African-Americans occupied a small but significant space in the Socialist Realist imagination of the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Soviet artists eagerly demonstrated the purported racial tolerance of socialism, in accordance with the doctrines of internationalism and anti-colonialism, by producing critical visual representations of the plight of African-Americans.
The painter Aleksandr Deineka visited the US in 1935 and exhibited his paintings of African-Americans on his return to Moscow to great acclaim: critics focused approvingly, and predictably, on how his paintings evoked the racial oppression of African-Americans under capitalism. They did do that, but they also did something else: across the distant bodies of African Americans, they developed a lyrical aesthetic that conveyed emotions like melancholy and longing, as well as a sensual corporeality, that were excluded from the affirmative ideology and chaste morality of Socialist Realism.
Kiaer contrasts Deineka’s lyrical images with other instances of critical Soviet depictions of African-American experience, such as photographs published by the popular satirical writers Ilf and Petrov from their own 1935 trip to the US. She also considers them in relation to the most famous attempt to create a positive image of Soviet racial tolerance, Aleksandrov’s 1936 musical comedy film Circus with its beloved African-American child actor, to ask: what might an affirmative aesthetics of race look like under socialism?
Christina Kiaer is Associate Professor in the Department of Art History at Northwestern University, where she teaches twentieth-century art. Her book Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (MIT Press) was published in 2005, and was awarded an Honorable Mention by the Wayne S. Vucinich Prize of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies.
Kiaer has published numerous articles and catalog essays related to her current book project on Soviet Socialist Realism, including, most recently, “Lyrical Socialist Realism” in October (Winter 2014) and “Collective Body: The Art of Aleksandr Deineka” in Artforum (November 2012). She served as consultant curator on the 2009 exhibition "Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism" at the Tate Modern Museum, London, and as a special advisor to the 2011 exhibition "Aleksandr Deineka: An Avant-Garde for the Proletariat" at the Fundación Juan March in Madrid.
Kiaer earned her BA from Harvard University and her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.