East Germany's love affair with Angela Davis

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East Germany's love affair with Angela Davis
In a photo provided by Laura Fiorio, from left: Carrie Mae Weems’s out-of-focus photographs of Josephine Baker, Lena Horne and Katherine Dunham, and “Watery Ecstatic” (2003) by Ellen Gallagher, in “1 Million Roses for Angela Davis.” An exhibition looks back at a point in the 1970s when the philosopher and activist was a state-promoted hero behind the Iron Curtain. Laura Fiorio/Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden via The New York Times.

by Kimberly Bradley

DRESDEN (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Philosopher, feminist and Black liberation activist Angela Davis is everywhere right now. In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests around the world, TV networks, magazines and newspapers have turned to her, drawing on her decades of activism and scholarship to explain the current moment.

But it’s not her first turn as a household name: In the early 1970s, Davis was a global intellectual star, especially behind the Iron Curtain, and, perhaps surprisingly, in East Germany in particular.

“1 Million Roses for Angela Davis,” a dense, heady exhibition running through Jan. 24 at the Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau in Dresden, takes Davis’ cult status in East Germany as a starting point.

The show combines documentary and archival elements — like photographs and East German posters depicting Davis — with more than 50 artworks dealing with issues like racism, resistance and propaganda.

“1 Million Roses” was meant to open on May 1, but was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. In the interim, the events set off by the killing of George Floyd have made the show even more relevant and urgent.

From 1970 to 1972, East Germans sent letters by the boxful to Davis, then a registered member of the U.S. Communist Party, as she awaited trial in a California jail on charges of conspiracy, murder and kidnapping; the “million roses” were part of a state-backed postcard campaign, with printed or hand-drawn red flowers, to show solidarity and support to Davis on her 27th birthday in January 1971. (She was found not guilty, and released in June 1972.)

Missives to this “heroine of the other America” — some carefully handwritten by children, others typed by members of worker collectives — have been selected by curator Kathleen Reinhardt and displayed in vitrines throughout the exhibition. In the Kunsthalle’s main exhibition hall are East German posters from the time, calling for “freedom for our Angela Davis.” On them, Davis’ image seems messianic, her voluminous Afro like a halo.

Also on view are photographs of Davis’ visit to East Germany as a state guest after her acquittal, when she was greeted by 50,000 people at East Berlin’s Schönefeld airport. In one photo, a beaming Davis meets the country’s leader, Erich Honecker; in another, she falls into the outstretched arms of Erika Berthold, a youth opposition leader.

The archival material captures something about its period, but at times appears almost sentimental. The artworks, however, take up many issues that remain unresolved, like America’s relationship to racism.

The most searing is Arthur Jafa’s 2016 video “Love is the Message, the Message is Death,” which contrasts harrowing footage of police violence against African Americans with happier scenes from everyday Black life, civil-rights marches and sci-fi clips. Its Kanye West rap-gospel soundtrack becomes a pulsing, powerful sonic backdrop to the show.

Ellen Gallagher’s “Watery Ecstatic, 22 05 N 159 30 W” also evokes Black trauma, but with a more optimistic ending. A drawing created by cutting into cream-colored paper, it imagines a mythical underwater empire, built in the Atlantic by the spirits of African children who didn’t survive forced crossing in slave ships and who transformed into marine creatures; the piece creates an alternate, if fantastical, Black history and future.

Some works, like Russian activist and artist collective Chto Delat’s “Learning Flags,” hung high on the walls of the museum’s main hall, are about the vivid visual language of international resistance. Each flag depicts a historical left-wing figure, like American poet Audre Lorde or Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire, and agitprop slogans like “Stay Rude, Stay Rebel” in colorful satin.

Incarceration, too, is an important, recurring motif: Davis coined the term “prison-industrial complex,” and has connected the idea to slavery. In the video installation “Walled/Unwalled,” a video filmed in the former recording studios of East Germany’s public radio broadcaster, Lawrence Abu Hamdan stoically explains how sound was used to torture inmates in a Syrian prison.

But another prison-themed piece, Gabriele Stötzer’s “Zelle 5” (Cell 5), a 1990 video filmed in a cell where the artist was held in the late 1970s, highlights the hypocrisy of East Germany’s public campaign to liberate Davis, while the country’s own dissidents were locked up and its population was subject to pervasive surveillance and control.

There are many threads to unravel in “1 Million Roses,” but its most prevalent theme is time, and how its passing changes ideologies and reshapes memories.

In a remarkable group of paintings made in the early 1970s, East German artists painted or drew an idealized Angela Davis as a captive revolutionary, a pariah on trial, a wistful utopian, and a serious scholar and professor. These works were later on view in the 1972 edition of the East German national art show, exhibiting state-approved art in the nearby Dresden Albertinum museum.

But near the entrance of the show is a recent photograph, by Lewis Watts, of Davis standing next to the words “Black Lives Matter” spray-painted on a building facade, her Afro now mostly gray. Davis is still standing for social justice and equality, but under dramatically altered, and far more complex, conditions.

Although she remains a heroine in eastern German memory, I had to wonder how Davis’ messages might be received in Dresden today. The city has recently become a hotbed for far-right, anti-immigrant activity — the Pegida movement, short for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident, was founded here in 2014. It is possible that some of the very people who decades ago sent the rose postcards to Davis now march with this extremist group.

The artifacts and art on view in “1 Million Roses” evoke thoughts and emotions that are profound and painful, but also promising. In an interview in the exhibition catalog, Davis says that “art teaches us how to feel free.” The exhibition lays down a challenge to remember past struggles, follow ongoing ones, and take responsibility for freedom, our own and that of others, and even to fight for it, when we must.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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