Conference review: Axis of solidarity: Landmarks, Platforms, Futures // Tate Modern 23-25 FEBRUARY 2019

Stepping onto the stage in the febrile atmosphere created by a packed audience of academics, writers, researchers, curators, artists and activists, Tariq Ali presented the opening keynote speech at Tate Modern’s recent conference Axis of Solidarity: Landmarks, Platforms, Futures. Having been described as one of the most important critical thinkers of our time, a Marxist journalist, activist and polemicist, those who have not heard Ali speak before might have expected fiery rhetoric. What he did deliver in a measured but insistent tone was a layering of literary references by authors such as Rudyard Kipling and Berthold Brecht, withering critique of western hegemony and exploitative neo-liberal economic policy and autobiographical reflections that radiated his unerring commitment to the emancipation of those described by Che Guevara as, “we, the exploited people around the world”.

Organised by the recently opened Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational, the Institute for Comparative Modernities at Cornell University and the Africa Institute , Sharjah and 2 years in the making, the conference sought to reflect on the international solidarity movements that emerged in the 2ndhalf of the twentieth century during the process of decolonisation in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Over the course of 3 days speakers and delegates mapped out and explored a pantheon of now famous and lesser known landmark events, conferences, festivals and the explosion of new creative manifestations in literary and visual artistic arenas that emerged during this heady, hopeful period of decolonisation.

In a nod to the venue, Ali briefly remarked on the congruence between new artistic movements and political consciousness and upheaval to set up the ground for later presentations exploring the relationship between the ethos and aesthetics engendered by these movements as seen in journals such as Lotus, Souffles and Black Phoenix and revolutionary posters created by OSPAAL and Iran in the late 1970s. He pinpointed the Suez crisis and Vietnam war as foundational events in the formation of solidarity alliances and the Bandung conference held in Indonesia in 1955 as the “Ur” conference that unleashed a powerful spirit of collective solidarity between newly independent or emergent nations. Presentations followed by Professor Lydia Liu from Columbia University focusing on the Tashkent conference of 1958 consisting of African and Asian writers from 36 countries hailed at the time as “a step towards the reunification of the disrupted soul of mankind”. Anne Mahler form Virginia University looked at role of the Tricontinental conference of 1966 in Havana as the originator of the Global South political imaginary.

Utopian as all this might sound, Tate’s conference was not all about hazy reminiscence and vague hagiography. Amidst a general nodding of audience heads and warm applause, Ali bade an early farewell to the conference to address a street demonstration protesting the Bank of England’s refusal to hand over billions of dollars belonging to Venezuela until a new government is installed! In so doing Ali prefigured what became a central concern of the conference, the merits or otherwise of large conferences as representing state/institutional voices vis-a vis grassroots organisations, non-institutional voices.

One of the strengths of the conference was the extent to which the speakers and audience critically drew out the contradictions, challenges fractures (and erasures) that characterised the formation of political and cultural alliances. As one of the conference highlights, artist Naeem Mohaiemen’s presentation entitled “The Shortest Speech” took a wry look at the 1973 Non-Aligned Conference held in Algiers in 1973 by splicing filmic moments together often to comic effect. A ripple of laughter spread across the audience at the sight of a thinning crowd and cigar chewing Fidel Castro looking bored, translation headphones firmly on the desk during the speeches of others. What caused this, asked Mohaiemen – an excess of solidarity? To whom are they all speaking? Themselves, no-one?

Pointing out the hierarchy of nations exposed by the conference order of speaking – Castro, Tito, Nasser on the first day - Mohaiemen inverts it to focus on the speech given on the last day by Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Sinnatharnby Rajaratnam. As the architect of ASEAN that put Singapore at odds with the ethos of the Non-Aligned movement, Rajaratnam is shown breaking with protocol, criticising the length of speeches, pointing out the conference reliance on audio-visual equipment from the “first world” to end with the provocation: ‘’we all agree on what we are against, but what are we for’’? Amusement became mixed with agitation as a member of the audience responded to Mohaiemen by questioning the value of any large conference to suggest that the speakers would have been better advised to, “take the conference money from Tate” and use it to speak at more effective grassroots activist meetings. He didn’t seem to notice that Tariq Ali was managing both.

Similar schisms were explored with reference to exhibitions. Anthony Gardener of Oxford University focused on the Ljubljana Graphics Biennial of 1955. Instead of focusing state centred performances and “consular curating”, Gardener looks behind the scenes, at the artworks as a cipher for individual artistic agency, the exhibition’s formal layout, the manoeuvrings of the protagonists and informal relations. Seen from these vantage points there is more than a hint of “strategic cosmopolitanism” and “messy relations” Likewise, Dina Ramadan focused on the Alexandria Biennial of 1955 particularly the participation of UAR (United Arab Republic) to conclude that it held simultaneously “the doing and undoing of solidarity”.

The making and sustaining of solidarity is clearly a difficult task made even more difficult perhaps by the inability of speakers and delegates alike to define solidarity itself. The conference revealed different ontologies of solidarity movements underpinned as they are by the poles of radical humanism and militancy. Is, asked the director, artist and writer Jihan El-Tahri, ISIS an alternative form of solidarity grounded in a very different pantheon of landmark events and platforms? Does this mean the Tate conference was in vain? It is of course easy to pick holes in its organisation. At the closing session one delegate strongly castigated Tate’s apparent erasure of women and unfiltered indigenous voices.[1]

There may have been and still are fractures in the alliances forged by solidarity movements, but as this conference makes evident their history is scarred by the intense interplay between conferences, performance, text and image. The new “worldings” they articulated maybe have been fragile but as Gardener suggested they have remained potent. The Tate conference was also timely. As Tariq Ali stressed at the start, “we are living in bad times”. Recolonization, Neo-Imperialism and exploitative western Neo-Liberal economic policies and the now horrific double standards displayed by western governments towards others (Venezuela/Saudi Arabia is a case in point) and the stifling of dissent within the west suggest that the struggle of the voiceless is far from over and maybe we can learn from the strategies of the past. As to the role of art, it was noted several times that the image of the gun was once dominant in capturing the revolutionary cadences of the time. If as Ali suggested the radical support once engendered by solidarity movements has shaded into a passive form of empathy, then maybe the last word could go to the artist Farid Belkahia quoted by speaker Holiday Powers of Cornell University, “a motivational canvas is not so different to a bullet”.


[1]Tate explained that they worked very hard to reach out to as wide a range of speakers as possible. No abstracts from women or indigenous peoples was turned away. It was suggested that this may represent a “genuine gap” in those studying solidarity movements. The final line-up of speakers reflected those received. Salah Hassan the main convenor from Cornell University also noted that Angela Davis, co-founder of Black Lives Matter was originally scheduled to speak but had to withdraw.