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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Khrushchev in America and the Graphic Arts Workshop

On 15 September 1959, Nikita Khrushchev became the first Soviet leader to visit the United States. Over the course of 12 days, he travelled from Washington, DC to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose (to witness the birth of the computer age at IBM’s headquarters), Des Moines and Coon Rapids in Iowa, and Pittsburgh, ending his whistle-stop tour in a summit with President Eisenhower at Camp David. The visit followed hot on the heels of a summer of friendly competition between the two superpowers, where art became a major talking point at the Soviet Exhibition of Science, Technology and Culture in New York and the American National Exhibition in Moscow.

Coming soon after his infamous showdown with then-Vice President Richard Nixon in the “Kitchen Debate” in Moscow, Khrushchev appeared keen to use the visit as a chance to reclaim Soviet dominance in all fields. He made an opening volley soon after his arrival, greeting Eisenhower in the Oval Office with a replica of Lunik II. This space probe – the first man-made object on the moon – had successfully landed just one day earlier, symbolising the Soviets’ early lead in the Space Race.

Khrushchev then proceeded to express displeasure at much of what he saw in the United States: complaining that the pigs were too fat and the turkeys too small at a farm in Maryland; remarking upon his first glimpse of the Empire State Building that “if you’ve seen one skyscraper, you’ve seen them all”; and – despite enjoying a close-up of Shirley MacLaine’s legs – bemoaning with characteristic Soviet prudishness the bare flesh and innuendo on a Hollywood film set. His ire reached fever pitch when he discovered that Disneyland had been taken off his itinerary because of security concerns. Shaking his fist in front of a gala audience that included Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, Khrushchev vented, “Do you have rocket launching pads there? … What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera or plague there? Or have gangsters taken hold of the place that can destroy me? And I say I would very much like to go and see Disneyland. For me such a situation is inconceivable.”

However, Khrushchev finally found something that pleased him at an Iowan meat-packing factory. Upon trying his first hot dog, the Soviet leader declared, “We have beaten you to the moon, but you have beaten us in sausage making.”

Upon leaving New York, Khrushchev had noted his regret that he had yet to meet “the producers of its wealth” – ordinary American workers. He would finally have a chance to come into contact with more ideologically appealing citizens in San Francisco, where he met union members and swapped caps with a dock worker. It is likely at one of these events that Khrushchev received three social realist prints by American artists affiliated with the Graphic Arts Workshop (GAW), a radical printmaking cooperative. Formed as an offshoot of the defunct California Labor School, GAW had a history of producing posters for Communist front groups and painting murals around San Francisco, on themes such as African American, Jewish and Mexican history, the role of women in the labour movement, and the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

In keeping with Khrushchev’s appeal to see the “real” America, artists Richard Correll and Stanley Koppel gifted the Soviet premier artworks on the theme of blue-collar workers; while GAW chairman Irving Fromer presented the Soviet leader with a more controversial view, in a lithograph depicting child labour in the cotton fields. The prints are now held in the collections of Brown University, where Khrushchev’s son, Sergei, worked for many years and gifted his papers, including some of his father’s memorabilia.

 

While the Graphic Arts Workshop may not be well-known in the United States, during the late 1950s, the studio was feted in the USSR. The quixotic San Francisco sculptor, Beniamino Bufano, had taken a collection of prints by GAW members on his “one-man peace mission” to Moscow in 1957, where they were soon exhibited at the Moscow Artists’ Union and the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. The GAW prints would also be included in a larger exhibition of American realist art at the Pushkin Museum in late 1959, rapidly assembled by Soviet officials nervous at the attention paid to US modern art by the crowds at the American National Exhibition that summer.

For those keen find out more about Khrushchev’s tour of America, PBS has put together a handy overview of his itinerary, as a complement to their film, Cold War Roadshow. You can also find out more about the surviving Graphic Arts Workshop at their website.

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Images: Khrushchev meets Shirley MacLaine on his visit to Hollywood. Bettmann / CORBIS; Richard Correll, Railroaders, 1959; Irving Fromer, Child Picking Cotton, 1959; Stanley Koppel, Men Drinking at a Bar, 1959. Courtesy Brown University.

We the People: Shepard Fairey’s New Pictures of Hope

Back in 2013, Espionart showcased the work of American illustrator Shepard Fairey, exploring his debt to the aesthetics of the Cold War. Fairey’s 2008 ‘Hope’ poster, bearing the image of Barack Obama, has become perhaps the most iconic political illustration of the 21st century. Since then, the poster has been widely imitated and parodied by both Fairey and his admirers, to support causes such as the Occupy movement, and to shame a variety of politicians. The Women’s March on Washington and in cities around the world on 21 January 2017 revealed an imaginative range of appropriations, satirising the new president.

Fairey’s work has also been back in the news – and in the public consciousness – this week, as the artist released a new set of illustrations reaffirming the rights of American citizens from a range of ethnicities. At a time when many fear the divisive rhetoric of the incoming administration, the ‘We the People’ series (a nod to the opening line of the US constitution) offers a confident vision of the American people and supports Fairey’s belief that compassion and unity is the best antidote to the politics of hate. In red, white and blue – the same US flag colours of the ‘Hope’ design – Fairey’s three new posters feature bold images of American citizens, their cultural backgrounds indicated by their styling. A Hispanic woman wears a red flower in her hair and a T-shirt emblazoned with the Mexican golden eagle, taken from the country’s coat of arms. Beneath her image, the phrase ‘Defend Dignity’ points to Trump’s recent demonisation of America’s Latino population. Above the phrase ‘Protect Each Other’, an African American with long dreadlocks looks downwards, inverting Obama’s triumphant upward gaze and indicating the risks posed to young Black men, as highlighted in the Black Lives Matter movement. But of the three, the poster that has been most visible and had the greatest impact is that of a woman wearing an American flag in the style of a Muslim hijab. The rallying cry of ‘We the People … are Greater than Fear’ urges American citizens to resist the rise of Islamophobia.

Fairey’s posters are part of a group project, organised by the Amplifier Foundation, which works with street artists and illustrators to commission and distribute social campaign posters. The Colombian American muralist Jessica Sabogal and Mexican American illustrator Ernesto Yerena also contributed posters entitled ‘We the Indivisible’ and ‘We the Resilient’, with all five designs now available to download free of charge from the Amplifier Foundation website. The foundation also released five additional posters in celebration of the Women’s March on Washington.

The success of Fairey’s new designs is such that, this week, the Guardian newspaper devoted part of its front page to announcing an exclusive interview with Munira Ahmed, the Bangladeshi American woman who was the inspiration for Fairey’s hijab poster. Ahmed in fact modeled for the photo on which Fairey’s poster is based a decade ago. Since then, the picture, by New York photographer Ridwan Adhami and taken in front of Manhattan’s Ground Zero, has been widely shared online. In an ironic twist, a building owned by Donald Trump can also be seen in the background.

For Munira Ahmed, the poster is “about saying, ‘I am American just as you are’. I am American and I am Muslim, and I am very proud of both”. Shepard Fairey also recognises the particular cultural resonance of his hijab poster, calling it “very powerful, because it reminds people that freedom of religion is a founding principle of the United States and that there is a history of welcoming people to the United States who have faced religious persecution in their homelands”.

Exhibition of the Month: Mao’s Golden Mangoes

The China Institute in New York is currently shining a light on the unlikely moment when the humble mango became a symbol of revolutionary zeal.

The story begins in 1968, when an ambassadorial delegation from Pakistan brought Mao Zedong a basket of fresh mangoes, their national fruit. As a symbol of his benevolence during a crucial moment in the establishment of the Cultural Revolution, the revolutionary leader delivered the gift to a group of workers, and China’s mango infatuation was born.

The tropic fruit, then unfamiliar in China, was instantly transformed into a symbol of the leader’s love for his people. Mango mania quickly swept the nation. Wax and plastic duplicates were created and displayed in glass boxes as objects of worship. The image of the bright fruit also started to appear in propaganda paintings and posters, and on ceramics and textiles. Mangoes were displayed prominently at the National Day Parade in 1968 and were even the star of the 1976 film The Song of the Mango.

But the craze disappeared as quickly as it had begun, and within a year China’s fruit fanaticism was over. Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution contains over 80 examples of mango memorabilia which will continue to be showcased at the China Institute until 26 April 2015. The story is also told in more detail in an eponymous book to accompany the exhibition.

Top – Mango reliquary from the Landsberger collection; Bottom – detail from the poster Forging ahead courageously while following the great leader Chairman Mao!, 1969.

The Iconic Image of Che Guevara

When Cuban photographer Alberto Korda snapped two shots of Che Guevara at a memorial service in Havana on 5 March 1960 his photographs were initially lost among thousands taken of the charismatic revolutionary leader. For seven years Korda’s preferred image of the 31-year-old, known as Guerrillero Heroico (Heroic Guerrilla), remained largely unknown. But with Guevara’s death in October 1967 the man became a legend, and the photograph followed suit.

As the image began to be reproduced in the media and distributed in poster format, the burgeoning cult of Che inspired artists to use the photograph as the basis for new works of art. In 1967 Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick produced a stylised poster based on Korda’s image which quickly became a hot commodity. Fitzpatrick’s poster would spawn countless other appropriations and tributes. In one instance the image was even reproduced in a 1968 painting attributed to Andy Warhol. Although it was later revealed as a forgery produced by Warhol’s collaborator, Gerard Malanga, Warhol agreed to authenticate the fake provided he received the proceeds from its sale.

The image is now considered to be the most reproduced in the history of photography. Yet as it has become ever more commercialised, it has drifted further from the spirit of its subject.

The full story of the life of this image, from snapshot to icon, is told in the book Che Guevara: Revolutionary and Icon, published in 2006 to accompany the V&A’s exhibition of the same name.

Image: Top – Alberto Korda, Guerrillero Heroico, 1960; Middle – Jim Fitzpatrick, original stylized image of Che Guevara, 1968; Bottom – Gerard Malanga, Che Guevara in the style of Andy Warhol, 1968.

Exhibition of the Month: Is It Propaganda? Or Is It Political Art?

Is It Propaganda? Or Is It Political Art? is the latest exhibition to open at the Charles Krause/Reporting Fine Art Gallery in Washington, DC. Assembled from the personal collection of the veteran PBS and Washington Post foreign correspondent, the exhibition features political and poster art from Cold War USSR, Cuba, Ukraine, China, Poland, Germany and the US.

Krause became a collector of art during his 30 years covering wars and revolutions across the Americas, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He was particularly interested in art that was able to overcome language barriers by the strength of its visual imagery, engaging with work often dismissed from consideration by mainstream galleries and museums. In this exhibition, Krause invites visitors to question the line between ‘political art’ and ‘propaganda’ and to consider the value of the art object outside its political content.

The exhibition remains open during weekends and during weekdays (by appointment) until 31 May 2014.

Recommended: Kiss Kiss Kill Kill

KKKK Film Poster 2A scantily-clad femme fatale, a pristinely-coiffed hero, and an array of imaginatively-evil baddies. Throw in some guns and gadgets and you have the perfect recipe for a spy thriller.

Kiss Kiss Kill Kill is a multidimensional project dedicated to preserving and sharing the graphic art and forgotten spy films of Cold War Europe. Amassed by creator and curator Richard Rhys Davies, the collection now runs to over 6,000 items, including original artwork, posters, lobby cards and stills.

From the formative 1950s through the golden age of the 1960s and into the nihilistic 1970s, the familiar iconography of the spy thriller is ever present. Yet although often comical and easily parodied, the phenomenon is nevertheless an accessible way to understand a complex political and cultural moment in world history, making Kiss Kiss Kill Kill an important resource.

KKKK HeaderWhile a touring exhibition of posters from the archive recently closed in Leeds, the exhibition catalogue contains reproductions of over 100 posters, digitally-restored to their former psychedelic glory. The collection is set to grow even larger, as efforts are made to track down obscure pieces from former Communist countries, South America and South-East Asia. Further exhibitions and publications are planned as new work is acquired, so keep an eye on the website for plenty more to come.

Image (top): Poster for Rapporto Fuller, base Stoccolma (Fuller Report, Base Stockholm), Italian, 1968, dir. Sergio Grieco.