top of page

Non-Alignment Summit Anniversary a difficulty to re-member

10 Nov 2021

Dunja Karanović & Jovan Mladenović

About a month and a half has passed since Serbia hosted the 60th anniversary celebration of the 1st Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement. Over a hundred member and observer state delegations gathered for a two-day conference in Belgrade, the same city where the 1st Summit was held in the Fall of 1961.

1st Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Belgrade 1961. Source: Wikipedia

I say about a month and a half has passed, because the events that unfolded in the short time span since the anniversary are somehow difficult to align. The two decades preceding the emergence of this text were all about erasing the 31 years this particular locus was part of the Non-Aligned Movement. I say locus because for someone who was born around the time one country disappeared and six new ones were created, it’s also difficult to pinpoint which entity took part in what. [1] In 1961, when our capital hosted the Summit, it was the capital of a different country. It was also the capital of a member country, which is no longer the case. [2] The difficulty to discern the when and where is one that our current regime took advantage of during the national broadcasting of the 2021 event.

Over the course of two days, two decades of erasure were spun off through a clever campaign of government myth-weaving. Pro-regime media outlets were swarming with yugonostalgia and titoist trivia as the streets of Belgrade turned into a scenography of brightly colored flags and banners representing the 105 countries participating in the event. Remembrance and erasure were intertwined in an attempt to blur out the fact that Serbia’s current political system is in no way in line with the values behind non-alignment. Even more so, an attempt to pass over the fact that the system is a direct successor of the regime that got us kicked out of the Movement in the first place. [3]

The Non-Aligned Movement was created in opposition to the hegemonic trajectories of the post-WWII world. An alternative built around the values of emancipation, anticolonialism, equity, peace, solidarity, and cooperation. Twenty-five countries came together in that first summit to stand against the inevitability of the Cold War. One of their main agreements was that disarmament was crucial for maintaining international stability and social justice. To illustrate just one in a multitude of paradoxes employed in the theatrical 60th anniversary celebration, the last day was rounded off with the opening of the 10th International Arms and Military Equipment Fair [4].

Looking at some of the events of the past month and a half, it becomes clear just how much this political charade was used to conceal the actual pan-alignment of our current locus. Two human rights activists were taken into police custody for throwing eggs on a mural depicting a nineties war criminal in Belgrade. [5] Five hundred Vietnamese workers are being held hostage in inhumane conditions on a construction site in Zrenjanin [6]. Ten children ended up in the infirmary after running a school race in Lazarevac on a day when it measured the highest air pollution rate in Europe. [7] A bank was sued for refusing to open accounts to Iranian refugees and asylum seekers in Serbia. [8] The list goes on. I write this in an effort to decode some of the messages that were sent during the two days Serbia was celebrating. Yes, the first summit was organized in Belgrade in 1961. Yes, it is important to remember the values that guided the following three decades. But whether or not this is the same Belgrade that upheld those values then is up for the reader to decide. Personally, it feels a lot like the scenario from Spielberg’s 2004 film Terminal – we are still there, but there is no longer the same there to go back to.

Photo: Branimir Karanovic

Considering how Tito had to make most of his diplomatic journeys by boat (the famous “Seagull”), it is curious how the twenty-first century has rendered us closer geographically yet further apart ideologically. The 1st summit, initiated by Nehru, Nasser, and Tito, was about creating ties of friendship and cooperation between distant cultures, and taking a pacifist stance against the global power structures. Sixty years later, distance has become the keyword as the world is faced with a global pandemic and the climate crisis, deepening the gap between what we still call the developing (distant) and the developed (power structures). Remembering how the Belgrade Summit of 1961 happened only two weeks after the Berlin wall started literally dividing East and West, it seems almost counterintuitive to say we could be more in need of interdependence and solidarity today than we ever were.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the question of whether there is still a need for a Non-Aligned Movement has been raised. The Movement now consists of 120 members and 17 observer countries, including Russia which has joined this year. The sixtieth anniversary of the Belgrade Summit was marked by world leaders simultaneously calling for international solidarity and multilateralism, and asking for support for their current foreign politics [9]. Underlining the pan-alignment approach of Serbia, the event included a strong presence of both China and Russia, which were historically on the opposing side of the principles proposed by Tito, Nasser, and Nehru.

In addressing these issues and the importance of revitalizing some of the connections made during the 1961 summit, Serbian officials spoke about how proud they are as a government to be continuing Tito’s diplomatic legacy and Yugoslavian values. The same officials who spend most of their working days in the National Assembly, in between what used to be the Marx and Engels Square, and what used to be the Boulevard of Revolution. The last Non-Alignment Movement summit organized in Belgrade took place in 1989, in a post-Tito, post-Berlin Wall, and pre-nineties setting. Since then, over 200 Belgrade street names have been changed from those commemorating Yugoslavian history to those beating around it. The former Federal Executive Council of Yugoslavia (built in 1961!) is now the Palace “Serbia”, the Central Committee building is now overshadowed by a shopping mall, and the former Trade Union Hall is named after a bank. Most recently, the city’s deputy mayor suggested we should rename those streets which still bear the names of ex-Yugoslav capitals and cities – a final deletion of Tito’s brotherhood and unity.

For those of us living in New Belgrade, Nehru, Gandhi, and Agostinho Neto are still household names. However, walking the streets of Belgrade you have a better chance of noticing street signs in Russian, English, and Mandarin, than any sign of our pride in Yugoslavian values. Alignment with each and every capitalist power structure is now embedded in our public spaces.

In an attempt to rediscover and commemorate the remnants of non-alignment in public space, the Museum of African Art created an interactive online heritage map, marking various monuments related to the NAM in the streets of Belgrade and the rest of the world. The heritological map is still growing, but already features many street names, monuments, murals, and buildings that were created either for or during the two summits that happened in Belgrade in Yugoslav time. The project is a part of their larger exhibition “Non-Aligned World”, curated by Emilia Epštajn, Ana Knežević, Milica Naumov and dr Nemanja Radonjić, to mark the anniversary of the 1961 NAM summit. More than half a century after the event, they invite us to locate the “Non-Aligned World” in our present day, what the movement used to be and mean, what of it still exists today?

Peace, equality, solidarity, cooperation, emancipation, and anti-colonialism are the central themes of the exhibit, as the key elements of defining personal as well as group identities – the hope for building a new world. The exhibition tends to focus on the weight, importance, and tenderness that these terms bear today. Regardless of whether they are used as mottos for social justice movements, or they are drawn as cultural or social classifications, these ideas are very much alive and needed in present times. Accordingly, the curatorial concept focuses on the meaning of the words and ideas, how they were proliferated at that point, and how they motivated people to act by better understanding their role on a global scale, despite being conveyed through state media outlets. The exhibition is structured in a way that gives us a glimpse of the past that is less known, tells a story about the common people, and emphasizes the atmosphere that was created around the possibility of creating a new (Non-Aligned) world.

Non-Aligned World Exhibition – Museum of African Art in Belgrade. Photo: Jelena Jankovic

The Museum of African Art symbolically and literally preserves the legacy of the Non-Aligned Movement, outlining the importance of cultural diplomacy in times of crises. The Museum of African Art is the first and only museum in the region entirely dedicated to the cultures and arts of the African continent. Their permanent display is based on examples of (primarily) West African art and includes objects from the collection formed by the founders of the Museum – Veda Zagorac and dr Zdravko Pečar. Over the course of twenty years spent in West Africa, as a journalist, diplomat and Yugoslav ambassador in seven African countries, Dr. Zdravko Pečar together with his wife Veda Zagorac was developing friendship-based contacts with both African statesmen/diplomats, as well as common people.

For forty years this institution has made a significant contribution to promoting and fostering cultural relations and encouraging the principles of multilateralism and cultural diversity. Endorsing the importance of African and non-European culture is the foundation upon which the overall work of this museum is based. While the permanent display has remained unchanged since the opening of the museum (encapsulating in a sense the cultural, diplomatic, and curatorial practices of the time), their program incorporates more contemporary arts production from Africa. [10]

Another critical approach to the issue of remembrance and commemoration in relation to 1961 values was also assumed by Ana Panić and Jovana Nedeljković, the curatorial team behind the exhibition “Prometheans of the New Century” in the Museum of Yugoslavia [11]. The exhibition title comes from a painting of the same name by the Yugoslav artist Petar Lubarda, which took the central place of the decor of the 1st Summit of the Non-Aligned in 1961.

The central theme of the exhibition is the relationship between Yugoslavia and India presented through art and the exchange of cultural ideas between the two countries. Josip Broz Tito visited India for the first time in 1955, which is considered by many to be the spark that started the whole idea for creating the movement. This relationship is portrayed by the gifts Tito received from Indian officials and artists during his diplomatic meetings. The exhibition also features the works of Indian artists who were given scholarships from the Yugoslav government to study alongside prominent Yugoslavian artists. The political ties between the two non-aligned countries were strengthened through diplomatic and cultural exchange, including contemporary art practices. In terms of bilateral cultural exchanges, the openness of cultural institutions in Serbia to contemporary artistic and curatorial practices from what is nowadays called the Third world has not moved much since the sixties and seventies.

The second part of the exhibition continues to communicate with India, this time through the work of the painter Petar Lubarda. Lubarda spent several months in India in 1963, at the invitation of the Yugoslav Commission for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. This experience left a deep mark on him, which influenced his art to explore the themes of the universal battle of good and evil, primordial impulse in humans, and their connection with matter and elements. All of these embodied in paintings such as “Awakening of Africa” (1956-1959), “Prometheus” (1967), “Man and Beasts” (1964), and “Bull and Cloud” (1963).

But what happened to “Prometheans of the New Century”?

As the legend goes, Prometheus was punished for bringing humans fire by being bound to a rock, and an eagle was sent to eat his liver which would then grow back overnight, only to be eaten again the next day in an ongoing cycle. Having taken center stage in the 1961 summit, the original painting was in recent years hung inthe cinema of Kombank Hall [12], formerly known (ironically) as Trade Union Hall.

Vladimir Nikolic – “The Communist Painting in The Age of Digital Reproduction” (2017)

This is all emphasized in a video work entitled “Communist Painting in the Age of its Digital Reproduction” by Vladimir Nikolić – the final element and conclusion to the exhibition. The work was commissioned in 2017 for the exhibition When the Other meets the Other curated by Biljana Ćirić. Once a symbol of freedom from external control and economic exploitation, it seems that our Prometheus of the New Century has been bound to a wall above the ticket stand, sentenced to an ongoing cycle of endless consumerism.

In the new setting, it closes the exhibition on a symbolic level, but at the same time opens the question of what happened to the ideas of modernism, which we were once so proud of. What happened to the values and ideas of non-alignment, solidarity, anti-colonialism, and revolutionism?

Dunja Karanović (Belgrade, 1996) is a visual artist and freelance journalist. 
Jovan Mladenović (Kraljevo, 1995) is an art historian and an MA student at the Belgrade University of Arts -UNESCO Chair in Cultural Policy and Management.

[1] Yugoslavia stopped being a member of the NAM in 1992; from 1991 until the early 2000s the country was fraught with a civil war which resulted in its gradual breakup. The ex-Yugoslav states – Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Kosovo* have not regained their membership within the Non-Aligned Movement. The question of transitional justice in the region is still ongoing.
[2] Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina currently hold an observer status in the Non-Aligned Movement.
[3] The ruling party in Serbia was created in 2008 by former members of the far-right Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj, who served as prime minister of Serbia between 1998 and 2000, and was tried for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
[10] REFLECT – Namibia after 30 years of independence (2020), EVERYDAY POETICS Instagramming Life in East Africa (2019), POLES APART Exhibition by Massinissa Selmani etc. (2019)
[11] The Museum of Yugoslavia is the new name of a complex of three museums. The “Prometheans of the New Century” exhibition takes place at The 25th May Museum, named after the birthday of Tito, as the institution was presented to the president as a gift from the city on his seventieth birthday. Interestingly, it was designed in 1962 by the architect Mihailo Mika Janković, the same architect who designed the aforementioned Central Committee (CK) and Federal Executive Council (SIV) buildings. The period that followed the 1961 NAM summit in Belgrade was marked by many milestones in the field of culture, including the founding of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade in 1965.
[12] After the Trade Union Hall was privatized in 2018, the painting was moved to another hallway within the newly renamed Kombank Hall.
bottom of page