Marking three decades since the end of communist rule, London’s Czech Centre is hosting the work of 10 photographers who have come to define the visual history of Czechoslovakia’s 1989 Velvet Revolution. The 25 monochrome prints on display form a timeline, from the sudden uprising on 17 November, to the arrival of a new, pluralist political system on 10 December. These striking images of political turmoil are the seed from which an iconography has grown. Placards and flags are timeless symbols, but documentary photographs ask others to participate in the historical moment it’s born from.
One of the images which has become synonymous with the Velvet Revolution shows Czechs and Slovaks jingling their keys — representing the invisible door through which communism was soon to depart. The Czech Centre exhibition features a photograph of activist and Velvet Revolution leader, Václav Havel, rattling his own a pair of keys just weeks before becoming the last President of Czechoslovakia and then of the Czech Republic.
Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution was unexpected, growing from a peaceful demonstration commemorating International Students’ Day. The authorities responded to the student protest, which took place on Prague’s Národní Street on 17 November 1989, with brutal violence. After 41 years of communist rule, Czechoslovakia was, under a thin veil, at its breaking point. Weeks of strikes and protests were attended by many hundreds of thousands in what came to be a bloodless unrest. Photographer and curator Dana Kyndrová described how for those who took part, the revolution “represents ideas such as liberty, new energy, enthusiasm, and high expectations for the future ahead”. Despite political reshuffles and other desperate attempts to quell the storm, it was but weeks until the first non-communist government was sworn in. During that time, Czechoslovakia saw a domino effect, touching everything from freedom of the press to a newly-found trust in a military that promised to protect the citizen over the party. It all culminated in the amendment of one line in Czechoslovakia’s constitution: one that described the “leading role” of the Communist Party. Its deletion marked the official end of Czechoslovakia’s communist dictatorship on 29 November 1989.
Kyndrová, who is best-known for documenting the many facets of womanhood under communist rule, was chosen to put together this exhibition due to her own experience photographing the Velvet Revolution. In many cases, she knew exactly who to turn to in order to fill any gaps in the historical narrative — and, because of her unique position within the Czech photographic community, Kyndrová found little resistance: “I have been curating photographs as well as exhibiting my own work for more than 15 years now, so my knowledge of what has been happening in that field is quite profound,” she says.
Compared to the London show, which has been prepared for an international audience, the simultaneous exhibition at Prague’s Belveder Gallery features 200 photographs. “There you can see photos taken by famous actors and other well-known Czech individuals, [but it] wouldn’t be suitable [for a London event],” Kyndrová explains. Curating such a concise yet intimately gripping series regarding such significant events is no mean feat, but Kyndrová still managed to rouse a chorus of jingling keys on opening night.