Nonalignment and Tito in Africa

The Wende Museum
The Armory, Culver City, California
June 23 - October 20, 2019

The Cold War is commonly viewed as a geopolitical struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States, and an ideological clash between communism and capitalism. Yet what gets effaced in this narrative are the hundreds of millions of people from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, the United States, and elsewhere who refused to accept this bipolar division of the world.

Rather than position themselves on either side of the U.S.-Soviet divide, the governments and political parties that came to encompass the Nonaligned Movement (NAM, 1961-present) pushed for nonalignment and peaceful co-existence. NAM’s objective was the creation of a global anti-imperialist social movement and peaceful world order grounded in a commitment to justice, opposition to colonialism and empire, the redistribution of world resources, and shared acknowledgement of all people’s contributions to the heritage of culture, knowledge, and science.

One of NAM’s trailblazers was the government of Yugoslavia and its leader, Josip Broz Tito (1892–1980). After halting its alliance with the Soviets in 1948 and ultimately defying Soviet hegemony to launch its own program of socialist development, Yugoslavia was a founding member of NAM and hosted one of its initial conferences in Belgrade in 1961.

As Yugoslavia and Tito’s aura grew, the country increased its ties and influence in the anticolonial world. A key region that it prioritized was the continent of Africa. Throughout the 1950s to 1970s, Yugoslavia established close relations with several African countries. Via economic packages, military aid, technical support, and cultural and academic exchanges, it helped build factories, power plants, ports, hospitals, and research facilities in numerous African countries. In return, Yugoslavia gained access to African raw materials and new markets to trade its surplus consumer products.

The image of Yugoslav-African solidarity was constructed and circulated via African news editorials and carefully staged photographs of Yugoslav delegation visits to African countries. Yet these proclamations and staged spectacles of “friendship” and “solidarity” could not avoid contradiction. Often at the center of the image were Tito and other state leaders, which reinforced the problematic deification of these political figures and the perception that the actions of a few exceptional “big men,” rather than mass movements, were shaping change and new postwar realities. In addition, some photographs reinforce ideas of African dependency and colonial stereotypes of Africa, depicting a one-way exchange between Yugoslavia and Africa. In the end, the ambivalent nature of these representations reveals the still-relevant challenges of both framing and enacting solidarity amid uneven power relations. 

Iterations of Tito in Africa have been exhibited at the Museum of Yugoslavia (Belgrade) and the Pitt Rivers Museum (Oxford). The exhibition was organized by Ana Sladojević and Mirjana Slavković, based on research by Paul Betts, Radina Vučetić, Ana Sladojević, and Radovan Cukić, with, at the Wende, curatorial consultation by Robeson Taj Frazier (USC) and exhibition design by Joes Segal and Anna Rose Canzano.