The starting points, NAM from the perspective of cultural politics, the role culture played in the NAM, the importance which was placed in cultural politics and its embedded emancipatory content, the art solidarity networks within the movement, and the active role public played in culture.
Key questions: What to learn or extract from the movement today, what kind of future strategies for creating a different kind of international constellations in the field of culture? What are the possibilities for debating the »space« of NAM in our current situation, with a diversity of once prosperous anticolonial thoughts and ideas? How to interconnect the fields of culture and political engagement as well as solidarity?
The NAM had made cultural equality very early on, more specifically at the Cairo conference in 1964, one of their most important principles. That meant, on the one hand that a number of African and Asian countries have sought to regain the artifacts/works of art which were taken out of their countries during the colonial times and put in various museums in New York, London, Paris and on the other, that people who were denied their culture in the past had started to realize the emancipatory role culture played in their lives or with other words – its transcultural potential. Cultural development of decolonizing countries became as important as their economic development. But the fact was that this culture was not supposed to be just for the elites anymore, but that in the new constellation arts and culture should have been accessible to all.
Already in 1956 UNESCO conference in New Delhi, shortly after Bandung conference representatives of so-called Third World countries (or “the South”) dedicated itself to promoting alternative routes of cultural exchange from those in the Second and First World. For example, these kinds of alternative routes could be observed in the new waves of biennials that sprung up in the countries of the Non-Aligned movements: Alexandria, Medellin, Havana, Ljubljana, Baghdad... It was a way to pursue politics by other means and alternative modes of cultural exchange that clearly shown attempts of cultural independence after the national independence.
Yugoslavia fit well into the discourse of the non-alignment (it was a key member from the beginning). Socialist revolutions had a lot in common with anti-colonial and anti-imperialist revolutions, which made the Yugoslav case of emancipation in the context of socialism particularly significant. The Non-Aligned Movement provided an opportunity for positioning Yugoslav ideology and culture globally on the basis of the formula: modernism + socialism = emancipatory politics. As A.W. Singham S. Hune and put it: “ It was Tito who has revealed to the Afro-Asian world the existence of a non-colonial Europe which would be sympathetic to their aspirations. By bringing Europe into the grouping, Yugoslavia helped to create an international movement.”
The concept of non-alignment became the main component of Yugoslavia's foreign policy very early on. President Tito traveled to various African and Asian countries on so-called “Journeys of Peace” (for example his famous visit to Western African countries on the Galeb (Seagull) boat in 1961) to support the independence of post-colonial states. These travels subsequently acquired a strong economic dimension and created new spheres of interest and exchange among countries of the non-aligned movement. This intense economic collaboration at first included Yugoslav construction companies working on projects in Africa and the Middle East (Energoprojekt, Industrogradnja, Smelt etc.), companies that had sprung up as a consequence of the fast urbanization of Yugoslavia after the Second World War. Constructing companies provided everything, “from design to construction”, including architecture and urban planning. One of the first such cases was the building of the Kpime Dam in Togo in 1961, after Tito’s visit to the country. Some younger generation architecture scholars are currently looking into the development of this kind of “non-aligned modernity” from a new perspective. Dubravka Sekulić researched the ways Yugoslavia and the decolonized countries in Africa became unexpected allies in the process of articulation of how to be modern by one’s own rules i.e. how to direct one’s own modernization process. Such examples, as mentioned, were the architectural and urban-planning projects in various African and Arab non-aligned countries, like Energoprojekt's Lagos International Trade Fair (1974-77); where architects combined Yugoslav socialist modernism with tropical modernism and the local contexts were eagerly accepted in the newly independent non-aligned countries and went hand in hand with Achille Mbembe’s words: “It is important not only to generate one’s own cultural forms, institutions etc. but also to translate, fragment and disrupt realities and imaginaries originating elsewhere, and in the process place those forms in the service of one’s own making.”
Yugoslavia extensively used its specific geopolitical position not only in the economic sense but, as we have seen, also in culture. I already mentioned architecture as a state promoted vehicle of new modernist tendencies compatible with the idea of creating a new socialist society. These ideas were also in line with similar issues that non-alignment frequently addressed; such was the question of cultural imperialism. At the 6th Conference of the Non-Aligned Countries in Havana, Josip Broz Tito spoke of a successful aspect of the non-aligned movement: the “resolute struggle for decolonization in the field of culture”. Interpreted from today's point of view this struggle also included new kinds of historicization, rewriting historical narratives or even writing history anew, or in other words: the emphasis was put on questioning intellectual colonialism and cultural dependency. The idea was therefore not only to study the Third World, but to make the Third World a place from which to speak!
From the late 1950s on Yugoslavia had special relations with the newly independent countries in Africa, and in a specific way all these networks led to a “recolonizing” of Africa by means of socialism’s newly established connections in the non-aligned movement: exchanges of all sorts happened in the field of the arts and education (students from non-aligned countries came to study in Yugoslavia), museums acquired various artifacts (The Museum of African Art opened in Belgrade in 1977 as a result of this ideological and political climate) - not only the ethnographic museums but also museums of history, such as the former Museum of the Revolution of the Yugoslav Nations, which became the steward of a large number of artifacts – gifts President Tito received on his travels in the non-aligned countries. This era also saw the “birth” of a specific travel literature about “exotic places”; the most prominent example is Oskar Davičo, a surrealist writer and politician, who visited Western Africa on the occasion of preparations for a non-aligned movement meeting. He wrote a book about the journey called “Black on White« in which he analyzed the African post-colonial societies of that time. His analysis is probably one of the most interesting interpretations of the new world order from two perspectives: from the position of an artist/writer and from the position of somebody who himself was coming from a non-aligned country.
There is also the case of the Ljubljana (International) Biennial of Graphic Arts which started already in 1955 Moderna galerija, Ljubljana and this biennial was in a certain way linked to the non-aligned cultural politics. The founder of the biennial was Zoran Kržišnik, a long-time director of this institution, who saw the biennial as a possibility “for a projection of values such as the presence of freedom, modernity, democracy, openness and so on in society.” The biennial was set to introduce abstraction in the art world in Yugoslavia and to prove that even “fine art can be an instrument of a slight liberal opening.” Kržišnik pointed out in one of his interviews that he showed President Tito that the biennial of graphic arts was actually a materialization of what was being referred to as openness, which was then seen as non-alignment.
One important aspect of cultural politics in the time of the NAM was the aspect of solidarity movements and networks in arts and culture, which was especially present in the 1970s: mostly as political engagement against imperialism, apartheid, supporting struggles for independence and so on.
Such example would be, if observed retrospectively, Museum of Solidarity / Museo de la Solidaridad, established in 1971 in Santiago, at that time non-aligned Chile. The concept of this museum was a common idea of two people: president Salvador Allende and Brazilian art critic in exile in Chile - Mario Pedrosa - and this idea, later on, expanded into an international network of artists, critics and curators including Harald Szeman, Dore Ashton, and others. After an open letter of president Allende to the artists of the world 1971, donations from all over the world started to arrive in Santiago, 600 works alone in the first year of museum's existence in heterogeneous mixture of styles: Latin American social realism, Abstract expressionism, Geometric style, Informel, more experimental proposals and conceptualism. The act of donation was a political action in itself and considered as a concept of political and cultural solidarity with Chilean Socialist project. This museological experiment ended abruptly with the military coup in September 1973.
Subsequently, the entire 1974 Venice Biennial edition was dedicated to Chile, setting up murals instead of exhibitions, and organising performances and concerts. This edition was perhaps the largest and most resonant cultural protest against Pinochet's rule at that time.
Or another case, an International Art Exhibition for Palestine, which opened in the spring of 1978 in Beirut. Organised by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), it was comprised of around 200 donated works from nearly 30 countries. The collection was destroyed in 1982 by Isreali military during the attack of Beirut.
But I am not mentioning these cases as some kind of exoticisms of the past even though the movement is today more or less considered a political anachronism. Also, we should not be entrapped in the nostalgic notion of the movement itself, as we know there were many states in the NAM that were quite far from the principles the movement promoted. Additionally, the concept of the nation states, identitarian politics, and exclusive national cultures interpreted from today's point of view could also be problematic.
And what to do about the fact that Syria, Pakistan, Libya and the majority of African states are still members of the NAM?
Nevertheless, there are numerous positive aspects of the movement that should not be forgotten; the movement envisioned forms of humanism that took as their starting point the life worlds of those peoples and societies forcibly placed on the margins of the world economic and political system. The struggle against poverty, inequality, colonialism in the world system as well as trans-national solidarity, which took many concrete forms, could be part of a reconsideration of the history and legacies of the NAM today when colonialism again is more than evident. However, this reconsideration alone is not enough, it is necessary to find common points of resistance and struggle against exclusion from equal participation in decision making, against exclusion from free access to common goods and resources, against exclusion from free movement, against exclusion from participation in knowledge production, against exclusion from using common heritage and so on.
A modest proposal is that this could also be done, in the field of culture, through various networks, alliances, museum federations like Internationale, knowledge production tools like Glossary, solidarity movements, and also not only consisting of cultural operators but joining forces with social movements, grass root organizations, migrants, and many others.