Sunday, 20 March 2016

Non-alignment pact

How did I not know about the Calvert journal? An online magazine and shop in, whisper it, Shoreditch that aims to promote cliche-free content from Russia, Eastern Europe, and further afield. It ticks so many boxes for me and I look forward, eventually, to getting round to reading their blog posts on Estonian architects, Polish kitsch, and travel guides for Yekaterinburg.

Things Fall Apart, the Chinua Achebe novel about the devastating impact of colonialism in Africa, lends its name to their current exhibition. One which seeks to shine light on the similar effects on the African nations caused by the collapse of the Communist Bloc and the Cold War thaw.

Kiluanji Kia Henda's exquisite photos of a rusted up boat called the Karl Marx in Luanda, Angola greet you and set the tone neatly for this narratively tangential exploration of the relationship between Africa, Eastern Europe, and beyond.

Yevgeny Fik's series of social realist, even modernist, digitised images utilise caricatures of black stereotypes, idolised peasantry, comments on Apartheid era South Africa, flags, KKK masks, Cyrillic script and bullets. A lot of bullets. They're pretty interesting and you can sit in an armchair while you watch them too. Which may not seem appropriate but is rather comfy.

You've got to stand up to look at Jo Ratcliffe's murals of Castro, Brezhnev, and MPLA leader (and first president of Angola) Agostinho Neto. Her photos of pastoral areas around Cuito Cuanavale mislead as they were actually dangerously mined during the Angolan Bush War. It's a clever trick but one that will be missed by anyone unfortunate enough not to have read up on the history. Or in my case to be stood next to someone who had.

You can also check out some of my old favourites, the architectural models, and look at the strangely beautiful Place des Cineastes in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou as photographed by Isaac Julien.

Alexander Markov's Our Africa film gives you a feel for the time. White men in suits visiting African villages, shaking hands with dignitaries freshly disembarked from jet planes, performances of local customs and culture, and that old staple of the ambassador abroad - a factory inspection.

Downstairs there's a model of Onejoon Che's Three Dikgosi monument in Botswana plus his photos of obelisks and monuments in Senegal, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe. These correlate satisfactorily with the overarching theme even if it's a little hard at times to remember what that is.

One of the most divergent, though still interesting, strands concerns objects (lab shirts, military style badges etc;) pertaining to the Heroes of Baikonur who were rocket scientists based in present day Kazakhstan.

More politically pertinent is the story of Stevan Labudovic. Born in Crna Gora, Yugoslavia, in 1926 his great breakthrough came when establishing a film school for Algerian partisans. Breaching colonial rules by producing war photography by those affected by the war rather than those whose vested interests lay in propaganda. His shots became irreplaceable testimony during Algeria's independence struggle and he was declared a national hero in that country.

It's the former Yugoslavia's links with Africa that form the main body, and the best parts, of this free exhibition. Tito visited Africa in '61 and met up with Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah, Guinea's Sekou Toure, the Malian president Modibo Keita, and King Hassan II of Morocco.

Tito had fallen out with Stalin back in 1948 and had been expelled from the Cominform, the information bureau of the Communist and Workers' Parties. Frustrated by the binary nature of world politics and its domination by East and West (sound familiar?) Tito, along with Sukarno of Indonesia, Egypt's Nasser, and Jawaharlal Nehru of India, formed the Non-Aligned Movement.

They sought to become a credible force in world politics and, in Tito's case at least, revive the WWII Yugoslav partisans (often seen as Europe's most effective anti-Nazi resistance movement) and support the Algerian and Palestinian struggles. Their first summit took place in Belgrade in 1961 where both JFK and Khruschev were addressed indirectly in a letter signed by, among others, Haile Selassie, Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, Nkrumah, Nasser, and Nehru.

The NAM became a prominent force and an important brake on world affairs until the end of the Cold War. Since then it's had to redefine itself but it still exists and its current presidency resides in Iran. This exhibition doesn't, can't, tell the entire story but it gives you a taster and should you want more there's more films showing than you'd have time to watch and more books there than you'd have the energy to read.

Should you wish to take some home there's also a shop selling coffee table tomes concerning Angolan art deco cinemas, post-Soviet high rises, Yuri Gagarin's British tour, and a copy of 'Tattooed Mountain Women And Spoon Boxes Of Daghestan' which must certainly stand as a contender for most niche publication of all time. Why, you can even get a peppermint tea there. I think I'll be going again.

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