North Korean Murals, from Namibia to Syria

Espionart previously explored a string of patriotic sculptures built in Africa by Mansudae Overseas Projects, the international division of the North Korean state-run Mansudae Art Studio. This propaganda-for-hire is part of an alliance between North Korea and several African nations that dates from the 1960s, when the secretive Asian regime provided material assistance in their struggles for independence against European colonial powers. Mansudae’s projects have proved controversial, as shown by the riots that accompanied the inauguration in 2010 of the African Renaissance Monument, in Dakar, Senegal. Locals were infuriated by the extravagance of the statue – the tallest in Africa – as well as the sensual design and the Senegalese government’s gift to North Korea of a large portion of state land.

Heroes’ Acre sculpture, Windhoek, Namibia

Another controversial sculpture was erected in 2002 in the Namibian capital of Windhoek, as part of a commission for Mansudae Overseas Projects to construct the 732-acre Heroes’ Acre war memorial. The design of the monument and the outsourcing of a multi-million dollar project to North Korea once again enraged locals. Despite that, Mansudae has received further commissions from the Namibian government – including one of the latest of a number of international war memorials and museums built by North Korean artists.

The Namibian War of Independence – also known as the South African Border War – broke out in August 1966. With support from the Soviet Union, China and several sympathetic African nations, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia fought for independence from South Africa until the end of the Cold War. Namibia (formerly known as South West Africa) finally became a republic in 1990, and on its 24th anniversary, in 2014, the Independence Memorial Museum was opened in Windhoek.

Section of panoramic mural, Independence Memorial Museum, Windhoek, Namibia

At the centre of Namibia’s Independence Memorial Museum is a life-size panoramic mural, a visual strategy that tends to dominate Mansudae’s memorial designs. Rather than showing any evidence of a local artistic tradition, the mural is painted as an updated form of Socialist Realism, the artistic style developed in the USSR in the 1930s and that flourished in communist countries throughout the twentieth century. Despite the museum’s focus on independence, the ongoing appeal of Socialist Realism as a form of political propaganda is shown by the Namibian government’s decision to send state money to artists in another country, to produce work in a generic, Westernised style, rather than to give much-needed opportunities to local artists.

Similar designs have been seen more recently in the Angkor Panorama Museum, opened in Siem Reap, Cambodia in 2016. Entirely produced by Mansudae Overseas Projects, down to its staffing by North Korean nationals, the museum again contains at its centre a 360-degree mural, which purportedly took 63 artists in Pyongyang almost 2 years to complete. Thus, despite their unsubtle and anachronistic style, North Korea’s memorial murals and museum developments continue to prove lucrative – while demonstrating how Socialist Realist art remains alive and well, and much-loved as a form of propaganda for authoritarian regimes.

Section of panoramic mural, October War Panorama, Damascus, Syria

Mansudae’s museum projects date to the late 1980s, when North Korean architects were sent to Cairo to develop the 6th of October War Panorama, commemorating the Egyptian and Syrian alliance against Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. North Korea had also contributed militarily to the conflict, sending pilots and fighters jets to engage the Israeli Air Force.

Painting of Hafez al-Assad and Kim Il Sung, October War Panorama, Damascus, Syria

The Assad regime subsequently commissioned Mansudae Overseas Projects in the late 1990s, to build a second museum presenting an alternative version of the conflict to the usual narrative of an Israeli victory.  The October War Panorama in Damascus features a number of grandiose Socialist Realist paintings depicting the history of Syria, soldiers engaged in battle, and the Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad, glorified in the classic style of a dictator, flanked by jubilant citizens. The Syrian museum also displays a large painting of Hafez al-Assad alongside North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung – further evidence of the close relationship between the two regimes.

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Painting the Red Plague: Tribute to the Poznań Uprising

1956 was a heady year of protest against the repressive Communist governments that controlled much of Central and Eastern Europe. The most famous uprising of that year is the Hungarian Revolution, a nationwide rebellion that was brutally suppressed by invading Soviet forces. Espionart has previously explored this landmark Cold War episode by looking at József Jakovits’s poignant biomorphic sketches, which chronicled the revolutionaries’ fight against the encroaching army.

A less well-known revolution of 1956 is the Poznań Uprising, a two-day wave of protests by factory workers in one of Poland’s largest cities. As events spiralled out of control on 28 June 1956, with escalating violence on both sides, the Polish military entered Poznań. By the end of the conflict, at least 57 citizens lay dead, including Roman “Romek” Strzałkowski, a 13-year-old schoolboy who would become a posthumous symbol of Polish resistance to Communism. However, unlike the increased repression that followed the Hungarian Revolution, the Poznań Uprising ultimately heralded liberal reform, with the so-called Polish October later in 1956 precipitating the Solidarity movement of the 1980s, and the eventual fall of Communism in Poland. [Find out more about art, Solidarity and the cheeky dwarves who brought down the Iron Curtain.]

Franciszek Starowieyski, ‘Robotniczy krzyk’ (‘The Workers’ Shout’) 2006. Photo: Bartosz Jankowski for Fotorzepa.

Fifty years later, the Polish and Hungarian authorities both looked to artists to commemorate the uprisings of 1956. In Hungary, a modernist sculpture by the art collective i-ypszilon, unveiled in Budapest’s City Park, proved a provocative choice. In Poznań, an allegorical mural, commissioned by the district council, would also cause controversy. The 2.9 by 8 metre painting was the work of the eccentric Polish artist, Franciszek Starowieyski. Also known by the pseudonym Jan Byk, Starowieyski trained as a painter in Kraków and Warsaw, before making his name as a prolific poster and set designer for theatre and film. In later life, Starowieyski found international fame and, in 1985, became the first Polish artist to have a solo exhibition at MoMA in New York. [You can now relive that exhibition, thanks to the museum’s excellent online archive.]

Franciszek Starowieyski creating ‘The Worker’s Shout’, 2006. Photo: Piotr Jasiczek.

Over the course of seven days in 2006, Starowieyski painted his tribute to the 1956 uprising in public at the ZAMEK Cultural Centre in Poznań. In his distinctive surrealist-grotesque style, the canvas depicts the winged figure of the Ancient Greek goddess Nike (Victory), watching over the fallen protesters, each one numbered. Behind them, a boy waving a white and red banner is said to be Romek Strzałkowski. Nike faces a menacing personification of Communism, which Starowieyski described as the “red plague”. Next to this bulging, weaponised figure, bursting out of a red star, Starowieyski also acknowledges thirteen members of the Polish forces killed during the confrontation.

Upon the completion of the mural, some participants in the 1956 rebellion objected to its flagrant nudity. However, later in 2006, Starowieyski’s painting was welcomed to its new home at the headquarters of H. Cegielski–Poznań S.A., the manufacturing company whose workers had sparked the uprising.

Franciszek Starowieyski and assistants creating ‘The Worker’s Shout’, 2006. Photo: Piotr Jasiczek.

An additional visual parallel between the Hungarian and Polish rebellions is also of interest. In 1956, Starowieyski created a rare political poster in tribute to the victims of the Hungarian Uprising, demonstrating the strength of sympathy among Poles after their experiences in Poznań. The lithograph, which depicts the head of a peace dove with a teardrop hanging from its eye, is remarkably similar to the final etching in the Revolution series, created in the same year by Hungarian artist, József Jakovits. Assuming that Jakovits’s design was inspired by Starowieyski’s famous poster, the works demonstrate little-known dialogue among dissident artists behind the Iron Curtain, and a shared artistic response to a year that shook Eastern Europe.

 

Parisian Artists in Defence of the Rosenbergs

The execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg at sundown on 19 June 1953 was one of the darkest moments in recent US history. The married couple were the only American civilians to be put to death for espionage-related activity during the Cold War, after they were convicted of passing top secret information to the Soviets. Their deaths left their two young sons orphaned.

It was claimed that the atomic weapon designs shared by Julius Rosenberg enabled the Soviets to acquire nuclear capabilities earlier than expected. The USSR staged its first nuclear test, RDS-1 (rechristened Joe-1 by the Americans), in August 1949. KGB files declassified after the country’s dissolution confirmed Julius’s involvement in the plot. But the death sentence for Ethel – who was found guilty of typing up notes that Julius passed to his handlers – remains a controversial decision.

For over two years, the pair had been languishing in jail. During this time, the case became a cause célèbre. Particularly in France, there was widespread sympathy for the Rosenbergs, with recognition that the alleged espionage would have taken place when the Soviet Union was an ally in the fight against Nazi Germany. In the aftermath of the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War, there were also many who felt that the development of Soviet atomic weapons was a necessary evil to deter the United States from launching further nuclear attacks.

Leger to Robert

Fernand Léger, ‘Liberté, Paix, Solidarité’, 1953. Serigraph on scarf with handwritten dedication to Robert Rosenberg.

Artists too rallied in defence of the couple. Among them was the renowned French Cubist, Fernand Léger – a member of the Communist Party – who designed a bold double portrait of the couple in his distinctive colourful style. The couple’s faces are shown overlapping, Ethel in frontal view and Julius in profile, alongside a peace dove – at the time also a common symbol of Communism. Two hands are shown with fingers entwined, a bracelet on one possibly a reference to a press photograph of the couple embracing in handcuffs during their trial. The images are framed by the words ‘Liberté, Paix, Solidarité’ (‘Liberty, Peace, Solidarity’).

Léger printed his design on silk scarves which he intended to sell to raise money for the Rosenberg’s defence. The couple were executed before he could put the plan into action – but one of the scarves now takes pride of place in the home of Robert Meeropol, the couple’s youngest son who was 6 years old when his parents died (his brother Michael was 10). Léger added the handwritten dedication to this scarf: ‘à Robert, orphelin’ (‘To Robert, orphan’).

Picasso Rosenbergs

Pablo Picasso, ‘À la mémoire de Julius et Ethel Rosenberg’, 1953. Lithograph with handwritten dedication to Michael and Robby Rosenberg.

Another double portrait print was designed by fellow Communist artist, Pablo Picasso. As with Léger’s scarves, it was intended to be sold to raise defence funds and Picasso would give a dedicated copy to the two boys. In the annual Salon d’Automne, which opened at Paris’s Grand Palais in November 1953, the strength of feeling against the Rosenberg’s execution was made clear. Numerous French artists joined Picasso and Léger in exhibiting artworks in tribute to the Rosenbergs and denouncing what they felt to be a grave miscarriage of justice. A press photo shows Jean Venitien’s large oil painted canvas Honour to the Rosenbergs, an unusual style for the impressionist artist who was better known for his paintings of Southern French landscapes.

alamy rosenbergs

Opening of Salon d’Automne at the Grand Palais, Paris on 11 November 1953, showing the painting ‘Honour to the Rosenbergs’ by Jean Venitien. (c) Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy Stock Photo.

The Salon also included André Fougeron’s monumental Socialist Realist painting Civilisation atlantique (Atlantic Civilisation), now held in London’s Tate Modern. A scathing critique of America’s influence in Europe, the caricature-style narrative shows widespread suffering caused by corruption, colonisation, consumerism and militarism. In his condemnation of French foreign policy in North Africa, Fougeron introduced visual tropes that he would build upon five years later in his canvas Massacre à Sakiet III (Massacre at Sakiet III), explored in an earlier Espionart post. Central to this modern history painting is the towering image of the electric chair, used to execute Ethel and Julius Rosenberg at the notorious Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York.

Atlantic Civilisation 1953 by André Fougeron 1913-1998

André Fougeron, ‘Civilisation atlantique’ (‘Atlantic Civilisation’), 1953. Oil paint on canvas. Courtesy Tate.

Over in the United States, artists such as Hugo Gellert and Arnold Mesches also expressed their support for the Rosenbergs as prisoners of conscience, who had paid the ultimate price for their beliefs.

rosenberg sons

The Rosenberg orphans, Robert and Michael, would later be adopted by songwriter Abel Meeropol, whose commitment to fighting injustice was shown in his famous anti-lynching song Strange Fruit, recorded by such greats as Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. The family continue to campaign to this day for justice for their parents and exoneration for Ethel, and to support the children of other activists in the United States, through the Rosenberg Fund for Children.

Filonov’s Ambiguous Portrait of Stalin

Cover of ‘Les Lettres Francaises’, featuring portrait of Stalin by Pablo Picasso, 12 March 1953.

Anyone who has watched the 2017 satirical movie The Death of Stalin will have a darkly humorous although roughly factual understanding of the events of 5 March 1953, when the Soviet dictator finally met his end. After 3 decades in which ‘Stalinism’ had increasingly dominated all aspects of political and cultural life in Russia and the wider Soviet Union, it would take the country many more years to adjust to life without this fearsome ruler.

The ever-popular Espionart post Stalin by Picasso (or Portrait of a Woman with Moustache) introduces readers to the equally ridiculous story of Picasso’s comically bad tribute to the newly-deceased tyrant. However, the painting of the leader that I find the most fascinating, due to its ambiguously perceptive portrayal of his menacing and mercurial character, is an oddly unrepresentative work by the Russian avant-garde painter, Pavel Filonov.

In the early 1910s, Filonov developed a unique painting style that he called Universal Flowering (Mirovoi rastsvet). Using fine brushes, Filonov meticulously crafted dense networks of line and colour, resembling the finest filigree or spider silk, that built up kaleidoscopic images from which the viewer can gradually distinguish layers of people and objects. He referred to these works as ‘formulas’. Filonov blended artistic inspiration from across Russian history with post-revolutionary experimentation, incorporating folk art, orthodox iconography, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Surrealism, and magical realism. While he was a contemporary of luminaries such as Malevich, Chagall, Rodchenko, Kandinsky and Mayakovsky, Filonov’s work has remained relatively unknown outside Russia due to his socialist principles. Refusing to sell his work to private collectors, even when he was left penniless and destitute, Filonov instead remained committed to his promise to leave his life works to the proletariat, hoping that they would eventually be housed in a dedicated museum in St Petersburg.

Filonov Formula

Pavel Filonov, ‘Formula of Spring and Acting Forces’, 1928–29. Oil on canvas, 250 x 285 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg.

However, as Stalin consolidated his authority and gradually reduced all opportunities for deviation from his all-encompassing vision for Soviet life, Filonov was one of many Russian artists whose commitment to the revolutionary cause was cruelly betrayed. Previously renowned as a professor at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts, Filonov was left struggling to survive after his work was condemned as bourgeois and his large retrospective exhibition was banned in 1929. After more than a decade eking out a living in this inhospitable environment, in 1941 Filonov became one of the first of an estimated 1.5 million Russians to starve to death during the Nazi Siege of Leningrad. Yet it would take over 40 more years for Filonov’s work to be made available to the general public, after his descendants were finally permitted to bring his paintings out of the storerooms of the Russian Museum in St Petersburg in the late 1980s.

Pavel Filonov, ‘Portrait of J. V. Stalin’, 1936. Oil on canvas, 99 X 67 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

Sometimes lost of this dramatic biography is Filonov’s decision in 1936 to paint a large, sombre portrait of Stalin. That year, the period now known as the Great Terror or Great Purge was just getting started. Over the following years, political rivals, intellectuals and anyone else who Stalin saw as a potential threat to his total rule was condemned in a series of show trials or summarily arrested in the middle of night, tortured and executed. With little evidence to the contrary, Filonov’s portrait has been explained as an unsuccessful attempt to curry favour with Stalin’s regime by producing an official portrait of the ruler. But this haunting image, where Stalin appears to emerge out of the darkness, his eyes empty, black holes, his cold, hard stare unflinching and merciless, his face appearing more like a death mask than living flesh, instead suggests to me Filonov’s feelings of helplessness and inevitable tragedy in the face of the unforgiving Stalinlist machine.

Prisoner Art from Guantánamo Bay

Muhammad Ansi, ‘Hands Holding Flowers through Bars’, 2016.

In recent weeks, a small art exhibition in New York has raised thorny questions about the link between art and propaganda, creative ownership, and the possibility of judging a work of art irrespective of its creator. Ode to the Sea opened in October 2017 in the gallery of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The exhibition features 36 paintings, drawings and sculptures created in Guantánamo Bay by eight of the inmates. Four of the men have now been released, while four remain incarcerated as suspected Islamist terrorists. All have been confined to the infamous US prison camp between 10 and 15 years. The artworks were sourced by curator Erin Thompson, a professor of art crime, from American lawyers representing the prisoners.

According to guards, art in Guantánamo Bay dates from the early days of the camp, when inmates often scratched floral designs on Styrofoam cups. During the Obama presidency, an art programme was introduced to provide “intellectual stimulation for the detainees”, allowing them “to express their creativity”. Pencils, pens and paintbrushes were prohibited and the men wore leg shackles during classes. Most of the works produced during these early years have since been confiscated during raids and hunger strikes. But in time, some prisoners were rewarded for good behaviour by being granted art materials and allowed to draw and paint in their cells.

Recalling tales from the notorious prison on Alcatraz, the theme of the sea occurs again and again in the art of the Guantánamo inmates. As Thompson explains, they are haunted by the sound and smell of the sea, but it is hidden from their view.  Only for four days in 2014, as a hurricane approached the island, were the prisoners permitted to stare mesmerised onto the ocean. These savoured days inspired a wave of maritime art, as they attempted to recapture the brief sense of freedom. You can listen to an interview with Erin Thompson on the BBC News website.

Djamel Ameziane, ‘Ship Sailing in a Stormy Sea’, 2010.

Djamel Ameziane, a detainee at Guantánamo from 2002 to 2013, also used the metaphor of the sea to describe his imprisonment, depicting his experiences over the years “as a boat out at sea, battered by successive storms during its trip towards an unknown destination, benefiting only from very short periods of respite between two storms.”

Other works on show focus on the drudgery of life in prison, where time seems to stand still. Despite Guantánamo’s association with torture and wrongful detention, the artworks paint a very different picture of life at the camp, one defined by silence, solitude and monotony. In still lifes and landscapes, the prisoners also paint snatched memories of their homelands and former lives, pining for the quiet comforts of tea, sunshine and open spaces. While the artists originated from Yemen, Kuwait, Algeria and Pakistan, the art is surprisingly universal in its design, with the choice of colours and figurative style often recalling European expressionism. Many of the paintings and drawings show an impressive talent for perspective and texture, while Moath al-Alwi’s intricate models of ships, made from discarded items found around the prison, display proficient craftsmanship.

Moath al-Alwi, ‘GIANT’, 2015.

Despite the obvious intrigue of the works on show, some have questioned whether such art should be put on public display, arguing that it is an insult to the victims of terrorism and portrays the detainees in a sympathetic light. Thompson’s defense has been that the setting for the exhibition is key. Scholars at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice study terrorism and the legal and ethical implications of detention. Thompson argues that the exhibition is not commenting on the guilt or innocence of the artists, but rather that “these works are invaluable windows into the souls of the men who made them”, questioning the effect of indefinite detention on both prisoners and their keepers. Moath al-Alwi, a Yemeni national still detained in the facility, explained to his lawyer that “when I start an artwork, I forget I am in prison. When I start an artwork, I forget myself. Despite being in prison, I try as much as I can to get my soul out of prison. I live a different life when I am making art”.

Abdualmalik Abud, ‘Yemen’, 2015.

The exhibition and subsequent media coverage appears to have taken the US Department of Defense by surprise. As so often, state-controlled propaganda depends on the total dehumanisation of the enemy, even while a lack of understanding might make its own citizens more vulnerable. The practice of allowing Guantánamo’s prisoners to hand over their artwork to lawyers – as gifts or for safekeeping – has now been halted. If any of the remaining 41 detainees are released, they have been told their art will be incinerated, destroying an irreplaceable record of life within an institution that has been at the centre of debate about America’s post-9/11 identity. A Pentagon spokesman recently confirmed to the New York Times that “items produced by detainees at Guantánamo Bay remain the property of the US government”. In response, Erin Thompson notes: “The idea of trying to dispirit someone by destroying what they’ve made, even if the subject is, on its surface, innocuous, is very common in warfare”.

Ameziane Tea

Djamel Ameziane, Tea on a Checkered Cloth, 2010.

If you are in New York and want to make up your own mind, Ode to the Sea continues at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice until 26 January 2018. The exhibition catalogue is also available to read online.

Saga of the Lucky Dragon and Ben Shahn’s Anti-Nuclear Art

Emboldened by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the United States was keen to bolster its nuclear arsenal as it entered into an arms race with the Soviet Union. The remote reefs of Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, which had come under American occupation during the war, were identified as a suitable test site, and the 167 Bikinians were forced to relocate to other parts of the Marshall Islands. Between 1946 and 1958, 23 nuclear devices were detonated at Bikini Atoll, leaving the region contaminated and uninhabitable.

On 1 March 1954, the United States conducted an atmospheric test of a new hydrogen bomb, with the code name ‘Castle Bravo’. The most powerful nuclear device ever detonated by the United States, it produced a radioactive yield 3 times higher than scientists had predicted. Combined with strong winds, the nuclear fallout reached far across the Marshall Islands, causing radiation sickness among the inhabitants and leading to high levels of cancer and birth defects for years to come.

While the world had long turned a blind eye to the suffering of the Pacific islanders, the Castle Bravo incident caused international outrage due to the misfortune suffered by the Japanese crew of Lucky Dragon No.5 (Daigo Fukuryū Maru). Although this tuna fishing boat should have been at a safe distance from the explosion, 80 miles from Bikini Atoll and outside the danger zone set by American officials, the unexpected potency of the bomb led the fishermen to be deluged by radioactive ash, which they unwittingly cleaned from the ship’s deck with their bare hands. In the days that followed, the 23 crew members fell victim to acute radiation syndrome. Their recovery was hindered by the US government’s refusal to reveal the composition of the fallout, for reasons of national security, and, in a double tragedy, all were inadvertently infected with hepatitis C during treatment. However, amazingly, all but one would survive the experience.

The death of Lucky Dragon’s radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, fuelled the burgeoning anti-nuclear movement both in Japan and across the world. The fisherman’s final words, “I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb”, touched a nerve at a time when America’s nuclear stockpile was proliferating rapidly. The country’s armoury of nuclear weapons would rise from 299 in 1950, to a high of over 31,000 devices in 1965 (the Soviet Union would reach a high of almost 40,000 nuclear weapons in 1980). American artist Ben Shahn was one of those alarmed by this acceleration and horrified to hear about the devastation caused in his country’s pursuit of military supremacy, and the incident at Bikini Atoll would continue to haunt his creative output for years to come.

In 1957, Shahn accepted a commission to illustrate a series of articles about the contamination of Lucky Dragon No.5, that were published in Harper’s Magazine in early 1958. The following year he travelled to Southeast Asia and the experience reinforced his enthusiasm for Chinese and Japanese art. Upon his return in 1960, Shahn began a series of paintings on the same theme, highlighting the injustice wrought on the burned and poisoned Japanese fishermen and powerfully advocating an end to nuclear testing. In the Lucky Dragon paintings, Shahn’s signature style is enhanced by design elements drawn from Japanese artistic traditions, while the heavy palette and scenes of lamentation provide a confrontational record of the nuclear anxiety that gripped people around the world.

Together with the writer Richard Hudson, Shahn later brought together some of his Lucky Dragon illustrations and paintings in the book Kuboyama and the Saga of the Lucky Dragon, published in 1965. While Shahn’s leftist principles and socially-directed art were viewed with suspicion by many in the United States, this series of work brought him great acclaim in Japan and across Southeast Asia. Part of Shahn and Hudson’s book is available to view online.

All images by Ben Shahn and tempera on wood. We Did Not Know What Happened to Us, c.1960, Smithsonian American Art MuseumThe Lucky Dragon, 1960, Private Collection; A Score of White Pigeons, 1960, Moderna Museet.

Sakiet Remembered: Painting the Algerian War of Independence

Twenty-one years after Picasso created his iconic contemporary history painting, Guernica – to memorialise the obliteration of the small Basque town by united Fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War – a similar event in the midst of the Algerian War of Independence inspired two French-born artists to express their outrage at their country’s actions.

The little town of Sakiet Sidi Youssef in northern Tunisia is situated just a few kilometres from the country’s border with Algeria. Since the start of the War of Independence in 1954, aimed at freeing the country from its French colonial masters, guerrilla fighters had been operating out of border towns including Sakiet. Even after France constructed a 2.5-metre high electric fence between the neighbouring countries, its generals still suspected that Sakiet was harbouring a large number of Algerian revolutionaries (who were at the time designated terrorists). On 8 February 1958, during a crowded market day, the French air force unleashed a sustained bombing campaign against Sakiet’s 3,300-strong population. The bombardment left over 148 civilians injured and some 70 dead, including a dozen children when a primary school was hit.

The event was a defining moment in the war, leading to international outcry and hastening Algerian independence. Yet though the bombing of Sakiet is jointly commemorated each year in Tunisia and Algeria, this “colonial Guernica” is now largely overlooked in the West. However, thanks to two heart-wrenching paintings held in London’s Tate Modern, the events in Sakiet have been immortalised.

Despite the establishment of the Cold War, the French artist André Fougeron remained a committed Communist and continued to create socialist realist paintings throughout the latter half of the 20th century. He often used his work to criticise Western imperialism and the injustices of capitalism, and the bombing of Sakiet inspired him to create one of his most well-known paintings. Massacre at Sakiet III (Massacre à Sakiet III) shows the piled corpses of men, women and children, swathed in dark blankets and appearing as disembodied heads. The pale blue ribbon in the hair of a little girl at the centre of the painting draws the eyes of the viewer and delivers a powerful shock with its simple message of childhood innocence, snatched away. The half-closed, clouded eyes of the man below her give a nauseating view of death, while the naked body of a young woman, with her dead child still clinging to her, heightens the sense of violation. In stark contrast, the row of army boots and rifle stocks that are glimpsed towering over the pitiful scene indicates where the viewer should direct their anger. When the painting went on public display in a Parisian salon just two months after the attack on Sakiet, Fougeron was criticised for clearly assigning blame to the French military, which had yet to accept responsibility for the bombardment of the Tunisian town.

The following year, Fougeron’s compatriot Peter de Francia, now living in London, used a very different artistic style to depict the despair and suffering in Sakiet. In contrast to Fougeron’s austere palette and sombre, reflective tone, The Bombing of Sakiet by de Francia mixes vibrant colours to give a sense of the noise that ripped through the bombed town, filled with the screams of survivors. While Fougeron’s painting is formed from soft curves and strong, clear lines, de Francia’s expressionist vision of the dead and the injured, thrown together among the twisted ruins of smashed buildings, uses sharp, jutting angles and colours bleeding into one another to convey the terror and confusion. At the centre of this sea of muddled limbs and detritus, three anguished survivors take in the catastrophic scene, seemingly oblivious to each other: while one surveys a lifeless body next to her, another weeps with eyes closed and a pained expression, and a third reaches out, perhaps searching for a missing friend or her stolen child.

 In 2005, the James Hyman Gallery in London chronicled the development of this epic painting in the exhibition Peter de Francia: After the Bombing. The large number of pencil and charcoal sketches and studies in oil show how the artist was absorbed with the subject and painstakingly created the monumental testament to a country torn apart by the aggression of a dying colonial power. De Francia’s painting is on long term loan to Tate from the Tunisian Embassy, ensuring that Sakiet will be remembered for many years to come.

Images: André Fougeron, Massacre à Sakiet III (Massacre at Sakiet III), 1958. Oil on canvas, 97 x 19.5 cm; Peter de Francia, The Bombing of Sakiet, 1959. Oil on canvas, 189.8 x 365.3 cm; courtesy Tate. Peter de Francia, Woman with Dead Child (study for the Bombing of Sakiet), c.1959. Charcoal on paper, 35.7 x 25.5 cm. Private Collection.