It is necessary to begin with a disclaimer. I curated Survival Kit in 2019 and now, for the first time, I am enjoying the festival from the position of the visitor and of a friend. As the festival opened, curator Alicia Knock described the premises behind the title of the festival Long-Distance Friendships. It functions not as a theme but as a way of looking at the relationships that occur naturally in research-based international artistic practices. This posture manifests itself in the friendship between the co-curator of the exhibition Inga Lāce, as well as many of the collaborations with artists and collectives that are involved. That’s also among the reasons why I was invited to join the audience.
The complex mesh of friendships (artistic, intellectual, intimate, personal, economic, and political) is investigated by the festival through the ideological and economic alliance put in place between the USSR and Eastern Bloc with African and Latin American countries during the Cold War. These alliances – perpetuated through grants, student and worker exchanges and inter-nations funding; forms of soft power – shaped the contamination between cultural community and long-lasting economic benefits. A curatorial choice that comments on the attempt of the Soviet Bloc to create a horizontal economic approach, which promoted the mutual growth and nourishment of the participating nations. These are reflected by the exhibition venue: the Vidzeme Market, a section known for the sale of butter, sauerkraut, and flowers, built in Riga in 1902. Meandering through old butcher and cheese stalls, the artworks produce a bold thesis spanning from historical examples of friendships formed in the Soviet Union, non-Western contemporary feminist and queer decolonial practices, to works that document the influence of Soviet education on African culture and cinema.
The first work I encountered in the halls was Inga Erdmane’s Imprints (2023), a site-specific archive that includes photographs of student groups in Latvian Universities during the ‘60s and ‘70s. This work stems from the encounter between the artist and Dr. A.A. Duchi in Zanzibar – a former African student who received a stipend in the ‘60s to study medicine in the Soviet Union, and still has fond memories of Riga. From his personal archive of uncanny images of student life – which would not be different from those of Western universities today – with young people from all over the globe, the idea of an isolated and uniform population in the USSR is dispelled. The artist duo Janek Simon and Max Cegielski examine the cultural relations between post-independent African states and Eastern Europe through an archival display of photographs, video footage, and news reports. The two artists traveled to Ghana to research a short-lived monument created in 1965 by Polish sculptor Alina Ślesińska. The sculpture, destroyed after a CIA-backed coup in 1966, depicted the revolutionary Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah. Under the influence of the Soviet Union and a commitment to pan-African diasporic communities, Nkrumah led Ghana to independence from Britain and was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962.
Also in the market hall is a large-scale photograph installed by Ilona Németh. Taken in the 1970s, the photo depicts Németh’s father at the opening of the flower show Flóra Bratislava, which contained flowers coming from Africa. Through her own experience, on view in a collection of smaller photographs arranged around the market hall, Németh illustrates the moment when, as a student in Hungary, she met her friend Lemlem Sissay, who today lives in Ethiopia. Sissay was an international exchange student of agriculture in Hungary during the 1980s and today runs a flower farm that exports to Europe. Németh critically exposes the extractive processes hidden within supply lines that contribute to the wage imbalances that make buying Ethiopian flowers cheaper than buying those which are locally grown.
These exchanges between Eastern Europe and African countries were not only the source of friendships, but also grew into multi-ethnic families. Natalie Perkof, an Afro-Czech artist, grew up in a small farming community in a Moravian village, under a deep connection with nature and the influences of Czech mythology. In her personal story, she recounts the struggle of being the only biracial child in the area, a struggle that fueled her interest in the fusion of African sensitivity to materials with Czech agrarian traditions. This results in her practice in subtly-arranged, painterly collages made from carbon and aramid fibers that create rough patterns of internationalism.
In neighboring Germany, Anna Ehrenstein's life story similarly determined her artistic focus and political ambitions. Born in a refugee camp shortly before her father was deported from Germany, she presents an installation practice dealing with topics of migration, decoloniality, Islamophobia, and solidarity across the Global South in the digital age. The work The Albanian Conference (2021) was made in collaboration with DNA, Vidisha-Fadescha, Shaunak Mahbubani, and Rebecca Pokua Korang. This project is a choreographed restaging of the Afro-Asian Writers Conference that took place in Tashkent in 1958. The Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan hosted the fourth iteration of the festival, opening the door for audiences within the USSR to literature from what was at that time labeled the “third world,”  and re-imagined the potential for internationalism without the West -–a goal that was never achieved. Ehrenstein’s reenactment results in a series of videos in which the group creates philosophical and choreographed rhythms with glitched callipygous moves. By evoking accountability, political action, and the abolition of gender, these scenes update the potential conversations in Tashkent with considerations on technology and queer theory in Eastern decolonial positionalities in the Global South.
The influence of the Soviet Bloc on moving image production within African culture is not overlooked in the exhibition. School of Mutants, a collective formed in 2018 by Hamedine Kane and Stéphane Verlet-Bottéro, invited filmmakers and artists Valérie Osouf, Hannah Tayler, Moise Togom, and Tejswini Narayan Sonawane to contribute to the investigations on the role of academia and culture in post-independence nations such as Senegal. In an installation, they honor the celebrated Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembéne, whose artistic approach was influenced by techniques encountered in universities in Moscow and Prague and later brought back to Africa. In this context, Tejswini Narayan Sonawane presents a series of prints of the covers of books and posters of films that were translated into the Latvian language. Further, this is complemented by a video by Jihan el Tahri titled Cinema Died at Camp Boiro (2017), in which she interviews family members and friends of more fathers of African cinema, including Costa Diagne and Kalifa Condé, who also studied in Moscow with scholarships during the same time.
The exhibition carries the proposition to resume the side of historical relationships that flourished despite the hegemonic threat of the west, which is relatively unknown today due to the decline and disassembly of the Soviet Union in the ‘90s. The exhibition actively resists the idea of “the East” of Europe as a uniform society separate from global influences (as promoted by conservative politicians) and creates its own history of friendships separate from Western Europe. Friendships created by the movement of students, artists, agricultural workers, and scientists have always led to fruitful exchanges, cultural improvement and science at both ends – contrary to systems that create economic and cultural dependency between nations.
Finally, culture would be impossible without friendship. This powerful personal tool reaches beyond political strategy and state borders; it creates ties where international policy attempts to sever relations. In 1994, Jacques Derrida published The Politics of Friendship precisely in reaction to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the West’s premature celebrations of the victory of the Cold War. In it, he makes the case that true friendship is about recognizing the self inside of the other, and what that means in terms of empathy and the recognition of difference. To make a friend is to approach the other with an open heart and vulnerability – and this is why friendship remains an important technology for political transformation in our society, one that continues to justify alienation and division.
 Rossen Djagalov, “The Afro-Asian Writers Association and Its Literary Field,” Sygma Journal, 15 July, 2021. https://syg.ma/@sygma/rossen-djagalov-the-afro-asian-writers-association-and-its-literary-field
fig. 1: Installation View, Inga Erdmane, Imprints.
fig. 2: Installation View, Janek Simon and Max Cegielski, One man doesn't rule a nation.
Cover, fig. 3, fig. 4: Installation View, Ilona Németh, Flóra Bratislava.
fig. 5: Installation View, Anna Ehrenstein together with DNA, Vidisha-Fadescha, Shaunak Mahbubani and Rebecca Pokua Korang2; The Albanian Conference.
fig. 6: Installation View, Jihan El Tahri, Cinema Died at Camp Boiro.