The left-wing intelligentsia of the interwar years not only wanted to fight Fascism in Europe but were also against all forms of oppression, including that practiced by their own countries in the colonies. Anti-colonialist sentiment had been galvanized not only by the impact of the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the rapid advance of nationalist-populist movements, but also by such shocking instances of imperial violence as the Amritsar massacre in 1919, the shooting of Chinese protestors in Shanghai in 1925 and the French suppression of the Syrian revolt of 1925–27. Several solidarity campaigns were launched that included the “Hands off China” campaign of the mid-1920s in Britain and Germany, or a solidarity campaign prompted by the Meerut conspiracy trial of British and Indian trade unionists (1929–33). A number of influential organizations were set up in the late 1920s with the intention of channeling such sympathy into effective political action. In particular, the transnational League Against Imperialism and Colonial Oppression (LAI, Liga gegen Kolonialgreuel und Unterdrückung, Ligue contre l’impérialisme et l’oppression coloniale] was established in Berlin following a successful founding congress in Brussels in February 1927. The Communist-inspired LAI was only one of these organizations that challenged the status quo, others included the London-based India League, and the Ligue de Défense de la race Nègre [League for the Defense of the Negro Race], which was formed in France in May 1927. Almost all of these organizations had strong Communist support. Of course, the extent and cohesiveness of the anti-imperialist movements of this period should not be exaggerated. The Comintern’s radical anti-imperialist policies during the “Third Period” (1927–33) were accompanied by a highly sectarian and counterproductive attitude towards middle-class nationalist movements in the colonial world. Furthermore, it was apparent that Comintern’s concept of anti-imperialism was more about the fight against the capitalist world, especially, the United States, than it was about solidarity with the oppressed nations and peoples of the Global South. In a way, Communists also instrumentalized the topic of the colonies and the people oppressed by the colonialist powers the same way they were instrumentalized at such events as the Exposition coloniale internationale [International Colonial Exhibition] of 1931 in Paris, or the World Fair in Brussels in 1935 [Exposition Universelle et Internationale Bruxelles de 1935], which, despite its title Paix entre les races [Peace between the Races], happened to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the “independent” state of the Belgian Congo [État indépendant du Congo]. T. Ras Makonnen, one of the leading international black activists of the period, developed a burning animosity at this time towards the Communists and, indeed, all political movements not under black leadership.
The French Communist and the League Against Imperialism and Colonial Oppression organized the exhibition La vérité sur les colonies [The Truth about the Colonies] as a counter-exhibition to the Exposition coloniale, in which many surrealist artists also participated. While the exhibition eschewed all primitivist stereotypes, it had no qualms about taking indigenous objects out of context and in the interests of Communist propaganda, instrumentalizing them for purely ideological ends. Yet, the mid-1930s was also the period of the beginning of the Négritude movement in France and French-speaking colonies. To a certain extent, the movement came to the fore as a response to the concept of “Primitivism,” which became a buzzword in the circles of modernist artists and theoreticians, and which, in a way, was another form of misrecognition of the cultures from outside of Europe. In the formation of the Négritude movement the Harlem Renaissance also played a pivotal role: there was an intense transatlantic exchange between members of the Harlem Renaissance and artists, writers, and intellectuals from the French colonies who gathered in Paris. In Hungary, seeing that the country had no colonies, these voices were barely heard. Instead, “primitive art” became a source of inspiration for modernist artists and poets, as can be gleaned from the book written by Iván Hevesy, the versatile Hungarian art historian, which was designed by Sándor Bortnyik, one of the most important figures of the Hungarian avant-garde.
Attila József’s young poet friend, Miklós Radnóti visited Paris in the summer of 1931, when the French capital was buzzing with the Exposition Coloniale [Colonial Exhibition]. Europe was beginning to discover the art of Africa at the beginning of the 20th century, and this interest was still unabated in 1931. As Radnóti wrote to a friend, “There is now a great néger fever here in Paris and huge volumes of néger anthologies are being published.”* Radnóti visited the Exposition Coloniale on several occasions, and the exhibition got him interested in African literature and art. He wrote several “néger poems,” the best known of which is the Ének a négerről, aki a városba ment [Song of the Néger Who Went to Town, 1932]. In 1943–1944 he translated a volume of African tales, which, together with his previously unpublished translations of poems on similar themes, appeared in the volume Karunga a holtak ura, Néger rapszódia [Karunga the Lord of the Dead, Néger Rhapsody], in 1944, shortly before he was brutally murdered by Arrow Cross troops on the outskirts of Abda, a village in Western Hungary.
In fact, the Exposition Coloniale was an attempt to fire the “colonial imagination” by harking back to the ethnographic shows of the nineteenth century. However, after World War I, the depiction of the “savages” changed; the focus was now on the “civilizing mission” of the colonial masters and the “benefits” that colonialism brought for the subjugated peoples. The colonial exhibitions between the two world wars presented how the colonialist powers helped the colonized nations with modern infrastructure and education. Instead of the “savages” of the 19th-century world fairs, the cultures of the “natives” were on display. The aim was to communicate “colonial humanism” and the beneficial effects of the civilization process. The colonial exhibitions of the interwar period—Marseille in 1922, Wembley in 1924, Liège and Antwerp in 1930, Paris in 1931 and Chicago in 1933—as well as the national “trade exhibitions” held in Germany, Italy and Japan between 1922 and 1940 were enormous crowd pullers. At the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley (1924–1925), more than 27 million tickets were sold; at the Exposition Coloniale in the Bois de Vincennes (1931), more than 33 million. The colonial exhibitions “Paix entre les races” [Peace between the Races, Brussels, 1935), the British Empire Exhibition (Glasgow 1938), the Deutsche Kolonial-Ausstellung [German Colonial Exhibition, Dresden, 1939] or Mostra d’Oltremare [Overseas Exhibition, Naples, 1940] all tried to paint the picture of pacified empires and happy subjects.
The Exposition Coloniale in Paris drew fierce criticism from the anti-imperialist camp that organized its own counter-exhibition. The latter was initiated and financed by the Third Communist International. That the counter-exhibition, La vérité sur les colonies [The Truth about the Colonies] in the Palace of the Soviets, was hosted jointly by the French section of the Anti-Imperialist League and the French Communist Party is thus not surprising. Members of the African diaspora and Vietnamese activists were among those to take part, as was a group of surrealists centered around Louis Aragon. Colonialist politics was harshly criticized by a number of artists—also outside the circle of the surrealists. Even in a country like Hungary that did not have colonies, artists and writers understood that the problems they witness at home are closely linked to this problem.
*In Hungarian the word “néger” comes from the French “nègre”, but unlike its origin, during this period, it wasn’t derogatory and only meant “black man.”
This chapter will be available from May 15.
According to Attila József, “Marx’s conception of history reckoned with four facts when he took action. The principle of historical development (Hegel), the new industrial technology, the working class moving restlessly under its burdens, and the so-called utopian socialism, which had not a militant but a peaceful, not a proletarian but a general human character.” The socialism of Marxism, according to him was deeply rooted in humanism. In his poems, theoretical writings and editorial work, he was at the service of this “outmoded” idea (as his friend and colleague Pál Ignotus called it, which was at the time under attack from many quarters. Although he did not deal in depth with colonialism, the general tone of his work makes it clear that the poet spoke out against all forms of oppression. In fact, contrary to the spirit of the times, it was the “white man” who he most often considered as barbaric, as is evident in his poem to Thomas Mann. Attila József appealed to reason, but trusted in the power of love when he spoke of the uplift of humanity, as he did in one of his last poems, Ars Poetica.
to Andor Német
I am a poet – what do I care
for the art of poetry as such?
Once risen up in the sky, the star
of the night river’s not worth much.
I’ve done with the milk of story books;
time’s slow seeping will never stop.
I quaff great draughts of reality,
neat world with foaming sky on top.
Pure and sweet is the source – bathe in it!
Calm and tremulousness embrace
each other; from the foam wise chatter
rises with elegance and grace.
Other poets – what concern of mine?
Wallowing in fake imagery
belly – high and fired with bogus wine
let them ape out their ecstasy.
I step past the revels of today
to understanding and beyond.
With a free mind I shall never play
the vile role of the servile fool.
Be free to eat, drink, make love and sleep!
Weigh yourself with the universe!
I shan’t hiss my inward curse to creep
and serve the base bone-crushing powers.
The bargain’s off - let me be happy!
Or else all men will insult me;
growing spots of red will mark me out,
fever will suck my fluids dry.
I’ll not hold my disputatious tongue.
I cry to knowledge and to truth.
The century, watching me, approves;
the peasant thinks of me, and ploughs.
The worker’s body feels my presence
between two of his stiff movements;
for me the shabby youth is waiting
by the cinema at evening.
Where scheming villains are encamped to
attack my poems’ battle-lines,
regiments of brotherly tanks go
out and rumble abroad the rhymes.
I say that man is not grown-up yet
but, fancying he is, runs wild.
May his parents, love and intellect
watch over their unruly child.
translated by Michael Beevor
While the 1930s was the period of the “Harlem Renaissance” in the United States and the emergence of “Négritude” in France, the representation of Roma/Gypsy/Traveler communities in Europe was still—for the most part—in the hands of Gaje [non-Roma], who considered Romani art as folk art. But as sociologist, activist, writer, and educator Thomas Acton put it, this attitude has changed little during the last century: “The work of modern Romani intellectuals and artists is often contrasted negatively with something collective, traditional and repetitive called ‘folklore’ or ‘naive art’ as though anything produced outside of tradition must necessarily lack authenticity.” Artist, curator and theorist Daniel Baker, a Romani Gypsy born in Kent, England, is among those Roma artists and intellectuals who have persistently challenged this preconception during recent decades. An ongoing examination of the influence of Romani visual culture, both on Romani communities and on wider society, is at the heart of Daniel Baker’s work. By employing elements of a Roma aesthetic in his artwork, his intention is for us to look again at objects and narratives that might be overlooked in order to find meanings that we might not expect, as is in the case of his Emergency Artefact #1, created during the time of the refugee crisis in Europe. As he himself put it: “Emergency Artefact is crocheted from a single survival blanket, the type used for disaster relief or to conserve the body temperature of accident victims. By utilizing this material—usually intended for use in extreme circumstances—within the seemingly banal realm of hobby craft / domestic pastime, I intended to emphasize the precarious nature of safety and comfort that so many of us take for granted. This work also draws upon the shiny qualities that underpin the Roma aesthetic to speak of the contingent nature of the Roma experience where safety and stability are continually at risk.”