After something of a hiatus for refurbishment, ‘Things Fall Apart’ marks the return of Calvert 22. Part of the ‘Red Africa’ season, the show and its extensive list of collateral events address the changes that faced parts of Africa after the end of the Cold War. The exhibition follows on from previous projects which explored the way socialist countries like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia attempted to support and engage with developing nations throughout the world as they began to move away from their colonial past. Much of the work on display uses film as the basis for this investigation, while also negotiating the blurring of the line between ideological solidarity and propaganda.
Previous exhibitions at Calvert 22 have typically oscillated between an archival, documentary approach on the one hand, and a more explicitly visual/fine art perspective on the other. True to form, much of the work in display here suggests a museum as much as it does a gallery, giving the exhibition a sense of being strongly grounded even while so much of it speaks to the kind of grandiose posturing and cynical geopolitics synonymous with the Cold War superpowers and their allies.
Perhaps one of the strongest juxtapositions of the whole show is between two video works created by Alexander Markov and Milica Tomic. Markov’s work consists of incredible film footage of Soviet leaders cultivating the relationship between the USSR and emerging independent nations like Ghana, Congo and Nigeria during the mid-twentieth century. Tomic’s piece meanwhile builds on the photography and film work of Stevan Labudovic, a Yugoslav filmmaker who was sent in 1959 to support the Algerian struggle for independence by establishing a film and photography school for Algerian partisans, giving voice to those oppressed by the system they were fighting. Both suggest a jostling for influence while also making material contributions to the emerging independent political movements.
Tomic is also part of the Travelling Communique project alongside Armin Linke and Doreen Mende. The ongoing initiative explores the idea of political friendship, represented here by documentation of the first Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) held in Belgrade in 1961. In the downstairs space, curators Radovan Cukic and Ivan Manojlovic from the Museum of Yugoslav History explore related territory with a display culled from the Presidential Archive of Josip Broz Tito. The images document his social and political activity across a period of over thirty years.
Elsewhere, Tonel’s ambiguous installation charts the history of Cuba’s relationship with the USSR while Jo Ractliffe’s photography offers a glimpse into contemporary Angola - post-civil war - referencing leaders like Fidel Castro and Leonid Brezhnev as implicated parties to the 27-year long conflict. A large body of work by Onejoon Che meanwhile examines North Korea’s relationship to Africa via the Mansudae Art Studio’s public sculptural designs.
The exhibition doesn’t pull its punches but still manages to maintain tension by leaving the audience enough room to approach the images at face value, before the interplay between them brings an altogether darker and more critical awareness to the fore. It’s a welcome homecoming.