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Kata Krasznahorkai
Black Power in Eastern Europe.

Postcards from the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis collection (M0262)
Postcards from the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis collection (M0262) | Photo (detail): © Courtesy of Department of Special Collections, Stanford Libraries

Who shows solidarity with whom and how does not only have significant consequences for the ones to be oppressed, but also can be part of political instrumentalization. Angela Davis’ case and the double solidarity with her by artists and by dictators of Eastern European states in the 1970s is one striking example. Davis was made an icon of resistance by socialist governments in the former Eastern Bloc, but never openly expressed solidarity with those who were oppressed or dissented within Eastern Europe’s party dictatorships. It was oppositional artists in the socialist countries who criticized both Davis’ lack of solidarity, which might be explained by a lack of information in the beginning, as well as the hypocrisy of their government’s support. Both Erich Honecker and several non-state artists called for “Freedom for Angela Davis!” Yet while Honecker targeted oppression in the West, the artists sought to draw attention to their own oppression under the same slogan.  [1]  

By Kata Krasznahorkai

It was Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis’ doctoral advisor, who despite his general support of the solidarity campaign criticized Davis’ willingness to embrace the heads of state of the Eastern Bloc’s authoritarian regimes while countless political prisoners sat in jail there who had just as little chance of a just judicial process as Davis in California.  [2]  

East European expatriates, amongst others the Nobel-prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn accused Davis for blindness to the situation of Eastern European political prisoners and urged her to break her silence on this topic.  [3]   Davis has never analyzed or made this dilemma public. However, she continues to stress the enormous importance of solidarity campaigns. As it was solidarity that not only saved her life, but also showed the effectiveness of an organized mass solidarity movement concentrating on one person for the whole Civil Rights Movement.  [4]  

“Freedom for Angela Davis!” became the slogan of the first global solidarity campaign in the Cold War, which inspired a series of artworks and events. How, why, where, and with which consequences Davis’ image was deployed as propaganda —and what this meant for the Cold War—cannot be pursued in its entirety here.  [5]   Yet by highlighting this subject, it will be outlined here how the image of Angela Davis became both a political and an artistic icon. Through Stasi files in the GDR and Hungary it has already been analyzed how Angela Davis served as a figure of identification in art for both the state and subversive artists.  [6]  
However, a series of state-commissioned sculptures and paintings also had the iconic figure of Davis as their theme.  [7]  

Particularly in the Eastern Bloc, Davis’ image was omnipresent in all media in the years from 1970 to 1973: she stood for freedom, protest, and against racism —and showed the face of the “other America.”  [8]   DFrom the USA to Cuba to the Soviet Union, the slogan was an outcry against the injustice of the capitalist system, against the misuse of the judicial system, as well as against the oppression and discrimination of Black citizens of the USA. The state-prescribed solidarity with the Black Power movement in the Eastern Block was, however, a double-edged sword: on one hand it was official propaganda, on the other hand it served as camouflage for subversive artistic actions. For it was artists who stood up against marginalization and state oppression with the same slogan. Heads of state, like Erich Honecker, did not tire of repeatedly demanding “Freedom for Angela Davis!” But “subversive-negative” artists—as the state-security-diction called non-state artists opposing the socialist cultural policy—also called for “Freedom for Angela Davis.” However, these artists meant their own artistic freedom and the validity of universal human rights: including artists. The question is how the presence of a Black woman in Eastern European countries came, on one hand, to stand against racism, discrimination, capitalism, and social exclusion, but at the same time to stand for state propaganda, state oppression, lack of freedom of speech, artistic freedom, and state-prescribed solidarity.

The propaganda was apparently successful. Accordingly, in the GDR, for example, Davis’ release from prison, where she had spent almost two years on remand in custody on charges of supporting terrorist acts, was celebrated in 1972 as a success of the Eastern Bloc countries’ mass solidarity campaign. The sending of one million postcards to Angela Davis during her detention and regular press coverage was presented as a part of this success. But art was also part of the propaganda campaign. At the VII. Kunstausstellung der DDR [7th Art Exhibition of the GDR] from October 5, 1972 through March 25, 1973 at the Albertinum in Dresden seven works alone were exhibited that referred to Davis—also including a largeformat history painting of Willi Sitte, the long-standing president of the association. The publicly-owned film studio of the GDR, the DEFA, commissioned films to capture individual perspectives on Davis and a “solidarity exhibition” toured through the GDR. The slogan was: There is not any (institutional) racism in the GDR in the sense of the “anti-fascist struggle”—at least in theory.  [9]  

How the Black civil rights activist was portrayed in art and visual culture raises the question again on a visual level in comparison with the ideological one. The state deliberately employed iconographically-connotated superimpositions for its own propaganda goals: Black skin in chains that evoked the memory of slavery.  [10]   This manifested itself in numerous press images and posters showing Angela Davis in handcuffs. The historical comparison with slavery provided the terminology to describe the repression of civil rights activists and to criticize capitalism in the USA, which practices a kind of modern slavery based on racist and social discrimination. Davis described herself and was also termed by her supporters as “slave.”  [11]   America’s violation of human rights was an ongoing accusation from Eastern European States and Russia against the USA. However, Hungarian artists, for example, very quickly grasped that the official propaganda campaign could also be directed against government oppression in their own country. The rock band Illés, for example, dedicated their album Human Rights—an homage to universal human rights—to Angela Davis. Because of this, the record’s release was even possible in the first place, because despite the state enthusiasm for the liberation of Angela Davis, the topic of human rights was a taboo in Hungary at the time.

The reference to slavery and its terminology was also present in artistic engagement with Davis. Tamás Szentjóby staged an action together with Margit Rajczy on March 29, 1971 entitled Freedom for Angela Davis! in the Eötvös Klub of the Eötvös Lorand University of Sciences in Budapest. Szentjóby read James Baldwin’s letter to Angela Davis starting with the lines: “One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles. But, no, they appear to glory in their chains.”  [12]   This legendary letter referred to the handcuff photo of Angela Davis on the cover of Newsweek. Baldwin closed with a sentence about state despotism and violence in the USA: “For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”  [13]   Black activists called this practice that Baldwin described “white terrorism against a black body.”  [14]   But the cars that drove up in the night and collected members of the opposition were also well-known to the Eastern Bloc.

State repression in Eastern Europe has been widely orchestrated by domestic state security services. Solidarity actions for Angela Davis by non-state artists caused insecurities about how to handle them in the realm of state-security operative measures: on the one hand showing solidarity with Davis was official statepropaganda, but on the other hand it was also clear to the state security officers that these artists meant something else by demanding “freedom.” So, the actionreading Freedom for Angela Davis! from Tamás Szentjóby and Margit Rajczy has set the state security on alert and an informant was sent to observe it. In his report the informant first derisively reported on Miklós Erdély’s introduction entitled “On the Evil in Women [sic],”  [15]   followed by a seemingly detailed description of the action-reading with Szentjóby and Rajczy  [16]   This description does not say much about the action-reading. State security documents genuinely disinform about art, but they reveal how the state security tried to undermine art scenes in Eastern Europe and give an insight into the ideological background of these actions.  [17]   This “hidden” background of the action-reading had stroked the informant’s interest, and he summed up as follows: “It was Szentjóby, who could not be silenced.”  [18]   He goes on to explain:

“Then they [the audience] began to understand: Angela Davis was only a hook […]. The woman with the broom didn’t stand for the American system. She stood for the system in general. For the social order that needed to be destroyed, which oppresses with force those who rebel against it, wherever this social order may be and whatever this social order may be.”  [19]  

“Sárdi,” ÁBTL, M-35897/1, 179.

The informant contextualizes further: “The letter undoubtably expressed a negative opinion of American society.”  [20]   But he also points out that this is a double critique directed not only against America, but also against socialist society. When Szentjóby begins his action with the words of Baldwin “My Dear Sister,” who signed his letter as “brother James,” solidarity with Davis is also identification as a “sister” with her.

During the Angela Davis trial, and also after her release, leading political personalities from the Eastern Bloc rhetorically identified with her as a “blood relation” and described her as “one of us.” The media spoke of the “Black sister.” Political appropriation in the socialist camp stylized a kinship between white Eastern European men (both in the art scenes and at the highest political level) and the Black American woman. The death penalty in California, which threatened Davis appeared on the horizon of media images that showed her in handcuffs, since they were an iconic representation of the state’s violence against its own people. The Davis activism of the GDR and the Eastern Bloc deployed ideological weapons on a new level in the anti-fascist struggle: the young generation of Eastern European societies was targeted with the help of a rebellious, popular figure from the enemy camp, who represented the “other America” both visually and physically also through her skin color.

In the case of white men in a largely homogenous society, the identification with a persecuted and oppressed minority in their own country, and the exclusion from society, is certainly not comparable to the exclusion of African American citizens who experienced, and still continue to experience, discrimination due to racist motives and structures. The extent of the state reaction is not comparable either, because the systematic use of force against African American citizens by racist structures and motives bears no relation to state surveillance or interrogations, in which physical violence against the representatives of an Eastern European art scene was never used. The apparatuses of state security tried as far as possible to use the tactic of “prevention” and enforce repression camouflaged with subversive actions.

However, the analysis of this double identification by dictators and artists with Black civil rights activists shows that the solidarity of both artists and heads of state with Davis and other public figures of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA may shed new light on the bipolarity of Cold War ideologies and solidarity as an instrument of state propaganda. All sides involved have appropriated performative strategies and consciously deployed them for their own struggle: the governments in mass rallies of the GDR, the Happenings and Actions, as well as civil rights activists themselves. Performative strategies of critique can even be seen in the state security’s techniques of surveillance.

The dichotomy of double identification can be seen in the staging of solidarity. While Erich Honecker staged his expression of solidarity with Davis in mass performances, artists such as Szentjóby and Rajczy staged sit-ins, performative demonstrations, happenings and actions. Secret service measures initiated in Budapest associated this unique artistic action with a disproportionately high risk. But the greater “danger” came from the mass performances staged by the state itself for example in the GDR—some of which got out of control.

The renewed relevance of a readjustment of the relationship between state oppression and minorities can be seen both in the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA as well as in the growing repression in Eastern Europe of minorities and oppositional cultural acteurs in illiberal democratic systems. The myth that the USA controlled and financed dissidents and is supporting “hostile” minorities and cultural acteurs is maintained until today. Whenever resistance movements form in Eastern Europe, like, for example, in the Ukraine, or solidarity with refugees and minorities is called for, the rumor that it is a propaganda campaign significantly influenced by the USA is resurrected. This conspiracy theory, sown by different political actors is primarily intended to prevent solidarity with minorities and weaken resistance. But this also concerns other forms of solidarity, as they should be a matter of course for a diverse cultural landscape in the 21st century. For example, to be in solidarity with war refugees is considered “subversive” in Hungary today. With the criminalization, discreditation, and to some extent, the pathologization of artists and cultural workers in opposition to nationalist state propaganda, these cultural workers’ engagement with solidarity issues is massively under pressure. It is precisely those organizations and cultural workers who are responsible today for fostering and demanding publicly the freedom of opinion, press, and art, the independence of the judiciary, gender justice, and liberal democratic values as well as the universality of human rights. Thus, the central building blocks of a democratic civil society, which Angela Davis also continues to speak for today. But nationalist propaganda has also discovered the topic of “freedom of speech” for itself. It tries to instrumentalize the idea of solidarity with those who claim that their freedom of expression is supposedly restricted. But in reality, it is those who are only keen to spread hate speech, xenophobia, racism, and disinformation in the name of “freedom.” Artistic freedom is a core instrument for opposing such tendencies publicly. Solidarity with artists engaging against hate and state repression is solidarity with a free civil society.



Portrait Kata Krasznahorkai Portrait Kata Krasznahorkai | Photo (detail): private Kata Krasznahorkai is a Berlin-based art historian, curator, and author. From 2014 to 2019 she was a senior researcher at the Universität Zürich in the ERC-research project Performance Art in Eastern Europe (1950–1990): History and Theory. Since 2020 she is Gerda Henkel Senior Research Fellow at the Universität Zürich where she is working on the project Black Power in Eastern Europe. Most recently, she co-curated the exhibition Artists&Agents: Performance Art and the Secret Services at HMKV Dortmund with Inke Arns and Sylvia Sasse and edited the accompanying publication. Her monograph Operative Art History or Who is Afraid of Artists? will be published in fall 2020. Krasznahorkai was a curator at the Ludwig Museum Budapest and at the Collegium Hungaricum Berlin. She is a member of AICA, Chair of the Berlin-based association Critique & Culture e. V., and an Expert Advisor for the exhibitions of the Council of Europe.