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Alush Shima

For decades Alush Shima painted in secret under Albania's Stalinist regime. Now the outside world can see his work. Behind his coming exhibition at Roy Miles Gallery in London lies one of the most extraordinary art stories of our times.

Alush Shima's most perilous moment was in 1973, when the Sigurimi secret police seized his closest friend, fellow artist Ali Oseku, for letting slip praise of such bourgeois painters as Picasso and Matisse.

"I was terrified he would talk about me. I knew they would torture him," said Shima. He rushed home to destroy every trace of his dissident activity: 150 paintings, the work of nine years, were torn to pieces and set alight.

In fact, Oseku gave nothing away during four years in prison. For six months he had to squat in a cell 3 ft. square, but not even that loosened his tongue.

When the alarm passed Shima began to paint surreptitiously again. He did the canvases in the loft of his little house in Tirana, the capital, or passed them to trusted relatives.

"I had only two choices: either to become a slave of the regime or paint secretly, hoping that one day the system would change - either in my life or that of my children."

Others took the easy way. Paint and brushes were readily available for portraits of Enver Hoxha, the communists leader, or for scenes of workers marching off to commune and factory.

"Virtually all the artists were broken," Shima said. "I dont blame them. It was a terrible system." One imprisoned artist traced the outline of a nude in the soil - and had his fingers chopped off.

Now 50, with the communists finally swept away, Shima flew to London in 1992 with the best of his work. At first glance the paintings to be shown here may not seem to be those of a dissident. But Shima's themes and exuberant Fauvist colour were a passionate protest against the stifling or artistic freedom when the only legal art form in Albania was Social Realism.

Art apart, Shima would have been an outsider. His father was a shopkeeper whose premises were confiscated in 1968; his father-in-law, head of the Muslim community, spent 13 years in jail for allegedly listening to the BBC.

Shima got away with his creative painting for 25 years only because his official job - a set painter in Albania's only film studio - provided the perfect front. His work kept him in touch with other artists from whom he could buy paint and materials.

All the time he suffered mental torment over whether he should paint at all. "I had my duty as a painter. But I was putting my entire family at risk. Had I been discovered they would have all been exiled and sent to concentration camps, and I would have been executed.

"It was difficult for me to lead a double life, to act out the deception. Everything had to be done behind closed doors." Especially painful was the silence he had to keep when other artist taunted him with failure because he had nothing to show them.

This time, London will not se his most political works because he was told they might not be appreciated by the outside world, which knows little about Albania.

Many of these were painted in sections to confuse the Sigurimi if they raided his house. He finally fitted them together, like a jigsaw puzzle, 18 months ago, when he showed them to a trusted foreign visitor.

"This was my revolt against the system. The communists and Enver Hoxha created an absurd type of human being, the antithesis of a human being, a monster."

He now hopes to have an exhibition of these paintings in London later this year, followed by his first showing in Tirana. "At last," he says, "it is possible to tell the world what happened in Albania."

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