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September 08, 2011

Moscow Biennale Art Performance Brings Attention to Victims of Racist Violence

Jamaican-American thinker Claude McKay saw hope for racial equality in 1923 Russia.

This week, the New York-based conceptual artist Yevgeniy Fiks led a group tour in Moscow of several sites of violent hate crimes targeting people of African descent. Fiks read passages from Claude McKay’s 1923 essay “Soviet Russia and the Negro,” written after the Jamaican-American thinker’s visit to the Soviet Union. In 1922, McKay met with key members of the Communist party in Moscow and briefed them on the prejudice and bigotry encountered by blacks in Africa and Europe, offering his thoughts on what should be done to counter racism and improve the human rights of ethnic minorities. McKay was astonished by the positive reception and the “spirit of sympathetic appreciation” he encountered in the post-Czarist Russia. “And so, to the Russian, I was merely another type, but stranger, with which they were not yet familiar,” he wrote, pointing out that it was a refreshing experience that differed from the “intolerable impertinence and often downright affront” one would experience in Germany or England. The attitudes of the educated elites and the common workers and soldiers alike seemed remarkable to Claude McKay: “It was so beautifully naive; for them I was only a black member of the world of humanity.” He felt his days in Russia “were a progression of affectionate enthusiasm of the people towards me,” and those days were “the most memorable” in his life.

Artist Yevgeniy Fiks at one of his public performances

Yevgeniy Fiks’s performance juxtaposed the enthusiasm of McKay’s memories to the somber reality of modern Moscow. The staged reading of Claude McKay’s essay took place at the sites of racist violent attacks against ethnic minorities that took place during the past decade. Fiks’s performance was both a mourner’s prayer dedicated to the memory of those who perished in these heinous crimes and a wake-up call for a nation struggling with racism and discrimination. In a recent public opinion poll by the Levada Center, 46 percent of Russians admitted to holding xenophobic views (a 5 percent increase since 2009), and 52 percent of the respondents pointed to a recent growth in nationalist attitudes among the general population. Although public xenophobia appears on the rise, the peak of xenophobic violence was in 2008 when the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis reported that 109 people were murdered and 486 injured in attacks allegedly motivated by racism. Although SOVA is widely recognized as the most trusted monitor of such attacks, the Moscow-based NGO will be first to admit that its data is incomplete because the vast majority of incidents remain either unreported or unrecorded. For example, in a 2009 study by the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy, 60 percent of surveyed Africans working or studying in Moscow said they had been physically assaulted in racially motivated attacks. Many said they avoided public transport and stayed out of crowds, fearing verbal harassment and violence. The SOVA Center’s latest data shows that since the beginning of the year, 15 people were killed and 80 injured in racially motivated crimes. While the new data is a remarkable decrease since 2008—attributed primarily to improved policing, higher rates of prosecution for such crimes, and more antiracist political rhetoric and awareness-raising campaigns—the numbers are a reminder that Russia is still struggling with the phenomenon of racist violence. A racially motivated assault recently left a Kenyan citizen wounded in Saint Petersburg, reports SOVA. The organization’s website is an excellent tool for policymakers, the media, and service providers. Yevgeniy Fiks, who also relied on SOVA’s news digests for the performance, shows how such information can be used by individuals interested in directing the public’s attention to a key problem in today’s Russia. Yevgeniy Fiks's performance “Russia and the Negro. Kaddish.” will be shown as a video installation later this month at ARTPLAY Design Center as part of the Fourth Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art’s "Media Impact" International Festival of Activist Art.