Our series Laboratory of Solidarity starts with a feature by Mark Nash focusing on the discursive program Red Africa and the exhibition Things Fall Apart, initially held at Calvert 22 Gallery in London in 2016.
Referring to the title of an exhibition at the NGBK in Berlin, “Laboratorium der Solidarität” we want to start our new series, focusing on solidarity movements. Because at this very moment we are experiencing an entire global movement calling for solidarity. In a time of uncertainty, people all over the world are prepared to act jointly. People are in solidarity against the Trump government. Against populism. Against racism. In solidarity for the preservation of the environment. In solidarity in the aftermath of terrorist attacks all over the world. This has inspired us at C& to take a closer look at important historic as well as present moments of people getting together to form solidarity movements, to fight for justice.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
—WB Yeats, “The Second Coming,” 1919
Red Africa was the title of a series of seminars and events, including an exhibition, Things Fall Apart, held at Calvert 22 Gallery in London in 2016 (and continuing to Bayreuth, Lisbon, and Budapest). This had been preceded by a two-year research project which explored the notion of socialist friendship and presented work by mainly UK-based artists, scholars, and curators, looking at the legacy of socialist “structures of feeling” during and after the Cold War and with particular reference to Africa.
The publication Red Africa (1) resumes the trajectory of this project in presenting essays by many of the participants in the seminars, events, and exhibition. It is not a catalog in the traditional sense of the word, but many of the artists whose works are referred to there were presented in the exhibition. The book is intended as a standalone publication as well as providing further reading and reflection on the topics raised in the course of both the seminars and exhibition.
In my introductory essay, from which this current text is extracted, I attempt to provide a very brief historical, critical, and theoretical overview of issues raised in both the seminars and exhibition. We survey some of the key aesthetic and philosophical debates involved in the concepts of socialist friendship and affective community (the subtitle of the publication) and proceed, equally schematically, to review something of the history of the involvement of communist and Western powers in Africa during the Cold War, making particular reference to artists featured in the Things Fall Apart exhibition and reflecting on these power relations from the vantage point of today.
Chinua Achebe’s 1958 classic of postcolonial fiction, Things Fall Apart, seen by many as the archetypal modern African novel in English, reflects on the devastating impact of colonialism in Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. Achebe adopts as his title a phrase by WB Yeats, reflecting on the violent aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland and the First World War. In reiterating the Achebe title, the exhibition Things Fall Apart and the publication Red Africa use the semantic and poetic associations of their titles to focus on a loss of political and ideological perspective following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Communist Bloc’s investment in African cultural and political development.
For Achebe, the “Scramble for Africa” resulted in the disintegration of traditional African societies and their replacement with colonial ones. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union and other communist countries supported independence and liberation struggles in Africa. The Soviet Union itself “fell apart” in 1989, however, and many of the countries supported by it – and by other communist countries – subsequently fell apart in different ways. Some – particularly the former Portuguese colonies and Ethiopia – established communist-affiliated regimes; others made transitions to various kinds of democracy (e.g. Tanzania) or dictatorship (e.g. Uganda). In other words, just as the colonial world fell apart, so did its communist- and more democratic- or nationalist-inspired successor states. “Things Fall Apart,” then, has multiple valences as the title both of this essay and of the exhibition. Although only a minority of independent African states chose formal affiliation with Marxism and communism, there is no doubt that, together with the developing nationalist movements, this was a major ideological force in African culture and politics in the second half of the twentieth century.
The Calvert Socialist Friendship project used the term “socialist friendship” to explore a complex web of relationships between the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries and those African countries that were either recently independent or struggling to achieve independence. Although druzhba narodov (“friendship of the peoples”) was used to describe so-called fraternal relationships between socialist states, we extended the notion of friendship to cover treaties of friendship between nation-states as well as internationalist foreign-policy initiatives providing educational, cultural, and ideological support to Third World artists and filmmakers as part of their support for anti-colonial struggles. In this wider sense the Russian term sotrudnichestvo conveys the sense of collaborative friendship. With the exception of the Congo, all friendship treaties included a military assistance clause, and as we know the Soviet Union became heavily involved in military assistance for Angola and to a lesser extent Mozambique and Ethiopia.
A starting point for this investigation were the histories of African artists and filmmakers such as Abderrahmane Sissako, whose film Octobre (1993) we showed in the Reimagining October exhibition at Calvert 22 and who was in the final cohort of students to study in the Soviet Union under the Friendship free scholarship scheme. One of the questions the socialist Friendship research project and the Things Fall Apart exhibition both ask is to what extent one can reactivate notions of solidarity and friendship between nations, internationally and inter-subjectively. This vocabulary has deep roots in the nineteenth-century socialist project (Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité) and, as Leela Gandhi and others have argued, individual subjective and affective engagement was essential to projects of social transformation.(2)
The words “friendship” and “comrade” have an overlapping etymology. The word “friendship”, which has its roots in medieval English, has a much longer history, and has multiple and more diffuse uses, some of which are connected with political and social reform, for instance during the French Revolution. The term “comrade,”, used to refer to fellow members of the communist and other socialist parties, is still in use in the left of the UK Labour movement, but you will find little use of the Russian equivalent tovarish, which is ubiquitous in Ssoviet cinema from the 1930s and 1940s. Whereas this vocabulary was still actively and positively in use during the Second World War, when the West and Russia were key allies, the advent of the Cold War meant that this usage became restricted to the communist world.
The term “international” found a new lease of life during the 1960s independence and liberation struggles and Third World solidarity movements in the West, drawing on the associations with the pre-war Communist international, a sSoviet-supported organizsation that promoted world communism.During the Cold War and as a result of the rise of neo-liberal economics, the Western vocabulary adopted a very different sense of the “international” as equivalent to “global” and “globalizsation,”, signifying a world united by capital flows rather than communism.
It is important to guard against nostalgia or ostalgie, the belief that erstwhile communist countries were fairer and more socially coherent, even if many aspects of their societies were undoubtedly more progressive than the West’s. One of the questions this publication asks therefore concerns the possibility of recovering the originary connotations of this vocabulary through cinema, art, and critical practice within contemporary neo-liberal democracies and/or dictatorships. Raymond Williams is also an important starting point to unpack the notion of “affective communities”. Williams’ Keywords entry on Community concludes:
Unlike all other terms of social organizsation (state, nation, society, etc.), [it [Community]] seems never to be used unfavourably, and never to be given any positive opposing or distinguishing term.
The notion of affective community actually involves such a positive distinguishing term, referring as it does to subjective forms of experience, surplus to forms of ideological identification. What draws me and others to the projects presented in Things Fall Apart is forms of identification with what now appear to be “‘lost alternatives’,” where newly independent African countries adapted socialist ideas to liberate their culture and economics as well as politics, but where those projects were lost through the ravages of neo-liberal and capitalist “‘structural adjustment’.”8 Art, we would argue, is one of the few is one of the few realms in which these forms of commitment and identification can still be engaged.
Mark Nash is an independent curator and writer, until recently Professor and Head of Department, Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art London.
(1) Mark Nash, ed., Red Africa (London: Black Dog Press, 2016)
(2) Gandhi, Leela Gandhi, Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-siècle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship, (Durham, North Carolina and London: dDuke University Press, 2006.)