The writer Chinua Achebe is far from a household name in the UK, however when he died in 2013, he was celebrated as one of Africa’s most important cultural figures and the author of the most widely read book in modern African literature. The title of Achebe’s book, Things Fall Apart, lends itself to an insightful exhibition at Calvert 22 Foundation in Shoreditch, which attempts to show the relationship between Africa and the Communist Bloc.
The 1950s and 60s saw swathes of African countries gaining independence from European colonial rule, and the exhibition looks at the utopian vision of the future offered by the Soviet Union and others, who saw newly independent African nations as useful political allies and wished to spread their ideology far and wide. In addition to giving aid to African governments, communist states sought to win favour through offering education and advancing film and photography in the continent.
What becomes clear in the first half of this exhibition, which is spread over two floors, is that although outside of academic circles relatively little might be known about the role of communism in Africa, there is an interesting and (unsurprisingly) complicated story to tell here. The show attempts to educate us through the work of a number of contemporary artists who mostly draw from film and photographic archives.
One of most captivating works in the show, by artist Alexander Markov, delves into Russia’s official video archives to present propaganda footage from the 50s-90s, used to promote the expansion of socialism across Africa. A faux- futuristic, utopian vision of racial unity shows young people from around the world dancing, learning and holding hands. Beyond the charming retro imagery, it’s interesting to remind yourself that this film was shot at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. Unfortunately we don’t find out how and when the footage was disseminated to the public, or what the reaction was, which I would be fascinated to find out.
The dream of a new world filled with handsome, educated, global citizens wasn’t easy to achieve, and the exhibition goes on to show the complexities of communism in a continent reeling from European colonialism, and gripped by multiple civil wars. A large wall piece by South African artist Jo Ractliffe collects blown up images of long forgotten communist murals and graffiti on the city streets, and South Korean artist Onejoon Che’s project explores the little-known military and economic relations between North Korea and countries including Ethiopia, Madagascar and Togo. Che’s mini maquettes of real public sculptures donated to these countries by North Korea, show the lengths to which communist countries would go to in order to win friends.
Named after Wayland Rudd, an African-American actor who made the Soviet Union his home to further his acting career, Russian artist Yevgeniy Fiks’ Wayland Rudd Archive, features a fascinating collection of over 200 projected slides which interrogate this Soviet/African friendship a little. His ambitious work shows how Africans were portrayed in Soviet visual culture from the 1920s-80s, encompassing everything from movie stills and paintings to posters and stamps. Side by side, the collection shows depictions of grotesque cartoon cannibals, cute grinning children, and adoring, reverential images of African political leaders and thinkers.
This exhibition tackles a meaty and multifaceted topic and I was left with many questions. What kind of art was produced by the generations who were growing up in Africa at this time? And why did communism in Africa ‘Fall Apart’ to borrow from Achebe’s famous African novel? The hosts of the exhibition, the Calvert 22 Foundation, usually present contemporary art from Russia and Eastern Europe, meaning that this show scratches the surface of a fascinating story, and tells it through a very particular lens. Fortunately, it is accompanied by a season of events to fill in the gaps, and help us delve deeper.