Issue #140 Afro Asia and the Ethics of Friendship

Afro Asia and the Ethics of Friendship

Joan Kee in conversation with Serubiri Moses

Wu Biduan and Jin Shangyi, Chairman Mao Standing with the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1961, oil on canvas, 144 × 155 cm. Image courtesy: National Art Museum of China.

Issue #140
November 2023

Serubiri Moses: In your latest book, The Geometries of Afro Asia: Art Beyond Solidarity (2023), you discuss a 1961 painting by Chinese artists Wu Biduan and Jin Shangyi titled Chairman Mao Standing with the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. I’m quite interested in your reading of Mao Zedong in such paintings. For example, you point to the aftermath of the Sino-Soviet split when you write that, through Wu and Jin’s artwork, “Mao inhabits the center of a new world of nonwhite bodies.”1

This brings up many questions, starting with one about the realms in which that very world remains unseen. Why, in your view, hasn’t there been a sustained reading of Mao Zedong’s iconography within the United States, or even in Latin America? Do you think that a study such as yours, which looks predominantly at this 1960s period, is somewhat belated given that you also note the “shadow-like” Asian presence in American art writ large?

Joan Kee: Your question directly points out one of the huge gaps in so-called global histories of art, namely: Why have many iterations of “we” not yet grappled sufficiently with the enormous import of Maoism on an international scale? It is telling, for example, that a stand-alone volume discussing Maoism and twentieth-century art appeared only four years ago.2 Maoism is an incredibly complex subject, made all the more so by the multitude of contradictions that Mao himself embodied and that Maoist heritages cannot escape. What might be considered as reasonable metrics for quality of life, such as literacy or life expectancy, grew enormously in China during Mao’s lifetime. But more people died because of Mao’s policies and orders than under Hitler and Stalin combined.

From time to time, Maoism is discussed in art histories of the sixties and in histories of Chinese art. But I think there’s an underestimation of Maoist influence, which is one of the reasons why I began my book with a discussion of Wu and Jin’s work. It can appear that Maoism vis-à-vis modern and contemporary art registers most strongly through its distortion, namely the Mao silk-screen series Andy Warhol produced a decade before his visit to the People’s Republic in 1982. But all reproductions of Mao—whether by Warhol or those commissioned by the People’s Republic—underline just how distant any viewer was from Mao the person. That said, the magnitude and variety of reproduction also evinces how Maoism is successful in the visual languages it created, and in the power of circulation whose force, once unleashed, cannot be contained. In this way, Maoism is one possibility for charting an art history of the global majority, which for me turns very much on the tension between vulnerability and resilience. There’s a case to be made for a global history of art that takes as its flashpoints the popularity of the so-called “peasant” painters of Huxian in Great Britain and France in the mid-1970s, or the pictorial intelligence of Emory Douglas, whose work co-opted elements of Pop while also marshaling the Maoist belief in a world in constant revolution within which violent insurrection was necessary. This is also a story that can be traced through the works of artists like Erró (whose paintings collaged Mao onto a fictional world tour throughout the seventies), or the 1972 pavilion for Documenta 5, realized by Filipino artist/activist David Medalla and Artists’ Liberation Front cofounder John Dugger (who visited China that year, the first American artist to do so since 1949).3

Erró, Mao in Piccadilly Circus, 1980, canvas, 100 × 80 cm.

Some of why Maoism doesn’t get talked about is because of what it implies for a liberal democracy. Conventional wisdom in such a political framework treats Maoism as anathema and insists that it denudes individuals of their agency save for their capacity to parrot regime rhetoric. But as Wu and Jin and many other artists directly subject to Mao’s rule demonstrate, that is hardly the case. More was at issue than representation. I think of Wu and Jin’s work as a quest to find footing, especially as one of its most prominent aspects is the close attention they pay to feet and ground.

I take your point about the sixties. I started the book with the Wu and Jin work as a rejoinder to the Third World model appearing in 1952, and to the Bandung paradigm through which the idea of Afro Asia is best known. The latter emerged from the first Asian-African Conference, held in 1955 in Bandung, Indonesia, which brought together three hundred representatives of newly autonomous African and Asian states. Thanks to scholars from Arif Dirlik to Julia Lovell, we know that the worldly scope of Maoism was seeded back in the 1930s.4 That is, its influence spread with the popularity of books like US journalist Edgar Snow’s 1937 Red Star Over China, the first account of Mao and his followers published before the establishment of the People’s Republic. Read widely in East and Southeast Asian countries seeking to escape Japanese colonial oppression, as well as in Europe and Latin America, Snow’s book is perhaps best known for its inclusion of Mao’s autobiography, although personally I am most taken with the photographs of intensive listening, including one of Snow attending to what Mao’s followers have to say. But the early sixties period has special resonance given how the appeal of Maoism rose in lockstep with decolonization. With specific regard to art, Maoism offers one platform for scaffolding what sovereignty might mean. Here, sovereignty is distinct from the autonomy of art, particularly from modernist conceptions of autonomy deeply entwined with the question of public property—that is, creation founded on the principle that the creator could exclude others from benefiting from his/her/their creation without having to supply a justification.

Maoism offers an intriguing pretext for recalibrating terms to describe art globally.5 So much of what passes for a global contemporary art reads to me as an offshoot of concession logic. By this I mean how only an extremely circumscribed elite have claimed the right to speak within global contemporary art as they see fit for an entire realm, not unlike how concessions were granted to the US and some European powers via unequal treaties with the Qing Empire signed in the mid-nineteenth century. Mostly established in key trade ports—or other locations across China deemed useful for stabilizing foreign military interests—concessions permitted citizens of a foreign power to live, trade, and evangelize freely within a given area. Concession-specific cultures emerged, intentionally distinct from those outside concession boundaries. The analogy isn’t perfect, but I see it in how, for example, only a very limited number of artworks are admitted within the enclaves designated for global contemporary art, while entire bodies of work (media really), such as calligraphy and ink painting, are completely excluded, with limited exceptions. One of my hopes for the book Geometries of Afro Asia is that it catalyzes other historicizations. Once invoked, Afro Asia cannot be uninvoked: it has an uncanny power to reshuffle recognized assemblies of events, things, and people and compel serious consideration of assemblies that have always existed but are not properly legitimated.

SM: The second question emerges from your political analysis—and what I tend to guess are your Marxist leanings as an art historian. You choose to view the subjects in the 1961 painting Chairman Mao Standing with the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America as contemporary articulations of real-world economic and political realities. While you discuss Mao’s looming presence in the work, implying his (and China’s) political and economic influence in the nonwhite world, I wonder if you can also speak to the aspect of diplomacy such a painting represents, which signals towards Bandung?

JK: Diplomacy is an interesting lens through which to think about art and politics. Mao himself did not attend the Asian-African Conference of 1955 but he did send premier Zhou Enlai. Zhou emerged as the big “victor” of the conference, in part because of his ability to telegraph moderate rationality to other delegates, especially to US-aligned delegates like Charles Malik of Lebanon. Indeed, Malik—once a mentor to Edward Said—claimed that the most important political outcome of Bandung was the dramatically improved stature of China.6 A pressing question then, as now, is what coexistence entails. How does one exist alongside those you regard as opposites, antagonists, or enemies? Or is such coexistence fated to result in violence? And speaking of coexistence, I think there’s a lot of possibility in revisiting key terms of the Bandung moment such as sovereignty, self-determination, coexistence, the “unregarded,” and cooperation.

Ed Bereal, America: A Mercy Killing, 1966–74, mixed media: wood, plastic, metal, ceramic and paper, 27 1/4 × 55 1/2 × 45 in (69.2 × 140.9 × 114.3 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase, 1974.29, © 1968 Ed Bereal.

SM: I am thinking here, too, of your interest in an artwork by Ed Bereal called America: A Mercy Killing. It’s a searing multimedia indictment of the ills of a US society afflicted by racist and capitalist violence, masquerading as a model stage for a theater piece, which Bereal assembled between 1966 and 1974.7 You discuss the artist’s inclusion of an image of Mao Zedong in that work. You also make an engaging comparison between Bereal—an African American activist and artist working in Watts, Los Angeles since before the 1965 uprising there—and contemporaries such as Huey Newton. Why has it been so easy to overlook the significant presence of Mao Zedong in this work and others like it?

JK: I think a lot of the discussion of Mao in art history has been so overshadowed by the celebrity of Andy Warhol and his silk-screen series on Mao, and the extent to which the figure of Mao has been lampooned. As a counterexample, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the performance conceived by Chinese American artist May Sun, The Great Wall (or, How Red Is My China) (1986). During the performance, Sun includes some of the actual footage of Paul Robeson singing “March of the Volunteers” at the World Congress of Partisans for peace in Prague in 1949. Robeson’s performance marked the first time this song, composed by Nie Er in 1934 as a rallying cry against Japanese imperialism, was provisionally used as the national anthem of the People’s Republic. Mao appears as a talisman in Ed Bereal’s work, a miniature poster present among a staggered model photo gallery of other epochal figures considered suspect by the US state—from Elijah Muhammad to Daniel Ellsberg to Muhammad Ali. None of these images ward off the evils Bereal illustrates so viscerally elsewhere in his assemblage, but the small portraits left standing and intact confer upon the tableau the vision of a world outside the slaughterhouse of America. If Sun’s non-US-centric authority functions as a reset key for tracing a different cultural history that takes Mao seriously, then Ed Bereal’s brutal, unsparing, and marvelous tableau signals an end to the America-first rhetoric that makes Sun’s counter-American origin story possible. Both works recover transversals buried by the fatally relentless insistence on a very circumscribed and narrow reading of modern and contemporary art that remains unable, or unwilling, to admit the wealth of convergences between Asian and Black thinkers.

One question I think the works of Sun and Bereal ask implicitly is whether Maoism can be repurposed now. Is it like socialism, which has changed enormously from what it was a half-century or a century ago? Does Maoism still have something to teach us, and perhaps more importantly, do we accept that it does? Or is the very notion of an “improved” Maoism unthinkable because of the extent to which capitalism is so deeply flawed?

May Sun, The Great Wall (or, How Red Is My China), performed in 1988 at New Langton Arts, San Francisco, California. Photo by Martin Cox.

SM: As I read some of your writing, I began to ask myself whether your analysis in the introduction to Geometries of Afro Asia leaned more towards economic rather than cultural Marxism. But then in your essay on the “corroboration-in-arms” between African American artist Melvin Edwards and Japanese American artist Ron Miyashiro, you use the term “fellowship,” following economic historian Max Mark.8 You proceed to tease out the term, even referencing circumstantially unexpected figures like Michel Foucault to address definitions of “friendship” in an art context. Could you clarify what friendship might mean to either an economic or cultural Marxist analysis of an art history of Afro Asia?

JK: As illustrated through countless posters produced from the 1930s to the 1970s idealizing Chinese-African connections, Maoist China instrumentalized “friendship.” But we could also reflect on friendship as a mode of permission to choose our kinsfolk. It’s not so much about what you were born into but with whom you end up choosing to be reborn. Friendship thus entails obligation, especially the duty to consider how your actions affect others. It might even be the basis for a new theory of coexistence, one that allows for disagreement that doesn’t necessarily have to result in isolation on the one hand or mutually assured destruction on the other. To wit, friendship creates spaces for disagreements that don’t necessarily end in a break or in violence. “The differences between friends cannot but reinforce their friendship” is a quote often attributed to Mao.9 Friendship entails learning to be liberal with each other without lapsing into libertarianism.

At the same time, I think of the word for “friend” in Korean (chingu), where the ideograph for “chin” is also used to designate bias and suspect collaboration—as in “chinilp’a,” denoting Koreans who collaborated with Japanese colonizers from 1910 to 1945. Refracted through this history, friendship cannot wholly escape becoming imbricated with matters of power and opposition.

Emory Douglas, cover of October 25, 1969 issue of The Black Panther newspaper. Source:

SM: Mao Zedong also appears in your references to Robin D. G. Kelley, in particular his essay with Betty Esch, “Black Like Mao.”10 What was the interest in Mao Zedong for the Black Power movement?

JK: This is itself a vast topic deserving of many volumes, but one thing I can say is that the ways in which artists like Emory Douglas engaged Maoist visual culture offer new means of bridging what often appears as a stark divide between histories of art in communist versus capitalist regimes. His cover for an October 1969 issue of The Black Panther newspaper, featuring the likeness of North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung, makes the case for contiguity between what reads as Warholian repetition and Maoist replication.

On a somewhat related note, thinking of Afro Asia in connection with the language of Black Power has me thinking more intently about what we can draw from the distinctions between sovereignty, self-determination, and another core Black Power term, self-defense. It has us consider sovereignty as quite distinct from autonomy; sovereignty itself is a refusal to surrender one’s humanity or claims to that which enable that humanity.

SM: In the essay on Miyashiro and Edwards, you describe a “productive agonism” that is built out of defense or self-defense. Could you explain further how this idea functions in your theoretical development around the “geometries of Afro Asia”?

JK: Initially I thought of titling my book “Afro Asian Bodies.” But then I came across a wonderful book chapter lead-authored by the Belizean American mathematician Arlie Petters, which begins with a quote from fellow mathematician David Henderson: “Geometry is to open my mind so that I may see what has always been behind the illusions that time and space construct.”11 I was struck by that line, in part because I had been struggling with the two models of center-versus-periphery and multiple modernities. We can’t just think of resistance without qualification but must also ask what various agents—human and nonhuman—cut across, circle, are shaped by and against. These are all operations central to the study of geometry.

Moreover, such operations are indicative of a host of frictions and conflicts. Petters is renowned for his work on gravitational lensing, which refers to when a very large celestial body curves space-time for light so that it appears to bend. It’s an apt means through which to think about how our imaginations and worldviews are distorted because of unseen forces we might mistakenly consider as foundational as gravity. Agonism is one way to counteract that distortion. Sometimes it can seem that we (used very broadly here) have lost both the will and ability to disagree in ways that try to at least understand the viewpoints of those very different from ourselves.

I’m reminded of your first question about the relative omission of Maoism from histories of art. Refracted through gravitational lensing, it also sounds like you’re asking why Maoism is treated like a self-contained phenomenon when in fact it disrupts the ground on which we calibrate events and agents. The influence of Maoism foregrounds a hyperbolic geometry that brings entities which might initially seem distant, unlikely, or disconnected very close together or even coincident with one another.

SM: I also notice that in your work, Afro Asia is positioned not in abstract terms but rather in concrete artworks and concrete examples. What makes such a reading of the term “Afro Asia” more productive than the larger abstract readings and projections of “worlds” of oppressed peoples and nonaligned economic solidarity?

JK: Maybe the best answer is to paraphrase the legendary playwright Ed Bullins, who says that what is politically expedient is not necessarily coincident with artistic integrity. The reason for emphasizing concrete artworks is that each one demands a close, intense, and durational encounter as well as a commitment to anti-solutionism. To focus on specific works is to detach from the illusion of ready answers. It also emphasizes that the overarching paradigm is not power and oppression, but something rather more complicated, where the viewer is not a dominant or subordinate but someone who is put in the position of constantly having to negotiate the identities of kin, neighbor, and stranger in relation to a given work. In this regard, I also learn from Russian formalism, which flourished before Stalin denounced it as heresy in the 1950s.

The focus on close reading is a degrowth maneuver. While some readers impatient for “content” or “meaning” might want to dismiss this kind of close reading as being too inward looking, it actually refuses the pressures to expand constantly. When we stay with the work, sound it out, and see what it sees, we strike a blow against the indifference that impoverishes thinking.

SM: How does the move away from solidarity reorient our understanding of the term “community”?

JK: One of the reasons I’m drawn to Afro Asia is the potential it has for birthing an infrastructure that can allow us to probe what might be otherwise simply registered and dismissed as mere similitude—one of the crimes for which global-majority artworks are punished by a highly myopic, circumscribed view of modernism. Instead of ending with likeness, why not consider it instead as a clue to an entire galaxy of thinking? Or even collections of galaxies?

By thinking about Afro Asia through its lines, voids, curves, and volumes—its geometries—the idea of Afro Asia becomes very useful for keeping two things separate: virtue on the one hand, and obedience expressed through rule-following on the other. By “rule-following,” I mean a programmatic adherence to certain ideological positions and even an appeal to a very select number of citations. I don’t mean to claim Afro Asia as being on some intrinsically higher moral plane. Yet its geometries challenge how unquestioning obedience is treated as a virtue, especially in many of the countries it encompasses, particularly the two-thirds of the world that became subject to some form of nondemocratic rule by 1972. Afro Asia asks us to take the question of virtue seriously: to ask what is not only ethical, but what qualifies as morally desirable behavior. For instance, how do we encourage and cultivate a multi-vector humility that has various directions and magnitudes?

SM: Max Mark’s economic analysis suggested that the “political loyalty” of African and Latin American countries—for example either to the UK/US or to the Soviet bloc—didn’t rest on economic terms alone. Mark said: “If it is true that economic success or failure is a private matter, then there is no basis for making political loyalty dependent upon economic considerations.”12 This further shows that so-called economic solidarity within the nonalignment bloc may not have produced such political loyalty after all. Your productive use of “Afro Asia” steers us towards “fellowship” and “friendship” rather than economic ties and/or political loyalty.

JK: Perhaps the way to answer this is to think of a key instance of friendship gone wrong: crony capitalism along the lines outlined by the brilliant Filipino scholar, activist, and archivist Ricardo Manapat in his seminal 1979 pamphlet “Some Are Smarter Than Others.” Here assembly devolves into collusion at the expense of many, and friendship further reinforces a regime of acute capital accumulation. It’s important to remember that Manapat’s devastating critique of corruption in the era of Ferdinand Marcos was only made possible because of Manapat’s own friendships with farmers and city dwellers, who bore the brunt of crony capitalism’s friendship-as-violence. Friendship has its own political import and staying power.

SM: Lastly, reading your work on Edwards and Miyashiro makes me think of the field of Asian American studies, which, as many have pointed out, shares affinities with both African and African American studies. Could you clarify your book’s relation to those fields?

JK: I am joyfully indebted to all three fields. As a case in point, I have found it incredibly useful to read works that are most likely to be classified as “Asian” or “Asian American” through the lens of Black African philosophy, such as the work of Paulin Hountondji, who boldly claimed that universalism could not be simply dismissed as a Euro-American phenomenon.13 Through his writings I also wonder about the potential of a global-majority time overwriting the time of globalization. The latter demands the integration of subsistence economies into the world capitalist market, which then results in what Hountondji calls “underdevelopment.” Global-majority time is not measured by the identification of alterity determined by the magnitude of contrast with Euro-American standards, or by nation- or region-specific measures. It is a time that in many respects has always been present and has also not yet started; it predates historical time but also denotes the time that has yet to end, as indexed by the degree of unresolved suffering endured by the majority of the world’s people.

Another key thinker for me is the South African anthropologist Archie Mafeje, who rejected the idea that knowledge could be produced through the acquiescence of subjugated peoples. Likewise, the writings of Taiwanese critical theorist Kuan-Hsing Chen have been useful in thinking about the engagement with Asian artistic forms by artists like Faith Ringgold and David Hammons. Chen’s celebrated rereading of Takeuchi Yoshimi’s 1960 lecture “Asia as Method” provides compelling grounds for thinking about such engagement as an operation of transfer;14 what Hammons does in his artwork Afro Asian Eclipse is to fashion a topology where the energy he gains from having encountered hanging scrolls is transferred into another form.

After Geometries of Afro Asia, I’m teaching a seminar on Asian American art shaped by the writings of Mogobe Ramose, one of the world’s foremost thinkers on Ubuntu philosophy. The term “ubuntu” has different meanings in the many Bantu languages spoken by a third of the African continent, but its use in philosophy stresses humanity-in-common. Ubuntu philosophy in general has been incredibly helpful in thinking with paintings of the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II alongside photographs of Apartheid’s human toll in South Africa. Borrowing from Ramose, the guiding hypothesis of the class is: “I doubt, therefore, Asian American is.” Part of this doubt is sustained by what might be called the statelessness of Asian America. I’m thinking again here of Ramose, who critiques “bounded reasoning”; reasoning that considers boundaries as necessary leads to the creation of a state. Afro Asia also throws into relief the cosmopolitanism of Asian America, taking into account both the minoritarian status of Asians within the Americas (about 7 percent of the US population, albeit the fastest-growing demographic) and the fact that Asians constitute about 60 percent of the world’s population. Afro Asia continues to be an endlessly generative provocation and wellspring.


Joan Kee, The Geometries of Afro Asia: Art Beyond Solidarity (University of California Press, 2023), 3.


Art, Global Maoism and the Chinese Revolution, ed. Jacobo Galimberti, Noemi de Haro García, and Victoria H. F. Scott (Manchester University Press, 2019).


Patrick Flores cited in Saloni Mathur, “Why Exhibition Histories?” British Art Studies, no. 13 (September 2019) .


Arif Dirlik, “Mao Zedong Thought and the Third World/Global South,” Interventions 16, no. 2 (2014); Julia Lovell, Maoism: A Global History (Knopf, 2019).


On the study of “American” art, we add the proviso that using “America” to refer only to the art of the United States replicates US imperialist attitudes stemming from, at least, the Spanish-American War of 1898.


Charles Malik, “Call to Action in the Near East,” Foreign Affairs 34, no. 4 (July 1956) .


See Joan Kee, “Collaborators in Arms: The Early Works of Melvin Edwards and Ron Miyashiro,” Oxford Art Journal 43, no. 1 (2020).


Kee, “Collaborators in Arms.”


Christopher Phillips, Socrates in Love: Philosophy for a Perfect Heart (Norton, 2011), 186.


Robin D. G. Kelley and Betsy Esch, “Black Like Mao: Red China and Black Revolution,” Souls: Critical Journal of Black Politics & Culture 1, no. 4 (1999).


Arlie O. Petters et al., Singularity Theory and Gravitational Lensing (Birkhäuser, 2012), 502.


Max Mark, “Economic Determinants of the Character of Afro-Asian Nationalism,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 20, no. 4 (July 1961).


Paulin Hountondji discusses in several places the universal aims and universal value of an African philosophy. See, for example, P. Hountondji, African Philosophy: Myth or Reality? (Indiana University Press, 1996).


Kuan-Hsing Chen, Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization (Duke University Press, 2010).

Colonialism & Imperialism
Africa, East Asia, Southeast Asia, Global South, Decolonization, Art Activism, Black Power
Return to Issue #140

Joan Kee is Professor in the History of Art at the University of Michigan and an occasional public interest lawyer in Detroit. Kee’s books include Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method (2013), Models of Integrity: Art and Law in Post Sixties America (2019) and The Geometries of Afro Asia: Art Beyond Solidarity, released this April.

Serubiri Moses is a curator and author based in New York City. He currently serves as adjunct faculty in art history at Hunter College, and is a member of the editorial team of e-flux journal. He is the author of a poetry book THE MOON IS READING US A BOOK (Pântano Books, 2023) and the lead curator of an upcoming mid-career retrospective of Taryn Simon.


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