1 Million Roses for Angela Davis

Albertinum, SKD, Dresden, October 10, 2020 – May 30, 2021

1 Million Roses for Angela Davis opened in early October 2020 at the Albertinum in Dresden, and unfortunately closed almost two weeks later because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the entrance area the visitor finds a video of an interview with Davis (also printed in the catalog) where the activist-philosopher aptly describes the potential of art in the context of historical transformation, emphasizing its epistemological value: “Art can produce knowledge, knowledge of the sort that does not occur with a simple political speech. Art is at the forefront of social change. Art often allows us to grasp what we cannot yet understand.”(Interview with Angela Davis, “A Question of Memory: A Conversation with Angela Y. Davis,” in: Kathleen Reinhardt (ed.), 1 Million Roses for Angela Davis (Milano: 2020), 176.) The Dresden show about the reception of Davis in the GDR in the late 1960s is based on this premise.

The sensual, emotional level of art beyond rational science, which provides access to knowledge and creates a space for reflection, is the key to this show. Although I could only “walk through” it digitally, I quickly understood that, like a prism, the show opens a wide variety of issues of great importance and actuality, giving rise to many impulses and reflections, many of which will need to remain unconsidered here. Instead I want to focus on the project as an examination of the possibilities for archives to grapple with the history of the GDR. Here the exhibition argues from the perspective of what Michael Rothberg has called “multidirectional memory,”(Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory. Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009).) emphasizing the entanglement of the US Black Power movement with the history of the GDR, an involvement that is by no means easy to parse.

Exhibition View 1 Million Rosen für Angela Davis,“ © SKD, photograph: Laura Fiorio

At the center of the large main space, from which the visitor has access to the side rooms and the staircases to the other floors, the exhibition traces the events surrounding the the effects of what the Washington Post called “Angelamania” using panels, newspaper and television reports, as well as art and literature, not to mention the many postcards addressed to Davis by the citizens of the GDR.

Exhibition View 1 Million Rosen für Angela Davis,“ © SKD, photograph: Laura Fiorio

Of course, this review cannot give a full account of the Cold-War divide, nor can it reexamine the Marxist connections of the Black Power movement or the limits and contradictions of revolutionary practices in the former East Germany. Yet, some background may be useful. In 1968, Davis had joined the Che-Lumumba Club, a communist cell of activists exclusively for African Americans, thus becoming a member of the American Communist Party (CPUSA). She became involved in the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee in April 1970, campaigning for the release of the “Soledad brothers,” George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette. In August 1970, George Jackson’s brother, Jonathan, committed the courthouse robbery in Marin County, California, killing four people. Unbeknownst to Davis, the weapons used for this crime were registered to her, Davis, as a result of which she ended up on the FBI’s list of ten most wanted criminals and was imprisoned in New York City in October 1970.

Exhibition View 1 Million Rosen für Angela Davis,“ © SKD,photograph: Laura Fiorio

After her arrest became known in the GDR, widespread expressions of solidarity with Davis occurred in November, 1970. For Davis’s 27th birthday in 1971, one of the largest state-organized support campaigns occurred in the form of the postcard campaign “1 Million Roses for Angela Davis.” For International Women’s Day, on March 8, a folding poster for signatures was printed in a women’s magazine to demonstrate the GDR’s anti-racist solidarity. Already on January 19, a postcard template with the words “1000000 roses for Angela!” had been published in the daily newspaper of the Free German Youth (FDJ), the official youth association of the GDR. However, it was not only this template that was used by school groups, brigades and private people to send congratulations and support to the imprisoned Davis. Many personal postcards were also sent to Davis by private GDR individuals, many of which are now preserved at Stanford University.(See Jamele Watkins, “Drama and the Archive. Solidarity Campaigns with Angela Davis in Europe,”  in: Kathleen Reinhardt (ed.), 1 Million Roses for Angela Davis (Milano: 2020).) After her acquittal on June 4, 1972, Davis visited East Germany as a representative of “the other America,” as the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, to whom she was close, called itself. She was received and greeted with adulation not only by the gerontocratic GDR leadership, but especially by the citizens of the GDR, who stormed the tarmac upon her arrival at the airport in East Berlin, thrilled to see their idol. At the 8th Art Exhibition of the GDR, held from October 1972 to March 1973—the official survey of art in the GDR, held every five years in Dresden—a cult of remembrance of Davis broke out, with several of the portraits seen in the Dresden show on display.

In the GDR, socialist realism followed Lenin’s principle of reflection inasmuch as it was less about “reflecting” reality than about projecting a utopian future with the new, socialist human being, the worker, at the center. Portraits of political heroes such as capable workers or brigade leaders served not only as role models, but were also used as awards and guaranteed inclusions into art history. For example, Christoph Wetzel and Heinz Wodzicka painted Davis as a young university professor and elevated her to a symbol from which one can learn (Portrait Angela Davis, 1973; Angela Davis, 1972).

Heinz Wodzicka, Angela Davis, 1972 © SKD, photograph: Laura Fiorio

Meanwhile the well-known realist painter Willi Sitte showed his partiality for Davis in his painting Angela Davis and her Judge (1971) which iconically makes her hover godlike in an aureole above her judge, whose head consists of a series of canons.

With her show, curator Kathleen Reinhardt practices a “historiography of entanglement” that sees in what is regional (GDR-related) the influence of another history, namely the African-American one. In the exhibition’s entrance area, the library of Contemporary &” with books by Davis herself and by others regarding her main themes—racism, feminism, post-colonialism, critique of the US prison system—thus acquaints the visitor with the show’s historical framework. At the center of the main room and its archive, the exhibited art works spill out towards the upper levels based on associations with Davis’s main social and political concerns, and creating an emotional link with her. Contemporary artistic positions and new productions by artists from Ethiopia, Mozambique, the Netherlands, Russia, Canada and the USA offer a variety of approaches to Davis’s interest in biopolitics and racism. Especially the way some exhibits examine the repression practiced in prison, past and present, helps reveal the historical trajectories.

In the entrance area, Lawrence Abu Hamdan in his 2018 video Walled Unwalled shows how one “East” refers to another. The acoustic analysis of the sounds heard by former prisoners of the Syrian Saidnaya prison, which the artist addresses in a lecture performance, prove not only to be instances of torture and execution, they also reveal that the GDR exported its own repressive system in the form of prison architecture.

Exhibition View 1 Million Rosen für Angela Davis,“ © SKD, photograph: Laura Fiorio

Nasan Turs installation of 15 photographs of cell doors from the former state security prison in Dresden’s Bautzener Strasse—in a room that is exactly the size of a prison cell—on the other hand allows visitors to experience firsthand being imprisoned by the GDR. In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East German artist Gabriele Stötzer, in her video Zelle 5 situated a few steps from Tur’s work, performed her own experiment of sleep and food deprivation in order to deal with her imprisonment by the GDR authorities in 1976.

The Dresden show blends political activism with highly personal reactions to current events, ranging from personal letters to Davis to propagandistic press photos that show Davis with GDR leader Erich Honecker. In specially provided visitor books the viewers are invited to write down their own memories of that time, comparing them to the material they have seen in the show. Reinhardt thus unfolds a new relationship to the past that puts the continuity of the prevailing tradition to the test and devotes itself to what has been forgotten and disregarded. Above all, she demonstrates the relevance and significance of past fragments for the present. Like an archeologist, she searches for buried remnants of the past that allow a creative, emancipatory and self-empowering moment in the present time. In order to understand this context, one needs to be conscious of the post-reunification period, a process that largely dismissed the GDR as a totalitarian regime without addressing the complexity of its history. Art in the former GDR thus became all the more important for negotiating memories. The recent, highly publicized Bilderstreit (See Karl-Siegbert Rehberg, Paul Kaiser, eds.,  Bilderstreit und Gesellschaftsumbruch. Die Debatten um die Kunst aus der DDR im Prozess der deutschen Wiedervereinigung (Berlin: B&S, Siebenhaar, 2013).), which in many ways mirrored the difficult relationship between East and West Germans to date, was waged around the idea, widespread in the West, that art from the GDR is not art, since it was created in a totalitarian state. For sociologist Karl-Siegbert Rehberg(Ibid.), this dispute is representative of the broader rift between East and West Germans around the distortions and injustices against East Germans in the post-reunification period.

Exhibition View 1 Million Rosen für Angela Davis,“ © SKD, photograph: Laura Fiorio

With her exhibition, curator Kathleen Reinhardt and her colleagues perform what can be considered a “tiger’s leap into the past”(Walter Benjamin, Über den Begriff der Geschichte, (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2010).) In Walter Benjamin’s famous phrase, an approach that understands the present as a resonating body of the past. It becomes clear that a genuine concept of identity cannot be obtained, and that identity is a process in constant becoming, characterized by the gaze of the Other, the appropriation, attribution and instrumentalization on a variety of levels. The politicians of the GDR instrumentalized Davis to demonstrate their cosmopolitanism and anti-racism, and to cover up the everyday racism in the GDR that many guest workers and guest apprentices from socialist brother states such as Cuba, Mozambique or Vietnam faced on a daily basis. Meanwhile the critical voices inside the GDR in their turn appropriated Davis’s views to express their demands for reform.  As we learn from the interview included in the exhibition catalog, Davis was aware of all this: “I know that the campaign around my freedom in the GDR represented not only a demand for my freedom. It also represented, from their vantage point, a way to focus the energy of young people in the GDR who did not necessarily want to conform to the existing political status quo—let me put it that way. For them, I represented something radical and revolutionary, but at the same time, I represented anti-imperialist energy, anti-capitalist protests.“(Interview with Angela Davis, “A Question of Memory: A Conversation with Angela Y. Davis,” in: Kathleen Reinhardt, ed., 1 Million Roses for Angela Davis (Milano: 2020), 182.) However, Davis never explicitly championed the interests of critics or those who were oppressed or persecuted in Socialist states, which earned her criticism and also highlights the contradictions and aporias of her revolutionary practice.

Aleida Assmann sees the greatest potential in Michael Rothberg’s method of “multidirectional memory” in the moment of solidarity: “Rothberg starts from such collisions of memory, introducing his concept of ‘multidirectional memory’ to subvert this destructive logic. His alternative to mutual repression and denial is a linking of different historical traumas. […] Rothberg’s methodical innovation consisted of seeing a potential for solidarity where others had seen only clash and conflicts.” (Aleida Assmann, “Transnational Memories,” European Review, 22 (2014), 551.) Almost 40 years ago the people of Dresden stood in solidarity with a black philosopher, an act that in Dresden’s current racially inflamed climate seems almost impossible to imagine. By opening up a pathway for dealing with a difficult past, 1 Million Roses for Davis allows for renewed reflection, not least in the face of right-wing populism that tries, not only in Germany, to appropriate the revolutionary moments of the 1960s and of the year 1989 for their own agenda. Reinhardt’s show points to how different strands of national history can be rewoven into a transnational historiography that is neither simply East German nor American. The exhibition invites people from East Germany to perform a renewed act of solidarity and to learn from the US Black Power Movement–which empowered itself by appropriating and retooling negative stereotypes–how to deal with their own denied past.

For Gregorio D’Clouet Hernández

Constanze Fritzsch
Constanze Fritzsch holds a doctorate from the Catholic University in Eichstätt-Ingolstadt. She is a former assistant curator at Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden. Currently she is working on a research project on post-socialist transformation in Eastern Europe.  She has also been on the academic staff at the Bauhaus University in Weimar and worked as an academic assistant at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art in Paris. She has curated exhibitions in Germany, France, and Croatia.