What & Where: Sculpture of Bangladesh’s Martyred Intellectuals

What: Sculpture of the Martyred Intellectuals
Where: Mujibnagar Memorial Complex, Meherpur, Bangladesh

The Bangladesh Liberation War between East Pakistan and West Pakistan ended on 16 December 1971 with the establishment of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh in the east. Although only lasting 9 months, the war was shocking in its brutality. During a series of genocidal atrocities perpetuated by the Pakistan Army against the Bengali population, artists were targeted in a campaign to liquidate intellectuals, a strategy aimed at destroying the community’s cultural identity.

Two days prior to the surrender of the West Pakistanti forces, on the night of 14 December, over 200 leading intellectuals were arrested and executed. Alongside artists the victims included professors, doctors, engineers, journalists, poets and writers. The event is now commemorated in Bangladesh as Martyred Intellectuals Day.

A group statue commemorating this event is one of a number of poignant works at the Mujibnagar Memorial Complex in the Meherpur District of Bangladesh. The memorial was built on the site of a mango grove where the country’s first independent government was sworn in.

You can see more photos of the Liberation War memorial and its sculptures at Flickr Hive Mind.

Images: Sculpture at Mujibnagar Memorial Complex depicting the massacre of intellectuals. Courtesy Abdul Malek Babul.

The Secret Art of Pinochet’s Chile

Having been forced to call free presidential elections on 14 December 1989, Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet was finally removed from power, bringing to an end 16 years of military rule. Pinochet had taken the presidency in 1973 following a US-backed coup d’état, which deposed the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende and established a junta in its place.

The restoration of democracy in Chile also enabled the artistic collective Brigada Ramona Parra (BRP) to come out of hiding. The group had been founded by young communist artists in 1968 and for five years had covered Santiago’s streets with colourful murals campaigning for radical social change.

Following the 1973 coup BRP activists were arrested and their murals were painted over by the military government. Although not defeated, the artists were driven underground, continuing to paint secretly in defiance of Pinochet’s regime. The danger of being caught meant large murals were impossible, so the artists instead created a tag: a letter R within a circle with a star next to it. The R stood for resistance, the circle for unity, and the star as a symbol of the BRP.

Since their liberation, the BRP artists have once again brightened the streets of Chile with murals championing contemporary causes including indigenous rights and educational reform.

This wonderful story is told more extensively in Gideon Long’s report on the BBC News website: The Chilean Muralists Who Defied Pinochet.

Image: BRP mural honouring Jecar Nehgme, a left-wing activist shot dead by Pinochet’s forces in 1989 and one of the last victims of the junta.

Featured Artist: Stefan Constantinescu

The Romanian Revolution from 16 to 27 December 1989 swept Nicolae Ceaușescu from power and brought an end to 42 years of communist rule. While 25 years have now passed since that tumultuous fortnight a number of Romanian artists continue to explore their country’s struggles in the aftermath of revolution. Once such artist is Ştefan Constantinescu.

Born in Bucharest in 1968, Constantinescu experienced first hand the daily grind of life during Ceaușescu’s regime. He trained as a painter but has since worked predominantly in film. Much of Constantinescu’s work is autobiographical, such as his darkly ironic pop-up book The Golden Age for Children. The book interweaves text and photos from the artist’s biography with historical details of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Romania under Ceaușescu.

In one of his video projects – The Last Analog Revolution, a Memory Box – Constantinescu also led other artists in combining their personal experiences with episodes from Cold War history. The project brought together works by artists from Eastern and Western Europe to explore how technological developments in the twentieth century was both a catalyst for revolution and a means of uniting the divided continent.

Between 2009 and 2010 Constantinescu used his training as a painter to create a series of 22 paintings entitled An Infinite Blue. The artist appropriated the Soviet artistic style of Socialist Realism, which was also mandatory in communist Romania, and sourced content from propaganda images produced in the 1960s. In these canvases Constantinescu sought to convey the nostalgia felt by many Romanians for the pre-revolutionary era which they retrospectively regard as a time of economic stability and superior quality of life.

You can read more about how Romanian artists including Ştefan Constantinescu and Adrian Ghenie have confronted their country’s difficult past and present in the article Remnants: Socialist Realism in Contemporary Romanian Painting.

Images by Ştefan Constantinescu, courtesy the artist. Top – The Golden Age for Children, pop-up book, 2008. Bottom – Biology Laboratory, oil on canvas, 2009–10.

The CIA Comic Book Airdropped Over Grenada

Operation Urgent Fury, the controversial US-led invasion of Grenada, concluded with a decisive victory for the United States on 15 December 1983. The Reagan administration claimed that this action, the country’s first major military operation since the end of the Vietnam War, was launched in response to appeals for help by Grenada’s neighbouring islands. However, it has also been widely argued that the campaign was instead a ploy aimed at quashing Cuban and Soviet influence in the Caribbean.

In the aftermath of the invasion an aggressive piece of artistic propaganda appeared in support of the official line. GRENADA: Rescued from Rape and Slavery, a 14-page comic book, was printed in its thousands and airdropped over the island. The eye-catching, brightly-coloured pamphlet presented Operation Urgent Fury as a glorious defence of democracy by the United States, reimagining its military not as invaders but as liberators from “imminent totalitarian danger”.

The comic was ostensibly sponsored by the fictitious organisation V.O.I.C.E. (Victims Of International Communist Emissaries) … but it later transpired that the book had in fact been produced by the CIA. The agency had secretly commissioned Malcolm Ater of the Commercial Comics Company in Washington, DC to write the script, with illustrations provided by veteran comics artist Jack Sparling.

A PDF version of the full comic book is available for free download from the Government Comics Collection at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Images: Front cover and detail from page 3 of GRENADA: Rescued from Rape and Slavery (New York: V.O.I.C.E., 1984).

Recommended: Cold War Bunkers – East and West

Recently the public got its first glance inside Albania’s most important Cold War era bunker, located just outside the Albanian capital of Tirana. Built 100m below ground between 1972 and 1978, the top secret complex boasts 106 rooms over five storeys. It also features a bedroom with red satin sheets for former communist dictator Enver Hoxha, as the bunker was intended to house the government in the event of a nuclear attack by the West.

Such was Hoxha’s paranoia that over the course of his 40-year rule he built some 700,000 bunkers across Albania. A team of enterprising students is currently planning to convert those along the coastline into a series of “bunker-and-bed” hostels for adventurous tourists.

Bunkers and nuclear shelters abound across the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, from Bunker-42 next to Taganskaya metro station in central Moscow to Military Installation D-0 in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Underground bunkers were also built in both halves of Germany, with the Government Bunker (Regierungsbunker) south of Bonn intended to house the West Germany government, while Bunker 17/5001, in a forest north of Berlin, was set to protect the East German government of Erich Honecker.

Chairman Mao built a series of nuclear bunkers, including beneath a mountain in Ruichang in the 1960s. Bunkers under mountains also proved popular in the United States, with a number of massive military complexes built in the 1950s. These include the “underground Pentagon” at the Raven Rock Mountain Complex in Pennsylvania and the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado.

ESPIONART has previously reported on Ottawa’s so-called Diefenbunker. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, nuclear paranoia resulted in bunkers springing up across the United Kingdom, from York Cold War Bunker, now managed by English Heritage, to the secret network of Cold War bunkers underneath Birmingham. Groups such as Subterranea Britannica are dedicated to recording and photographing these locations while across the world they are being reimagined as museums, hotels and restaurants.

So next time you’re looking for a day or evening out with a difference, it’s worth checking where the nearest Cold War bunker is to you. You may be standing directly above it.

Image: Bunker-42 na Taganke, Moscow

Exhibition of the Month: Post Pop: East Meets West

The Saatchi Gallery in London seeks to build on its successful exhibitions of recent Russian and Chinese art – including 2008’s The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art and 2012’s Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art, 1960–80s – with a show that combines the two.

While the title of Post Pop: East Meets West suggests the two sides of the former iron curtain joining in a shared appreciation of Pop Art, the selection of works indicates instead the movement of Pop from east to west, with Russian and Chinese artists taking inspiration from and seeking to improve upon art emanating from the United States and the UK.

Pop Art’s satirical exploitation and subversion of familiar visual references to reveal uncomfortable truths about the world in which we live found a second life in communist regimes. The same techniques were adopted by artists to reveal the banality and absurdity of state propaganda and Socialist Realism, from the Sots Art of Komar & Melamid to the Political Pop of Wang Guangyi.

This focus on Pop Art’s legacy means the movement’s heyday of the 1960s and its most familiar names are absent. Instead the exhibition’s chronology runs from the seventies to the present day. Of the 250 works by 110 artists the UK offering is dominated by the YBAs, although Yinka Shonibare is a welcome deviation from the classic east/west bipolarity; the US works are more conventionally Pop, as Jeff Koons and Keith Haring rub shoulders with Paul McCarthy and Cindy Sherman; the Chinese section is more eclectic, from a marble sculpture by man of the moment Ai Weiwei to a human hair installation by Gu Wenda; while art from the former USSR ranges from the big names of the Nonconformist art movement to contemporary collectives AES+F and Blue Noses.

The exhibition suggests a similar obsession with celebrity and commodification in both east and west, but it neglects to go deeper into the political significance of the art, instead offering something of a curiosity cabinet of Pop’s diverse manifestations.

According to The Telegraph is looks “like a bonkers art-department store“. If you’re in London you can go along and decide for yourself until 23 February 2015.

Images: Top – Leonid Sokov, Two Profiles (Stalin and Marilyn), 1989. Bronze, photographic print; Bottom – Wang Guangyi, Great Criticism: Benelton (大批判), 1992. Oil on canvas © Wang Guangyi, 1992

Featured Artist: Henry Moore

Having survived the horror of the World War I trenches as a teenager, celebrated English sculptor Henry Moore (1898–1986) continued to respond to the dramatic historical events he witnessed throughout his lifetime.

During the Cold War, Moore’s work was infused with the tensions of the era and his anxiety about the development of atomic weapons. In this strange new world Moore’s familiar combination of the human figure with organic forms expressed the vulnerability of mankind in the face of nuclear attack.

As the start of the Korean War threatened to unleash the world’s first nuclear conflict, Moore revived a theme that had first entered his work in 1939 at the onset of World War II. Between 1950 and 1952 the sculptor produced thirteen Helmet Head sculptures. These sinister robot-like bronzes, which he described as “disturbing and strange,” expressed a sense of entrapment in an oppressive environment.

Despite Moore’s support for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), in the early 1960s he accepted a commission that appeared to challenge this opposition. The 12-foot bronze sculpture Nuclear Energy was unveiled at the University of Chicago in 1967 to commemorate the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction which took place there in 1942. Yet while supposedly a commemorative piece, many have read its mushroom cloud shape as an anti-nuclear statement. In 1987, the city of Hiroshima purchased one of seven Atom Piece models of the sculpture.

Images: Top – Henry Moore, Helmet Head No.1, 1950, cast 1960. Bronze. Courtesy Tate; Bottom – Henry Moore, Nuclear Energy, 1967. Bronze. University of Chicago. © The Henry Moore Foundation