The state visit was a staple of the Cold War. These lavish displays of statesmanship were used to demonstrate ideological fraternity, and to win the affections of wavering parties. Looking back on them now, these visits seem theatrical and often incongruous — today Buckingham Palace no doubt regrets having welcomed Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu with open arms back in 1978. The carefully orchestrated artificiality of these high-level meetings is never far from the surface. This is why the many hundreds of photos of Josip Broz Tito’s state visits to Africa housed in his Presidential Archive are so revealing and disconcerting.
As the driving force behind the Non-Aligned Movement, Yugoslavia’s globetrotting president devoted a huge amount of time and resources to the newly independent African nations who made up much of its membership. His crew of official photographers were on hand to document the confetti and handshakes. And perhaps, with time on their hands in advance of Tito’s arrival, they also captured the behind-the-scenes world of this “socialist friendship”: empty streets awaiting stretch limos; listless roadside crowds patiently waiting for cavalcade to pass; the banal and personal underbelly to the pomp and circumstance.
“Africa was presented as the domain on which Tito built his reputation as a globally significant political figure,” says Radovan Cukić, head of the Research Department at the Museum of Yugoslav History in Belgrade, where the Tito photos are archived. “He claimed the field of foreign policy for his own and nowhere was he more able to act than in African affairs.” Tito’s early moves to charm post-colonial Africa gave Yugoslavia a disproportionate influence in the continent: during the Suez Crisis in 1956 a Yugoslav regiment posted in Sinai was one of the guarantors in establishing peace, and Yugoslavia was a major supporter of Algerian independence, for which it sacrificed its good relationship with France.
Africa was presented as the domain on which Tito built his reputation as a globally significant political figure
Between 1954 and 1979, Tito toured the length and breadth of Africa. Among his closest allies and most frequent hosts were Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie and Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom he visited more than 20 times in Cairo. These men, along with Houari Boumediene in Algeria and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya became celebrities in Yugoslavia thanks to media coverage of Tito’s exploits. Public affection back home seemed to match Tito’s public fraternal remarks: Cukić notes that the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, first premier of the independent Congo “caused mass demonstrations in Belgrade that resulted in huge disorder and the sacking of the Belgian embassy.”
What of the behind-the-scenes shots, with their informality and banality? It is hard to imagine equivalent photos emerging of, say, the Soviet elite. “Nowhere else do we get so many images of landscapes, the rural everyday, scenes of traditional living and even an exploration of human physiognomy as in these informal photos,“ asserts Cukić.
Tito’s photographers were serving a dual purpose: propagandising the president’s work while at the same time making selections to be passed to Tito for his own private presidential collection. “There are 708 boxes worth of these private selections, numbering around 132,000 photos,“ Cukić says. “Clearly not all the informal photographs made it into the press. Many of them were probably preserved for the private collections, making up something like a family album.“
Collectively, the images offer a tantalising glimpse of the genuine personal emotion underlying the parades and speeches of Cold War diplomacy. In the words of Radovan Cukić, “in the photos of [Tito’s African] visits what is noticeable is the sense of spontaneity. He enjoys local dances, eats traditional food. And this is of a part with his straightforward, warm relationships with African leaders.” The true face, perhaps, of the European statesman — with his elegant white linen suits and penchant for safaris and big-game hunting — abroad in Red Africa.
Images from the archives of the Museum of Yugoslav History are on display in the exhibition Things Fall Apart, part of the Calvert 22 Foundation’s Red Africa season, from February 4th - April 3rd.