In the following I will discuss the emancipatory potentials of the Non-Aligned Movement [NAM] for today, more precisely, I will emphasize those ideas/ideals/principles from the movement that can be extracted, used and applied in the field of culture. The aim is not only to show historical cases but to link some progressive cultural policies, museum models and directions as well as their emancipatory utopias to today’s new possible prototypes of art institutions/networks/cultural politics.

For the title I choose a well-known quote by Kwame Nkrumah, president of Ghana until 1966 and one of the key people within the NAM from the beginning of the movement’s existence. The quote signifies the movement’s essence. However, in order to make his quote more relevant for today we would at least have to add North and South in its title which only proves how the geopolitics of the world has changed in the past 30 years and how the NAM slowly disappeared from the world’s political stage. This disappearance is without doubt directly linked to the rise and victory of neoliberalism, especially after 1989. Just to give an example of NAM’s importance in the world politics, in 1961, during the 1st Belgrade Summit, president John F. Kennedy issued a statement about the event saying:

“We believe that the people represented at this conference are committed to a world society in which men have both the right and the freedom to determine their own destiny—a world in which one people is not enslaved by another, in which the powerful do not devour the weak. The American people share that commitment with the NAM.”[1]

A leaflet/photograph published on the occasion of the 1st Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, Belgrade, 1961. Source:

Yugoslavia fit well into the discourse of the non-alignment. Socialist revolutions had a lot in common with anti-colonial and anti-imperialist revolutions, which made the Yugoslav case of emancipation in the context of socialism particularly significant. The Non-Aligned Movement provided an opportunity for positioning Yugoslav politics and culture globally on the basis of the formula: modernism + socialism = emancipatory politics. As A.W. Singham and Shirley Hume put it in 1986:

“It was Tito who revealed to the Afro-Asian world the existence of a non-colonial Europe which would be sympathetic to their aspirations. By bringing Europe into the grouping, Yugoslavia helped to create an international movement.”[2]

A significant importance was given to culture in the NAM summit declarations even though this topic was never in the foreground. However, words like solidarity, fraternity, equality, peace, and fight against imperialism, colonialism, and apartheid resonated at the NAM summits, but also at UNESCO seminars on culture, at political rallies around the world, in museums. It also seemed as though art and politics were united in their quest to create utopian models adapted to social and political changes. It is no coincidence that experimental museology and concepts such as the integrated museum, the social museum, the living museum, and the museum of the workers were widely discussed in the so-called Global South.

Cover of the catalogue published by the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, Santiago, Chile, 2013

Some Cases
In 1956, at the UNESCO conference in New Delhi, shortly after the 1955 Bandung conference, representatives of the Third World (or “the South,” south as a critical geopolitical entity) dedicated themselves to promoting alternative routes of cultural exchange,[3] different from those in the First and Second Worlds. A wave of new biennials sprung up in NAM countries like in Alexandria, Medellin, Havana, Ljubljana, Baghdad, for instance. In 1972, a UNESCO seminar was organised in Santiago, Chile, at which museum workers discussed a new type of a social or integrated museum that would link cultural rehabilitation with political emancipation. It would be socially progressive without being ideologically restricted by any political representation.

At the 6th Conference of the Non-Aligned Countries in Havana, Cuba, in 1979, Josip Broz Tito spoke of the “resolute struggle for decolonisation in the field of culture.”[4] The emphasis was on questioning intellectual colonialism and cultural dependency. The idea was not only to study the Third World, but to make the Third World a place from which to speak. “Location” (“a horizon beyond modernity, a perspective of one’s own cultural experiences” according to Enrique Dussel) was the philosophical theme addressed in 1974 when the “South-South Dialogue” between thinkers from Africa, Asia, and Latin America was initiated. The first meeting was held in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.

One common issue shared by the NAM states was the question of cultural imperialism. Secondly, there was a need to create different modernities; the so-called “epistemologies of the South” (Boaventura de Sousa Santos), as an understanding of the world that was larger than the Western understanding of the world. The NAM had made cultural equality one of their important principles very early on, at the Cairo Conference in Egypt in 1964. This meant, on the one hand, that a number of African and Asian countries sought to regain works of art which had been taken out of their countries during colonial times and put in various museums in New York, London, and Paris, and on the other hand, that people who had been denied their culture in the past started to realize the emancipatory role it played in their lives. The cultural development of decolonizing countries became as important as their economic development. Importantly, this culture was no longer meant only for the elites; art and culture were to be accessible to all. We could even say this was a kind of epistemological solidarity. Havana declaration in 1979 emphasised cooperation among non-aligned and developing countries, as well as a “[…] better cultural acquaintance; and the exchange and enrichment of national cultures for the benefit of over-all social development and progress, for full national emancipation and independence, for greater understanding among the peoples and for peace in the world.”[5]

Exterior installation of Daniel Buren’s work at the “Peace 75—UN at 30” exhibition, Koroška galerija likovnih umetnosti, Slovenj Gradec, 1975. Courtesy Koroška galerija likovnih umetnosti

Following these lines, a museum in a small Slovenian town Slovenj Gradec[6] was open, an art museum dedicated to world’s peace. A series of exhibitions were organized there between 1966 and 1985, the most notable being the one in 1975 with a theme “Peace 75—UN at 30” under United Nations and UNESCO patronage, which was also politically in tune with the non-aligned ideas. In the catalogue introduction it was written:

“It is our wish that artist’s message would win over differences among people, nations, races, and beliefs, over differences between the developed and the underdeveloped. Peace, safety and freedom are needed by everybody and everywhere.”

The topic of the exhibition was “committed art”—but this kind of art, as the curators wrote, should not become submitted to the ideology of the ruling minority, but should instead emphasize the creation of art as a social, interdisciplinary activity, intended for everyone. The works in variety of techniques were sent from all over the world and many artists donated the works (Daniel Buren, Ossip Zadkine) as a gesture of solidarity. There was, for example, a large section of works from Latin America, with Jorge Glusberg a selector and Arte Util from West Germany.

The 1980s brought different global politics than the previous decade; the Left lost power, there was a turn toward conservative, right-wing politics both in the Unites States and Europe which significantly changed the role of the NAM in the world. Subsequently the NAM declarations focused on more pragmatic cases such as heritage and communications. Already in 1975 a new world information and communications system was formed, so called The Non-Aligned News Agencies Pool,[7] which worked as an international, collaborative cooperation between Third World news agencies whose main objective was to decolonise the news, provide its own mass media channels and to offer counter-hegemonic reports on world news concerning the developing nations (this was the case especially after Chile coup d’etat in 1973, where CIA financially supported Chilean media against president Salvador Allende).

In 1984, The Josip Broz Tito Gallery for the Art of the Non-Aligned Countries was inaugurated in Titograd, Yugoslavia (today Podgorica, Montengero) with the aim to collect, preserve and present the arts and cultures of the non-aligned and developing countries. The document was adopted at the 8th Summit in Harare, Zimbabwe a couple of years later where the gallery was to become a common institution for all the NAM countries. Unfortunately, their goal to create a Triennial of Art from the NAM countries never happened because of the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Nevertheless the collection still exists today and includes over 1000 works, mostly donations from all over the world.

One important aspect of cultural politics of the NAM was, as mentioned, the aspect of solidarity movements and networks in arts and culture, which was especially the case in the 1970s mostly as political engagement against imperialism, apartheid, supporting struggles for independence. The 1970 Lusaka resolution stated:

“World solidarity is not only a just appeal, but an overriding necessity; it is intolerable today for some to enjoy an untroubled and comfortable existence at the expense of the poverty and misfortune of others.”[8]

During that time in a socialist Chile, Museo de la Solidaridad was born out of the visionary idea of a handful of individuals—later named the International Committee of Artistic Solidarity with Chile of which Mario Pedrosa, a Brazilian art critic in exile was the president. The founding idea was articulated in March 1971 during “Operation Truth,” when President Allende invited international artists and journalists to “understand the process that his nation was living.” In the same year Salvador Allende sent an appeal to the artists of the world to support the new path Chile was taking by donating the works of art. Words like solidarity, experimental, fraternal and revolutionary resonated in his letter.

Circular letter from Harald Szeemann to the participating artists of Documenta 5, 8 December 1972, Kassel. Courtesy Fondo Solidaridad, Archivo Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende; A letter from John Baldessari to Mario Pedrosa as a response to Szeemann, Santa Monica. Courtesy Fondo Solidaridad, Archivo Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende

After Allende’s call donations from all over the world started to arrive to Santiago, 600 works in the first year of the museum’s existence alone, in a heterogeneous mixture of styles: Latin American social realism, Abstract Expressionism, Geometric style, Art Informel, experimental proposals, and conceptualist works. Harald Szeemann, who was at time a director of Documenta 5 sent a letter to all the participating artists asking to donate works of art to the new museum in Chile. The act of donation was a political action in itself and considered as a concept of political and cultural solidarity with the Chilean socialist project. It was also a museological experiment, “a network of people from the world of culture who contributed works, ideas and connections toward the shaping of a museum that was not hierarchical, but transversal and polyphonic”[9] as researcher Isabel García put it. One important aspect was also the question of what it meant to have a museum in a country like Chile. Justo Pasto Mellado summarized it thus:

“While in other parts of the world, some works by the avant-garde bring into question the legitimacy of museums, in those places where the history of museums is incomplete, the desire for one becomes an absolute imperative.”[10]

A card from Dan Graham to Mario Pedrosa, 1973, New York. Courtesy Fondo Solidaridad, Archivo Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende

The idea behind this museum was also in tune with cultural democratization underpinning the cultural politics of Unidad Popular (Allende’s political party): to bring art out of the museums and into non-specialized spaces. There was a popular slogan at the time that said people have art with Allende. This was done through approaches such as Tren popular de la cultura, casas de la cultura, travelling shows in tents, protest posters, murals (Brigada Ramona Parra), etc. Pedrosa also spoke about the connection between art and workers, especially Chilean copper miners, saying that works of art should belong to everybody. President Allende seemed to understand the new mission of museums when he exclaimed while inaugurating the solidarity museum in 1972: „This is not just a museum anymore. This is a museum of the workers!”[11]

This museum experiment ended abruptly in 1973 with Pinochet’s coup d’état and the beginning of the dictatorship. Throughout the dictatorship, the art collection remained in the basement of the Museum of Contemporary Art of the University of Chile, which was in the hands of the military. It was only in 1991 that the collections started a new life in what is today Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende.

In 1974 “solidarity” also became an important concept of the new Yugoslav Constitution. In the constitution’s article 281 “solidarity with the liberation movements of the world” was especially underlined. Along the similar lines was the Week of Latin America in 1977, in the Belgrade Student Cultural Center, which consisted of a series of art events dedicated to burning political issues: debates about military regimes and the politics of non-alignment in Latin America. But the case of Yugoslavia and its cultural politics was nevertheless different from that of other NAM states. Since the 1950s on in Yugoslavia “cultural diplomacy” flourished and cultural events became vehicles of the so-called “politics by other means”; for example various MoMA travelling exhibitions, such as Modern Art in the US which was held in Belgrade in 1956. While on one hand art museums in Yugoslavia were at that time to a large extent integrated into the global art system, adapting the Western cannon of art history, on the other, through self-management and the membership in the NAM, different kind of cultural politics from that of the West was promoted.

Such twofold approach can be observed in the Ljubljana International Biennial of Graphic Arts which started already in 1955 at Moderna galerija. On the one side the Biennale jury made their own selections, in order to get the best representatives of, for example, L’École de Paris, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and on the other, some countries were offered direct invitation, so they could present whatever they wanted without interference in their selection. Consequently, the Biennial exhibited “basically everything, the whole world,” especially after the first NAM summit in 1961.

Installation view with the international jury. The 5th International Exhibition of Graphic Arts, Moderna galerija, Ljubljana, 1965. Courtesy Moderna galerija, Ljubljana

The Non-aligned Contemporaneity?
This question should not be considered as some kind of exoticism linked to the past, nor should it harbour nostalgia of the movement itself, as we know that many NAM states were quite far from the principles the movement promoted. From today’s perspective, the concepts of nation-states, identity politics, and exclusive national cultures, which appeared in cultural political agendas at the time, can be seen as highly problematic. The concept of solidarity also needs to be treated with caution: With whom are we solidary and how are we solidary? How can we avoid the “white saviour complex”? And what should be done with the fact that Syria, Pakistan, Libya and most African states are still members of the NAM?

Nevertheless, the movement should not be forgotten in so far as it envisioned forms of politics that took as a starting point the life of peoples and societies that had been forcibly placed on the margins of the global economic, political and cultural system. The movement also created or proposed new models that “enabled people to live and not merely to survive” (Svetlana Alexievitch). The struggle against poverty, inequality, and colonialism in the world system coupled with trans-national solidarity could be useful in a reconsideration of the history and legacies of the NAM today, at a time when colonialism has become more than evident once again.

View from the exhibition “Peace 75—UN at 30,” Koroška galerija likovnih umetnosti, Slovenj Gradec, 1975. Courtesy Koroška galerija likovnih umetnosti. Photograph by Stanko Hovnik

Tran Van Dinh[12] who was a diplomat, a delegate to Bandung conference, a professor of communication in the 1976, offered few suggestions to NAM on how to fight cultural imperialism which could still be relevant today:

1)         Clearly identify friends, allies and enemies;
2)         Define the general direction (ideology);
3)         Develop proper strategies;
4)         Devise precise mechanisms (tactics).

In culture we are already doing that at some level by being involved in various networks, alliances, museum federations, knowledge production platforms, etc. that do not consist only of cultural operators, but have joined forces with social movements, grass-roots organisations and many others while taking into consideration the question of how relevant these ideas are to the development of international solidarity in the sphere of culture, also transversally linking it with politics. However, to truly reconsider the legacy[13] of the NAM in the sphere of culture today more radical measures would need to be considered not only on a declarative, but on the practical, applicative levels: on the level of governance, knowledge production and heritage. And in the next step it would be necessary to translate the new formats and concepts to the spaces of policymaking, not only to of art and culture, but also in relation to the state, the welfare, and the mechanisms of public administration.

Bojana Piškur is an art historian based in Ljubljana.