Special Issue: Art and Race in Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe

Introduction to the Special Issue

This special issue gathers scholars, artists, and critics who examine the relationship between art and race in a region not commonly associated with that issue – Central and Eastern Europe. Most of the investigations presented here are recovery projects, efforts to pay close attention to artistic narratives and works that received little attention in their own time or have been forgotten with the passage of time. These authors ask how contemporary artists have understood racial categories, and how race makes itself visible in artworks and films. The impetus of our special issue was provided by, but should not be limited to, the recent rise in interest in issues of racial and social justice, and specifically the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. And while issues of racial justice and ethnic identity are certainly a major concern in contemporary Central and Eastern European societies—concerns currently highlighted by the plight of non-European refugees for whom Eastern Europe is a waystation on their way to the northern part of the continent—this special issue also aims to cast a more historical glance at issues of race and its representation in Eastern European art.

While historical and anthropological accounts of nations and subregions of the former East have begun to explicitly focus on the roles race plays in understanding cultural identity,(See, for example, the various approaches taken in Marius Turda and Paul J. Weindling, eds., Blood and Homeland: Eugenics and Racial Nationalism in Central and Southeast Europe 1900–1940 (Budapest: CEU Press, 2007); Catherine Baker, Race and the Yugoslav Region: Postsocialist, Post-conflict, Postcolonial? (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018); Lenny A. Ureña Valerio, Colonial Fantasies, Imperial Realities: Race Science and the Making of Polishness on the Fringes of the German Empire, 1840–1920 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2019).) art historical and art critical writing on the region has only just begun to seriously take account of race. However, the gradually growing number of conferences, dissertations, and artistic projects that recognize Central and Eastern Europe art as a racialized phenomenon indicate the direction of the field. At the same time, the persistence of contemporary art exhibitions and biennial pavilions focused on issues such as migrancy, ethnographic collections, and indigeneity demonstrate that artists from the former East are also reckoning with racialized representations, inequalities, and patterns of discourse—even if they do not always explicitly frame their engagements in terms of race.

Many of the contributions to this special issue are interested in constructions of racial Otherness during the time of the Cold War, a time when Eastern Europe’s internationalist commitments produced real-time encounters between these country’s traditionally majority-white populations and people from other, non-white hemispheres. The relatively scarce visual evidence, in art and the media, of that encounter becomes particularly meaningful before the background of the purported color-blindness of the countries of actually existing socialism, a color-blindness that this special issue interrogates.

As the article by Kata Krasznahorkai shows, representations of Blackness provided a welcome—and also problematic—identificatory foil for the aspirations of a young generation of reform-minded intellectuals for whom Angela Davis, specifically, came to embody the confluence of racialized Otherness and communism. Ksenia Nouril’s interview with artist Yevgeny Fiks about his project The Wayland Rudd Collection—which comprises an expanding archive and participatory archive of images of Soviet-era depictions of Africans and African Americans—examines other aspects of the ways that Blackness was visually coded during state socialism, and the importance of recovering the evidence of these representations. Tereza Stejskalová analyses international student films produced at the Prague Film Academy (FAMU), tackling racism as the unacknowledged, yet ubiquitous, condition of Czechoslovak state socialism’s internationalism. Examining another—more recent—use of filmmaking to understand how race and lived experience intersected in the former East, Alexandra M. Thomas looks at Ines Johnson-Spain’s documentary Becoming Black, the filmmaker’s attempt to understand her own identity as a German/Togolese woman. Considering different phenomena, Tomasz Basiuk’s consideration of contemporary artists from Poland who incorporate racialized imagery in their work shows the challenges of navigating different paradigms of Otherness and racial, geographic, and sexual identities.

The recognition of race and its relationship to creating and interpreting art has only become more essential as right-wing populism surges across the globe, including in many countries in Central and Eastern Europe. It is more crucial than ever to interrogate the codification and reinforcement of “whiteness” as an inalienable condition of what it means to be European, or to produce European culture, and to deconstruct the idea of certain groups as incompatible racial Others, construed as foreign to the region and its identities. Finally, the urgency of racial justice as a global struggle has implicated not only artists but also art critics in the collective work of challenging racist ideas and actively undoing racist social structures.

This special issue makes no claims to being exhaustive—certainly not in its geographic purview nor in terms of the methodological approaches to the question of race on display here. Rather, it represents a recognition of the complexity of race and the necessity to approach it from a variety of viewpoints—to see its relationship to artistic meaning as one that is still developing and that requires sustained thought and honest interrogation.

The articles in this issue will be released over the next two months. You can find links to these articles below:

ARTMargins Online Editorial Collective
Amy Bryzgel, Iva Glisic, Raino Isto, Zsuzsa László, Susan Snodgrass, Sven Spieker.