Memorie.al publishes the unknown story of Ndoc Tushë, originally from Fush-Arrëz, who in September 1953, together with four other friends, were arrested by the State Security on charges of “laughing at a rally held in the city “on the occasion of Stalin’s death” and were sentenced to severe imprisonment, starting at 18 years for “group leader”. The rare testimony of Ndoc Tushë, from the origin of the family that had in his gene the mastery of wood carving, the arrest and years of imprisonment in the Bulqiza Camp and the Craft Prison in Tirana, as well as the period after prison, when he stabilized in the city of Shkodra, where with the help of the former Chairman of the Executive Committee of the time, Mëhill Doçi, he was employed in the People’s Services Enterprise and the shop window of his shop near ‘Kafe e Madhe’, behind Rozafat Castle, was the place most visited by domestic and foreign tourists and at that time, by order of the senior leadership from Tirana, he prepared all the portraits of the main leaders, such as: Enver Hoxha, Mao Zedong, Chu En Lait, Kim Ir Sen, Lenin , Stalin, etc., which the senior leadership in Tirana needed to make gifts to the high communist personalities of different countries of the world.
In 1961, after I was released from political prison, with the help of the head of the Industry section, Nikola Papamiti, originally from Gjirokastra, and the chairman of the Executive Committee of the Shkodra District, Mëhill Doçi, my job was immediately opened. in the mastery of applying painting to straw. Until 1965 I worked for the People’s Services Company and at that time, behind Rozafat Castle, the window of my shop near the Great Cafe where I had exhibited about 180 types of works, was the most visited place by all local tourists and foreigners coming to the city of Shkodra. During those years I have prepared all the portraits of the main leaders, such as: Enver Hoxha, Mao Zedong, Chu En Lait, Kim Ir Sen, Lenin, Stalin, etc., which the senior leadership in Tirana needed to be made gifts to high communist personalities of different countries of the world. Only for Enver Hoxha I have prepared over 60 works, according to the orders I had from the Party Committee, doing it in different positions, alone or with Mao Zedong, Chu En Lain, etc. At the time when my shop window became a place of “pilgrimage”, the State Security appointed one of its civilian cadres, who regularly monitored me all the time tourists came there, seeing that I did not enter into various connections with ta. Although during those 30 or so years that I worked in that craft in the city of Shkodra I created a deep sympathy among the people and some high cadres, sometimes I risked being punished again for “agitation and propaganda” by the Security or malicious colleagues of cmirëzinj. “One of them was a painter of the decor, FA, who came to my shop and after secretly taking the unfinished portrait of Enver Hoxha, sent it to the First Secretary, Sulejman Baholli, telling him how badly I had done it”.
This is how Ndoc Tusha, one of the most famous masters in Albania of applying straw painting, remembered for Memorie.al, who told for the first time all the vicissitudes of his life, since the sentence of ten years in prison in the town of Fush – Arrëzit, accused of laughing when Stalin died and then in the city of Shkodra, where he was several times handcuffed by the State Security. Who is Ndoc Tusha and what is the origin of his family? Where did he serve his 10-year sentence and how did he learn the art of applying straw painting? Who were the people who helped him in the city of Shkodra and those who wanted to put him back in prison? In how many countries of the world has Ndoc Tusha opened his exhibitions and what are the works that the former Prime Minister Pandeli Majko took to donate to the Pope of Rome, John Paul II? Regarding these full of facts and events from the life of the famous master, his interview in this article introduces us.
Continued from the previous issue
Mr. Ndoc, how long have you been dealing with that job?
Until 1965 I worked in the People’s Services Enterprise doing custom work and since then, I have prepared all the portraits of Enver, Mao Zedong, Chu En Lai, Kim Ir Sen, Lenin, Stalin, “Heroes of Socialist Labor”, Shkurte Pal Vata, Ismet Sali Bruçaj, the house where the Albanian Communist Party was founded in Tirana, etc. Likewise, in addition to these paintings and portraits that I made according to the message that came to me from the Party Committee, Youth Committee, etc., I have realized hundreds of other works with different themes. All those works that I did in the straw, went to the top leadership in Tirana and they gave gifts to high communist personalities of different countries of the world, or other Marxist-Leninist friends who were associated at that time Enver Hoxha and Albanian Labor Party.
Which of the leadership portraits had the most requests?
Undoubtedly Enver Hoxha. For him I have prepared over 60 papers, according to the orders I had from the Party Committee, doing it in various positions, alone or with Mao Zedong, etc. After Enver, one of the most sought-after portraits was that of Stalin.
Where did you do your work?
At that time, I was given a shop, near the Great Cafe, and there I worked for their realization. In the shop window of that shop, I had exhibited about 180 kinds of works, from the most diverse. At that time, after Rozafa Castle, the window of my shop was the most visited place by all the foreign tourists who came to the city of Shkodra and as it were, that window had become a place of pilgrimage.
Since you worked with portraits of senior management, who checked your works and if there was a case that they were not liked or other problems?
My work was controlled by the Shkodra Party Committee and during all those years that I have been dealing with that work, I have often had problems and twice I have been very close to prison.
Why did these happen, how do you remember them?
At the time when my shop window became a place of “pilgrimage”, the State Security appointed one of its civilian staff, who regularly monitored me all the time tourists came there, seeing that I did not establish special communication with them… He did not leave without making sure that there were no more tourist buyers in my shop. Although during those 30 years I worked in that profession in the city of Shkodra where I created a kindness to the citizens but also some senior staff, for the simple fact that I had created jobs for about 700 employees of the Artistic Enterprise, several times I risked being punished again for “agitation and propaganda” by the Security or malicious colleagues.
Why did they try to punish you when you did something that no one else did?
Security did not ask much about what work you do, nor did the malice of colleagues have its impact. One of them was the decor painter, F. A., who once found the occasion and came to my shop when I was not there. He had secretly taken the unfinished portrait of Enver Hoxha and sent it to the First Secretary of the district, Sulejman Baholli, telling him: “This is how Ndoci made our leader”. When I went to the store, my colleague Ymer Kuçi was very scared and said to me with regret: “Now you are done”.
Did Sul Baholli call you about this problem?
As soon as I learned that F. A., had taken the portrait, I myself went to the First Secretary and told him that that portrait was unfinished and was in the process of being worked on. Fortunately, Sulë Baholli defended the truth.
Actually, this work done by you was really unfinished…?
Absolutely not, but I was forced to say so because I was afraid of who knew what might happen and that I could interpret that work that could lead me back to prison bars. Even though I had been a political prisoner, it never occurred to me to play such games. On the contrary, when it came to leadership portraits, I worked hard.
Have you had other cases where you risked being arrested?
Yes, I had three other cases, in 1968 when a geometer came to my studio, who put his finger on the portrait of Enver and said to me: “How much straw does he want to eat”? I was horrified by his words and for six months I was very scared and waited when they were coming to arrest me. I had this fear as I did not denounce this sentence that man told me. Another case was in 1978, when the State Security prepared to arrest me on charges of “agitation and propaganda.” Those of the Security had come to the Artistic Enterprise and as a rule they had to get the opinion of the secretary of the basic organization of the Party, but as for my luck, that day there was only the deputy secretary of the Party, who had told them: well and more Ndoci works alone, than all the communists of the enterprise together. In no way do I agree to arrest Ndoci, because we will have 500 unemployed workers and this is a great cost for us as an enterprise and also for the city of Shkodra.
Who told you this, since these things were kept secret at that time?
It is perfectly right for you to say that at that time these things that were done by the State Security and the Party organization did not come out, but that I only learned about it after the ’90s, from a Security Operational Worker, who told me in confidence. While the third case was in 1981 when the German national football team came to Tirana. A few days before the match, an ardent German fan, Gjergj Morina, asked me to make a portrait of Rummenigge, which I worked on at home for 18 days. He gave it to Rumeniges in Tirana and he was arrested for that. After George was arrested, his friends informed me to be safe, but I had nothing to do because I had written my name on that picture. On one of those anxious days a local journalist came to me and provoked me at home, telling me that he wanted to do an interview with me, for the realization of the portrait of the German football player. But I denied it and told him that I had not made a German player, but Din Zhega.
How did this problem end?
A few days later, those of the Party Committee came to me and said: “It is not your fault, but we who do not order gifts from you, because Rumenige only accepted your work as a gift.”
What about the Artistic Enterprise, did it appreciate you for the work you did?
Definitely appreciated me, because I had opened job fronts for about 600 – 700 workers. Thus, evaluating my work, in 1981 I was awarded the title “Master” and since 1979 I was a member of the League of Writers and Artists of Albania. I was also praised by Ramiz Alia himself, since in 1964 I had presented a project to the Chairman of the Executive Committee of Shkodra district, Bilal Parruca, who approved it and that project was implemented by all the chairmen of the Executive Committee who came after him until 1993.
What about other party and state leaders and officials who attacked you, were there any at that time?
Of course, in addition to those who helped me, supported me, and appreciated me for my work, there were also those who attacked me for hurting me, even demanding my arrest. One of them was the director Z.C., who for four years in a row, sent me reports to the Internal Affairs Branch of Shkodra district, saying that I was sabotaging the work. Likewise, when journalists or film crews from Kinostudio “Shqipëria e Re” or Albanian Radio-Television came to make a chronicle or article about me, she, as the director, did not allow them, telling them that I had been in a political prison, etc.
How much did you get paid at the time for the work you did, and did you ever receive financial rewards for the portraits of leadership you made?
At that time, I was paid a base salary of 640 lek (new) per month and only once was I rewarded when I painted a picture of Rozafat Castle (1.80 x 1.80 cm.) Which was donated to the leader of China, Prime Minister Chu En Lai.
How long did it take you to make that picture and who commissioned it?
The order was given to me by the chiefs of the Executive Committee and to realize that picture, I worked tirelessly for ten days in a row. In order for it to end on time, I was given the “Gaz” of the Deputy Chairman of the Executive Committee, with which I was sent home to eat bread and brought back to the company to make the most of my time…
After it was given to Chu En Lait, did they tell you if he liked your picture?
At that time, I was told that Chu En Lai did not believe that the picture was made of straw and had seen it under a microscope. So, it was said at the time, but I do not know how true this was. But the truth was that I had applied fine sawdust to that picture for the first time, as it only took at least eight months to finish it with straw alone.
But after the ’90s, did you continue your mastery of straw works?
Since 1995 when I retired, I continued to work at home and at that time I had a desire and tried to open an exhibition at the Gallery of Figurative Arts in Tirana, but its doors never opened for me!
How many exhibitions have you opened in total?
I have participated in collective exhibitions continuously since before the ’90s, while I opened a personal exhibition for the first time in 1994. From that time until 2004, I opened several other exhibitions, such as in Shkodra, Tirana, and then Italy (in a fair attended by masters from different parts of the world), as well as in New Zealand, where I sold many works. Two of my works, such as “Mother Teresa” and “Pope Wojtyla”, are still in the Vatican today.
Who commissioned the two jobs in the Vatican?
He indentz. Pandeli Majko when he was the Prime Minister and he presented it to Pope John Paul II during a visit to the Vatican.
At the end of this interview, what else can you add, any hostages or worries left over from your life and work with this craft?
The only thing that worries me is who will I leave this craft to?! I think it would be good for the Lyceum of Arts, or the Academy of Arts, to open a new subject, that of application in straw./Memorie.al