For the 14th Kaunas Biennial (Lithuania) and the 14th edition of Contemporary Art Festival Survival Kit (Latvia), co-curators Alicia Knock and Inga Lāce gather almost 40 artists across two cities to present Long-distance Friendships. These sister exhibitions of the same name—which open 25 August in Kaunas and 7 September in Riga, respectively—invite visitors to engage with stories of transnational solidarity, resistance and resilience, from post-socialist and post-colonial world where microhistories of friendships and encounters become a starting point for contemporary alliances.
Long-distance Friendships will invest in defunct infrastructures—the former Kaunas post office and a concrete warehouse in Kaunas Fortress Park, and Vidzeme Market in Riga—providing opportunities for reimagining them in the present. What new kinds of transactions might be supported, whether based on exchange and gifting or on fragmentation and impossibility? How can we foster long-distance solidarity, both in relation to Ukraine and against russian imperialism, but also in response to other colonial and neo-colonial wars and anti-imperial struggles? The sites in Kaunas and Riga will form a joint and complementary backdrop against which the intimate research journeys of Long-distance Friendships are presented. Knock and Lāce have chosen to engage with contemporary artists with strong ties to Africa and Eastern Europe across diaspora and within an open-ended transnational research. Some artists will exhibit exclusively at each exhibition, others will present ongoing and transitory works on-view across both sites.
Co-curators Knock and Lāce elaborate:
“This project attempts to connect histories of the relationship between Africa and Eastern Europe that are linked more closely than many are aware of. Our choice of the venues for each event is not a coincidence. The old central post office in Kaunas and the market in Riga are both collapsed spaces for exchange and togetherness. The histories of each space echo that of the people who inhabited them. By drawing on these personal histories, we are using traces of times past to invite artists to propose alternative perspectives for the future. In a time of geopolitical fragmentation, it is important to strive for international alliances that are forged through friendship and collaboration rather than power dynamics.”
14th Kaunas Biennial: Long-distance Friendships
The two-month-long Kaunas Biennial will be housed in one of the most significant sites of interwar Lithuanian modern architecture, the Kaunas Central Post Office (1931, architect Feliksas Vizbaras), and in a 19th century concrete warehouse, which was revived a few years ago as a space for artistic activities. One commission takes place at the former textile factory, where Ibrahim Mahama will work with the scars of the building. Artists from around 20 countries will present personal stories of exchanges, solidarity movements and acts of resistance that have in the past brought groups of people together. The Biennial’s main site echoes Long-distance Friendships’ strong focus on the importance of communication, speaking and being understood.
The spacious entrance hall of the Kaunas post office, once bustling with postal operations, will be reanimated with the exchange of letters, postcards, stamps and news shared with artists and friends from various locations. Encountered during the research process from countries such as Benin, Uganda, Ivory Coast, Sudan and Zimbabwe artists including Salah Elmur or Sam Kakaire will share postal fragments from their time in the former USSR and former Yugoslavia. Georges Adéagbo and Ibrahim Mahama among others, will reflect on the ideas of friendship and freedom by post, sketching new transnational pedagogies for today. New communication possibilities will unfold based on coded and indecipherable language or based on translation, such as in the work of Hamedine Kane revisiting the role of USSR trained filmmaker and educator Ousmane Sembene. Nino Krvivishvili and Marie-Claire Messouma Manlanbien create symbols drawn from textile patterns that expand on the rich textile history of the city, while other works will communicate via sound and other embodied interactions, like in the African post office reenacted by Sumayya Vally, Moad Musbahi and Thania Petersen.
Through François Xavier Gbre’s photographic intervention, the post office reveals itself as a transhistoric site embedded in former systems of censorship, from which a fragmented and reinvented history of resistance can emerge. Echoing the history of anti-Soviet student resistance in the 1970s in Kaunas, artists such as Admire Kamudzengerere and Ângela Ferreira activate the building’s underground spaces, mirroring the letter-making by imprisoned freedom fighters and military figures like Angela Davis.
Contemporary Art Festival Survival Kit 14: Long-distance Friendships
This year, Survival Kit takes place at the historic Vidzeme Market in Riga’s city centre. Founded in 1876, the market served the city of Riga as a multifunctional space for trade, social exchange, and storytelling. Over time, the market’s celebrated existence dissipated, its empty yet distinctive architecture a gentle reminder of the past. Aiming to re-populate the market, the Riga-leg of Long-distance Friendships takes its starting point in the complex legacy of former performances of peace and friendship in festivals, gatherings and conferences held throughout the Cold War. As a response to this prompt, the curators have invited 28 artists and collectives to reactivate the dormant market halls, as they propose a redefined framework for a transnational event addressing the issues of co-existence today. Live, hybrid cross-cultural exchanges will enact a deconstructed congress for future friendships, where traces of student exchanges between the socialist countries and countries in Africa, along with other lesser-known or decentralized episodes of Soviet cultural diplomacy, merge with fictional encounters. Artists such as Natalie Perkof will present gardens of future ecologies that lead us to female agency in the agricultural context. Historical episodes are complicated by the ever-growing and decaying ecologies of personal friendships through works by Ilona Németh and Endri Dani. Anawana Haloba and Lala Raščić offer gestures of care drawn from food and operatic forms of music that help shifting the gaze from past to present, while Adela Součkova jumps past and future, sky and earth, in her transformative hopscotch. New geometries of friendship open up through the Tashkent’s Afro-Asian writers and film festivals, which played an important role in cultivating Afro-Asian solidarity and will be addressed in work by the DAVRA Collective, while Anna Ehrenstein and Anastasia Sosunova address serious issues of new language and forms of representation in today’s youth.
Beyond festivals, cinema played a key role in post-independence nation-building, and will be addressed from the perspective of former students who were offered scholarships in the 1960’s to study in Moscow, Prague and Lodz. Artists including Jihan El Tahri, Zbyněk Baladrán and Tereza Stejskalová trace some of the first of these African students. Riga-based Inga Erdmane and Žulijens Nuhums Kulibali will rework material from archives of international students who attended the Riga Aviation Institute from the 1960s onwards, also detailing experiences of their children, the second generation of Afrolatvians.
While new seeds grow from ashes, we continue to ask: in this time of war, what kind of Survival Kit do we need? Riga and Kaunas will each propose temporary shelters.: Yonamine and Ihosvanny Cisneros reimagine a refugee camp from the Civil War in Angola as a learning space, Martin Zetová develops a sign language of anti-nuclear peace training, while Šejla Kamerić disseminates messages from the survival guide of the siege of Sarajevo across the two sites.
Participating Artists (* denotes work in both Riga and Kaunas)
14th Kaunas Biennial: Georges Adéagbo, Andrius Arutiunian, Judith Blum Reddy, Ihosvanny Cisneros, Andro Eradze, Ângela Ferreira*, François Xavier Gbre, Šejla Kamerić*, Jeanne Kamptchouang*, Admire Kamudzengerere, Hamedine Kane, Nikolay Karabinovych*, Mohammed Omar Khalil, Nino Kvrivishvili, Žilvinas Landzbergas, Ibrahim Mahama, Marie-Claire Messouma Manlanbien*, Ieva Martinaitytė-Mediodia, Jaanus Samma*, Yonamine*, Anastasia Sosunova*, Adéla Součková*, Magdalena Birutė Stankūnaitė-Stankūnienė, Sumayya Vally with Thania Petersen and Moad Musbahi, Kemang Wa Lehulere and Lefifi Tladi, Martin Zetová
Postal exchanges (preliminary list): Simon Benjamin, Claudie Dimbeng, Christopher Ejugbo, Salah Elmur, Petra Feriancova, Rashidah Ismaili, Sam Kakaire, Euridice Kala, Ermias Kifleysus, Louisa Marajo, Hassan Musa, Nonument Group, Tjasa Rener
Survival Kit 14: Younes Baba-Ali, Zbyněk Baladrán and Tereza Stejskalová, Nú Barreto, DAVRA Collective (Valeriya Kim, Dona Kulmatova, Zumrad Mirzalieva and Saodat Ismailova), Endri Dani, Anna Ehrenstein, Inga Erdmane, Ângela Ferreira*, Anawana Haloba, Šejla Kamerić*, Jeanne Kamptchouang*, Nikolay Karabinovych*, kuš!, Žulijens Nuhums Kulibali, Marie-Claire Messouma Manlanbien*, Ilona Németh, Thierry Oussou, Liene Pavlovska, Natalie Perkof, Lala Raščić, Jaanus Samma*, Janek Simon, Anastasia Sosunova*, Adéla Součkova*, Jihan El Tahri, Evita Vasiļjeva, Yonamine*, Ala Younis
14th Kaunas Biennial Long-distance Friendships will take place from 25 August to 29 October in Kaunas (Lithuania), at Kaunas Central Post Office (Laisvės av. 102) and P.A.R.A.K.A.S. (Prancūzų str. 2). The opening event will take place between 25th-26th of August.
Kaunas Biennial is partly funded by the Lithuanian Council for Culture and Kaunas City Municipality. More information: Bienale.lt
Contemporary Art Festival Survival Kit 14 Long-distance Friendships will take place from 7 September to 8 October 2023 in Riga, Latvia. Survival Kit 14 is organised by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art and supported by the State Culture Capital Foundation of Latvia, Riga City Council, Rīgas Nami, Goethe-Institut Riga and Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen. More information: survivalkit.lv
A collaboration is organised with Ljubljana Biennale of Graphic Arts (opens 15 September 2023) under the artistic direction of Ibrahim Mahama.