Sculpture for Soviet ‘Domestic Enemy Number One’

For two weeks in November 1988, Soviet nuclear physicist and activist Andrei Sakharov visited the United States. It was a triumphant moment near the end of the life of a man who both pioneered nuclear technology and campaigned to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war.

Drawing by John Alcorn, 1973.

From 1948, Andrei Sakharov had participated in the Soviet atomic bomb project, going on to mastermind the development of thermonuclear weapons in the mid-1950s. As he and his team tested and perfected the hydrogen bomb, Sakharov began to question the morality of his work. Realising the potential devastating repercussions of the technology he had created, Sakharov spoke out against politicians who threatened to use these weapons to escalate the Cold War. His principled stand brought him into conflict with the Soviet authorities and attracted the hostile attention of the KGB. By the late 1960s, Sakharov’s activism resulted in him losing his security access, after which time he became more openly dissident, backing calls for nuclear disarmament as well as democratic government and the release of political prisoners. Denounced at home and fêted abroad, Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, while the KGB described him as “Domestic Enemy Number One”.

Finally, Sakharov was arrested in 1980 after attending public protests against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For the next six years he was exiled to Nizhny Novgorod, then known as Gorky. During this time, he was twice hospitalised and force fed after hunger strikes he undertook to secure medical treatment in the United States for his wife. In 1984, the US Congress sought to apply pressure on the Soviet government by voting to rename an area outside the Soviet Embassy as Andrei Sakharov Plaza. (Earlier this year, the move inspired activists to likewise install street signs outside the Russian Embassy renaming the area Boris Nemtsov Plaza, after the assassinated opposition leader.) Finally, as part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms of Soviet society, Sakharov was allowed to return to Moscow in 1986. Three years later, he died of natural causes.

Sculpture in Sakharov Square, Yerevan by Tigran Arzumanyan, 2001.

Andrei Sakharov is now commemorated on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. In 2001, the first bust of Sakharov was installed in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, in a square renamed in his honour. The location was an expression of gratitude for Sakharov’s efforts to raise awareness about pogroms against Armenian communities in Soviet Azerbaijan in the 1980s. Sakharov’s appearance in this neo-classical sculpture by Tigran Arzumanyan resembles a Greek philosopher or Roman senator.

Sculpture on Connecticut Avenue, Washington, DC by Peter Shapiro, 2002.

In contrast, a contemporaneous bronze bust of Sakharov in the US capital of Washington, DC shows Sakharov with closed eyes and head in hands. The sculpture is ambiguous in its portrayal, perhaps showing Sakharov the scientist, deep in thought on the edge of a breakthrough, or Sakharov the activist, ruminating on the threat of nuclear weapons or the many injustices about which he spoke out. With the hands entirely supporting his head, which appears disembodied, Sakharov becomes a ghostly figure, whose concerns remain just as valid in the present day. The statue was gifted to Russia House by Russian-American sculptor Peter Shapiro in April 2002, to celebrate Congress’s decision to posthumously honour Sakharov with citizenship of the United States. At the time on its dedication, Russia House was still the headquarters of a society for US-Russian cooperation, but Sakharov’s bust has remained in place since the building has been reimagined as a popular restaurant.

Sculpture in Academician Sakharov Square, St Petersburg by Levon Lazarev, 2003.

In 2003, the first monument to Sakharov was erected in his home country. Although born and living most of his life in Moscow, a square near St Petersburg State University, already renamed in his honour in 1996, was the site for this honour. The ten-and-a-half foot high sculpture is by Levon Lazarev, well-known for creating monuments around St Petersburg. However, the decision to erect the statue was criticised by the late Yelena Bonner, Sakharov’s widow and a high-profile human rights activist in her own right. Bonner’s belief that Putin’s Russia had failed her husband proved to be prescient. In recent years the Sakharov Center in Moscow, founded by Bonner in 1996 to preserve his legacy, has been targeted by vigilantes for hosting events in support of LGBT rights and Pussy Riot, and fined for failing to declare itself a “foreign agent” after it provided the venue for the lying-in-state of Boris Nemtsov.

Sculpture in Muzeon Park of Arts, Moscow by Grigory Pototsky, 2008.

Despite the Moscow city authorities claiming since 2002 that the Russian capital would soon receive its own sculpture of the Nobel laureate, so far Sakharov is only honoured in his home town by a motorway renamed after him in 1990, which has become the site of opposition marches. However, in 2008, a statue of Sakharov by Russian sculptor Grigory Pototsky was placed in the Muzeon Park of Arts – formerly known as the Park of the Fallen Heroes to hold the toppled figures of the Soviet regime, and now a popular recreation area that has been augmented with a wider array of artworks. Sakharov’s effigy is placed opposite that of Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader who approved his exile. Yet the scientist does not look at him but rather sits back with his face towards the sky, with an expression both serene and defiant.

The Billboard Art of Revolutionary Grenada

The dreams of the Grenada Revolution were crushed in October 1983 by a quick succession of dramatic coups, starting with a power struggle between competing factions of the People’s Revolutionary Government. Maurice Bishop, the popular leader of the 1979 socialist revolution and subsequent Prime Minister, was first placed under house arrest, after a takeover by his deputy, Bernard Coard. But Coard only ruled for three days, before he himself was deposed by the army led by General Hudson Austin, who executed Bishop and other leading politicians. A week after Bishop’s murder, the United States unleashed Operation Urgent Fury to remove Austin’s military junta. The decision by US President Reagan to invade Grenada was unpopular with many of his allies at the time and remains controversial.

Espionart has previously told how a comic book produced by the CIA was airdropped over the Caribbean island during the invasion, portraying the US army as liberators. Others continue to claim that Operation Urgent Fury was instead a calculated move to strengthen US influence in the region after several neighbouring countries had fallen into the Soviet sphere. In just three days, an American victory heralded the establishment of a conservative government with a strong alliance to the US, marking the end of Grenada’s revolutionary years.

The new government began to wipe out the memory and artistic traces of the ‘Revo’, as the 1979 revolution to end the authoritarian rule of Eric Gairy was known locally. In the summer before the overthrow of Bishop’s government, American university professor Betty LaDuke visited Grenada to assess the impact of the revolution. Her enthusiastic paper, Women, Art, and Culture in the New Grenada (available through JSTOR), paints a picture of an island full of hope, promise and creativity. LaDuke describes “strikingly beautiful” wall graffiti, murals and posters dotted around both town and countryside: “Throughout the country the manifestation of Grenadian solidarity with Prime Minister Maurice Bishop’s government is visible in the spontaneous paintings on brick and rock walls and sides of houses.”

 Also evident were brightly-coloured billboards, the results of a state-funded artistic project. In a speech of late 1980, Bishop had declared that “Education is a Must!” At the same time, the Center for Popular Education (CPE) was launched, sending over a thousand volunteer tutors to mainland Grenada and the Grenadine Islands to teach the largely-illiterate adult population to read. To support this literacy movement, the government sponsored artist Gordon Hamilton to lead a team of designers and painters in producing billboards, encouraging the population to pursue the collective goal of self-betterment.

Many billboards bore popular revolutionary slogans such as “Forward ever, backward never!”, as well as motivational statements expressing the new government’s egalitarian spirit: “Never Too Old to Learn”, “Education is Production Too”, “Every Worker a Learner”, “Women, Committed to Economic Construction”, and more. The CPE billboards were constructed from galvanised sheeting and decorated with oil-based house paint, with up to thirty a year placed in strategic positions among rural communities.

Grenada’s CPE billboards mirrored the contemporaneous revolutionary murals of neighbouring Nicaragua – which would likewise be later destroyed in a wave of political iconoclasm – as well as the murals and posters produced in support of radical political movements, from the Soviet Union and Cuba to Ethiopia and the United States.

 Despite this, Hamilton did not consider the billboards to be artworks, and they were neither signed nor photographed to document for posterity. Today, only a handful of amateur photographs exist to record this vibrant moment of public art in Grenada, before the billboards were painted over or reclaimed as housing materials. However, as part of the 2011 exhibition Grenada 1979–1983, Revolution: An Art Perspective, held in the Grenadian capital of St George’s, Hamilton recreated in watercolour one of his revolutionary billboards, this time proudly displayed as a work of art.

The 2011 exhibition was unpopular with many Grenadians, who were keen to avoid stirring up bad memories. As local artist and the exhibition’s curator, Suelin Low Chew Tung, recalls in her essay Painting the Grenada Revolution (also available through JSTOR), “images of the revolution years were deliberately erased from the landscape … Three decades later, as far as local visual art records are concerned, it is as if the Grenada Revolution never happened.”

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Truman: The Most Hated Statue in Greece

Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Greek Civil War in October 1949. The conflict between monarchists and communists erupted soon after the end of the country’s occupation during World War II left a power vacuum at the heart of the birthplace of democracy. Although Stalin chose not to support the insurgents, the conflict is considered to be the first proxy war of the Cold War, with the monarchists backed by Britain and the United States, while the communists were mainly supported by Tito’s Yugoslavia.

The Truman Doctrine, named after US President Harry Truman, was instrumental in releasing billions in US government funds to support the monarchists and to provide equal economic and military support to Turkey, which was also at risk of entering the Soviet sphere. The strategy proved effective and a subsequent victory for the Kingdom of Greece suppressed the spread of communism in Southern Europe.

Yet the disagreement that gave rise to the conflict has continued to fester, exacerbated by the Greek military coup d’état in 1967 which heralded seven years of rule by a far-right junta who imprisoned or exiled thousands of suspects communists and political opponents. US support for the junta, deeply unpopular among the Greeks but an expedient anti-communist ally for the West, led to growing anti-Americanism during the dictatorship. This only increased when the US failed to support Greece in halting the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. In the Greek capital, anger against US ‘imperialism’ has repeatedly found a target in one unfortunate work of art.

Earlier this year, Greek communists were arrested for an attack on a 12-foot bronze statue of Truman, erected near the US Embassy in 1963 by the conservative US-based American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA). Set up without the consent of the Athens city authorities, the statue has been controversial from the start. In 2018, activists protesting US-led airstrikes in Syria used a metal grinder to cut off its feet and ropes in an attempt to topple it to the ground, before they were repelled by riot police with tear gas.

 But this is just the latest attack the statue has withstood. Over the last 55 years, it has being bombed four times – on one occasion causing the death of a nearby policeman, attacked with a chainsaw and successfully toppled on at least five occasions. In more imaginative protests, the statue has been doused in pink and red paint (perhaps a nod to David Černý’s Pink Tank in Prague) and wrapped up in packaging paper marking it for return delivery to the United States. When a bomb in 1986 tore the statue apart, an exasperated Mayor of Athens suggested replacing Truman with a statue of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps hoping that the American Civil War hero would prove less aggravating. But the AHEPA insisted on bringing Truman back from the dead.

Recounting the misfortunes that have befallen the statue, in a country famous for its sculpture, some commentators have asked if it has become ‘the most hated’ in Athens. Even those Greeks who are ambivalent to the statue have wondered why it is there, when some of the country’s greatest politicians, leaders and intellectuals have not received similar recognition, and there is not even a Truman statue on display in the president’s own hometown. But with the sculpture once again patched up and receiving a vocal defense from the US Ambassador to Greece, it doesn’t look like Truman will be leaving his podium any time soon.

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When the Berlin Wall Came Down… in Iceland

Since the night the wall came down – in November 1989 – pieces of the Berlin Wall have travelled far and wide. Over forty countries now host sections of the wall, from Italy and the Vatican to Singapore and South Africa. Along Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, several sections face out onto the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in an installation arranged by the nearby Wende Museum of the Cold War; while Jamaica received a portion in 2010 as a gift to record-breaking sprinter Usain Bolt; and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California holds a piece of the wall given to the former US President the year after it was dismantled.

In October 2015, Iceland became the latest country to welcome a segment of the Berlin Wall. To mark the 25th anniversary of German reunification in 1990, this concrete block was gifted to Reykjavík by the City of Berlin. The Icelandic capital was chosen due to its role in a pivotal moment of the Cold War. In October 1986, the Reykjavík Summit between Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made important progress in building trust between the rival nations. Even though the summit was curtailed prior to any formal agreement, the politicians’ discussions were the basic for a denuclearisation treaty the following year.

The 3.7-metre high section of wall was transported from the Neu West Berlin gallery, weighing 4 tonnes. The gallery boasts the largest holding of remnants from the wall and has actively sought to send them out around the world, to keep the lessons of the Berlin Wall alive for future generations and people from many different countries. However, since American street artist Keith Haring painted on the wall under the media glare in 1986, the Berlin Wall has become equally famous for its art as its atrocities. With demand for painted sections of the wall exceeding availability, the Neu West Berlin gallery has resorted to commissioning young German artists to apply new painting to original wall segments. For Reykjavík, the City of Berlin chose a design by Jakob Wagner of the LuxPopArt Group.

 Wagner’s design, repeated on both sides of the wall, is entitled ‘Mao I’ and shows a figure inspired by the mysterious monolithic heads of Easter Island – an apt reference point for its placement on an empty strip of land overlooking the sea. Wagner’s figures appear in fluorescent pink, orange, yellow, blue and green, a nod to the vividness of the figures created since 1984 by Thierry Noir, the first artist to paint on the wallThese bright colours are greatly at odds with the muted, windswept landscape outside Höfði House, where Reagan and Gorbachev met and where the Berlin Wall segment found a new home. A landscape so windswept, in fact, that the wall would prove little match for the elements.

Only a year and a half after the Berlin Wall arrived in Iceland, the paint had begun to flake off both sides of the wall, until the conservation team at the Reykjavík Art Museum assessed that the damage was irreversible. Wagner’s painting had to be completely stripped from the wall and the artist was despatched to repaint it in August 2017 – choosing to make some changes to the design and to give one side of the wall a new colour scheme. This time, a primer was applied underneath the paint, and a thick layer of varnish was added to provide extra protection.

The news that the painting had been “destroyed by the unforgiving Icelandic weather” was met with a certain amount of national pride in the local press, no doubt enhanced by the wall’s reputation of hardiness and impenetrability. It remains to be seen how the repainted section will fare. In the meantime, you can own your own miniature version of the Reykjavík wall – under the collective title of Kings of Freedom, ‘Mao I’ and other designs by Wagner and original Berlin Wall artists, including Thierry Noir, are available as 1:25 collectibles in German porcelain through the VisibleWall website.

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Found Art of the Yom Kippur War

For three weeks in October 1973, Egypt and Syria spearheaded military action against Israel, aimed at reoccupying territory lost during the Six-Day War of 1967. The Yom Kippur War soon escalated from a regional squabble to a potentially catastrophic moment in the Cold War, as the United States’ support of Israel brought it into a confrontation with the USSR, which was supplying arms to the united Arab states. After initial Arab gains were repelled by a successful Israeli counter-attack, a ceasefire was brought into effect. The Yom Kippur War paved the way for improved diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt from the late 1970s, which in turn increased tension with Arab neighbours and damaged Egypt’s relationship with the Soviet Union. At a victory parade in Cairo, marking the 8th anniversary of the war, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by jihadis who resented his peace treaty with Israel, a sign of the country’s growing struggles between secularism and Islamism that continue to this day.

In the thick of the battle, as the Israeli forces pushed further into Egypt, a young soldier found himself wandering among deserted houses along the banks of the Sweet Water Canal. In one home he discovered an abandoned desk, proudly displaying poignant reminders of the person who once lived there: two small pencil drawings with scenes of the local area; a little toy donkey; and a small coffee cup and saucer. Despite the strict rules against looting by Israeli military personnel, the soldier was so captivated by the objects that he put them in his pocket, as souvenirs of his experience and to protect them from destruction.

Years later, the soldier had become a painter and professor at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, Israel’s national art school. During a tutorial with an MFA student, Hili Greenfeld, he was reminded of his Yom Kippur War trophies. The story he told Greenfeld and the objects he showed her would spark in her the idea for the installation project The Sweet Water Canal, which was first exhibited in 2017.

Within the gallery space, Greenfeld created the world she imagined to be inhabited by the mystery Egyptian artist, based on their drawings and her research of the architecture and decorative traditions of the area around the Sweet Water Canal. The visitor first encounters the four objects taken by the soldier, in a display case modelled on those used by the British Museum to present the largest collection of Egyptian objects outside Egypt. Upon hearing the story of the objects’ journey to Israel, Greenfeld recognised a parallel between the soldier’s professed desire to save them from destruction, and the justification frequently given for both colonial-era looting and the present-day refusal of Western museums to return antiquities. In The Sweet Water Canal, the modest keepsakes are presented as if they are priceless artefacts, plundered from a distant land and displayed securely in one of these museums. Within a glass case, the objects are instantly imbued with special significance and therefore appear desirable.

 The distinctive window frame and other architectural details within the drawings are recreated in two wooden doors, which lead onto a small room. In the middle of the room stands a desk with a chair pulled out at an angle – as though recently vacated and awaiting the return of the artist. But the desk stands on a plinth – once more an indicator of significance within a museum setting, and transforming the anonymous artist into a person of great importance. On the desk, and on shelves and a shrine that adorn the room, Greenfeld has placed objects she created, inspired by motifs within the found objects and based on Ancient Egypt souvenir items on sale in the British Museum shop. Unlike the original looted objects, Greenfeld’s items are displayed unprotected on the shelves, indicating a lower value even while they entice and tempt the visitor to pick them up and perhaps to carry them away as a souvenir. By maintaining the anonymity of both the Egyptian artist and the Israeli soldier, Greenfeld allows the visitor to take on the guise of either individual, to protect or to plunder.

While challenging the visitor to question their response to the objects, The Sweet Water Canal installation also memorialises Greenfeld’s personal reaction to the story. Upon seeing the objects for the first time, she was struck by the lack of cultural links between Israel and Egypt, despite their proximity. As a student, Greenfeld was being encouraged to look to Europe and America, even while Western art history claims Ancient Egyptian art as its starting point. In the excellent introductory essay, the exhibition’s curator, Hadas Glazer, explained: “The Israeli gaze, which looks to the West, engenders blindness to the wealth in Arab cultures, and a false self-perception of a Western island in the Middle East.” By creating a dialogue with the anonymous Egyptian artist, Greenfeld shows her yearning for closer ties with her neighbours in the region – a personal response that mirrors the eventual outcome of the Yom Kippur War.

You can find out more about The Sweet Water Canal and see additional photographs of the installation on Hili Greenfeld’s website.

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All images courtesy Hili Greenfeld.

The Not-so-Secret Art of the CIA

Taryn Simon, ‘The Central Intelligence Agency, Art, CIA Original Headquarters Building, Langley, Virginia’, 2003/2007.

The above photograph, by American artist Taryn Simon, appears innocuous, even banal, at first. It shows two modern paintings hanging on bare white walls, cordoned off by limp rope barriers, while harsh fluorescent ceiling lights cause their reflection to bounce off the glossy laminate floor. But the photograph instantly appears more enticing and enigmatic when one reads the caption, indicating that it was taken at the headquarters of the US Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia. Simon’s photograph is part of her 2007 series, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, presenting viewpoints that are largely inaccessible to the general public. It is therefore ironic that the photograph would itself provoke a decade of investigation and debate into the limits of government transparency.

Intrigued by the photograph when she first saw it in 2008, Portland-based artist Johanna Barron was inspired to discover more about the CIA’s collection of abstract paintings. However, she could find little available information, save for a single page on the CIA website, without any images, and some passing details in a book about the agency. Although the absence of information was perhaps unsurprising for a cash-strapped federally-funded institution, Barron decided to delve further by submitting a series of FOIA requests. This would be the first step in a complex artistic project that would occupy Barron for years to come.

Johanna Barron with selections from her recreation of the Melzac Collection held by the CIA, 2015. Photo (c) James Rexroad. Courtesy Hyperallergic.

As any researcher who has gone through the arduous process of locating and accessing archival documents can tell you, asking overworked librarians to find material on your behalf rarely delivers results. Barron would have a similar response to her FOIA requests. Her appeals for photographs of the collection and acquisition records, including information about tax breaks for donors and funding for purchases, were repeatedly denied on the grounds that documents relating to the paintings were not “government records” and therefore not covered by FOIA regulations. Once again, a lack of readily-available information that elsewhere would have likely been explained by a processing mix-up or scarce resources, here took on an air of mystery, with the CIA appearing evasive. Barron’s quest for information only accelerated, as she commented: “I felt this increasing need to try to uncover details that seemed to be kept secret for no logical reason”. Eventually, in 2014, Barron received almost 100 pages of heavily-redacted documentation, that allowed her to piece together more details about the collection.

The abstract paintings that had caught Barron’s eye were part a small group loaned to the CIA by Vincent Melzac, a larger-than-life art collector and former director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. From 1968, Melzac shared with the agency a series of paintings by artists affiliated with the Washington Color School. Twenty years later, the CIA purchased eleven of the works, although after Melzac’s death in 1989, his estate also agreed to continue loaning additional canvases. Barron used this new-found information to create 3/4 scale reproductions of some of the 29 paintings, which she first exhibited in 2015 under the title Acres of Walls. Appearing alongside the redacted documents and details of her interactions with the CIA, Barron presented the installation as a commentary on the limits of government transparency and the absurdity of secrecy for the sake of secrecy.

Barron’s tale of intrigue was readily picked up by the cultural press, with art writers easily believing that the intelligence community was intentionally hiding paintings from the prying public. Artnet asked “Why Won’t the CIA Reveal the Paintings in Its Secret Art Collection?“; CNN demanded “Why won’t the CIA reveal what’s in its art collection?“; Hyperallergic mused “Why Does the CIA Keep Its Art Collection Secret?“; while the Smithsonian Magazine announced “The CIA Won’t Reveal What’s in its Secret Art Collection“! However, the following year, one of the writers whose interest had been piqued by Barron’s project decided to take the investigation further – turning the story on its head.

Gene Davis, ‘Black Rhythm’, 1964. Courtesy Hyperallergic.

Alerted by DC-based artist Barbara Januszkiewicz that the CIA art collection might not be as secret as it at first appeared, Carey Dunne, a reporter for Hyperallergic, contacted the agency’s Public Affairs office. She was surprised to find that before long, arrangements were made for her to visit Langley and that she was permitted to make public details of her tour of the art collection, including photographs. Alongside a wide array of art dotted throughout the CIA headquarters, including representational paintings celebrating the agency’s achievements and official portraits of past CIA directors, the abstract paintings from Melzac’s collection took pride of place.

Mundane reasons given for this collection included brightening up the building with art that matched the date of the architecture (construction on the Old Headquarters Building was completed in 1961) and related to Langley’s location in the Washington metropolitan area. However, Dunne uncovered a fascinating aspect to the CIA’s collection of abstract art – that it was also used for training purposes. As Carolyn Reams, former director of the CIA Museum, explained, agents are asked to analyse the paintings to develop their problem-solving skills: “Say you’ve got to analyze this big, heavy duty ISIL problem over here — maybe if you come look at the painting, it’ll help you think about how to solve the ISIL problem creatively.” It is perhaps for that reason that the abstract paintings included in the collection are rarely random or lacking in content, but are largely constructed from patterns and recognisable shapes.

Robert Newmann, ‘Arrows’, 1968. Courtesy Hyperallergic.

Hyperallergic also suggested that the art collection might have been chosen by the CIA in a nod to the agency’s covert support for Abstract Expressionism during the Cold War. The story Dunne refers to, which has been fuelled by sensationalist articles in the New Yorker and the Independent, is yet another oversimplification and mythologisation of a more complex but less glamorous tale linking art and espionage – and further evidence of the will to sustain a narrative of CIA secrecy that provoked both Johanna Barron’s project and the subsequent press coverage.

Yet if the CIA did maintain some secrecy around its art collection, it may have been for good reason. While researching her article, Dunne contacted Robert Newmann, the last living artist featured in the agency’s collection of abstract painting. Newmann revealed that the artists themselves were not informed by Melzac of the loan of their works to the CIA, and Newmann only discovered this fact in 2012, when Warner Brothers requested his permission to feature the painting Arrows in the Hollywood blockbuster Argo, which was filmed on site at Langley. “Personally, I would never have sold a painting to the CIA,” Newmann said. “We [Washington Color School artists] were all left-of-center and the CIA’s contribution to the [Vietnam] War turned all of us off.”

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The Art of Revolutionary Ethiopia

The arrest of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia on 12 September 1974 marked the end of almost a thousand years of rule by the Solomonic dynasty, a royal family claiming descent from the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Haile Selassie’s deposition has been described as the culmination of a “creeping coup”, following a decade of protests against the Emperor, often led by students. While Haile Selassie was a controversial leader, who lived a lavish lifestyle while rural communities were ravaged by famine, he nonetheless achieved messianic status outside of Ethiopia. Since the 1930s, followers of the Jamaican Rastafari movement have honoured him as the Second Coming of Christ.

Art students also played an important role in the creeping coup. In the 1960s, artistic debates in the capital of Addis Ababa mirrored those in the West. While some experimented with abstraction, others believed that representational art was vital to inform and inspire a largely illiterate population. Due to traditional links between Russia and Ethiopia that dated back to the Tsarist period, some Ethiopian art students travelled to Moscow and St Petersburg to train in Socialist Realism. Returning home, they were inspired to use their art for the social good, as the country entered a period of severe famine in the early 1970s, while rumours abounded that the Emperor was preventing starving peasants from entering the major cities, to maintain the illusion of wealth and modernity.

Eshetu Tiruneh, ‘Victims of Famine’, 1974. National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.

For his graduation painting at the Fine Arts School in Addis Ababa, Eshetu Tiruneh created a mural that called attention to his destitute countrymen. Based on his sketches of those gathering on the city’s outskirts, Victims of Famine shows emaciated families dressed in rags, supporting children and the elderly, too weak to walk along a barren, dusty road. Other figures in the scene have succumbed to hunger and are mourned by skeletal family members. The painting depicts a relentless move forward, in search of aid that would not appear.

Eshetu Tiruneh’s mural would be widely reproduced and ignite further unrest and fury against the Emperor. Painted in 1974, in the months preceding the coup, it also foreshadowed the broadcast in Addis Ababa of a documentary about the famine by UK journalist Jonathan Dimbleby. The night before Haile Selassie’s arrest, a doctored version of the documentary, juxtaposing scenes of starvation with the Emperor’s ostentatious displays of wealth, finally provoked action to overthrow him.

The aftermath of the coup d’état in Ethiopia followed a similar pattern to many other African, Middle Eastern and Latin American uprisings of the 1960s and ’70s, in response to the pressures of the Cold War, the break down of colonial power and the rise of socialist ideology that advocated rule by the people. The Solomonic dynasty was replaced by a strict military dictatorship known as the Derg. Over the next two decades, the abolition of the feudal system, land reforms and improvements in literacy and education were undermined by the ruthless suppression of suspected dissidents, many thousands of whom were executed without trial.

Getachew Yosef, ‘Revolutionary Motherland or Death’, 1979/1980. National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. Courtesy Kate Cowcher.

After taking control, the Derg recognised the value of revolutionary art and the same artists who had campaigned against the Emperor was called on to create propagandistic images in support of the junta, visually representing the new state’s Marxist ideology. The Derg established a Ministry of Culture, which attempted to impose Socialist Realism on Ethiopian artists, just as this artistic doctrine was in decline in its country of origin. Many Ethiopian artists were trained by the Soviets in the 1970s and ’80s, while also taking cues from Chinese poster art of the Cultural Revolution. Meanwhile, the country’s nascent abstract movement was dismissed as decadent and bourgeois.

British art historian Kate Cowcher has spent the last few years investigating the visual culture of revolutionary Ethiopia, to reveal images as a vital component in political change. You can get a deeper insight into this fascinating period of art in Africa by watching her talk, Land to the Tiller! Art and the Makings of an Ethiopian October, presented in 2014 at Calvert 22 in London.

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