1953 – From Port of Spain to Bucharest

Responding to the sixteenth call for Web Residencies »Solidarity is a verb,« Simina Neagu revisits the 4th World Festival of Youth and Students – a festival dedicated to anticolonial struggles that took place in Bucharest in 1953. It was attended by more than 30,000 people, among them Caribbean political and cultural activist John la Rose and South African political activist Paul Joseph. Neagu’s project 23 August is a hypertext work on transnational solidarity, in which digital artifacts – archival and newly gathered research material – stand in for a memorial, and likewise the reverberation and activation of thoughts. 


Simina Neagu in Conversation — Dez 14, 2021

Akademie Schloss Solitude - 1953 – From Port of Spain to Bucharest

[Photo #JA052], Online communism photo collection, (10.11.2021), Gheorghe Gheorghiu –Dej, P. Groza, E. Bodnăraş, Petre Borilă, Iosif Chişinevschi at the 23 August Stadium in Bucharest, with the occasion of the festival's opening (2.08.1953). ANIC, Cota: 52 (54)/1953; Source: Scânteia.

Anca Rujoiu: What is your understanding of solidarity and how does it translate into your work?  

Simina Neagu: I’d like to dwell a bit on what solidarity isnt. As I mentioned in a conversation with the other fellows, I think of solidarity in relation to charity. »Solidarity not charity,« a concept lifted from early anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s »Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution,« is the slogan of many contemporary activist groups. Solidarity suggests a departure from the binary of savior-saved, it seems to be a two-way street, while charity seems to solidify the power relations between the different parties. Solidarity to me means extending support and being open to the possibility of a role reversal or being transformed by the interaction. It means recognizing a shared struggle and offering presence, support, or resources on the basis of that recognition, without erasing any differences. Ironically, my day job involves working for two charities. And to be honest, Im not entirely sure I always manage to step out of the framework of charity, especially when Im wearing my support/social worker hat.  

Lately, Ive been inspired by artist Jack Tans work around the governance of charities. The idea that charities, through their boards of trustees, were often closely linked to companies and thus served to humanize and reinforce colonial capitalism is worth considering. So I would say solidarity is something to strive for rather than an easily packaged formula.  

Anca Rujoiu: How did you come across the history of the 4th World Festival of Youth and Students held in Bucharest in 1953, and what drew your attention to it? Through what lens are you revisiting this event more than sixty years later? What perspectives does it generate in terms of the nations history and the developments of the city of Bucharest?  

Simina Neagu: In 2019, activist Irma La Rose passed away, and her son Michael wrote a touching tribute that was published in the George Padmore Institute newsletter. Irma was the first wife of John La Rose, who was a political and cultural activist, founder of New Beacon Books and the Chairman of George Padmore Institute. As I scrolled through the text I was struck by one of the headlines, »the girl who went behind the Iron Curtain.« There I found out that Irma attended the 4th World Youth Festival as a delegate of Trinidad. The Festival was organized by the World Federation of Democratic Youth, as a way to counteract the persecution of communists in the Western world and support the anticolonial movement. I was intrigued by the festival and found out that it took place in the Bucharest neighborhood where I was born, called Vatra Luminoasă or Bariera Vergului, the city’s eastern edge at that time.  

»I noticed how much of that history of transnational solidarity has been erased during the post-communist period across the former socialist bloc. Suddenly, it was almost impossible to imagine young activists from the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America and Asia discussing political struggles in my neighborhood.«

Akademie Schloss Solitude - 1953 – From Port of Spain to Bucharest

© Photo #KA295, Online communism photo collection, (10.11.2021), Stadionul 23 August din Bucureşti, (Vedere generală)(f.a.) [23 August Stadium in Bucharest (general view)], (ANIC, fund ISSIP, Cota 295/f.a).

A large part of that neighborhood had been developed especially for the festival: the park where I used to play, the swimming pool where I had my first swimming lessons, etc. You could say that I was entangled with that history from an early age, without even realizing it. To add to that, the neighborhood where I live now in London, close to Finsbury Park, is also where the George Padmore Institute is located. So you could say this work is also hyperlocal, maybe as an effect of the pandemic. But beyond the self-indulgence of those realizations, relevant only to my parents and my next door neighbor or flatmates, I noticed how much of that history of transnational solidarity has been erased during the post-communist period across the former socialist bloc. Suddenly, it was almost impossible to imagine young activists from the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America and Asia discussing political struggles in my neighborhood. I realized that I couldnt imagine a contemporary Romanian politician making a statement against colonialism, for instance. So I wanted to revisit a real moment of international solidarity, that essentially consisted of people sharing their space, resources and cultures. Why is it so difficult to imagine a similar event nowadays? Has the staunchly anti-communist intelligentsia of the former socialist bloc succeeded in erasing the nuances of history, and in that process the lineage of anti-imperialist struggles too?

»Listening to elders such as Paul Joseph offers invaluable keys to current struggles.«  

Digital Solitude: Your project for the Web Residency »Solidarity is a verb« is a way to activate history. What are your strategies to make the archives of the George Padmore Institute a »living« and permeable archive? What can people expect to encounter on your Web Residency project page? 

Simina Neagu: One strategy was to make some of this material visible and accessible on the internet. Part of the online archive 23 August  documents John La Roses experience at the festival. His notebook and several images hadnt been digitized before. In the absence of physical markers of that event, these digital artifacts stand in for a memorial. And beside the images, Paul Josephs voice really represents a living, breathing archive. Paul Joseph is a South African anti-apartheid activist and writer, now based in North London. I recommend his book Slumboy From The Golden City, a memoir of his life spent in the service of struggle, relevant to anyone with an interest in activism. My chance encounter with his daughter Nadia Joseph at New Beacon Books gave this journey a new dimension. When I told her in passing what I was researching, Nadia laughed and immediately said, »Not many people know that my father and John met at that festival!« Almost seventy years later and 2000 km away, the echoes of the festival were still felt. It was a real joy and honor to meet such an incredible figure as Paul, whose face still lit up when he spoke of his experience in Bucharest, as he recounted joyous moments from his visit: the many dinner invitations and delicious food, dancing the perinita, which youll hear about in the recordings. I just sat on his couch eating a scone and was transported to 1953 through Pauls vivid storytelling.   

Anca Rujoiu: What role does fiction play in such a historical account and archival research?  

Simina Neagu: As I’m neither historian nor archivist, Im not concerned with the accuracy of stone-cold facts, but rather capturing some lingering emotions and sensations. I was struck recently by someone saying music is a history of emotions. So it didnt surprise me when 68 years later, Paul Joseph remembered listening to calypso and perinita in Bucharest. Although an unlikely combination, they both generally evoke a joyful mood that I imagine marked the festival. Feelings might not always be facts, but facts by themselves dont necessarily create a sense of belonging or attachment to a historical event. Since we are problematizing solidarity, engaging creatively with this concept would entail capturing some of the delegates‘ feelings. How did it feel to be surrounded by 30,000 activists from across the world on a hot summer day in Bucharest?      

Akademie Schloss Solitude - 1953 – From Port of Spain to Bucharest

Delegates at the Festival, 1953. Courtesy of John La Rose Estate.

Anca Rujoiu: What insights did this research nourish in your understanding of transnational solidarities?  

Simina Neagu: I think it fed a sense of sadness that this history still lies dormant, as Nadia Joseph very eloquently described in the interview. This was just an instance of surprising, but long-lasting entanglements, but I am sure there are many others. Here I think of Nikolay Karkovs essay »Dialoguing between the South and the East: An Unfinished Project« that goes into more detail on the »missed encounters« between the Global South and postsocialist East. I think a lot of contemporary questions and struggles would become a little less complex after an encounter with John La Rose and Paul Josephs experiences. In his notebook, John recounts the following moment: as the delegates were on the plane to Prague, suddenly one of them turned around and said: »Did you all feel it?« »Did you feel when we scraped the Iron Curtain?« Laughter obviously ensued. To go back to your question about fiction and historical research, the Iron Curtain was a very real fiction.   

Digital Solitude: In your opinion, what are the conditions a society needs for a permeable and open-access approach to history (and archives), and in logical consequence for a mutual exchange in solidarity?  

Simina Neagu: I might not be the most informed person to answer this, but taking notes from the wonderful librarian and archivist colleagues that I have the pleasure of working with, perhaps digitizing materials and making them available online would be a first step. At the same time, and this is a much larger conversation, oral history plays a crucial role in preserving some of that immaterial, ephemeral history. How do we make sure that is not irretrievably lost? Listening to elders such as Paul Joseph offers invaluable keys to current struggles. I think Nadia Josephs comment, »In spite of apartheid,« the last track of the playlist, is a much more developed answer to the second part of your question. I will leave you in the hands of her precise observations.    


Anca Rujoiu conducted this interview in collaboration with Denise Helene Sumi (Digital Solitude) 

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