The twelve photo collages that make up Gavin Jantjes’s A South African Colouring Book (1989) are a burning indictment of the apartheid system. Reminiscent of a bureaucratic stamp, the word ‘dead’ is printed in capital letters on a photo-facsimile of the mass burials after the Sharpeville massacre. Another sheet reproduces the artist’s South African ID card, categorising him as “cape coloured.” A strip of yellowed paper, attached to one of the prints with paper clips, quotes Frantz Fanon. The intensity and indignation of this piece – combined with its analytical flair – has much in common with Fanon’s exposure of colonialism in his book The Wretched of the Earth (1961). In both cases, it is not just a matter of pointing out injustice, but of understanding the mechanisms by which the oppressed experience subordination to the hierarchy as the only available option, no matter how brutal or undignified.
Jantjes’s work is one of the highlights of the exhibition Actions of Art and Solidarity at Kunstnernes Hus, curated by Katya García-Antón, director of the Office of Contemporary Art Norway (OCA). The exhibition presents a comprehensive collection of historical and contemporary works of art that protest or analyse discrimination, racism, violence, and oppression – works that continue to insist that a world of greater justice is within reach. Several pieces are monumental in scope, such as Beatriz González’s Mural para fábrica socialista (Mural for a socialist factory, 1981), an homage to Guernica presented on exactly the same length of wall where Picasso’s work hung when it visited Kunstnernes Hus in 1939.
Roughly speaking, the works on display at Actions of Art and Solidarity can be arranged along three axes, each representing an artistic as well as a political strategy. There are works that might be called “monumental symbols,” such as the aforementioned work by González, Antonio Dias’s red flag hanging on the flagpole outside Kunstnernes Hus (Bandera (Flag), 1972), Hanna Ryggen’s weaving H.K.H. Atomsen (1951) protesting nuclear weapons, and Gitte Dæhlin’s sculpture of a woman carrying something resembling flames on her back (She who Carries the Memory of this Earth, Where does this Earth Carry Her?, 1981–83) alongside several others. These are often large and absorbing artworks that rely on universally decipherable and densely laden metaphors as well as heroic portrayals – symbols for rallying around, not unlike the aforementioned Guernica.
The second axis comprises artists who have allied with each other or their fellow citizens, meaning that their works not only represent a specific cause or struggle, but also a commitment to collectivity as a political strategy. The Indian artists’ collective Sahmat is extensively represented with prints, video, and sculptures, including a tent made of colourful banners. Some of the banners quote iconic socialists and revolutionaries, including Martin Luther King Jr., Bertolt Brecht, and Che Guevara. Others condemn various sectarian acts of violence in India. Slogans and quotes are equally plentiful in the Solidarity Patchwork (2021), a massive wall hanging that brings together more than a hundred embroidered contributions from activists associated with The Norwegian Solidarity Committee for Latin America, a pro-democracy organisation rooted in the protests against Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship in Chile. The piece includes logos of various political parties and organisations, slogans in Norwegian and Spanish, and more decorative elements depicting animals, flowers, and landscapes. Like Sahmat’s tent, it resembles a distilled protest rally; its liveliness and aesthetic appeal flow from the sum of contributions, rather than any single element.
The works grouped along the third axis – in my opinion, the most engaging – emphasise an analytical approach. They are concerned with understanding power relations as well as strategies for organising politically, also addressing forms of organising that fail to meet their goals. Bouchra Khalili’s video installation The Tempest Society (2017) shows a group of Greeks and refugees in Athens coming together as allies on a theatre stage. Inspired by a similar initiative in France during the 1970s, the film depicts an alliance of solidarity between those who were most affected by the EU’s economic austerity policies in the wake of the credit crunch in 2009. Which is to say, it shows an antidote to the European right’s divide-and-conquer strategy. Naeem Mohaiemen’s three-channel video installation Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017) was, like Khalili’s work, featured at Documenta 14. It too, concerns parties who are weak individually but see opportunities for achieving influence through cooperation. With the Cold War as a backdrop, greatly assisted by archival footage from the 1970s, Mohaiemen shows how socialist leaders, mainly from countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, tried to create a diplomatic bloc that could oppose American, and to some extent Soviet, influence. Interestingly, the film shows that socialist and anti-colonial goals in the Third World did not always coincide and goes on to argue that the rise of international Islamism was a result of this impasse.
Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s Probably Chelsea (2017) is a clever piece, much shown and discussed. It would come as no surprise if it becomes canonised as one of the most important political artworks of the 2010s. It consists of a swarm of faces hanging from the ceiling at shoulder height and made of 3D-printed silicone. Each face is unique, although they are all based on algorithmic interpretations of genetic material from the American whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who in 2013 was convicted of leaking classified defence documents. The intent is to show, in almost didactic fashion, that algorithmic interpretations of genetic codes are an unreliable technology; the same DNA sequence can give rise to vastly different results. Probably Chelsea enters into a conversation with Jantjes’s work, described at the start of this review. The two are placed right next to each other, as if to argue that biotechnological developments pave the way for new totalitarian regimes more sophisticated than those that rely on threats of violence. Thus, this exhibition, while keeping its attention firmly fixed on the 20th century, dares to speculate ever so slightly about the future and what it may bring.
Actions of Art and Solidarity explores what art is capable of when put to political use. From the contributions, it is clear that art can create symbols to rally around, and that art can seek to activate political communities. Works of art can also explore how political actions function, historicise political projects of the past, and speculate about possible futures. Unlike Bouchra Khalili’s solo exhibition at Oslo Kunstforening and Fotogalleriet last autumn, Actions of Art and Solidarity does not present an argument about what solidarity is, or a set of criteria which define a given action – inside or outside the realm of art – as an act of solidarity.
With Katya García-Antón as director, OCA has – at least since 2015 – put particular emphasis on contemporary Sámi art, prompting the Norwegian art scene to expand its horizons and increase the general level of awareness and knowledge of Sámi culture and cultural modes of expression. To claim that this exhibition is about reaffirming this effort as an act of solidarity may be a stretch, but probably not too far off the mark either. Perhaps it serves as a reminder that OCA’s focus on Sámi art (which is often activist) is part of a larger international effort to shed light on alternative and overlooked art histories, with the ultimate goal of getting rid of art’s canon altogether. The contradiction that emerges is that individually political struggles are unavoidably instrumentalised when merged under the banner of lofty institutional objectives.