A series of artworks that shed light on the Soviet Union’s relationship with Africa until the 1980s is on display at an exhibition in London. Artist Yevgeniy Fiks, who put together the collection, told us more
A season of exhibitions, talks, films and events exploring the cultural relationship between the Soviet Union and Africa kicked off earlier this month at the Calvert 22 Gallery in London. The centerpiece of the season is an exhibition of art that sheds lights on Soviet efforts to wield soft power on the continent. Artist Yevgeniy Fiks, who collated Wayland Rudd Archive, a collection of posters and artwork that feature in the show, told us more about his project.
ICON What is the background to this collection?
YEVGENIY FIKS The Wayland Rudd Archive is an unsorted collection of depictions of Africans and African-Americans by Soviet artists and designers from 1920s to 1980s. It comprises more than 200 images – posters, paintings, movie stills, children's book illustrations and even kitsch porcelain statuettes –encompassing the entire Soviet era. It was important for me to indiscriminately collect everything in which Soviet artists depicted African and African-American life and struggles, including images of propaganda, tactful observations, as well as petit-bourgeois kitsch, to show the complexity and contradictions of the Soviet legacy on race.
ICON What was the purpose of the posters, both political and socially?
YF The purpose was propaganda, education, and re-education. They were designed to indicate to international audiences, in a very militant manner, that the Soviet Union was ideologically against racism and colonialism, and to educate and re-educate Soviet citizens who, for example, might have been carrying the virus of racism from the pre-revolutionary times. Russia was a part of the European cultural space and whatever problems the Europe might have had, including racism, was before 1917 a Russian problem as well.
ICON As a body of work, what do you think they say about the relationship between the Soviet Union and Africa?
YF Many, if not all, the artworks in the archive were created by artists who never left the Soviet Union so sometimes these designs reflect a level of ignorance and stereotypes. Often in posters that were supposed to depict internationalism and friendship between people of different backgrounds, the person in the centre is a white Soviet man “representing” the entire Soviet Union and leading other non-white people. Of course, such depictions were problematic because the Soviet Union was very ethnically diverse and representing the Soviet Union as white in official propaganda images is an issue. A patronising attitude is clearly visible in some of the posters.
ICON What effect did these posters have? Does it seem different in hindsight?
YF Within the Soviet Union, they made any official expression of racism and xenophobia unacceptable. It doesn't mean, however, that the Soviet Union was racism- and xenophobia-free – these still existed, but at the social level. It’s important, however, to see these images and especially Soviet anti-racism and anti-colonialism posters made from 1920 to 1930 in the context of 20th century history. These posters made the issue of racism in the US or Western colonialism in Africa an international issue at a time when the West had a deplorable record on race, while the Western governments tried to sweep it under the rug and treat it as a private matter. A belief in universality of liberation was a very Soviet thing.
Wayland Rudd Archive, courtesy of Yevgeniy Fiks