newman_280A strange kind of consensus has formed among the younger generation in Romania: to overlook history. The defining moment in the country’s recent past, the downfall and execution of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, has become a year zero, at least for those born after that date.

Under the dictatorship of Ceausescu, a society known as the ‘New Man’ was constructed, in which all children would be raised in the spirit of communism and invested in the future of the country. The youngest were referred to as ‘falcons of the land’, before graduating to ‘pioneer’ status at the age of nine. At university, adolescents were known as ‘young communists’ and later on became fully-fledged party members. Every morning, children would sing the hymn of the country in schools; they would be part of festivals and demonstrations to hail the leader of the nation.

Everyone born before the fall of Ceausescu represented the ‘New Man’ – generations of people moulded into ideal party members. While Dana Popa herself is of the ‘New Man’ generation – her old family photos are a testament to memories of the people and landscapes that shaped her identity – this body of work is largely concerned with the youth of today, those that strive for their own identity, after the era of the ‘New Man’.

Today, teenagers look west towards Italy, Europe and beyond that to the USA, locked in the hungry embrace of capitalism, hoping to buy this dress, that car, to be famous. Yet despite Romania’s adoption of a freemarket economy, open borders and a democratic voting system, the vestiges of communism are hard to shake in a country where fraud and corruption remain the hallmarks of many day-to-day transactions. The importance of good connections, often gained from old party member status, persists, and the path to the good life is paved with favours that bring rewards of a better education and better health care, as opposed to, say, a simple jar of honey.

Other aspects of communism are, similarly, not so easily glossed over. The architecture of communism prevails, and many families still live in blocks of Ceausescu-built flats, their original homes demolished by the communist regime to make way for the principle of collective property. Such was the experience of Dana Popa, whose beautiful family home, with a garden, was taken from them when she was 10 years old, and replaced with a tiny, characterless flat.

Popa’s life so far can be seen in terms of before and after the Ceausescu regime. As a 12-year-old in 1989, she remembers most significantly that ‘television happened’. Entertainment programmes from all over the world suddenly replaced the two obligatory hours per day of state broadcasts of Ceausescu visiting factories and cornfields, spreading his benevolence to his subjects. Instead, beautiful women, even naked women, invaded the small screen in everyone’s home.

And for those who have known only this, so their ambition reaches precisely that far. To be like them. With television came the freedom to travel, and many parents left Romania and their small children behind to take up simple jobs in other countries so they could send money home. These mothers and fathers were not present to tell their children the stories of the recent past.

It is now fashionable in Romania for the young to speak to each other in English, to show that they are interesting, in a particularly Western style. When asked what she thought of communism, one young woman interviewed by Popa replied ‘I don’t give a shit’. It is as though to look backwards and acknowledge their country’s communist past might propel them back into a dictatorship as harsh and damaging as Ceausescu’s own. The risk is that not to do so might one day lead to the same result.
Max Houghton

After the New Man is on at Foto8 until 26 May.

Dana Popa will be giving a talk in the gallery on Tuesday 1 May.