Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Afro PRL - Representation of Africans in Polish Press Photography (1955-1989)

During last few months I was working on the exhibition entitled 'Afro PRL - Representation of Africans in Polish Press Photography (1955-1989)'. The exhibition is available to view (until 29th of May) at History Meeting House in Warsaw, Poland.  It is a practical element of my PhD research at Ulster University.

Below I am publishing an English version of the exhibition text. The show is divided to 5 parts, which are in fact the chapters of my thesis.


In 2005, I decided to go to the UK for a long-term stay. Adaptation stage was relatively long. During this period, for the first time, I found press articles describing me, a Pole, as a representative of a national minority living in Great Britain. I will never forget the articles printed in British tabloids about the "emigrants from the East" who "take our jobs away" and "come to us because of the benefits". These articles showed us as the foreign element feeding on the wealth of British citizens, and did not facilitate acclimatization.

Around the same time, I began studying documentary photography. Most of my projects focused on broadly understood emigration. A few years later I also became interested in the situation of Africans in Poland. This time I went back to the starting point, that is to press content analysis, or more precisely to analysis of press photography. I discovered how rich the period of the Polish People's Republic (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa, PRL) was in terms of representations of Africans living in Poland, which is also proven by this exhibition. A real boom on African themes in the Polish press started in 1955 when 5th World Festival of Youth and Students was organised in Warsaw. As the exhibition "Afro PRL" focuses on photographs taken in Poland, and over 900 Africans came to Warsaw for this festival, the choice of the theme that opens the exhibition was obvious to me (section “Delegates”).

The press representations of Africans living in the People's Republic of Poland was mostly positive. This was connected with the policy of the USSR, and thus also of the PRL, towards African countries that were seceding from the colonial rule (section "Revolutionaries"). This policy was aimed at increasing the influence of socialism in the regions that were awakening again. Socialism in Africa was also to be promoted by the increasing number of African graduates of Polish universities returning to their homelands. The number of Africans studying in Poland grew steadily: from four in the late fifties to two thousand in the seventies. In the years 1962-1972 the Polonia Publishing House was even publishing a magazine entirely intended for distribution in Africa and Asia, which, through publication of materials describing lives of Africans in Poland, was to encourage potential students to come to the Polish People's Republic (section "Citizens").

Although numerous photos of African students in Poland were published in the press (section "Students"), African themes were not limited just to them. The PRL was visited by delegations of politicians from different African countries. On a larger scale they began to arrive after 1960, a year in which seventeen African countries declared independence, and which is since referred to as the “year of Africa. In 1961, such personalities as Ghana’s president Kwame Nkrumah and the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, visited Poland. Their visits were widely documented in the press (section "Comrades").
Propaganda was an important element of strengthening the "Polish-African friendship”. The press, to which photography was an indispensable element, presented the Polish People's Republic as a country where people of African descent were equal members of society, and visiting African guests were treated with due respect, which was required by the diplomatic protocol. It should be noted, however, that editorial errors could be found in the press, and this combined with the colonial literature still published in Poland, portraying Africans as subhuman, suggests that there was an image-forming "ideological struggle” in communist Poland. On one hand, Africans were represented as revolutionaries, comrades or citizens, and on the other hand - still as an exotic curiosity.

The exhibition "Afro PRL" is divided into five thematic parts which were selected during the analysis of materials collected from the following press titles: Trybuna Ludu (People's Tribune), Sztandar Młodych (The Banner of Youth), Świat Młodych (Youth’s World), Życie Warszawy (Life of Warsaw), Zielony Sztandar (The Green Banner), Dziennik Łódzki (Łódzki Daily), Dookoła Świata (Around the World), Polska (Poland), The Polish Review. Quotations from newspaper articles that can be read on the exhibition come from these publications.

The exhibition is a practical element of the PhD research conducted by Bartosz Nowicki at the University of Ulster in Belfast.

1. Delegates

Warsaw, 31.07.1955. The official opening of the 5th World Festival of Youth and Students at the 10th Anniversary Stadium in Warsaw. Fig. Stanisław Wdowiński (CAF/PAP).

The World Festival of Youth and Students was a reoccurring event resulting from the idea, which guided the establishment of the World Federation of Democratic Youth (the main organizer of this event) in London in 1945. The idea contained in the words of the oath obligated its members to build unity of youth in the world regardless of the skin color, nationality or religion. For the Eastern bloc countries, the festival has become an excellent platform for propagating socialism, especially among young people coming from colonial areas freeing themselves from oppression (the struggle of the superpowers for influence in these areas was one of the fronts of the Cold War).

The 5th World Festival of Youth and Students, held between July 31 and August 14, 1955, was the first post war mass event in Poland. It is estimated that over 26,000 foreign delegates from 114 countries came to the festival. 911 African delegates who came to Warsaw represented mostly areas subordinate to European capitals.

The residents of Warsaw enjoyed the arrival of "exotic" guests. The festival was the first, on a larger scale, chance for Poles to interact with Africans. For many of them it was also an opportunity to confront stereotypes with reality.

Those who did not participate in the event directly could follow it in the press. One of the main tasks for journalists was to educate the public in a manner consistent with the Eastern bloc policy of perceiving their contemporary Africans. The readers were encouraged to look beyond the exotic, to see them not only as the representatives of societies rising from their knees, "freeing themselves from the bondage of colonialism", but also to notice people who love life, smiling friends. This goal has not been fully achieved. The festival can be compared to a testing ground, where editors, journalists and photographers whose task was to educate the readers were learning by themselves to "correctly" represent delegates, whom both, they and society perceived as exotic.

Warsaw, 08.08.1955. 5th World Festival of Youth and Students. Photo: Bolesław Miedza (CAF/PAP).

2. Revolutionists

In 1960, seventeen African countries declared independence from colonial rule. The Polish People's Republic recognized the autonomy of newly formed states. One of them was the Republic of the Congo, a country rich in natural resources. From the very beginning of its existence, the country struggled with its internal problems and interventions of superpowers competing with each other over influence in the country. These actions resulted in January 1961 in the arrest and subsequent murder of the first democratically elected prime minister of the country, Patrice Lumumba, supported by the Eastern bloc.

Polish newspapers informed about current events in Congo and, without concealing their indignation, emphasized the support of the Polish government to Lumumba. At the turn of 1960-1961 in Warsaw there were two protests of solidarity with the Congolese people. The first, which according to the contemporary newspapers was organized by the Polish Socialist Youth Union, Rural Youth Union, and Polish Students' Association, took place on December 10, 1960 in the courtyard of the University of Warsaw. The second took place on February 14, 1961, the day when "Trybuna Ludu" announced the death of Lumumba, which had been kept in secret for a month by the prime minister’s torturers. African students living in Poland took part in both protests, which was documented by press photographers. Their participation, especially in the march to the Belgian embassy (a former Congo colonizer) in February 1961, was of course of great ideological importance. The press emphasized the unity of both nations. Photographs of Poles and Africans (students coming from different countries can be seen in the photos) standing side by side, fighting for a just end to the Congo conflict, and - as it was written - for total abolition of colonialism, served a twofold function. On the one hand, they were a confirmation of the "unity" described in the newspapers, and on the other hand, they made readers realize that Africans also live, study and work in Poland. The frequency with which photographs of Africans were published in the press in this period may be compared to that of the festival period, but now the pictures did not present foreign delegates, but Africans living in Poland and speaking Polish.

Warsaw, 10.12.1955. Protest against colonial intervention in the Congo held at the courtyard of the University of Warsaw Photo: Jan Tymiński (CAF/PAP).

3. Comrades

The Polish People's Republic, like other Eastern bloc countries, quickly established diplomatic relations with the majority of newly formed African countries. Therefore, in 1961 the Polish press began to publish photographs and articles covering the visits of government delegations from these countries in Poland.

The majority of such media coverage comes from the first half of the sixties. Kwame Nkrumah from Ghana or the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie visited Poland at that time. In later years the topic of African politicians’ visits almost entirely disappears from newspapers (although such visits were still organised on different levels), to return again in the late seventies, when Agostinho Neto, the president of Angola in 1977 and  Oluseguna Obasanjo, the president of Nigeria in 1978, visited Poland.

The ideologically important visit of the "new" President of Angola, Jose Eduardo Dos Santos in 1984, was a confirmation of the long-term friendship between Poland and Angola. At the same time, as “Trybuna Ludu” informed, it was the first visit of a foreign delegation to Poland after the martial law, which in the eyes of propaganda was the evidence of the Polish People's Republic's return to active participation in international politics.

A certain pattern of foreign delegations' visits emerges from articles written over several decades. It had a direct impact on type of photographs taken and published in the newspapers. The photographs show Africans and hosting representatives of the Polish government as comrades connected by "similarity of historical fates" and common ambitions, such as "total disarmament", important to propaganda of the sixties, and the never-ending "fight against imperialism". Even the systemic differences of individual African countries did not disturb the "common view of the world". Of course, in the case of visits of delegates from socialist countries the press emphasized their "belonging to the revolutionary movement".

Warsaw, 27.04.1977. The delegation of the People's Republic of Angola with the president A. A. Neto visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Photo: Tadeusz Zagoździński (CAF/PAP).

4. Student

Sandomierz, 21.07.1962. International Student Camp in Sandomierz. Teodor Mulumba from Congo is fishing in the Vistula river. Photo: Henryk Grzęda (CAF/PAP).

The policy of the Polish People's Republic authorities towards African countries enabled the first on a larger scale inflow of African students to Poland. They used to start their stay in the country with the one-year language course at the Polish Language Centre for Foreigners in Łódź. Only after finishing it students could start their education at universities all over the country.

According to Mokpokpo Dravi (student and actor known from the movie "Cafe under Minoga") in 1958 there were only four African students in Poland. Three years later, this number increased to around fifty in Warsaw alone. The biggest number of students from Africa - about two thousand – was studying in Poland in the seventies. Interestingly, in this period photographs representing African students in Poland almost completely disappeared from the newspapers, giving way to photographs taken in other countries of the Eastern Bloc. Nevertheless, photographs portraying students constitute one of the most frequently published "African" themes in the press from the period covered by this exhibition. In contrast to the images from the festival and photographs from visits of government delegations, they were dispersed over time and did not belong to the mainstream news presented in the newspapers. Typically, they were published to play the role of ideologically important and exotic "filler" in which the photo was the main content.

A counterbalance to photos published in the press constitutes photographs from private archives. Pictures taken to capture the moments spent with friends are (or, at least in the moment of taking, they were) deprived of political subtext. This can be easily seen, for example, when comparing press and private photos from the student dorm.

Photographs from the chronicle of the Polish Language Centre for Foreigners in Łódź can be considered as images of the centre. These are the photographs taken by students or guardians accompanying them, which were selected for presentation in the official chronicle of an institution that was subordinate to state authorities. However, it should be noted here that the chronicle did not have a propaganda character, as it was created in one copy only. There, among photographs from the Labour Day parade, a picture of the first African student of the Centre can be found. The chronicle also shows very personal spheres - for example, a photo of a friend who died during his studies was also published there.

A photo from the private archive of dr. Mamadou Diouf (1983-1989).

5. Citizens

“Miesięcznik Polski" (Polish Monthly) popularly called „Poland", was an illustrated magazine published by the Polonia Publishing House, whose aim was to promote Polish People's Republic abroad. The monthly was published in several language versions, which differ to a greater or lesser extent from each other. This resulted from the different needs of propaganda addressed to various geographical zones. In the years 1961-1972 an English-language version of the monthly, entitled "The Polish Review" was published. It was popularly known as the "African Poland". This version was intended for free distribution in Africa and Asia.

From the perspective of time, the "Polish Monthly" and especially its "African" version became a kind of chronicle of African life in Poland. Photographs published in them were taken by leading Polish photographers. In addition to a mere review of photos in the political news section, superficial by their nature, readers had the opportunity to see the private life of Africans in Poland. In most cases, Africans were portrayed there as happy people of success. Photos showed weddings and families taking a walk or at home or visiting doctors with their children. Reportages presented Africans at work, as doctors, students, PhD students, aviators, and paratroopers. The picture emerging from the pages of the "Polish Monthly" is an almost an idyllic one, which aims to enhance the image of life in the Polish People's Republic in the eyes of potential African students, and thus encourage them to come to Poland. It was a picture in which Africans were rarely presented as tireless revolutionaries and comrades, and more often as ordinary citizens.

Wroclaw, 1979. Doctor John Nwagbo from Nigeria. Photo: Irena Jarosińska (Ośrodek KARTA).