The Last International

Bouchra Khalili’s exhibition at Fotogalleriet and Oslo Kunstforening raises questions about what solidarity means at a time when revolutionary movements have largely been defeated.

Bouchra Khalili, Foreign Office, 2015. (Headquarters of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine). Courtesy of the artist and Mor Charpentier, Paris.

Moroccan-French artist Bouchra Khalili’s double exhibition The Nordic Chapter at Fotogalleriet and Oslo Kunstforening speaks of international solidarity between various anti-colonial revolutionary movements in the 1960s and 70s. It is a melancholy and sombre exhibition, nostalgic for a time when public intellectuals such as Frantz Fanon, Jean Genet, Jean-Luc Godard, and Angela Davis championed solidarity and the exchange of knowledge across national revolutionary movements. Wearing its Marxist ideology on its sleeve, the exhibition is aimed primarily at those already committed to the cause. To my mind, this ‘exclusivity’ is a strength because it enables the works, especially the films, to raise questions about what solidarity means to the political left today, at a time when revolutionary movements have largely been defeated.

At Fotogalleriet, the focus is on the French author and poet Jean Genet and his US tour in support of the Black Panther party during the spring of 1970. In the documentary Twenty-Two Hours (2018), Quiana Pontes and Vanessa Silva, two African American women, narrate Genet’s travels in the USA with the aid of montages of photographs and slides, TV footage, and excerpts from speeches. The storytelling duo is joined by Doug Miranda, the former Panther charged with organising the tour. Miranda’s appearance is described as a testimony, but one that does not exclusively consider specific actual events; he also describes Genet’s personality traits as well as the revolutionary methods, politics, and ultimate demise of the Black Panther party. Miranda calls Genet a “comrade-brother,” someone who was willing to expose himself to real risk and testify against injustice that did not directly affect him. This outlines an ethical distinction between testifying against injustice and trying to speak on behalf of others.

The resurgence of Black Lives Matter as an international reform movement earlier this year has put the issue of solidarity and its definitions on the agenda, making Khalili’s dive into the Panthers’ fight against racism and police violence feel particularly relevant. Is the sharing of black boxes on social media an act of solidarity? Khalili’s film does not directly answer such questions, but points toward a definition of solidarity that requires a willingness to take risks and to engage in systemic criticism, not just symbolic statements of support or condemnations of individual incidents.

Bouchra Khalili, Twenty-Two Hours, 2018. Video still. Courtesy of the artist and Mor Charpentier, Paris.

Oslo Kunstforening presents the film Foreign Office (2015), which addresses meetings undertaken between prominent revolutionaries in the late 1960s in Algiers, the capital of Algeria, which had recently become independent after more than a hundred years under French colonial rule. Overlapping stories are told by two young students who begin the film by marking party offices and ‘embassies’ on the city map. Here one can find representatives of revolutionary groups from Africa and the Middle East, but also from Europe, Asia, and North America. A photo of a group of African revolutionaries – among them Nelson Mandela (African National Congress), Agosthino Neto (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), and Amílcar Cabral (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) – is used as a launchpad for stories about meetings and exchanges of opinions between the men in the picture, and stories about some of their fates, too.

Photographs of empty stairwells and dilapidated hotel lobbies and offices, all sites for revolutionary activity in Algiers, fill the walls of the kunstforening. This creates the impression that during the 1960s, the revolutionary melting pot in Algiers was approaching the prototypical dream of Marxist solidarity: all the revolutionaries of the world gathered under one banner. The silkscreen print The Archipelago (2015) displays the outlines of the office buildings of many of the parties also represented in the film and photographs, as if they were land masses silhouetted against a blue sea. However, when the same format is used at Fotogalleriet on a corresponding print listing Norwegian organisations that have contributed to international solidarity, the approach is less successful. Norwegian organisations such as LO (the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions), Arbeidernes Hjelpefond (the Norwegian Workers’ Aid Fund) and the Fellesrådet for det Sørlige Afrika (Joint Council for Southern Africa) have supported African liberation movements, but the scope of their support and its significance are not described in the exhibition. The “Nordic Chapter’s” contribution to international struggles remains somewhat vaguely described in the exhibition.

In Twenty Two Hours, Doug Miranda acknowledges that the Panthers failed in their fight against institutional racism and the capitalist system, but he also asserts that the party’s historical experience can inspire new models of solidarity today. The Nordic Chapter is built upon a dialectical understanding of revolution and revolutionary activity: most revolutions will fail, but are nevertheless necessary steps on the road to victory over capitalism. Solidarity can offer valuable lessons, even in defeat.

Bouchra Khalili, The Speeches Series, 2012–13. Video still. Courtesy of the artist and Mor Charpentier, Paris.