In UAE, fresh conversations on native, diaspora studies

Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis (Associate Professor of Art History, Criticism and Theory, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia); Awam Amkpa (Associate Professor, Africana Studies and the Tisch School, New York University, US) and moderator, Sallah M. Hassan at the panel discussion on ‘African and African Diaspora Art History and Visual Studies’.PHOTO: The Africa Institute

• Sharjah’s New Africa Institute Lays Foundation For Critical African, Diaspora Studies

From March 12 to 14, 2019, scholars across disciplines converged on Sharjah, UAE,  to discuss African and diaspora knowledge. Though Sharjah is a neighbouring city to the business hub, Dubai, it keeps sustaining its quiet and conservative nature. This much was revealed at the just held Africa Institute’s event.

At the conference themed, Global Africa: African and African Diaspora Studies in the 21st Century, which was organised by The Africa Institute, at Africa Hall, Sharjah, over 20 presentations from the participating scholars opened up new vistas for African and diaspora studies conversation.

SAF, in the global art lexicon, is known for its critical appreciation and presentation of visual culture via the Sharjah Biennial, but has now added the Africa Hall event as a way of contributing to new narratives on African and diaspora studies.

Relaunched late last year with performances by Youssou N’Dour, among other African artistes and a symposium on geographical forms of abstraction, convened by Okwui Enwezor and Salah M. Hassan, The Africa Hall, according to Hoor Al Qasimi, President of SAF, was originally built in 1970s, but the purpose was not realised then.

Since The Africa Hall’s return late last year, the Africa Institute has done a collaboration with Tate Modern, U.K., its director, Hassan, told audience at the opening of Global Africa: African and African Diaspora Studies in the 21st Century on Tuesday, March, 12, 2019.

“We wish to form a conversation over postcolonialism, pan-Africanism as well as gender and class issues,” he explained. Kehinde Andrews, Professor, Black Studies, Birmingham City University, U.K; Akosua Adomako Ampofo, Professor, African and Gender Studies, University of Ghana; Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, Professor, Africana Studies and Research Centre, Cornell University, Ithaca, U.S; Awam Amkpa, Associate Professor, Africana Studies and the Tisch School, New York University, U.S; Naminata Diabate, Assistant Professor, Comparative Literature, Cornell University, Ithaca, U.S; Mamadou Diouf (Columbia University); Ousmane Kane, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor of Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, U.S; Premesh Lalu (University of Western Cape, South Africa); Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis (University of Addis Ababa); and Tejumola Olaniyan, Louise Durham Mead Professor of English, African, and African Diaspora Literatures and Cultures Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, U.S, and some others made presentations.

During the first day of discussion, paper presenters articulated issues surrounding clarity in contents of African diaspora, Saharan and Sub-saharan, migration and knowledge production, as well as post-transatlantic traffic in humans.

The battle for the soul of African studies, which attracted quite a number of European countries and the U.S., came into focus during the first plenary session. Also, the 1952 African Conference in Ghana where Kwame Nkrumah advised that African studies should be done within the continent’s context and engage the diaspora was also referenced.

Among the presentations were: Black Studies in the 21st Century: The Science of Liberation in the Neo-Liberal Institution by Andrews, How Language Stunts Knowledge Production in African Studies by Táíwò and The Aesthetics of Regard: Theorizing 21st-Century Black Feminist Art Praxis by Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman, Associate Professor, American Studies and English, Brown University, Providence, U.S.

The first day of the event also touched on visual and literary culture. The third session at the opening specifically focused on African and African Diaspora Literature, and Performing Arts. Diabate’s paper, titled, Naked Protest as Naked Agency in Africa, used the Niger Delta women’s protest against Chevron as reference of nudity in a weaponised context.

The first session on day two stressed importance of visual culture in African diaspora as explained by Amkpa’s presentation titled, My colour does not disfigure my honor or my wit: Curating ReSignifications. He recalled giving his input into an international art show titled, Resignification of Florence. Held in Florence and Palemo, Italy, the show, Amkpa noted, was his thoughts on African diaspora being ‘over represented’ when Africans and knowledge of Africa was not much in Europe, ‘but now underrepresented’ when there was more knowledge on the continent.

With 52 artists, including 21 from Africa, the show, Amkpa stated, “deals with residual and how contemporary artists use composition of exchange between each artist.” He added that it was ‘poetic of relation’ that could inspire artists to do more group shows rather than solo. The exhibition of sculptures and paintings, which he showed on screen for the Africa Hall audience, he said, used ‘critical methodology to deconstruct perpetual objectification’ of black art.

In another presentation titled, Modernism in Different Forms: Re-conceptualizing Telsem Art, Giorgis built her thoughts on a show last year titled, Men Neber. She recalled the trajectory of Telsem art from when the early Christian missionaries in the Nile axis, in biblical context, appropriated it.

She also noted that there are, till date, similarities in signs and motifs among the art of the Nile. However, the complexity of African modernism, she argued, is compounded by western definition. During the interactive session, you’ll think that the periodic context of modern art is an aspect dealt with already based on the fact that its definition differs from one region or culture to another. However, the general agreement is that real issue should be content — and not periodic definition from western perspective — of modern African art.

“Socio-political history affects how we define art —modern or contemporary,” Giorgis responded.Still on African studies, Zeleza, whose presentation titled, Leveraging Africa’s Global Diasporas for the Continent’s Development, noted that migration makes definition of diaspora more complex to contextualise. He advised, “we must not generalise, but be specific” on space.

The second day of conference also dissected issues in specific terms on Afro-Arab role and post-colonialsm as it affects Africa and African diaspora.The last day had, among others, African Modernity Revisited, presented by Manthia Diawara, Distinguished University Professor, Comparative Literature and Cinema, New York University, U.S. He posited that language, as an energy that drives modernity, is more dynamic in English than French. He cited examples of the diversity in English as used by Nigerians, South Africans, Australians, among other users.

Next was Freedom in Africa, the Longue durée or the history of freedom in Africa, which is also the ‘History of Freedom in the World’ presented by Olaniyan. Freedom, Olaniyan argued, is not the reality of man. He explained that Pre-transatlantic perspective of freedom in Africa is important to determine what the word means to the people. He traced modernity in Africa to the 15th century and insisted that there is no such word as European modernity that predates Africa.

“Africa was a major player in that era; the trajectory of freedom anywhere in the world had not left Africa behind.”He segmented the subject into ‘attached and unattached’ freedom, and noted that Europe and America have benefited from attached freedom. “Africa does not need to search for freedom but should go back to what our ancestors have bequeath us and refine it.”

Held in nine panels format, including Skype presentations, other presenters included, Hisham Aidi (Columbia University); Jean Allman (Washington University in St Louis); Susan Buck-Morss (Cornell University and CUNY Graduate Center); Kassahun Checole (Africa World Press); Ebony Coletu (Pennsylvania State University); Chouki El Hamel (Arizona State University); Catarina Gomes (Catholic University of Angola); Ousmane Kane (Harvard University); Zine Magubane (Boston College); Fouad Makki (Cornell University); Sandy Prita Meier (New York University); Natalie Melas (Cornell University); Sarah Nuttall (WiSER, University of the Witwatersrand); Carina Ray (Brandeis University); and Ahmad Sikainga (Ohio State University).

The Africa Institute, according to the conveners of the conference, is an interdisciplinary academic research space dedicated to the study and documentation of Africa. Contents in focus include, its people and cultures, its complex past, present and future and its manifold connections with the wider world.

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