“Red Africa”, a season of events and exhibitions looking at communism’s effect on the continent took place earlier this year at Calvert 22
, London. Curated by Mark Nash, the project’s findings have been collated into an upcoming book
, with Nash taking the reigns as editor.
The flirtation between Africa and communism went two ways. Many African artists and filmmakers were encouraged to study in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc under free education schemes, and they brought their ideas back home.
Soviet artists, in turn, used the image of Africans and African-Americans in countless propaganda posters, to represent the Communist party’s supposedly more enlightened perspective on race and other social issues.
“Red Africa” features many of these posters, some of which were modeled by African-American actor Wayland Rudd, who moved to the Soviet Union in 1932, and ultimately became a subject for propaganda painters.
There’s examples of the impact of communism on architecture too. The Tiglachin Monument in Addis Ababa was designed by an Ethiopian sculptor with input from North Korean advisers, built to mark the 10th anniversary of Ethiopia’s 1974 revolution. Photographed by South Korean artist Che Onejoon, the desaturated colors look like a scene from the Eastern Bloc, not the Horn of Africa.
The structures are tokens of what Nash describes as a “socialist friendship.”
“There was a complex web of relationships between the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries and those African countries recently independent or struggling to achieve independence,” he says.
“We were interested in tracing what’s left of that, and I’d say there’s not much,” he adds.
He cites a photograph by Jo Ractliffe as an example: a man casually mowing the lawn in front of a monument to former Angolan president Agostinho Neto, featuring a mural of a man breaking the chains of bondage.
“I’m sure if you talk to someone in downtown Rwanda they might not even know anything about that period — or might not want to know.”
Imports from Pyongyang
The continent’s flirtation with communism may be all but over, but in terms of architecture, its specter remains — and from one outlet, continues to grow.
North Korea’s government-run Mansudae Art Studio
has been receiving commissions for statues throughout Africa, exporting the socialist realism aesthetic direct from Pyongyang.
Onejoon replicated three of these in miniature form for “Red Africa”: Botswana’s Three Dikgosi Monument (“The Three Chiefs”), the African Renaissance Monument in Senegal and an unknown soldier in Namibia (who some have argued bears an uncanny resemblance
to former president Sam Nujoma).
Nash says Mansudae has worked on a statue of Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, with reports
that there are two in waiting, ready to commemorate his death.
Critics are divided on the monuments, but, says Nash, “financially it’s quite a successful project.”