During Korea’s winter auctions, two houses sold off hundreds of artworks that belonged to the family of the former South Korean leader Chun Doo Hwan. The pieces were among six hundred works of art seized by the state, and most of the money proceeding from the sale—some $6.7 million USD—will go into state coffers. Chun had been sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the Gwangju massacre and the small fortune he had amassed through taking bribes during his contentious rule, but he was set free on the provision that he pay a massive fine. Chun’s groundless claims of poverty, and the uncollected $156 million in damages, were what finally prompted officials to confiscate his vast collection.
Chun’s story is one of many in which an authoritarian ruler hoards both power and art. Dictators past and present have cultivated valuable collections as a means of demonstrating their reach, in addition to their ability to pillage private and public property. Their preferences may display taste and sophistication, and many collect singular artists and commission portraits from renowned painters. These acquisitions, much like the solipsistic monuments they erect, are commemorative displays, efforts to situate themselves in memory.
In a bold critique of this impulse, Albanian artist Anila Rubiku etched the portraits of twelve dictators and their henchmen, only to erase them. The accompanying video shows the violent efforts this requires of the artist: drypoint indentations are close to impossible to erase, much like the impact of these dictators on the lives of those they ruled over. Rubiku lived through the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, the Communist leader of Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985; his portrait is the last she scrubs away. In this way, she uses art to dismantle the power these men hold through images and memory. The very art they wanted to be remembered through becomes a means with which to exact revenge and efface them.
Effacing Memory is composed of Rubiku’s portraits and the video documenting the process of their erasure. Rubiku’s artistic practice includes drawing, embroidery, video, and installations that address issues of gender, architecture, memory, and history. She has created a unique hybrid, incorporating artisans and communities into projects that combine tradition and art, local history, and a contemporary perspective. Born in Albania in 1970, today she lives and works in Milan and Tirana.
—Eriola Pira for Guernica