Tuesday, January 29, 2008

From New York City to Connecticut

In Connecticut, the neighboring state of New York, and in a town about
one hour by train lives one of my dearest friends, the painter Gazmend
Bakalli. Gazi, as we called him, fled Albania in 1990 by storming a
foreign Embassy, in the first exodus from Albania. He entered in the
Turkish Embassy and after he stayed about a year in a camp somewhere in
Turkey, he came to the United States and for many years resided in New York
City. Later on, he bought a large house made by wood in Connecticut.

You go there by train and the train runs through the Harlem. And Harlem
was full of large and ugly brick buildings, bricks that once were red
but now have taken a gloomy and decadent appearance. These buildings
seems so uniform and tasteless to the point that they remind you of those
edifices that, as kids, we used to build with out wooden cubes. They
also may induce a sense of pride for the apartment buildings that were
constructed during the socialist rule in Albania. And yet, from the
window I could see how on the top of one of them was written “national
Museum of Jazz” and this sufficed to remind me of the fantastic rhythms
of jazz bands, the same rhythms that people continue listening in the
darkness of their rooms with sad feelings for the a day that just went

Afterwards, the train runs through the Bronx, this old borough, even
more decrepit than Harlem. This is a borough in which emigrant Italians
used to live but now the emigrant Albanians live there. The view os the
same with the scenes from “Once Upon a time there was America” of
Sergio Leone or, with the visual images of the “View from the
Bridge” of Arthur Miller.

Afterwards the view becomes clearer. Mother nature comes in with
meadows and forests, low hills and wooden houses, sprinkled in them. No
matter what, my feeling is that this is a cloned nature, and even better,
intentionally cultivated to be in this way.

With Gazi we talk incessantly, or rather, he talks and talks, and as
any other being, he has accrued all the necessary arguments to justify
his choices and his decisions; the same way I would do if somebody were
to ask me why I stay in Albania and why my house is close to the School
of Ballet.

Snow has already fallen in Connecticut and outside everything is
frozen. When we enter Gazi’s home, night has fallen already. We enter in
the house from the side and not from the main entrance. A garage that has
been transformed into a painter’s studio, then a large living room
in which on old man, a former famous basketball coach, Gazi’s
father-in-law sits in front of a huge computer. I approach and greet him. He is
fixated reading Albanian newspapers in the internet, and all my
conversation with him was about Sali Berisha and Edi Rama. There is no chance
that I could escape from Albanian politics so Gazi and I go back to
his studio to see his latest paintings.

I have been separated from him for 17 years now. He also has been
separated from me and the themes of our conversation are chosen carefully
to reconnect; but talking about his paintings is a very difficult way. I
like his paintings but they also appear to me as paintings done by a
human being who lives in a wooden house, surrounded by a huge forest,
that should hop in his car to go and have a coffee, and I believe, he
would so alone. This solitude has made his thinking very abstract, more
concerned with esthetics than with the substance and devoid of any
social activism. I think that his paintings need some background, some
narrative, some history, and some epic to support them. I try to express my
thoughts and my friend looks at me; his large eyes are filled with

It is but natural, I tell myself, who do I think I am? Ah, if here in
the United States, there was a renowned art critic or a well-known
gallery owner. But Gazi knows this well and intelligently quotes the saying
of one of his professors in the Fashion Institute. Very cynically, she
had told them that the style of a contemporary painter is determined by
the first picture he sells.

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