Nonaligned Modernism


Bojana Videkanić’s book Nonaligned Modernism: Socialist Postcolonial Aesthetics in Yugoslavia, 1945-1985 represents an important contribution to understanding the entanglements of artistic, cultural, economic and political histories in Yugoslavia. It articulates a body of knowledge on nonaligned cultural politics in the idiosyncratic context of socialist Yugoslavia. Although the country started its post-WWII history as a member of the Soviet pact, it radically changed its political and cultural position when Josip Broz Tito uttered the well-known ‘no’ to Stalin in 1948, thus ending of close relations between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. This became clear when the Cominform published its Resolution on the Communist Party of Yugoslavia and accused it of anti-Sovietism. Soon afterwards, Yugoslavia requested assistance from the USA. Nonetheless, Tito was not satisfied with positioning Yugoslavia as another US satellite in the Cold War rivalries and was looking for a third way. Diplomatic relations between Yugoslavia and Ethiopia were established in 1952, and in 1954 Tito began visiting the countries of the so-called Third World in Africa and Asia, fostering political, economic and cultural relations. Yugoslavia supported liberation movements in countries including Morocco, Tunis, Algeria and Indochina (the support that we still know too little about), which fomented its good reputation among peoples who suffered the backlash of their colonial histories. The historical role of Yugoslavia in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was sealed off with the establishing of the NAM in Belgrade in 1961, drawing on the principles agreed on by the twenty-nine countries that participated at the Bandung Conference in 1955.

These political events provide the backdrop and the foundation for what Videkanić defines as an aesthetic-political practice of Nonaligned Modernism. In recent years, there has been a growing interest in Eastern Europe and elsewhere to rewrite the history of modernism. Because of the historical context of Yugoslavia’s rejection of Stalin and formation of NAM, it established an idiosyncratic frame for its own form of socialist Modernism, which is signalled by Videkanić’s syntagm. As Videkanić outlines in her book, Yugoslav socialist Modernism also included workers self-management which was introduced in 1949, and the ideology of brotherhood and unity which was articulated through the liberation movement in WWII, and which enabled a shared transnational post-WWII political space in the Yugoslav federation. The 2018 MOMA exhibition Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980 highlighted workers’ management socialism and the federative aspects as important feature of distinctive Yugoslav cultural and political position within the plural space of socialist modernisms.

By underpinning the attribute nonaligned, Videkanić highlights the unique position of Yugoslavia in the world of socialist modernisms that has recently been tackled by many authors. I believe that Videkanić’s central positioning of nonaligned makes the comparison to similar efforts in the Eastern Block irrelevant – namely, the attribute nonaligned positions the study within a newly opened frame. Therefore, instead of analysing Videkanić’s book as one of many tackling socialist Modernism, we should approach it as a pioneer work in that newly established field of Nonaligned Modernism. My approach here will be to examine Videkanić’s book through the specificities of that term, rather than through the specificities of Yugoslav socialist modernism in comparison to other socialist modernisms. The term “nonaligned modernism” was first used by the artist and journalist Armin Medosch who, in his book New Tendencies. Art at the Threshold of Information Revolution (1961-1978), analysed the Yugoslav idiosyncratic position which made possible the global artistic movement the New Tendencies that commenced in Zagreb. The French critic Catherine Millet described the New Tendencies as one of the most important artistic movements after WWII, and it was exactly Yugoslav nonaligned position that was one of the crucial factors for the New Tendencies significance, because it enabled the artistic encounters between the East and the West. Inspired by theoreticians of visual culture such as Chika Okeke-Agulu, who coined the term ‘postcolonial modernism’, or Esther Gabara who used the term ‘errant modernism’, Videkanić expands Medosch’s notion and re-aligns it with post-colonial tendencies of rewriting narratives of various non-hegemonic modernisms.Drawing on Frantz Fanon’s analysis of psychological aspects of Western colonialism, Videkanić suggests that the production of subjectivity cannot be separated from its economic effects. The idiosyncrasy of the Yugoslav position was precisely in the dance around the twentieth-century geopolitics, avoiding traps of neo-colonial apparatuses by providing resistance via the NAM. And that dance was not tiptoeing, but rather boldly jiving, at least through the 1960s and partly 1970s – as long as Tito’s charisma worked its magic.

Videkanić’s work is primarily dedicated to explaining the idiosyncrasy of Yugoslav position and the way it worked within, formatting complex negotiations between art, culture, and politics. Unlike Armin Medosch who put an emphasis on the relevance of information and computing – in particular the significance of the aesthetics of information through the term “cybernetic socialism” – Videkanić’s analysis focuses on major cultural events (to which three out of four chapters are devoted) and Yugoslav international cultural affairs (to which one chapter is dedicated).

Chapter 1 “From Socialist Realism to Yugoslav Alternative Aesthetic, 1945-1954” focuses on the first official exhibition of the Yugoslav Union of Fine Artists in 1949, when the Union was the most important artist organization in the country. That exhibition is taken as an example of Yugoslav attempt to utilise socialist realism as an official theoretical, cultural, and political category. It was the first and simultaneously the last national exhibition of socialist realist tendencies. Describing this period as one “of zealous aesthetic dogma”, Videkanić emphasises how the exhibition provoked heated discussions in the public sphere. In the early fifties, the leading intellectual and writer Miroslav Krleža articulated his radical vision of Yugoslav art that should cease to imitate both Western and Soviet aesthetic types and claim its own artistic and cultural sphere. Videkanić quotes Stanko Lasić who proposed Krleža being the Yugoslav version of Frantz Fanon:

“Krleža’s response is similar to that of Frantz Fanon: if we stop being an object and become a subject if we stop being a periphery and become centre if we come back to ourselves without regard for gods that created us, that complete negation of Europe and its modern fetishes is in actuality a complete affirmation of the SUBJUGATED and REJECTED; in the coming to oneself the DISPOSSESSED has to LIVE THROUGH and EXPERIENCE total rejection of the Other which has relegated him to subhuman. That is the first moment of such dialectic. If the subjugated culture does not live through such dialectic, it will never be able to constitute itself as a subject.” (p. 35)

This is practically the core of affirmation of Yugoslav subjectivity and Videkanić astutely states that Krleža’s writing proclaimed the end of socialist realism in Yugoslavia. Comparing Krleža to Fanon acts in this chapter as a successful discursive figure of promoting Videkanić’s expansion of the term that she took over from Medosch.

Chapter 2 “Coexistence, Cultural Diplomacy, and the Ascent of Socialist Modernism” focuses on two examples that pinpoint the shift in paradigm that took place in the 1950s, after the Tito-Stalin split. The first example is Yugoslavia’s participation at the Venice Biennale, while the second is the Museum of Modern Art’s (MOMA’s) large-scale exhibition presentation in Yugoslavia. “The Americanization of modernism” is a simplified but not untrue statement of what was going on in Yugoslavia once its institutional framework became firmly attached to the market of commodities dominated by the West. Not to wonder that some intellectuals, like Sveta Lukić, indicated that socialist modernism was a “marriage of convenience between art and political establishment”. (p. 72) In that sense, Yugoslav ongoing presence at the Venice Biennale (with just a couple of exceptions, in 1948 and 1974) offered a safe ground for socialist modernism to complement the Yugoslav non-aligned position, while the MOMA’s exhibition “Modern Art in the United States” presented that Yugoslavia in 1956 was open to the influence of the USA on cultural, economic, and political life. The clear and significant influence of US modernism raises questions about Yugoslavia’s nonaligned status, although not as significant as some aspects of MOMA’s 2018 exhibition suggested.

Chapter 3 “Nonaligned Modernism in the Making. Building Parallel Transnational Culture” tackles international cultural diplomacy and initiatives such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as well as numerous actions taken by the Yugoslav Committee for International Cultural Relations. The chapter provides insights on cultural and educational exchanges and actions that enabled Yugoslavia to claim its political agency and sovereignty. Videkanić importantly locates Yugoslav anti-imperialism and antifascism as origins of its non-aligned politics by reflecting on its colonial past under Austro-Hungarian rule.  This is significant because the Austro-Hungarian rule in the region – including its historical legacy – are rarely considered colonial. The destiny of the Balkans as divided between imperial forces is the fate that this part of Europe is still haunted by, which is especially evident in the European treatment of refugees on the Bosnian-Croatian border. Yugoslavia and NAM gave the world hope of peaceful coexistence, whereby the islands of Brijuni nearby the city of Pula acted as the Third World’s Yalta. Anticolonial transnationalism fought not only a political battle but also a cultural one, struggling against what Tran Van Dinh called “cultural imperialism”, as Videkanić also points out. One of the strong pillars in that fight against cultural imperialism and fostering cultural solidarity was the formation of the Non-Aligned News Agency Pool (NANAP) which was to be based in Yugoslavia and to which the Yugoslav news agency Tanjug gave full support. On the occasion of the Twenty-First General Conference of UNESCO that Yugoslavia hosted in Belgrade in 1982, the country “cemented its role as both a mediator and a cultural broker.” (p. 147) However, NAM created its own network of exchange, whereby Videkanić sees the exhibition that came from Senegal in 1965, which represented a survey of Senegal, Mali, and Guinea art, as the most ambitious among the projects that travelled to Yugoslavia. Next to it, NAM artists were regularly represented at Ljubljana Biennale and used to take part in art colonies (especially in Počitelj, Strumica, and Prilep), president Tito and his wife Jovanka visited museums and art venues at every visit to NAM countries as well as hosted NAM leaders in cultural institutions in Yugoslavia, promoting the cultural capital of art while promulgating peaceful existence and collaboration. Building cultural institutions was also part of that plan, so the Museum of African Art and Culture was opened in Belgrade in 1977, and the Gallery of Non-Aligned Countries opened in Titograd (today Podgorica, Montenegro) in 1988. Videkanić concludes this chapter by suggesting – following Viyad Prashad – that the “Third World was a project” (p. 175), and I would add that it was not only unfinished but rather violently interrupted project.

Chapter 4 “The Ljubljana Biennale of Graphic Arts. Articulating Nonaligned Modernism” concentrates on the case of the Ljubljana Biennale of Graphic Arts. Established in 1955 and one of the oldest of its kind globally, Videkanić follows its development with the goal to raise potentials of the nonaligned modernist aesthetic. Initiated at the same time as documenta in Kassel and the Biennale of Mediterranean Countries in Alexandria, the Ljubljana Biennale of Graphic Arts successfully found its place on the international art map. When Tito became its official sponsor in 1959, its status was confirmed. Tito was very satisfied with the fact that many artists from various countries were represented and that modernist artworks were on display. As Videkanić points out, the approach that defined that Biennale was both of cultural management, so present and unavoidable in the world of art today, and cultural diplomacy. The consequences of that cooperation have just begun to be taken in consideration, and that is one of the strongest points that Videkanić makes.

Videkanić uses clear prose and historical evidence to strongly advocate for the continuing relevance of both the Third World and the Yugoslav project. This book reflects on the artistic, cultural, economic, and political histories of Yugoslavia within NAM, raising questions about the future of anticolonial and antifascist movements, questions which our contemporaneity proves relevant and worth articulating. At the same time, it provides the reader with a very interesting case study on the visible and less conspicuous connections among art, cultural diplomacy and management, economy, and politics, which is much needed in times when it seems that top-down policies are the most determining in the production of contemporary art and culture. Videkanić’s book follows the traces of suppressed histories and ideas which served the world with the promise that another (and better) world was possible at the times when the Cold War represented a palpable nuclear threat to humanity. These traces can serve us in today’s world as well, the world in which we spent more time on the machines that are based on coltan mined by children in Africa than with our fellow humans. What do we want and where do we go as humankind is an epistemic question lingering at the backbone of Videkanić’s interdisciplinary work that draws our attention to the South-North axis of the contemporary world and adds to the growing interest on NAM as an indelible and substantial part of the histories of anticolonial struggles that, alas, have not become redundant.

Nonaligned modernism, as Videkanić articulates it, is not just a specific political configuration, but a node of culture, cooperation, economy, education, and politics, whose rhizomatic reflections we have just started to comprehend as relevant for our present condition, whereas many emancipatory forces have been consigned to the past: (post)modernism, (post)socialism, while the colonial has been granted with the same prefix to render the monstruous colonial practices invisible. Videkanić’s contribution is not so much in turning socialist modernism of Yugoslavia in differentiae specificae, but in unleashing the potential of that nod whose European locus was cut off once when Yugoslavia was pushed into war of unprecedented dimensions and atrocities within the so-called modernism in Western world. In that sense, what is important is to look for the pluralised modernism, rather that vivisecting ‘other’ modernisms off the assumed (and by military force exorcised) dominant Western modernism from which supposedly all ‘other’ modernisms were derived. Videkanić points exactly to that direction: non-aligned modernism is about setting up a new subjectivity, positioned through culture, economy, and politics as inseparable categories in creating that subjectivity and sovereignty that followed. That subjectivity was drafted upon the notion of anti-colonial, and not post-colonial – and that is the differentia specifica that matters here.

Sonja Leboš
Sonja Leboš chairs the Association for Interdisciplinary and Intercultural Research ( She was a researcher and production manager at grey)(area – space for contemporary and media art ( from 2014-2021. She is a regular contributor to Vizkultura and Vox Feminae, which are among the leading independent media platforms in Croatia.