20 September 2022 - 3 responses

Early next month, the Oakland Museum of California opens the exhibition Angela Davis: Seize the Time. Originally presented at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, the exhibition showcases a massive international visual campaign in support of Angela Davis, the philosopher and American black activist, during her imprisonment and political trial in the early 1970s. Based on the presentation of a large amount of archival material, the project investigates the role of visuality in her trial, and how the visual symbolism of “Angela” as an icon of American Black radical resistance was made. At the same time, it shows how thousands of people around the globe have stood up to protest racial inequality in her name.

Thanks to her membership of the Communist Party USA, she was one of the few political activists from the West who were positively presented in the Socialist Bloc (as some of the posters in the exhibition also show). Although Angela Davis was not as popular in socialist Czechoslovakia as she was in East Germany (an exhibition on Davis’s political role in the Eastern Bloc was held last year at the Kunsthalle Dresden), there was also a political campaign in support of her in the early 1970s. The Czechoslovak Women’s Council, the main federal women’s organization in the country, sent a letter of protest to the U.S. Embassy in Prague demanding her release. In the fall of 1971, Angela’s younger sister, Fania Jordan, visited Czechoslovakia, and her public meetings were widely covered by the press. The same was true a year later, when Angela was released and made a stop there during her tour of the Soviet Union.

After I visited the exhibition at the Zimmerli Art Museum this spring, I wrote a review of it for the Czech magazine A2. In the same issue of the magazine, there was also a review of the first ever translation of Angela Davis’ book into Czech (“Are Prisons Obsolete?” 2003; translation “Jsou věznice překonané?,” 2021). Both texts mainly presented the political and social context of their respective topics – in the first case the black freedom movement in 1960s America, in the latter the mass incarceration in contemporary American society. Titled “Symbol of Progress and Scourge of Reaction”, a polemical response to the reviews appeared on a Czech literary website two months later, accusing the published reviews of a left-wing political bias. The main point of the “i-kanon text”, sarcastically using the rhetoric of former official socialist authorities, was to show the alleged idealization of Davis (who, according to the author, was not so “innocent” as people see it) and the deliberate defence of the “criminal” socialist regime, which I should have made.

The fact that the author of the above mentioned “response” was Michael Špirit, an assistant professor in the Department of Czech Literature and Comparative Literature at the most prestigious Czech university, shows a major pattern in the Czech academic and cultural community, which still largely holds conservative anti-communist positions. Trapped in the past, their main concern is to interpret and criticize the various manifestations of the socialist regime, which they see in black and white. Unlike the exhibitions at the Zimmerli Art Museum or the Kunsthalle Dresden, whose framework was meant to encourage reflection on the legacy of the black power movement and female empowerment and the possible future development of their emancipatory efforts, Michael Špirit’s stance continues to go round in circles even thirty years after 1989, arguing that Angela Davis was a puppet of the socialist regime and that the her trial, unlike those in socialist states, was democratic. What can I say?


By: Marianna Placáková

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