Nonaligned modernisms: interview with Bojana Videkanic

In October 2019 BEAST International Film Festival was inaugurating in Porto their first section on the history of relations between the various Eastern European countries and the countries of the African continent, which adopted socialist models during the wars for national independence, as well as in the post-independence period. Time of the Leopards, considered the first Mozambican film to be produced after the country’s independence, was part of the programming of the Socialist Cinegeography: Africa-Eastern Europe. A Mozambican and former Yugoslavia co-production, the screening spiked informed discussions led by the Mozambican directors Isabel Noronha and Camilo de Sousa, both part of the Mozambican crew that participated of the shootings in Mozambic. Historical detail was added by both Maria Paula Meneses, Mozambican historian and anthropologist at the Centre for Social Studies of University of Coimbra and Bojana Videkanic, assistant professor in fine arts at the University of Waterloo. 

Bojana VidekanicBojana VidekanicAs part of the same program, Bojana Videkanic gave a masterclass titled Nonaligned Modernisms. The masterclass is based on her upcoming book on nonaligned modernism as it arose from the politics of the emerging Non-Aligned Movement.

Bojana Videkanic is a performance artist and an art historian/theorist born in Bosnia and Herzegovina (former Yugoslavia) now residing in Canadá. Her performance art practice mines personal experiences of displacement, movement, and identity as these intersect with larger political, social and cultural questions. Videkanic is an assistant professor in fine arts at the University of Waterloo, and a board member of the 7a*11d International Performance Art Festival Toronto. 

Can you tell us a bit more about your research on the nonaligned movement?

My research on the nonaligned comes from a cultural and art-historical position. It is an interdisciplinary approach to understanding how the non-aligned movement, apart from creating political, or social, or economic alliances was also attempting to create cultural alliances that would counter Western cultural hegemony, and what many in the movement, who were interested in culture, also called Western cultural imperialism. 

So, what I am doing is looking at Yugoslavia’s role in this development of transnational culture and, in particular, how the idea of nonaligned modernism or nonaligned culture developed in Yugoslavia from the end of WWII up until 1980s.  So, how Yugoslavia (with its culture and art) came out of WWII, all of the destruction of the war and how it evolved into an active cultural and diplomatic player on an international scene, and how Yugoslavia was involved with and tried to nurture the creation of a parallel NAM, parallel global culture.

What do you think was the importance of this transnational culture of the nonaligned movement for the African continent?

I think that the main point of this is to showcase the fact that since the beginning of the 20th century after WWII, and even before that, various postcolonial countries, various peoples who were coming from the African, Asian and South American continents, from various territories, and, after liberation, tried to actively create various forms of  culture, of artistic expressions that were outside of the Western hegemony. And, while many of the artists whom I have looked at, and many of the arts managers, curators, writers etc., were influenced by modernist cultural references, they were also very vary of the ways in which Western-style modernism was not speaking to their experience – meaning the experience of colonization, the experience of war for liberation and so on. It was very important for the people that were involved working in culture to use Western style modernism but to their own advantage, meaning to create their own expression within that. This is way I was really interested in calling these cultural ideas in Yugoslavia as nonaligned modernism, but other art historians who are writing about African experience, or Latin or Central American experience called it differently. And all of us are coming to the same conclusion that in all of these parts of the world, modernism had a very different version. That is one answer to your question. The other is that all of the cultural workers from outside West were interested in creating a new culture that was based on their political experience of anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, of building new nation states, that came out of WWII and the liberation struggles after that; they were interested of building a new way of expressing culture that would be parallel to the political, economic and social struggles that they were involved with. In short, politics and economy were closely enmeshed with the work of cultural production–there was no removal of the field of artistic production from politics. The third part of my answer is the internationalization of culture by those who were marginalized and excluded, for so many centuries–meaning that those who were at the margins of the Western world now wanted to showcase and globalize culture that they were producing and, also, counter certain words, images, and representations that were used to represent them by and in the West.

In direct connection with what you just said, can you please give us some examples of these aesthetic similarities that speak about this anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist transnational culture?

Some of the aesthetics similarities that I found that are really interesting is that, across the board, there was a mixture of interesting, let’s say modernist abstract and semi-abstract tendencies similar in some ways to what we see in the West. However, in the non-Western context these aesthetic, formal tendencies were closely connected to the political struggles of the place were people were making this art. In other words, aesthetics was enmeshed with politics. The other is interest in political struggle and depicting political struggle without any fear of being called propagandists. So, artists were not afraid to use art for political purposes. And, in fact, they were very much involved in making art a front and center of the political struggle. If we parallel this to, let’s say post-WWII European nations, in the European and Anglo-American cultural context there is a real trepidation around this idea of politics, that artists weren´t so much interested in representing political ideas, but they were really interested in the form, which is one of the quintessential modernist pursuits. This does not bother artists who are outside of the West; in fact they are not afraid to use the words such as political art or even propaganda. We see this in film, in fine arts and in music. And, that is one of the big ideas. Another one is that a lot of these places didn’t have cultural infrastructure. This is the case with Yugoslavia; it is the case with many Latin American, also African countries. What this means on the terrain is that, prior to their liberation, the infrastructure of art was minimal, limited or non-existent; not only did cultural workers have to think about a political and aesthetic struggle, but they also had to build new museums, collections, and entire art history around what they were doing. So, that is another thing that, of course, Westerners, didn’t have to worry about. And, finally, I would say, 80% of the artists, who were part of this early 20th century cultural work were educated in the West. They were forced to do it because of the material situation on the ground (what I just mentioned), so they had to leave their country of origin to be educated somewhere in the West (often Western Europe) most of the time and, than, bring those ideas back into their countries of origin. This has an enormous impact on art production. Diaspora therefore had an influence on the cultural work of the country of origin. But of course, and this is a new field in art history, the question that my research poses and research of other colleagues doing similar work, is what the influences of the diaspora/immigrant artists living in the West had on Western art? So that we cannot only talk about how West has influenced non-West, but in fact how the flow of artistic and cultural influences happened in reverse if you will, how aesthetic ideas and formal questions from the non-Western world, and through the influence either of immigrant/diasporic artists living in the West, and of artifacts taken from non-Western cultures directly influenced Western modernism. 

Speaking more specifically about Yugoslavia’s case, can you give us an example of co-participation in this effort of political and aesthetic struggle, in terms of monuments, museums that were built together with? Maybe, perhaps, other forms of art, and I am thinking here specifically about cinema.

For example, in my book, I am writing about monuments and exhibitions. And, one of the Yugoslav examples of the nonaligned is the Ljubljana Biennial, which is still in existence as a biannual exhibition. It started in 1955 and the intent with this exhibition was to showcase the world in Ljubljana, in Yugoslavia.  The director of the exhibition, Zoran Kržišnik, and the others who were involved with organization, wanted to bring artists from different continents from the get go, from North Africa, from India, from Latin America, in order to show what kind of work they have done. So, Ljubljana Biennial, throughout the decades, was really pushing for this idea of representation. In the 1970s and 1980s, 65 to 70% of artists who were participating in the Biennial were artists who were coming from non-Western countries, which is a very important piece of information, because this is the time when Europeans and Westerns in general are not thinking about representation at all. We see mostly white and Western male artists in parallel or similar exhibitions of the modernist era. So, that is one example, a curatorial example. Another early example that I use in the book is the cooperation between Yugoslavia and Ethiopia on creating a monument to Ethiopian struggle for liberation from the Italian fascists.

This monument was built in 1956. It was designed by a Yugoslav artist, Antun Augustinčić, who was a sculptor. Part of it was made in Yugoslavia, shipped to Ethiopia by boat, and than assembled in Addis Ababa, with some of the parts built on site with Ethiopian construction company SABA. It was really an international effort to collaborate on this monument that, first of all, commemorated the sacrifices and killing of civilians and of soldiers by fascist forces, a history shared by Yugoslavia and Ethiopia. It was also a monument to the destruction brought on by colonization. And, finally, it also became a monument of friendship between the two countries,. It was a monument to a shared history that is not necessarily so obvious when we look at history books right now–meaning that two countries so geographically distant from each other would share such similarities of experience. Augustinčić was hand-picked by the president Tito to do this monument to common struggle, but the monument became something more, it became a symbol of what will become a story of the future NAM cultural collaborations. It stands as one of the first in a whole 40-year old history of cultural exchange. 

Later on, there were various travelling exhibitions and many artists coming to Yugoslavia; artists were doing artist residencies, on the other hand, Yugoslav artists traveled to NAM countries to do the same. Some artists were educated in Yugoslav institutions and then artists from Yugoslavia were sent for training/education as well. There are several examples of Yugoslav artists going to India on six-month residencies to learn about Indian contemporary art and historical art for example.  These kinds of connections continued throughout the later 20th century and until the end of Yugoslavia.  What such exchanges also contributed to is the idea of creating a common cultural consciousness. Artists from Yugoslavia and artists from other countries knew about each other and could have this shared experience, as well as collaboration. 

You just mentioned that in the 70s and 80s at the Ljubljana Biennial there were 60-70% of the works and artists from non-Western countries. The Museum of African Art in Belgrade opened around the same period, no?

Yes, it was opened around the same time, and that museum has a really interesting history because Zdravko Pečar and Veda Pečar, Yugoslav diplomats who traveled and were sent to various diplomatic missions, created it. A lot of their travels were to Non-Aligned member states. When traveling they were given many gifts and these were brought back. It was the two of them that collected quite a large collection, which was eventually donated, to the city of Belgrade. The city opened the collection to the public as the Museum of African Art and Culture. The Museum itself did not necessarily had a mission to present non-aligned countries, but sort of adopted that through its existence and more so in the last 15 or so years. The mission of the Museum was to cast its collection that was donated and, at first, it was an anthropological museum in its nature. Now it has been changing to become a museum that speaks about the non-aligned experience. However, I do want to emphasize that there was a purpose-built museum of the Non-Aligned Movement opened in the late 1980s that was called The Museum of the Non-Aligned Countries—Josip Broz Tito. This was a museum that was opened in Montenegro in then city of Titograd, now Podgorica, one of the Republics of Yugoslavia. It was meant to showcase continuous exhibitions of the nonaligned countries. They had lectures, guest speakers, and artists from the nonaligned countries who were exhibiting their work. Unfortunately, because it was already built in the 1980s it did not last too long, because the country fell apart in 1991. So, the museum didn’t have enough time to develop a more robust program. It still exists, but has changed its name and those who run it have decided not to present it as a museum of the nonaligned which was its initial mission.

You previously mentioned your book. Can you tell us more about it and when and where is going to come out?

The book is entitled “Nonaligned modernism” and it’s going to come out in December 2019. The book is a rewriting of the historiography of Yugoslav art, because Yugoslav art history, especially since the break up of the country has been negotiated in terms of what it represents. Most of the time, especially modernist art, post-WWII art in Yugoslavia is presented in Western historical context. There have been numerous books that came out about the history of modern and postmodern art in Yugoslavia. Most of them deal with these aesthetic forms in development of modernism, and the way these featured in Yugoslavia. I was really interested in the ways in which the nonaligned movement might have influenced the way that art in Yugoslavia developed. In my tracing of the nonaligned idea from the end of the WWII to the 1980s what I became aware of is the development of an idea that Yugoslav art always existed in an in-between state, between the West and the rest of the world. Many of the aesthetic interests of the Yugoslav artists, especially after WWII, were influenced by this in-between condition. Another thing that I was interested in was the relationship forged between socialism and modernism in Yugoslavia and between colonization and modernism. Therefore, the book takes on a timeline from the end of WWII, where I am looking at things like socialist realism, or how socialist realism in Yugoslavia, very early on, started to adopt ideas about Yugoslav position as a colonized country or as a country that had to fight for its liberation in the WWII. Then, flirting of Yugoslav art critics and historians, cultural workers, with Western style modernism and, finally, the kind of the hybrid model that came out of that, especially in 1960s and late 1960s, that became more open to various influences, that was interested in transnational collaborations and was embodied in some of the things that I was already mentioning with these cultural collaborations. I am tracing the idea of nonaligned modernism as a continuous idea from WWII, but even before then, to the 1980s. Therefore, placing Yugoslav modernist art within a political realm, which is what many of the current colleagues, art historians, coming from other parts of the world that were colonized, are also doing. In a nutshell, I was interested in re-tracing the now lost history of Yugoslav involvement with progressive political movements for liberation from colonialism, and capitalism and how these political ideas intersected with aesthetic ideas. I read Yugoslavia as a postcolonial country and therefore read its form of modernist art from the viewpoint of postcolonial cultural context. 

Would you say the Eastern-European-African relation is an emergent topic in academia or it depends on the academia? 

This is an emergent topic of the nonaligned transnational solidarity in academic circles, but I have also seen it now in the artistic circles. I think that Eastern Europe in academia has been, for many years, put aside. 1989 has a lot to do with it. It felt for many, many years that we, as East-Europeans, people from the Balkans, have nothing to contribute to the Global discussion around important topics. But, what is really emerging right now is that a lot of us coming from Eastern Europe and from the Balkans are proving that, in fact, we have a lot to contribute; the kinds of transnationalism that existed within Eastern Europe and its connections to other parts of the world were extremely important. I think the festival (BIFF) itself really proves that with the diversity of opinions and cultural work that we see emerging from the festival. This is one of the things I am mostly excited about: we have something to say about the emerging global culture, and importantly, we can contribute to it and contribute something positive. This is something that we [East Europeans] can hold on to and use to create a different future from what 1989 has proscribed. 

by Iolanda Vasile
Cara a cara | 3 January 2020 | Bojana Videkanic, mozambican artists, performance, Yogoslavia