Rachel Leow
Mar 6, 2016 · 6 min read
“The Sixties — A Worldwide Happening”. Tropenmuseum, 16 October 2015–13 March 2016

The Tropenmuseum happened to be running an exhibition on the ‘Global Sixties’ while our nerd brigade was in Amsterdam in January 2016, working together in the archives of the International Institute of Social History. A group excursion to visit it seemed an apt end to the week.

‘The Sixties’ have long existed in the western imagination as an ambiguous decade: fun and war, drugs and sexual liberation, rock n’ roll and radical politics. Its legacies are expressed as much by the peace sign as the clenched fist. The Tropenmuseum’s Global Sixties exhibition was an attempt to retell the history of the Sixties from a non-western perspective: how this period of time was experienced differently in different parts of the world. In other words, to ask not only when the Sixties were, but also where they were.

For much of Asia, Africa and Latin America, the Sixties were a time of decolonization, nation-building, and development. The global South thus shared in some of the optimism and cultural experimentation that characterize Europe and America’s Sixties. Yet it was also the global South that bore the brunt of real Cold War violence, and furnished so many sources for the radical politics of the decade: the global export of Maoist revolution and the tragedy and indignity of the Vietnam War, among others. The attempt to extend the lens of ‘the Sixties’ to the globe yields surprising, even transformative insights: a world far more entangled across politics, culture and society than we knew.

Left: Ed van der Elsken, Avenue Magazine fashion reportage (1969). Right: Kishan Chand Hemani, photographs of ‘hippies’ in Pushkar, India (1966–78)

Nearly all iconic aspects of the Sixties have global stories, and the curators of the exhibition tell them with a wide range of unique materials. The most obvious, perhaps, is the story of fashion’s globalization. The infamous miniskirt spread far beyond the fashion centers of Haight-era San Francisco and Swinging London: it seeped gleefully into Accra, Bangkok and Moscow and was banned with equal outrage in Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania. But fashion, as the curators are keen to point out, was no simple story of diffusion. The ‘hippy trails’ to New Delhi and Kathmandu produced the unmistakable aesthetic of an international generation of youth in search of cultural liberation. Middle Eastern and South Asian textures and colours regifted a self-conscious orientalist aesthetic to sixties haute couture. Syrian fabrics, Afghan coats, and ‘oriental kaftans’ graced the catwalk; ‘Nehru-style’ jackets were proudly matched with ‘harem’ trousers. I spent a good deal of time coveting an unduly glorious coat made from an Iraqi carpet.

Left: Miniskirts in Bangkok, 1972. Center: Fashion show on Greek Street, London (1968) — a model wearing a dress made from Syrian embroidered silk. Right: Theo Porter, ‘Coat Made with Antique Iraqi Samawa Carpet’ (1969)
Global packaging repurposed as jugs and oil lamps: items from Algeria, Thailand, Afghanistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Morocco, Kenya, Tanzania, India, Indonesia and Guatemala

Other materials, too, embodied the tangled contradictions of the age. One section of the exhibition featured ingenious objects created from recycled consumer packaging: Kenyan oil lamps assembled from containers of Brasso metal polish or Heineken beer cans; Indonesian jugs and bicycle pumps cobbled together out of anti-perspirant cannisters. These creative appropriations attest to a world bound together by global markets and flows of consumer culture, and yet differentiated in reception and use: an old story of the bumpy, unexpected unfolding of globalization as process. (As for consumer products, so with ideas).

Even for obvious Sixties themes — rock & roll — in taking a global view, the exhibition manages to surprise. An Indonesian all-female rock band Dara Puspita takes pride of place as an icon of global garage rock. The four women, sporting stylish bobs and impossibly small skirts, turned their hometown in Surabaya upside down, performing original sass on borrowed instruments, touring Indonesia, Southeast Asia and eventually Europe throughout the late 60s and early 70s. In the central atrium of the Tropenmuseum, we sat with our heads in faux hair perm machines that doubled as speakers, and listened to the lost sounds of Indonesia’s roaring Sixties. For Indonesia, this decade is so often remembered as one of tragic politics: a military coup and a horrifying, anti-communist massacre. We are reminded that it is also one for which, apparently, national independence and patriotism seemed appropriate topics to render in Beatles chords.

Dara Puspita, London 1969
Dara Puspita, ‘Tanah Airku’ (My Homeland)

Di sana letaknya / Tanah airku / Yang selalu ku puja / Dalam hatiku
There lies / my homeland / which I praise always / in my heart

A new global consciousness infused the poster art of the Sixties. Fights for civil rights in the US; African and Asian decolonizations; the Cuban revolution; Vietnam — these movements both drew on and produced global images of societies undergoing dramatic, violent transformation. Sixties protest politics were underwritten by a shared, self-consciously global sense of injustice — as Bob Dylan and anti-Vietnam demonstrators sang, ‘the whole world is watching.’ For a while, national pride fed internationalism rather than parochialism. New political energies arose in the socialist world. In East Asia, the Sino-Soviet split prised open a space of challenge to Moscow’s internationalism; Beijing complicated the binary logic of the Cold War and fought to lead the Third World. Global space was crowded with ebullient transnational imaginaries: pan-Africanism, pan-Arabism, pan-Asianism, and yes, the Afro-Asian networks and solidarities of which we are in pursuit in our project.

The art of the political poster

Above all, the decade was one of great futures envisioned, and then lost, or imperfectly realized, as the decade came to a close. Science and technological advancement opened the promise of space, new frontiers for mankind, modern industries, bureaucracies and architectures. National liberation movements held out promises of dignity and justice. These futures coloured the politics of the age, but their ebullience was destined to deflate into the more deradicalized, pessimistic decade which followed. The Sixties, we might say, collapsed under the weight of its many utopias. The Seventies were marked by oil and economic crisis in the Middle East; the colder realities of African development; Sino-American rapprochement and a new pragmatism in Cold War geopolitics; the descent into nationalist feuding among Marxist brothers-in-arms in East Asia. It was the beginning of the end too, some say, of the Third World.

Left: ‘Study the Soviet Union to advance to the world level of science’, China, 1958. Right: ‘Journey to the Moon’, Egypt, 1959.

Little of this deflation is in the exhibition, though. I left the hall energized, instead, with the spirited utopias it chose to highlight. I was reminded to continue to listen closely to the many voices of those who lived in and through the pasts which constitute our present: to understand who they were, what they fought for, and, perhaps most poignantly for this decade, what they dreamed.

Afro-Asian Visions

New Perspectives on Decolonisation, the Cold War, and Asian-African Connections.

Rachel Leow

Written by

historian & postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. likes books which are axes for the frozen sea inside us. believes every pipe dream has a bibliography.

Afro-Asian Visions

New Perspectives on Decolonisation, the Cold War, and Asian-African Connections.

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