By ANNA ASLANYAN
Senegalese, Ethiopian and Zimbabwean monuments, all similarly phallic and Soviet-looking, despite the surrounding palm trees; statues of African gentlemen, embodying the socialist-realist idea of a generic nineteenth-century liberal; a drawing captioned "Vladimiro M. [Mayakovsky] has landed in Havana and is talking to the black guy who is selling the red fish". These are among the images offered by Red Africa, a series of talks and screenings run by the foundation Calvert 22. Its aim is to explore the links between Africa, the USSR and "related countries".
At the centre of the series is an exhibition whose working title, Black Students in Red Russia (borrowed from a BBC Radio 4 feature) has been changed to Things Fall Apart (borrowed from Chinua Achebe, who in his turn borrowed it from W. B. Yeats). In a recent talk at the gallery, the curator Mark Nash and some of the participants touched on the programme's references to the African independence movements, the short-lived socialist "utopia" that followed them, and "the Cold War that wasn't cold".
The artist Isaac Julien said that the exhibition Re-imagining October, which he had co-curated for Calvert 22 in 2009, had left some "unfinished business" – the African theme. The same applies to various unfinished utopian projects as exemplified by Kiluanji Kia Henda's "Karl Marx, Luanda", a picture of a huge rusty hull of a ship run aground. Julien and the sculptor Angela Ferreira discussed the impact of Soviet thinking on African cinema and other forms of "subliminal Soviet influence" in the region.
Kiluanji Kia Henda, Karl Marx, Luanda, 2005; courtesy of Nomas Foundation, Rome
Even more tangible has been the North Korean presence in Africa. "Mansuade Master Class", a multimedia work by Onejoon Che, concerns monumental sculptures sent by Pyongyang to a number of African countries, often as gifts. Another country that sought allies among the newly independent states was Yugoslavia, a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). "Travelling Communiqué", a project that includes materials related to the movement's first conference, held in Belgrade in 1961, is given ample space in the exhibition. One of the gallery's walls is taken up by texts and images documenting Yugoslavia's involvement in Asian-African affairs. A photograph on the wall opposite, picturing the heads of the non-aligned states in a dull official room, has a few Africans in it.
Also on display are several works by Tonel, the Cuban artist, addressing another utopia, that of space exploration. One of these, a diagram captioned "The deadliest radioactive minerals found on the Moon by the Cuban-Soviet joint manned expedition of 1971 [partially translated]", sports some (misspelt) Russian words. Another imagines the Soviet cosmonaut Romanenko and his Cuban colleague Tamayo, the first person of African descent in space, under an upside-down house hanging from a cratered surface. Talking at the event, Tonel described his work as mixing history and sci-fi.
Angola, Yugoslavia, Mozambique, Cuba, North Korea, the USSR: does the list reflect diversity or a colonial tendency not to differentiate too sharply between distant dominions? One thing it brings to mind is a sketch by Vladimir Voinovich, in which a Soviet engineer keeps confusing Angola with Anglia. A collage in which Yevgeniy Fiks shuffles images from the Wayland Rudd Collection – Soviet posters, stamps and cartoons featuring black people – demonstrates that the early Soviet view of the Other was similarly vague. For all the variety of "related countries" on display, the exhibited art is surprisingly uniform. "Why are there no revolutionary artists?" asked one of the audience at the end. Mayakovsky would have demanded the same.
Red Africa runs until April 3 at Calvert 22 Foundation, 22 Calvert Avenue, London, E2 7JP.