Third World Students in Czechoslovakia
research and curatorial project of Tereza Stejskalová
in collaboration with Zbyněk Baladrán
videoworks by Tereza Stejskalová and Zbyněk Baladrán
tranzit.sk, Bratislava, October 2016
The phrase “Biafra of Spirit” was coined by Louis Aragon in Les Lettres Françaises during October of 1968 to refer to the effect of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, namely, the crackdown of Czechoslovak intellectuals. Perhaps today we no longer see why the name of an African secessionist state in eastern Nigeria was used to describe the crashed reformist revolution in an Eastern European country. Yes, the two tragic events took place at about the same time. Yet, there is more to the Biafra of Spirit. Despite great cultural, geographical and political differences, the struggle of the Czechoslovak people and the people of Biafra were understood by many at the time as the very same fight – a courageous struggle for independence in the face of a much stronger oppressor. In other words, both Biafra and Czechoslovakia have become symbols, the importance of which exceeded their respective borders. And so we read in the Archives of the University of 17th November, the institution of higher education in charge of Third World students in Czechoslovakia:
“During the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s declaration of independence Biafran students have staged a symbolic “dance of feathers”, a traditional war dance, and with feathers they decorated the portrait of Dubček which was brought to the stage to help them reach victory.”
The word “spirit” in the phrase thus can be understood to refer not only to the catastrophe of the defeat and a new sense of despair but also something we could call internationalism, solidarity that surpasses geographical, cultural and political differences. It is in this spirit the project wishes to actualize – bring to the present – the often uneasy interaction with cultural otherness.
The sixties in Czechoslovakia were marked by the increasing number of Third World Students coming to Prague, Bratislava and other cities to study at the local universities. It was a result of the internationalist spirit of communist ideology and the state-imposed solidarity with the former colonies. The communist elites might have been internationalist; nevertheless, the arrival of students from Africa, Asia, Latin America created friction and misunderstanding in the postwar homogeneous Czechoslovak society cleared of most minorities that had lived there before the war. The encounter with the students from Asia and Africa was for most Czechoslovak citizens the first real encounter with cultural otherness. As noted by the voiceover in the 1968 documentary film Black and White by Krishma Vishwanath, an Indian student of film in Prague:
“Our grandfathers have encountered them as curiosities on display in a circus; our fathers knew them as soldiers of the American army, and we meet them everyday.”
Racism and xenophobia were a taboo in the socialist country. There was no public debate on the problems foreign students encountered in Czechoslovakia as narrated by the archival materials. They found no mention in the official media. It was in the realm of culture, through the socially critical cinematic image of the Czechoslovak New Wave (e.g. Drahomíra Vihanová’s Fugue on the Black Keys (1964) or Jaromír Jireš’s The Cry (1964)) that the tension first found its articulation. During the Prague Spring of 1968, University of 17th November started to publish a newspaper called Forum the contributors of which were the foreign students themselves. Here they could for the first time – until Forum was dissolved a year later – write openly about their experience in Czechoslovakia and reflect on their studies, their encounters with the local customs and people and, most importantly, on the political and cultural upheaval they were witnessing and in which some of them were directly involved.
Forum was also full of student poetry, essays and reviews on literature, cinema, art and culture of the various exotic countries. It was students skilled in poetic practice who represented an eloquent voice offering a perspective on history that to this day complicates our understanding of Czech and Slovak cultural identity. Most students who studied art in Czechoslovakia chose film as their means of expression. Besides significant filmmakers such as Nabil Maleh from Syria, Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina from Algeria, Karimi Nosratollah, Pati Pramod from India or Octavio Cortazár from Cuba, there were others whose destinies after they left Czechoslovakia remain unknown despite that they left behind remarkable films and documentaries. Their films are images of internationalism, of cultural exchange, and of the role Czechoslovak art played in the cultural emancipation of countries with colonial pasts. They pose never before asked questions about the influence these temporary residents had on Czechoslovak culture and politics. The exhibition at tranzit.sk is a political proposal to consider these links and exchanges as a significant legacy.
Biafra of Spirit
installation view at tranzit.sk, Bratislava (2016).
Photo (c) Adam Sakový.
Biafra of Spirit
installation view at National Gallery, Prague (2017).
Photo (c) Peter Sit.
It Won’t Be Long Now, Comrades!
Biafra of Spirit installation view at Framer Framed, Amsterdam(2017). Curated by Katia Krupennikova & Inga Lāce. Photo (c) Eva Broekema.