Issue 3/2015 - Fluchtpunkt Ethnografie

„They are so very different from us“

Who is the Stranger, who is the Other in the post-Socialist Nationalist Hungarian (art)scene?

Edit András

In tune with „more civilized“ countries, and „more advanced“ institutions in exhibiting „primitive humans“1, the Budapest Zoo also wished to please visitors to the millennial exhibition in 1896, celebrating a thousand years of Hungarian nationhood by displaying 250 „Negros“ from Africa. As the Sunday Newspaper heralded the sensation, one could study the almost naked bodies of these „graceful Negros“ for just 50 krajcar (the money of the time), arguing that the spectacle had been worth the expense, since „they are so very different from us“ and, what is more, there is „not a single foul odor among so many savages“. The promotion follows as „a certain aesthetic pleasure raises the value of the scenery. Better body shapes are hard to come by. Especially while bathing, that kind of slender Negro figure shining from the dribbling water is a genuine statue casted in bronze.“2 Anna Kárpáti, a Hungarian sculptor, effectively cast in bronze a young African boy in 1967 as a public statue, named Negro boy. The statue still stands in Óbuda, a district of Budapest. The boy was identified by a young journalist as a member of the Nuba tribe, from the Kordofon region of Sudan who had become widely known by George Rodger’s photographs published in National Geographic in 1952, and were „reproduced everywhere from postcards and posters to textbooks. For many years, it was a definitive portrait of Africa“.4 Actually, they had been already publicized as such, „a piece of Africa“, in 1896 in Budapest.

In Amorous Geography, Szabolcs KissPál’s docu-fiction, the colonial imagination of the late 19th century is shifted and adapted to Transylvania, Hungary’s dreamland, a „lost paradise“ detached from the country after the Trianon Peace Treaty in 1920. The subject is generally avoided by contemporary artists, as it has been appropriated and used by politics and the extreme right wing. The interwar revisionist sentiment that has permeated all segments of culture was suppressed in the time of Socialism, only to return with a vengeance after the collapse of the Socialist system. The drive for reconstructing the past as it was before the Soviet era is apparent in reestablishing and supporting conservative, religious and nationalist culture, represented by the Hungarian Art Academy (HAA), a kind of cultural shadow ministry inscribed into the constitution, against the extending power of which contemporary artists organized several protests.5 The other form of jumping back in time is the reconstruction of the 1944 visual look of the capital’s number one symbolic site, Kossuth Square, which surrounds the Parliament. The revanchist Trianon-discourse provided, and still provides, a container for projecting postwar feelings and desires onto it, such as melancholy over the loss of the imagined grandeur; the pain of defeat and humiliation, as well as removing the sense of any responsibility. By extending the victimhood to all sufferers of the Nazi regime, the recently erected Nazi Occupation Monument in Freedom Square, the other symbolically charged site of Budapest, the accountability for the Holocaust is completely denied. From the very first moment of its construction it triggered constant resistance and galvanized a counter monument, named Living Memorial. The contrast between the vertical Nazi Occupation Monument, made of permanent material and safeguarded, and the horizontal Living Memorial6, made of fragile, ephemeral materials, is striking and echoes the power imbalance between the officially propagated culture and its opposition.

Taking the fantasy of Transylvania as the nest of essential Hungarianness to the extreme in his video by showing a scene of Admiral Horthy examining the best available prototypes of the species to exhibit in the Zoo, KissPál ‒ actually, one of the initiators of the Living Memorial ‒ breaks the illusion of the sacred bond between the caring „mother-state“ and the helpless kinsfolk beyond the border of the shrunken motherland. Thus, he reveals the hidden colonial nature of the overheated affection that can be successfully mobilized in any time of crisis or conflict in order to distract attention away from real problems. By way of a kind of psychoanalytic assessment of unconscious motivations and desires that underlie this love-affair, the artist reverses the narrative of the passive and suffering victims of an unjust peace treaty into the narrative of an active and aggressive colonial power unable to cope with its own historical accountability. Uplifting the veil covering the dark side of modernity ‒ the invention of the „savage“, the Other in the concept of „civilization“ ‒ the work calls for reflective reevaluation and renegotiation of this (chosen and dearly embraced) traumatic event.

„Noble savages“, Sudanese people could have been seen again in 1967 in Hungary, but this time not in the Zoo. African students studied in Socialist countries in the sixties, as the connections and exchanges with the economically underdeveloped countries of Africa were among the most important international relations of the overtly recognized „world political system“.7 „The slender Negro figure“ came to the forefront again, emerging from long oblivion, in 2013, when Balázs Antal, László Hatházi and Zoltán Fodor made a large graffiti behind the wall of the forgotten public sculpture. This was done at a time when not only Socialist Realism, but even the Socialist period of Hungarian history became illegitimate, a deletion having been inscribed into the constitution, and also when „strangers“ from Africa and Asia, let alone migrants, have not been at all welcomed in post-Socialist Hungary.

On occasion of the OFF Budapest Biennial, a grassroots collaborative mega-project operating without any state subsidy or support8, the same artists made a new graffiti on the wall of a private apartment from which the inhabitants had died out. The graffiti, scratched into the wall, can be interpreted as a kind of cry for help for the agonizing, suffocating contemporary art scene; it is a blown up image from a medical leaflet, illustrating the method of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Coincidentally or not, the apartment in which Little Warsaw, a Hungarian artist-duo (András Gálik and Bálint Havas)9 exhibited their newest works within the framework of OFF is found on the axis between Freedom Square and Kossuth Square, with windows looking at the Soviet Monument on Freedom Square, which was counterbalanced by the debated Nazi Occupation Monument. The works were shown in company of a large, colored paper model of the state-run „lunatic asylum“, nicknamed „Lipót“ that was constructed by the physicians and patients of the institution. The contextualized artefact could be understood as a subtle reference to the social and mental conditions in the country. In the installation of Rudolf Pacsika in the inner courtyard of a downtown building, the system of discarded wheelchairs functions with the help of an invisible, artificial „iron lung“, a pneumatic system. The title Riot communicates the exact opposite of what is happening and invokes a mentally and physically challenged, paralyzed society unable to get rid of its heavy burdens, given that the wheelchairs are bonded and even their limited movement is controlled. At the same time the objects call to mind the pain and suffering of the people, as well as the miserable health conditions of the people and the medical care system of society.

Johannes Fabian, advocating critical thinking in anthropology, argues for „negativity“ in culture, understanding it as a form of resistance, which he considers a political act. „Where negativity is not at the root of thinking and experiencing culture, where reflexivity, self-mockery, and other ways of subverting positivity have withered away, there looms collective madness […] such madness manifests itself in ethnic cleansing and massacres, as well as in legally unassailable ways of keeping class and national borders closed in the name of cultural identity […]“10 This collective madness palpably looms in current Hungary, even if not in such extreme forms as described. It may be diagnosed by observing the arrogant neglect of democratic principles, as well as schizophrenic manifestations such as applying for EU money but at the same time announcing rebellion against its „colonialism“11, and going against basic principles of the European Union with initiatives such as the recently advocated death penalty. Paranoia is nurtured in all strata of society by the authoritarian regime, rewarding loyalty and punishing criticism. Concerning culture, punishment is not to be understood in a direct way, but rather it occurs in the massive tendency to crowd out from the scene those who disagree with the doctrines of the regime. Megalomaniac and narcissistic occurrences ‒ like building a football station in the home village of the prime minister, the population of which can’t even fill it up, and shoving a mega museum construction in the city park down the art community’s throat while many alternative, advanced cultural institutions struggle for survival ‒ indicate constant abuse of the social contract and test the limits of people’s tolerance.

For now the actual „Lipót“ is abandoned and consumed by slow decay, whereas artworks bring about the symptoms of a debilitated society but also offer a cure by naming and showing off the malady.

In front of the aggressive distortion of remembrance manifested in the Nazi Occupation Monument and expressed by the slogan that „national culture is to be supported within the culture of nation“, a „collective“ and „inclusive“ anthem, invention of the artist duo Societé Realiste (Ferenc Gróf and Jean-Baptiste Nandy) was performed at the invitation of the Living Memorial activist group. The live performance of the Universal Anthem, an experimental music combining all anthems of the 193 members of the United Nations by mathematical averaging, disrupted and juxtaposed the ethno-nationalist agenda of the official cultural politics. Ágnes Eperjesi’s intervention, entitled National kippah, offered hand-made kippas with the national colors to wear on the very day of the national holiday celebrating the 1848-49 Revolution and War of Independence, at a time when anti-Semitic sentiments run high. She offered rainbow colored ribbons as well, at a time when anti-gay sentiments also run high. In his puppet animation video Stand here!, Csaba Nemes makes tangible the way the machinery of „othering“ works, and also the psychological process of internalizing stereotypes and prejudices. Gallery8’s mission is the liberation of the Roma body, and therefore the liberation of Roma people through exhibitions like Roma Body politics12, in the time of scapegoating Roma people and of tolerating hate-crimes against them. In a group show, invited artists were to reflect on archival photographs made in the early 20th century and found in ethnographic museums, showing half-naked, „gypsy girls“ offered to the voyeuristic gaze for projecting erotic and exotic fantasies onto their „natural“ bodies, in a way quite similar to the „slender negros“ dished up for consumption. The findings, „an outrageous number of Roma pictures either fulfill the quite ill-natured desires of the collectors or are simply improper and offensive […] in the exhibition we can only view these, basically, minimized photos under the magnifying glasses. This provocative curatorial decision is not a simple game […] but a gesture emphasizing the act of surveillance, in which we – viewers – become voyeurs.“13
Tamara Moyzes, in her collages, confronts the group of Roma girls put on display in the archival staged photos as free prey for paparazzi and soldiers; both hordes of men shooting them physically or symbolically. When she adds a group of naked white girls next to the half-naked colored girls, the clichés and prejudices towards those „ethnographically interesting ones“ are immediately unfolded.

Rendering more nuanced meaning to the notion of negation and resistance, Fabian claims that „what makes culture viable, that is imaginable as a way of living and surviving, is the capacity not only to negate and resist that which attacks you but also to contest that which embraces you or makes you embrace it.“14 This not-so-obvious but rather tricky aspect of resistance is highly relevant in recent Hungary for the reason that blackmailing and seduction could be an even more effective tool than marginalization in the time of vehement redistribution of financial and cultural resources, and in the drive for (re)creating the capitalist (post-socialist) bourgeois past and present Hungary. While it is noticeable that we witness the second growth of the neo-avant-garde of the late sixties and seventies (a lot of exhibitions pay tribute to that period and the artists hallmarking that period), concerning the moral dilemmas, the artistic strategies and forced decisions to take sides in a totally divided (art)scene, it is more and more difficult to adapt the Cold War era countercultural attitude to recent times due to the process of „normalization“ and gradual acclimatization to the current Hungarian reality. Especially now, even in connection with the neo-avantgarde, the myth of the rigid binary between official and oppositional culture is questioned, and the negotiations with the power, the compromises, as well as the border crossings and overlapping have risen to the surface. Certainly, nowadays those in power are more cynical than in the Socialist times, and the methods have also changed and became more sophisticated. There is no need for censorship anymore when financial support (or lack thereof) does the job perfectly in parity with the proper (or improper) attitude of the actors on the scene. Existential endangerment could also be a good excuse for crawling back under the umbrella of the state-supported cultural system, criticism of which is declining in tune with the process of gradual acceptance of the new configuration. The once so clearly marked borders have become blurred. Fear of losing state support, commissions or advertisements, depending on what is at stake for the actual firm, organization or venue takes its toll, resulting in the taming of radical, critical thinking or in withdrawal from alternative events. Due to the general exhaustion, the protest movement has also lost its vigor compared to the time of the activity of Free Artists15 and United for Contemporary Art,16 and also to the regular protest-exhibitions outside of Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle17. János Sugár’s moving work, Fire at the museum, an unrealized project from 2010, refreshed and relocated to a public space is about to keep the fire burning 7/24 during the 40 days of OFF by volunteers; however, for now it is not clear what kind of fire is to be protected, as only a few people, the hard core have kept alive the radical and uncompromisingly critical position of the upheaval of the protest movement.18 Other people, who once sat on the stairs of the Ludwig Museum protesting against the selection procedure based on political, rather than professional agenda, and demanding autonomy for art institutions19, are now happily collaborating with the institution one way or another. Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle also tries hard to explain away aversions developed when the main venue of contemporary art was given to the HAA (Hungarian Art Academy), which favors outdated, out of touch with contemporaneity art making practices shown in National Salon-type exhibitions. In order to gain acceptability on the local (art)scene, this state supported organization of conservative art (stuffed with huge amounts of money), and of artists who earlier felt neglected by the contemporary art scene with its international network and embededdness, are started to be embraced by people who once stood for criticality and outside of their circle. Esteemed neo-avant-garde artists of the Socialist times whose respect once came from their opposition to the official art, now blindly accept membership of the Hungarian Art Academy (and also the generous monthly salary attached to it), or do anything (exhibiting and performing in the National Salon of Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle) in compensation of their „renegade“ (feminist, abstract, émigré etc.) past in order to be accepted and embraced (as for example Orshi Drozdik). Other highly appreciated artists resign as a sign of solidarity with the more advanced contemporary art scene, only to reenter again in the time of faded attention (as for example Imre Bukta). Moral insanity also looms in recent Hungary and it is not that clear anymore who is the Stranger and who is the Other in the Janus-faced art scene, while those born into the positions of Strangers and Others in the society, still can hardly get rid of the eroticization and abjectification they gained in those old times.

In Fabian’s account, recognition is a condition that makes communication possible. He regards recognition as an agonistic relationship that involves participants in confrontation and struggle, but which also makes possible the avoidance of new closures.20 He believes that mutual recognition would undermine authority as well. This mutual recognition, whether speaking about the art scene or about the society, is in short supply in present-day Hungary. When Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle calls for a „cultural roundtable discussion“ inviting AICA to held its meeting in their Salon exhibition to discuss the issues of painting and sculpture of the time, as if nothing had happened in Hungary, and as if there had been such a thing as „pure art“ beyond politics, it is far from recognition, but rather a desire to not just have monopoly over the financial sources, cultural institutions and positions, but on top of that, gaining professional legitimization as well, to have it all. „Anthropology with an attitude“ offers another way to grasp it, one which the scene might want to follow: „In order to be knowingly in each other’s presence we must somehow share each other’s past […] only when self and other get to the point where they begin to ‚remember the present’ will they be drawn into a process of mutual recognition.“21



1 Pascal Blanchard, Gilles Boetsch and Nanette Jacomijn Snoep. Editors, Human Zoos: The invention of the savage. Actes Sud, 2012
2 Vasárnapi Újság, 1896, No. 35. p. 578.
3 Péter ;
7 William Zimmerman, Soviet Perspectives on International Relations, 1956-1967. Princeton University Press, 1969, p. 244.
10 Johannes Fabian, Anthropology with an attitude: Critical essays. Stanford University Press, 2001, p.99.
13 Speech given by the curator, Timea Junghaus at the opening of the exhibition.
14 Fabian, 2001, p. 96.
20 Fabian op.cit p. 175.
21 Fabian op.cit p. 177.