The exhibition Things Fall Apart, at Calvert 22 foundation unveils the short-lived romance between Soviet Russia and the Third World during the Cold War. This retelling of Cold War relations through, photography, propaganda films and public art offers insight into the history of international relations and race equality between the North and South, particularly concerning Africa.
Upon entering the exhibition room, one is suddenly thrown into a time capsule, leaving behind the quirky and bemusing cultural scenes of contemporary Shoreditch. It is the year 1960 and African liberation beats heartily in the womb of self-determination, waiting to be delivered. But who is to guide the emerging infant towards the path of nationhood? Guide her first steps, suckle her to political health and support her dreams towards economic maturity? The umbilical bond with an as erstwhile despot has now been snapped, hence a benevolent father figure must come to the continent’s aid- Soviet Russia. With Western colonialism as a backdrop, the Soviets emerge on the global political scene invitingly calling unto the spawns of Africa. Unlike their Western counterparts, they embrace Africa not as a white man’s burden but in a fraternal alliance under the rubric of NAM (Non-Aligned Movement) that is said to oppose racism. As the narrative beams and flickers confidently through the towering and imposing historic footages exhibited, we are presented with strong paternal iconography of Soviet Russia embodied in the messianic character of President Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev, bounces across the African continent on an international tour, expressing great concern about Africa’s condition. In a tour to Guinea he demonstrates a staunch fatherly affection by peddling Soviet- Africa relations on emotional grounds as oppose to geopolitical calculations. The resounding theme of benevolent patriarch captured in Mark Nash’s film candidly captures the rhetorical power of Cold War propaganda.
Moving beyond international politics, the exhibition further touches on challenges of integration in Russian society, through the experiences of African students in Moscow from the works of Abderrahmane Sissako’s Octobre (1993) and Kara Lynch’s Black Russians (2001). Replicas of bronze effigies of African political leaders, cast in the political tradition of Soviet art are also put on display. Thus, reflecting the artistic and political influence of Soviet Russia on the representations and expressions of African nationalism.
Sustaining a reflexive but orthodox representation of International politics, the exhibition primarily view Cold War relations within a vertical power dynamic, hence denying Africa a distinctive voice, real presence and personality. Rather inadvertedly though, the only presence of Africa that seeps through the overarching narrative and simmers at the back of the mind, ironically reinforces the hegemonic repertoire of Africa as an infant. It is this lack of critical evaluation and careless treatment of history that finds the exhibition somewhat lacking. That said, from a curatorial point of view, the exhibits were tastefully presented and engaging. Cleverly transforming the exhibition space into a production studio, the curators offers visitors the feel of being part of the process of production as oppose to mere observers.
Approaching the end of this historic exploration, one finds the portrayal of the ill- fated marriage between Soviet Union and Africa puzzling, as implied in the title Things Fall Apart. The exhibition devoid of the spirit of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart that celebrated Africa’s resistance in the daring feats of his tragic hero Okonkwo, obscures Africa’s engagement in global history behind a Red Iron curtain. Not surprisingly, it becomes clear that the only thing Falling Apart, at present, is the convenient and casual connection made to Achebe’s remarkable epic. Once again Africa has become a political theatre of single narratives.
Things Fall Apart is part of the Red Africa season by Calvert 22. The exhibition is running from the 4 February- – 3 April 2016 at Calvert 22, 22 Calvert Avenue, London, E2 7JP.