Recontextualizing the Archive: On Anouck Durand’s “Eternal Friendship”

In this context, it becomes impossible to definitively state what the archive shows about the past. The most obvious level of subversion at work in Eternal Friendship comes from the insertion of photographs into the book’s larger narrative. Propaganda photographs are used not as evidence of China and Albania’s “eternal friendship,” but as evidence of the Chinese and Albanian governments’ attempt to construct such a friendship. Each state published only images that supported the narratives they intended to tell about themselves — stories of collective strength, advanced industrial technology, and military power. The text, in Refik’s voice, comments on the strangeness of being “on this side of the camera.” In this way, Durand invites us to examine the individuals within the photograph of the collective whole. Instead Durand intersperses photographs of Refik and his delegation with collective partisan imagery. Its true import is revealed, however, by the accompanying text: “With Mosha (left) finally out of hiding in the basement: freedom!” Without these captions, a viewer would be unlikely to discern that these seemingly mundane pictures depict years of elusion and evasion — hiding in cramped basements, false identities, and even time in prison. The following page is a photograph of a stadium, filled with people, above which hang the portraits of each country’s respective leader. In this way, Durand primes us to rethink the propaganda photos he has shown us earlier. The book opens in 1970, when Refik visits China at the behest of the Albanian government. Some pictures used by Durand bear marks of the attempted destruction in the form of scratched-out and burned faces. Durand also cleverly crops archival images to invoke his motif of individual versus collective. Instead of the plain white background and grid-like placement utilized in the first part of the book, these images appear as though imprecisely pasted atop blue construction paper. Photography was touted as a tool of the revolution, one that could prove the viability of the communist project. A picture of Mosha and Gavra standing next to one another and smiling appears at first to be a generic family photograph. Ironically, there are more seemingly candid shots in the first portion of the book. Due to Albania’s strict censorship policies, Refik struggled to maintain contact with Gavra after the move. The resulting period of “eternal friendship” between China and Albania lasted as long as their prevailing political ideologies roughly aligned — from around 1958 to the early 1970s. His comics, interviews, and critical reviews have been published in The Rumpus, The Missouri Review, and ImageTexT. ¤
Will Moore is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri, where he studies nonfiction, essays, and comics. Early communist states idealized photography as an inherently socialist art form grounded in science and capable of pure representation. After the war, the Mandils resettled in Israel. Eternal Friendship contextualizes these images in a manner that subverts and repurposes their original function. One picture depicts Refik and the Albanian photographer Pleurat Sulo standing among a line of smiling workers outside of a factory. On the following page, Refik is introduced with the same technique. While telling a compelling personal story of friendship, Eternal Friendship also explores the flexible nature of the image. The accompanying text reads, “The friendship of brotherhood … solid like granite … unites our two countries. The sentiment may be heartfelt, but as with any political document, it is molded toward a specific purpose. SEPTEMBER 29, 2018
IN THE POST–WORLD WAR II political shuffle, China and Albania found themselves joined in an alliance of necessity. Refik’s family photographs are staged: the children are corralled to sit still just like the factory workers. The images in this section include pictures from Refik’s personal collection — sentimental photographs and individual portraits that one might find in a family album. Anouck Durand’s photocomic Eternal Friendship, translated by Elizabeth Zuba, uses this brief moment of attempted political harmony as the context for an invented narrative based on the real-life experiences of Albanian photographer Refik Veseli. Finally, the very use of these photos is subversive, as both governments attempted to destroy these archives when the Chinese-Albanian relationship deteriorated and each sought to erase the evidence of their former relationship. It does not merely revise or define the meaning of the images Durand selects, but situates these pictures within multiple contexts. It is among the only seemingly candid photographs in this section. Photography constructs histories, about ourselves and about our societies. Yet the text never ceases to comment upon each image from Refik’s perspective, explaining the constrained and constructed nature of the trip. The state propaganda photo offers, in addition to its intended purpose, a glimpse of Refik’s visit to China and evidence of the state manipulation of history. China and Albania.” This is most probably the intended message of this painting at its creation. The book does not include Refik on every page, nor do the pictures follow any sort of continuing action. The subjects are carefully posed and smile for the camera. He fulfilled the latter mission, but the story of his personal reasons for making the trip undercut the very documentary evidence that he has produced. Refik’s delegation poses with various locals in a series of photographs accompanied by a caption reading, “The Chinese have provided us with new cameras: a ‘Red Flag’ for each of us, the local replica of the Leica. In the 1970s, the farce of an eternal friendship between China and Albania might have been believable. Durand also includes a letter written by Gavra nominating Refik’s family as “Righteous Among Nations,” which ultimately enabled the two to reunite in 1990. One image shows Gavra and his sister standing in front of a Christmas tree. Durand divides this image into two panels, inserting a thin white gutter through the center of what was once a single image, separating the leaders’ portraits. Even though we know these photos were staged, this does not change the fact that these people did meet and stand among one another. In context, this photo is transformed from evidence of a strong and satisfied working class into a picture of a man posing so that he can get a chance to mail an unedited letter to his faraway friend. Refik, who is not a state ideologue, goes with the private purpose of sending a letter to Gavra from China, thereby bypassing the Albanian censors. During the war, Refik’s family helped the Mandils, a Jewish family, evade Nazi capture. What appears to be a larger photograph of a parade is cropped to focus on individual marchers to whom we are introduced: Refik Veseli, Pleurat Sulo, and Katjusha Kumi. During the period covered by Eternal Friendship, the production and distribution of photography was tightly controlled by the Chinese and Albanian governments. The latter portion of Eternal Friendship is devoted more exclusively to Refik’s history and his friendship with the Mandils. Other people in the photo are not looking at the camera, and one person (either Refik or Gavra) holds his hands above his head in celebration, even though this obstructs the composition of the photo. The artificial impetus of these meetings need not necessarily have precluded authentic connection. The studio advertisement becomes a tool of escape and subversion. But presented in the context of the 21st century, knowing that this period of cooperation barely lasted 20 years, the claim deflates. One of the final images in the book was taken in 1990, when Gavra and Refik are reunited at last. In this respect, it parallels the photos in this section, which one might expect to be more personal than those documenting Refik’s visit to China, but which remain just as beholden to ulterior purposes. “We hope they won’t take away our Kodak film,” Durand writes in Refik’s voice. While the pictures are aesthetically placed, they are neither perfectly aligned nor divided by consistently-sized gutters. Eternal Friendship repeatedly juxtaposes personal story with the tendency of communist art to eschew the individual and highlight collective struggle. Neither country was keen to make cozy with the capitalist West or Stalinist Russia, so pickings were slim. In the process, Refik formed a friendship with Gavra Mandil and learned photography from Gavra’s father, Mosha. Put another way, if the family photos are as staged as the propaganda photos, then it follows that the propaganda photos are at least potentially as authentic as the family photos. This portion of the book resembles a scrapbook more than a comic book. Eternal Friendship pairs a diary-like narrative written in the voice of Refik with archival photographs, a combination that explores the intersection of personal and national history. The scenes to be photographed are also provided.” Elsewhere the book reveals that Albanian photographers had at this point long been using Kodak film, which was superior to the putatively new trichrome printing process they were taught by the Chinese. The trip itself is part of a state propaganda campaign to promote a sense of unity between China and Albania. But what a photograph reveals changes with time, and it is often not a single story. But Durand also uses text to call out the staged nature of the photographs. Refik was sent to China to learn a new printing process, but he was also sent to generate photographic evidence of political cooperation. Eternal Friendship is a project of archival recontextualization. As with the propaganda photos, the personal photographs contain multiple meanings that Durand sets out to reveal. This was taken by their father to be used as advertising for his photo studio, and later repurposed as evidence of their Christianity designed to forestall Nazi harassment. He has been dispatched with a delegation of state photographers, ostensibly to learn the trichrome photographic printing process. Once the state is no longer interested in publishing (or even preserving) the images, their function switches from propaganda to evidence. One of the first pictures he includes is a painting of the two nations’ leaders, Mao Zedong and Enver Hoxha, clasping hands. This letter of nomination is, like the state propaganda photographs, a sort of fabrication. A nomination letter functions as a political plea, but also serves as an authentic testament of friendship. The photographs used by Durand depict parades of people carrying banners with slogans such as “Long live the friendship between the Chinese and Albanian people” and “Welcome comrades of the heroic Albanian people.” Other images show smiling partisans holding rifles or threshing wheat, smokestacks rising from industrial iron latticework, ballistic missiles, and anti-aircraft cannons. Nothing prevented Refik from enjoying the company of the factory workers.