decade; and the cognitive dissonance of witnessing these scenes in real life caused a break in reality for many.

What followed this iconic moment was a decade of thousands of ad-hoc motorboat runs crossing the Adriatic, most of them departing from the beaches of the region of Vlora due to their close proximity to the Italian coast and the ferocious nature of the city’s fishermen. These new routes allowed for an influx of objects and commodities to make their way from the west to the east, and also for the illicit transport of human minds and bodies back towards the west. The 1990’s saw 700 thousand Albanians flee the country in search of a better future, during its waves of mass exodus and brain-drain.

In exchange, those remaining received remittances which kept Albania’s modernizing economy on life support, and which may have inadvertently created the pyramid schemes that devastated the country’s economy and sparked a civil war in 1997. Eventually in the new century, a more balanced relationship between the Albanian homeland and the diaspora was established, and the smuggling techniques that were born in the beaches of Vlora to transport people remained in use even in the 2000’s; but no longer for humans, who were now emigrating through more legal and more quiet means in search of opportunity.

The works in view create a multifaceted narrative which aims to bring forward experimental sides of three artists whose lives have been unmistakably marked by migration. Roland Runaj presents a handcrafted ode to his compatriotes’ drives and hopes from that iconic scene from 30 years ago; while Niku Alex Muçaj’s “Lonely Tools” reflects on the loss of labor and human potential; and Vangjush Vellahu concludes with “A piece to remember” a hyper-personal journey fragmented in a meticulously archived jumble.

South by the Sea II has been supported by the PCF RELIEF FUND FOR T.I.C.A. – AIRLAB PROGRAM. To counter the very difficult situation in the culture sector created by the pandemic of the Covid-19 virus, the Prince Claus Fund has issued a relief fund that will enable the continuation of activities for independent organizations that support artists and sustain art scenes. The program offers support to eight artists in dialog with four curators and is implemented in collaboration with three other initiatives, Art House in Shkodra, Galeria e Bregdetit in Vlora and Zeta Center in Tirana.