You could debate which country has the most ornate government office: the gilded Elysée, the fortresslike Kremlin, the hulking Great Hall of the People in Beijing. But no leader has an office quite like Edi Rama, the prime minister of Albania. Covering the walls of his office in Tirana are hundreds of drawings: colourful, tightly wound abstractions, with tendrils of colour spiralling out from densely packed cores. The wallpaper, it turns out, is of the prime minister’s own design. “If art cannot make politics more sane,” Rama tells me when we meet one warm Tirana night, “politics, with its insanity, can sometimes make art even better.”
Rama is that rarest thing: not a politician with artistic leanings, but a real, bona fide artist in power. A former art professor, he had no intention to enter public life – and when he did, he didn’t fully abandon his initial career. Now, amid debates on EU accession and occasional squabbles with Balkan neighbours, Rama is preparing for his first US exhibition, at Marian Goodman gallery in New York. It is surely the first time a sitting head of government has nabbed a show at one of the world’s leading galleries; even George W Bush, who started painting only after his presidency, couldn’t get a show outside his own library in Dallas.
Rama, who leads Albania’s socialist party, came to power in a landslide in 2013. (His adviser on that campaign was one Alastair Campbell.) He had previously spent 11 years as mayor of Tirana, one of Europe’s poorest capitals. With little money to repair the city’s rundown infrastructure, Rama undertook a rough-and-ready makeover, ordering its drab, communist-era apartment buildings to be repainted in bright, bold colours. Blue and white stripes cascade down tower blocks; green squares punctuate coral-coloured facades. There’s a palpable energy when you walk the streets of Tirana unlike anywhere else in the Balkans: the city’s young, multiethnic and literally multicoloured.
The paint-slathered capital caused an international commotion – thanks in part to a video by Anri Sala, Albania’s most prominent artist, who studied under Rama in the 1990s. Sala’s video Dammi i Colori, now in the collection of Tate Modern, followed Rama around a nighttime Tirana, transformed into a dreamland of pigments. But Rama is keen to stress that he never saw the city as a gesamtkunstwerk. “The colours of the buildings were not art for me. It was a political action, with colours. Because we didn’t have money to make big construction projects. People needed everything: water supply, roads, lighting. When I became mayor of Tirana, there were only 78 lights functioning in the streets. So imagine going to ask people what colour you want your building to be! They would say, Fuck you! It would seem the most exquisite way of saying you are not interested in them.
“It had a chain effect I didn’t imagine. Once the buildings were coloured, people started to get rid of the heavy fences of their shops. In the painted roads, we had 100% tax collection from the people, while tax collection was normally 4%. People accepted to pay their share for the city, because they realised that through the colours the city exists.”
Rama’s first act after his election in 2013 was to tear down the barricades around the prime minister’s office – a low-slung bunker on Tirana’s Martyrs of the Nation Boulevard, next door to a crumbling concrete pyramid dating from the end of communist rule. The front door is wide open now, and above it is a Broadway-style marquee: an artwork by Philippe Parreno, the French artist currently occupying the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern. Walk under the bright marquee and you’ll discover the new Center for Openness and Dialogue, featuring an art gallery, a library, a small cinema and internet kiosks, open for free until late at night. The goal, the PM says, was to “make the first floor for the citizens, the second floor for power”.
Rama was born in Tirana in 1964; his father was a sculptor who worked in an official socialist-realist style. Albania then was under the control of Enver Hoxha, a paranoid dictator who, even more than his Yugoslav or Romanian counterparts, suppressed modern art and outside influences. “The first wave,” Rama explains, “was a wave against religion. In 1967, God was banned. More than 2,000 churches, Roman chapels and mosques, were blown up with dynamite and 300,000 works of religious art and books were burned in the street.
“Then in 1974 came the second wave, under the spell of this big love story with communist China. Art and culture of the 20th century were degenerate and were forbidden. So from impressionists to the present day we have no sense.” At Tirana’s art academy, where Rama enrolled as a teenager, the last slide in his introductory art history lectures was Gustave Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio, a realist panorama of 1854–55. “After that, it was just a white wall. The art history professor would tell us how bad things turned out. Some spoiled petit bourgeois kids who called themselves impressionists abandoned the working classes, and transformed painting into an illusion. And then the schizophrenic Vincent van Gogh, and then the antisocial Paul Gauguin and the diabolical Pablo Picasso. All just words. Images were forbidden.”
Travel was forbidden, too. Until 1990, Albanians were not permitted to go abroad unless on official business. Rama, who stands more than 6ft 5in tall, joined the national basketball team – and not only out of love of the game. “One of the only groups who could travel at that time were sportsmen. The reason I played, and absolutely wanted to reach the national team, was to have the possibility to see a museum. I remember my first trip to Vienna, in 1984, a very cold day. I left the hotel and walked I don’t know how long to go to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Can you imagine my disappointment when I found the museum closed, because Tuesday was the day it was closed?
“So I had to wait five years, for my second trip, to Bremen. Leaving the hotel was very dangerous; you were not supposed to leave the team. We went to the modern art museum of Bremen, and I still remember the unique perfume of the parquet and the sound of silence. It was morning. Nobody was there. First was Rodin, and then I was in front of Picasso. I couldn’t believe it.”
Rama became a professor of painting at Tirana’s Academy of Arts in the waning days of communism, and took part in the protests that paved the way to democratisation. He was awarded a fellowship in Paris, where he and Sala lived together. He might have stayed in France, but in 1998, while in Tirana for his father’s funeral, he got a call that juddered his career: the then prime minister was reshuffling his cabinet and looking for a culture minister. There was no budget to speak of, but Rama was able to pull off Albania’s first international art exhibition – the “biennial without money,” he calls it – which brought Europe’s artists and curators to the once isolated nation for the first time.
It was at the culture ministry that Rama began doodling, almost without noticing. “I couldn’t find a way to survive these long meetings. Drawing helped me to listen. Only much later did I read studies that showed doodling improves concentration or lowers stress. It’s a process that has become completely part of me. And it’s very fruitful. If I’m in circumstances when I can’t do it I feel nervous, I simply feel like I’m not there.” The drawings have matured over time, from idle scribbles into more substantial, all-over compositions. Many recall the automatic drawing of Max Ernst or André Masson, midcentury surrealists who created flowing, biomorphic patterns without initial planning.
But, critically, Rama works at the office. These are not a hobbyist’s Sunday paintings; they’re made at the desk of the most powerful man in the country, at the same time as he meets with ministers or makes decisions. Most of them are done on A4 printouts from Microsoft Outlook of the prime minister’s daily schedule – flowers blossom and monsters emerge from the regimented hours of a politician’s day. The drawings, with their seething colours and winding curves, don’t illustrate, or even abstract, the rough and tumble of politics. Instead, they reassert the individuality of a man whose job is to represent others.
Albania is still poor. Corruption remains endemic, though Rama has made progress. But Tirana, at least, is rocking: hipsters guzzle beer in the shadow of the coloured buildings, and the city’s huge main square is being remade into a pedestrian idyll. Under Rama’s leadership, Albania is knocking at the door of the European Union – many countries still want to join, despite the shadow of Brexit – though lately negotiations have slowed. (“We’re in a kind of affair,” he tells me. “We hope to start negotiations for the marriage, and we hope that the EU is there when we’re ready to be the bride.”)
Rama has a full inbox. Is there room for art in such circumstances? “When I became a minister, I thought art was gone once and for all,” he says. “The stress, the burden, was overwhelming. A daily battle for things you never imagined. And then when this happened” – he gestures around the prime ministerial citadel, a sly smile on his face – “I thought that politics is the battle of everyday life. And art is like a prayer.”
The exhibition Edi Rama is on view at Marian Goodman gallery, New York, until 23 December.
This article was published in the Guardian on 15 November 2016 by Jason Farago.