Sharjah Biennial's March Meeting explores the art and impact of 1960s anticolonialism

The opening panel discussion challenged colonialist histories and narratives of the period spanning the late 1950s to early 1970s

Mahvish Ahmad speaking at the March Meeting panel titled Revisiting the Global 1960s, which also included Zeina Maasri (not pictured), Jelena Vesic, Zoe Whitley and moderator Christopher J Lee. Photo: Sharjah Art Foundation
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This year, one of the focal points of the Sharjah Biennial's annual March Meeting, an event taking place until Sunday, is re-examining art and culture since the 1960s — as political, social and economic systemic shifts redefined the world and its divisions of power.

The annual programme began on Thursday with a panel discussion exploring revolutionary anticolonial efforts in the Global South between the late 1950s to early 1970s. Panelists highlighted how periodical publications of revolutionary movements and the visual language of activism has had a reverberating influence on the world to this day.

“Western-centric histories of the '60s have disavowed their roots and radical interconnections with the Global South,” Zeina Maasri, a senior lecturer of art history at the University of Bristol, said at the March Meeting. “In fact, anticolonialism informed a new generation of contestation and offered new radical horizons for leftist internationalism.”

Sharjah Biennial proposes that while Woodstock, the civil rights movement and the space arms race are traditionally seen as the events that defined the 1960s, it was a tumultuous time across the entire world.

Independence movements were flaring against colonial powers across Asia, Africa and South America. Palestinians were rising up against the Israeli occupation in a struggle that continues today. Then there are even less-studied events such as the international support of the Vietnamese people in their struggle against US imperialism; the 1966 Tricontinental conference in Havana; the Cuban revolution; the Algerian war for independence; and the much-overlooked Nigerian Civil War, also called the Nigerian-Biafran War.

While historians have been trying to shape a more holistic viewpoint of that time period for some time, the consequences and criticisms of Western hegemony and colonialism have been particularly well-preserved in the publications and posters of the time.

Mahvish Ahmad, an assistant professor in Human Rights and Politics at the London School of Economics, is one of the founders of Revolutionary Papers, an initiative highlighting anticolonial, anti-imperial and socialist periodicals of the Global South.

Speaking at the March Meeting, Ahmad underscored the importance of collecting, digitising and unifying periodicals — including newspapers, magazines, cultural journals and newsletters.

“There is a vast amount of paper archives that despite the sharp analysis and centrality to anticolonial theorisation, remains scattered, fragmented and repressed,” she said.

“At a time when critiques of colonialism have gone mainstream, it’s necessary to reground ourselves in the material legacies of historical and contemporary movements that have been at the very front end of the fight against colonialism.”

Revolutionary Papers aim to bring these material legacies to the forefront.

“The 1960s constituted an especially active historical period of anticolonial revolt,” Ahmad said. “Many of the periodicals on our website are from this period in particular, but we don’t think that anticolonial revolt was limited to this time period. It goes further back and up to the present as well.”

The project has worked with papers from Pakistan, Chile, China, Palestine, South Africa, Cuba, Oman and Tunisia, to name a few. These include Sawt Al Thawra, a weekly Arabic bulletin published from 1972 onwards by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf.

Ahmed said Sawt Al Thawra constructed an internationalist and revolutionary world view through the analysis of a series of key themes, spanning the transnational left in the Middle East, the Palestinian revolution, various national liberation movements and revolutionary activity in Cuba and Vietnam — "basically articulating a series of transnational anticolonial connections within the pages of this magazine".

In its bid to construct an online resource for these periodicals, Revolutionary Papers works closely with activist archives from around the world, some of which house thousands of documents. The website also features a digital teaching component, which Ahmad said aims to “reintroduce and bring back into circulation materials that have been produced by anticolonial movements".

Then there are the revolutionary posters and visual language of the time period. Wide in origin and style, many of them resonate with one another, exhibiting a broadly defined anticolonial solidarity.

“Beyond its articulation in the Global South, the anticolonial project conjured up a broader framework of solidarity that intersected with the African-American civil rights movement and mobilised diasporic postcolonial immigrant communities,” explained Ahmed.

The figure of the peasant turned anticolonial freedom fighter was one of the images that proliferated during time and inspired agency and solidarity, Maasri added, pointing out a set of posters from Palestine, Vietnam and Latin-American countries.

One poster, for instance, displays a freedom fighter with text in Spanish and Arabic that reads: “The struggle continues in Palestine and in El Salvador, and the revolution will be victorius.” The poster was designed by Swiss artist Jihad Mansour — born Marc Rudin — who was an active member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine from 1979 to 1991, and who designed some of its most remarkable posters and publications.

“It’s not just an example of transnational solidarity, but it’s also an example of artistic solidarity,” Maasri said.

“The question of travelling cultures, including visual cultures as sites for imaginative identification and transformation, is key — not least in the shaping of new sensibilities and structures of feelings that prefigure radical horizons of possibility.”

Concluding her presentation, Maasri said people needed to be careful not to reduce the designs as mere propaganda. The 1960s was a period of artistic fertility and experimentation, and that art was instrumental in weaving a sense of solidarity among countries fighting colonial forces.

“New modes of artistic practice and public exhibition were practical alternatives to the market system and entry into public culture and politics. Art, she says, "was indeed vital" to the feeling of solidarity spreading through cultures of the Global South.

Updated: March 12, 2023, 3:52 AM