How Can Art Support Solidarity Movements?

The landmark ‘Axis of Solidarity’ conference held at London’s Tate Modern saw artists and scholars present new research on solidarity movements since the mid-1900s

BY Ellen Mara De Wachter in Opinion | 07 MAR 19

What precisely do we mean by ‘solidarity’? This question came up repeatedly during the three-day ‘Axis of Solidarity’ conference held at Tate Modern last month. Each time, it was met with a version of the same response: solidarity can mean many things but it is always a form of practice, involving not just feeling but also, necessarily, action. Organized by the recently inaugurated Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational, in collaboration with the Institute for Comparative Modernities at Cornell University and The Africa Institute in Sharjah, this landmark conference saw more than 40 scholars and artists present new research on solidarity movements since the mid-1900s. Addressing the audience, Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña summed up the general feeling in a poetic way: ‘I looked up the word many times before, but it has changed – or maybe my eyes have changed.’ 

Kristine Khouri, Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational - Axis of Solidarity symposium, Tate Modern, London. Courtesy: © Tate; photograph: Jacob Perlmutter

Embodying the imperative of action for achieving solidarity, writer and activist Tariq Ali announced that, after delivering his keynote address, he would be speaking ‘rather more lustily’ at a lunchtime protest outside the Bank of England to demand the repatriation to Venezuela of 31 tonnes of gold held in the UK’s national coffers. ‘We are living in bad times,’ he said. From the criminalization of Palestine’s rights to the media’s constant attacks on Britain’s left-wing opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, ‘dissent is actively and viciously discouraged’. Ali sees the dialectic of our modern world as swinging between ‘decolonization, post-colonialism and re-colonization’ and urged us to ‘fight with our voices, with our pens’ and ‘to stop being too polite to the enemy’.

Cecilia Vicuña, Leoparda de Ojitos, 1976, oil on cotton canvas, 141 x 90 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York/Hong Kong/Seoul

Culture has long been central to the work of international solidarity movements. The earliest example discussed here was the 1955 Asian-African Bandung Conference, a weeklong assembly in Indonesia, where 29 recently or soon-to-be independent countries gathered to collectively decide the terms of a new alliance between postcolonial nations. In the Bandung communiqué, which lists the principles adopted by participants, cultural collaboration comes second only to economic co-operation. Later, the Organisation of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL) was founded after the 1966 Tricontinental gathering: an alliance of leftist liberation movements from 82 nations that met in Havana and whose discourse centred on anti-racism and anti-capitalism. Rafael Enrique Vega, OSPAAAL’s artistic director, related how the group decided their most pressing task was to create a department of propaganda – not least as a counter to the rise of mass media in Western and former colonizing countries. The department’s outputs included the Tricontinental magazine and countless posters, designed in OSPAAAL’s workshops, which circulated around the globe – and appeared in several presentations at ‘Axis of Solidarity’. OSPAAAL exploited the visual and graphic energy of advertising and pop art to convey a message of resistance and solidarity with causes around the world. 

Numerous papers given at the conference made clear how many solidarity movements have depended on armed struggle, raising questions about the relationship between militancy and solidarity today. The adage that one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist was thrown into provocative relief by filmmaker Jihan El-Tahri, who invited the audience to consider the possibility that the international Islamist movement might be seen as an alternative form of solidarity. 

Tariq Ali, 2013. Courtesy: Creative Commons, Flickr

The issue of violence came up again in the conference’s second keynote address, delivered by Russell Rickford, Professor at Cornell University and Black Lives Matter activist, who discussed the way African American sympathies for the liberation of Angola during the 1970s were split between the MPLA and UNITA, two rival guerrilla movements. The split reflected differences in how the two factions articulated questions around indigeneity, education and class. Although UNITA was widely supported in the US thanks to its adoption of US Black Power tropes, it later emerged that the group’s leader, Jonas Savimbi, was a client of the CIA, a revelation that ‘rattled the left in the US’ and made it clear that, as one commentator at the time averred: ‘Uninformed acts of solidarity can be disastrous.’

Russell Rickford, Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational - Axis of Solidarity symposium, Tate Modern, London. Courtesy: © Tate; photograph: Jacob Perlmutter

If feeling, on its own, is not enough for solidarity to take root, it is still central to the dynamic. Many speakers made heartfelt appeals to the audience to keep in mind ongoing struggles in their home countries. Salah M. Hassan, one of the conference’s organizers said: ‘I count on your solidarity in fighting the regime in Sudan, which is on its last gasps.’ Elaine Mokhtefi, an American writer who worked with the FLN during the Algerian war of independence, called for support for Algerian protesters, who recently took to the streets to demonstrate against president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. In the words of Mokhtefi, Bouteflika ‘cannot speak, cannot hear and cannot stand on his own two feet’ – a description that might apply to many so-called leaders today. Brigitta Isabella, initiator of the artistic research platform From Bandung to Berlin, urged solidarity with the people of West Papua, who are ‘still struggling for independence from Indonesia, my own government’.

In her talk, Isabella invoked poetry written during the 1950s and ’60s, in the wake of the Bandung Conference, alongside more recent verse by Southeast Asian migrant domestic worker-writers, to draw attention to the way the legacy of the Bandung Conference has been co-opted by capitalist forces. Poems possess not only an affective charge, but also the capacity to trigger action in ways other forms of writing do not. They are shared online, read at protests and set to music that animates marchers. Poems are, Isabella noted, ‘a medium to circulate solidarity. The question now is, how to turn all this beautiful research into poems.’

Main image: Angklung orchestra perform for delegates at 1955 Bandung Conference. Courtesy: The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images; photograph: Howard Sochurek

Ellen Mara De Wachter is based in London, UK.