Decolonizing Methodologies: Some Socio-Political and Poetic Reflections

The Sociological Review Foundation’s Annual Lecture – “Decolonizing Methodologies: 20 Years On” – was given by Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith (University of Waikato, New Zealand) and presented at Goldsmiths, University of London on 16th October 2019. The content featured personal reflections on approaches to undertaking qualitative research informed by decolonial practices two decades after the scholar’s internationally acclaimed monograph Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (1999) was first published.

Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith presenting the Sociological Review Foundation’s Annual Lecture at Goldsmiths, University of London, 16/10/2019. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Structured into three key sections, Linda Tuhiwai Smith opened with commentary about the impacts and legacies of British imperialism and settler colonialism in New Zealand – focusing, in particular, on the effects of the English language being imposed on indigenous Maori communities over several centuries. This was followed by some lines of poetic verse and selected narratives recounted from Maori folklore to introduce and discuss the importance of “relationality” as regards the way scholars should approach the challenges of decolonising knowledge and transforming institutional practices. Thirdly, Professor Smith concluded with some reflections on the principles of pursuing what she termed “slow research methodologies” – i.e. forms of participatory action research that, for example, embrace oral histories, critical race theory and the incorporation of opportunities for “testimonial justice” so as to enable the voices and lived experiences of marginalised peoples to be respectfully and accurately foregrounded.

Language

The most notable aspect of the Professor’s language-focused introduction was her apt reference to the way settler colonialists’ subordination of Maori culture was pursued through the nation’s schooling system as an act of “waging war.” She explained how, over centuries, the combined racist ideologies of settler capitalism, eugenics and the erasure of indigenous and ancestral land rights were actively promoted and reinforced inter-generationally through the infrastructural apparatus and curricula of New Zealand’s Missionary and Native Day Schools. Consequently, the decolonial approach to dismantling such long-standing, embedded racisms was appropriately likened to someone being presented with a vast pile of fragmented egg shells that must then be sorted and reassembled back into the shape of eggs. To further illustrate the enormity and impossibility of such a conundrum, Linda Tuhiwai Smith showed a photograph of broken shells and posed the question: “And, if you didn’t know the shape of an egg, how could you ever put the pieces back together again?”

An image of broken egg shells used by Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith during her lecture at Goldsmiths to comment on the challenges of decolonisation. Photo: Carol Dixon.

On seeing this image, I was reminded of the following lines from the poem No Serenity Here (2009):

“An omelette cannot be unscrambled. Not even one prepared
in the crucible of 19th-century sordid European design.”

Extract from No Serenity Here (2009), by Keorapetse Kgositsile (aka ‘Bra Willie’).

Ever since I read these words by the late South African poet laureate and anti-Apartheid activist Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile (1938-2018), I have remained attentive to their enduring applicability in relation to all aspects of decolonial scholarship, community campaigning and anti-racist cultural activism. The power and prescience of Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s visual metaphor about the egg shells, along with Keorapetse (‘Bra Willie’) Kgositsile’s poetics referencing the 1884/5 Berlin Congress and the (so called) “Scramble for Africa,” both cut to the core of the many complexities that have to be grappled with when striving to decolonise institutional spaces and challenge the continuing entanglements and afterlives of colonialism within contemporary socio-political, economic and cultural contexts.

Photograph of the late South African poet laureate and anti-Apartheid activist Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile (1938-2018). Source: New York Times. Image credit: Victor Dlamini, 2018.

Relationality

Regarding issues of relationality, Linda Tuhiwai Smith spoke passionately about her Maori heritage and cultural values that recognise all people, as well as all living and non-living things, as related – with the latter having the potential to “become animated” and to hold the “status of personhood” on a par with humans. This Maori belief in universal relationality was seen as central to the de-privileging of humans as exceptional beings, somehow set apart from the rest of nature. A recent case in New Zealand’s legislative history, when the Whanganui River that flows across the North Island was legally granted “rights of personhood” in March 2017, was cited to specifically exemplify the relational statement, “I am the river / The river is me.” From a research ethics perspective, this concept of relationality was valued by the Professor as key to the way scholars should reflect their respect for everything in the world – from the local, to the global – and to always strive to approach permission-seeking for engaging in data collection within communities and in the natural environment with great care and gratitude.

Some principles for conducting slow, respectful and socially just research

Lastly, when discussing the design, selection and application of effective decolonial research methodologies across all subject disciplines and phases of education, Linda Tuhiwai Smith drew attention to the following principles and recommendations:

  • Decolonisation should always be seen as a process of “recovery,” not an attempt at “reversal” of the colonial past
  • Decolonisation is an ongoing process that can only function alongside respect for the right to self-determination, as well as the right of individuals/collectives to speak for ourselves/themselves. This is essential to avoid the problematic perception of indigenous, migrant, marginal and/or minoritized communities feeling “researched on
  • Academic disciplines should never be seen as singularities, but rather as part of an institutional apparatus that – by design – has historically reinforced and reproduced the exclusion of individuals and groups falsely designated as “outsiders” (or “Other”). Decolonial research methodologies should, therefore, always be approached as opportunities to forge and sustain collaborative, inter-disciplinary, inclusive and co-produced knowledge networks that blur the traditional boundaries between the academy and the communities in focus.
  • Researchers should recognise and be mindful of the risks that the opening up of decolonial spaces can often only be temporary and, therefore, such openings can (and do) become closed again if continuous efforts are not made to monitor, protect, preserve and extend the progressions fought for and achieved.

It was a pleasure to attend Professor Smith’s insightful, thought-provoking and wide-ranging lecture and hear practical advice about pursuing effective decolonising methodologies. Having read several chapters from her monograph, I welcomed the opportunities this lecture provided to revisit that seminal text, and to also engage in follow-on discussions with the author about my own research in museums and galleries as one of the 15 participants who attended the Sociological Review Foundation’s Early Career Researchers’ Workshop on “Decolonizing Methodologies” the following day at Friends House, Euston Road, London (17/10/2019).

My intention over the coming months is to draw on Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s scholarship, and the publications of other leading theorists on decolonisation, to inform my own observations and critical thinking about the way African and African diaspora artists, curators and scholar-activists are positively transforming museums and galleries in the West into more inclusive spaces through their creative, ‘politically aesthetic’ and anti-racist decolonial interventions.

Detail from the sculptural installation “Scramble for Africa” (2003) by British-Nigerian contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare CBE (RA). 14 life-size fiberglass mannequins, 14 chairs, dining table (etched with a map of continental Africa on the surface), and Dutch wax printed cotton garments. Source: Art21 Magazine.

REFERENCES
* Kgositsile, Keorapetse. 2009. “No Serenity Here.” In Beyond Words: South African Poetics, edited by Apples & Snakes. London: Flipped Eye, pp. 13-17.
* Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London ; New York ; Dunedin, N.Z.: Zed Books ; University of Otago Press.

Black In/visibilities Contested – Conference Review, Lisbon, July 2019

“Black In/visibilities Contested” was the title of the 7th Biennial Afroeuropeans Network Conference, held at the ISCTE-IUL (Instituto Universitário de Lisboa), University of Lisbon, Portugal, 4-6th July 2019.

In keeping with previous gatherings, this transdisciplinary event provided a forum for knowledge exchange and critical dialogues pertaining to the histories, lived experiences, cultural geographies, political activism and diasporic identities of African-descended people in Europe.

Over the course of three days the schedule featured two keynote presentations, 32 panel sessions, six poster presentations, a cultural programme of film screenings and artistic performances, and a concluding round-table discussion through which delegates were able to engage with the conference’s six sub-themes:

  • Black Europe and its Intersections
  • Afroeuropeans in the Arts and the Mediasphere
  • Activisms, Resistances and Public Policy in Late Capitalist Europe
  • Black Cities: Public Space, Racism, Urban Cultures and Segregation
  • Decolonising Knowledge on Black Europe, African Diaspora and Africa
  • Theorizing Blackness and Racial Europe.

Conference Keynotes

The opening keynote – “Hidden in Plain Sight: Institutional Racism, Cultural Resistance and Knowledge Production in Black Europe” – was presented by sociologist Stephen Small (Professor of African American Studies, University of California, Berkeley). His wide-ranging survey of the history of racism and anti-racism throughout the continent spanning several centuries commenced with information about the legacies of Portugal’s imperialist past, which continues to be celebrated via valorisations of Vasco da Gama and other key figures in the nation’s maritime history, the promotion of architectural structures such as the Padrão dos Descobrimentos [Monument to the Discoveries] on Lisbon’s tourist trail, and the enduring myth of “Luso-tropicalism” in relation to Portuguese enslavement histories and colonialism.

A central focus of the keynote was to foreground the many and various acts of individual and collective resistance that have always characterised African-descended people’s diverse responses to the strident imperialism of European nations – citing examples, from the successful anti-slavery rebellions of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), through to the anti-colonial struggles for independence in the 20th century led by figures such as Amilcar Cabral (1924-1973) of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde.

Stephen Small’s analysis was summarised according to the following four “striking similarities” he had observed and examined when undertaking research for his monograph, 20 Questions and Answers on Black Europe (Amrit Publishers, The Hague, Netherlands, 2018): (1) The ambiguous “hyper (in)visibility” of blackness – from acute tokenism in the upper echelons of the legal, political and financial sectors, through to a proliferation of stereotyped representations via the visual arts, news media and sport; (2) “Entrenched vulnerability” – as recently exemplified via the Windrush scandal in the UK; (3) “Institutional racism” – experienced in every sphere, from the political manipulations of the state, through to quotidian acts of micro-aggressive discrimination encountered in employment, housing, health and social services; (4) “Irrepressible resistance and resilience” – seen through the social mobilisation and community activism of grassroots anti-racist organisations, as well as via the creative and expressive arenas of the visual, literary and performing arts, and the mediascape.

Conference delegates participating in Q&A discussions at the University of Lisbon, 4 July 2019. Photo: Carol Dixon.

In conclusion, the speaker focused on the importance of artists, scholars, educators, activists and campaigners establishing anti-racist alliances with African-descended communities in all nations (far beyond the “usual suspects” of the UK, France and Germany), and especially in less diverse, non-urban areas of Europe, as well as establishing intersectional solidarity with religious, migrant, Roma/Traveller, LGBTQ+ and other minoritized communities to fight discrimination, inequalities and social exclusion in all their manifestations.

Quotations from philosophers, political campaigners and social reformers were referenced – from the writings of Africa-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Martiniquan intellectual Aimé Césaire, through to the publications and scholar-activism of Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Kwame Nimako – to enable members of the audience to follow-up on his poignant and important closing commentary about the necessity of positive self-definition (e.g. rejecting the term “non-white”), “talking back,” and “self-care”.

The second keynote – “Beyond the Black Paradigm? Afro-diasporic Strategies in the Age of Neo-Nationalism” – was presented by Fatima El-Tayeb (Professor of Literature and Ethnic Studies, University of California, San Diego). Through her nuanced deconstruction of selected European nations’ structurally racist “colour-blind” approaches to addressing issues of diversity, inclusion and community cohesion over several decades, Fatima El-Tayeb also discussed a range of strategies that had been used to counter the neo-nationalism that has falsely constructed Europeans of colour as “eternal migrants” and also fuelled an upsurge in anti-Black racism.

Conference delegates participating in the Q&A after Professor Fatima El-Tayeb’s keynote presentation, University of Lisbon, 5 July 2019. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Central to this presentation was a call for more intersectional analysis of black diasporic populations in Europe to better understand how racialized religious allegiances, class and LGBTQ+ rights activism intersect with ethnicity. She also advocated the importance of building coalitions through the use of “storytelling narratives” that show the connectedness of different forms of oppression, as well as the need to focus on “trans-local” agendas that circumvent national borders. The achievements of collectives such as “Strange Fruit” in the Netherlands (c. 1989- 2002) and “Indigènes de la République” in France (est. 2005) were cited as examples of coalition-building activist organisations that had successfully employed these strategies.

Image and Racism: Breaking Canon

My research paper – “The Transformative Impact of Activist Artists in European Museums” – was presented within the panel session on “Image and Racism: Breaking Canon.”

Through my critique of selected, site-specific and ‘politically aesthetic’ installations created by the British-Nigerian contemporary visual artist Yinka Shonibare CBE, I discussed several contrasting approaches to anti-racist and decolonial intervention within cultural institutions in France, the Netherlands and the UK.

Planets in My Head – Literature (2010) by Yinka Shonibare CBE. This site-specific installation is on permanent display at the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

The case studies in focus were: (1) Jardin d’amour [Garden of Love] (2007) at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris (2) Planets in My Head (2010) at the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam; (3) The William Morris Family Album (2015) – an archive-themed photographic installation at the William Morris Gallery, London.

The three other papers in this session were:

  • “Contemporary In/Visibilities and Pseudo/Visibilities: the black woman’s portrait in the Bemposta chapel in Lisbon” by Giuseppina Raggi (CES – Universidade de Coimbra) – which discussed the socio-cultural and art historical significance of an 18th century religious portrait of an un-named black woman (c. 1791) by the Italian artist Giuseppe Trono (1739-1810).
  • “Breaking Canons in Art History and Beyond: Intersectional Feminism and Anti-Racism in the Visual Production of Black Women Artists” by Ana Balona de Oliveira (IHA-FCSH-NOVA) – which appraised and critiqued the contemporary image-making and interdisciplinary artistic practice of Portuguese installationist and scholar-activist Grada Kilomba (b. 1968)
  • “Corpo, Ancestralidade e Êxtase: fluxos imagéticos afro-europeus do corpo negro gay e modos de usar” by Jânderson Albino Coswosk (Instituto Federal do Espírito Santo – Ifes) – which examined “black queer aesthetics” in the self-portraiture and LGBTQ+ activism of Nigerian-British photographic artist Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989).

Bairro de Arte Pública

The final event in the conference’s cultural programme was a tour of the Bairro de Arte Pública led by representatives of the residents’ organisation Kallema in the Quinta do Mocho district of Lisbon – home to the biggest outdoor public art gallery in Europe.

Public art by the Spanish painter Alan Myers, displayed as part of the Bairro de Arte Pública, Quinta do Mocho, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Among more than 100 murals painted on the facades of residential buildings, created by established and emerging street artists from (primarily) Portugal, Spain, Angola, Brazil, Cuba and France, were a Frantz Fanon-inspired figurative work titled “Take your mask off!” (2016) by the celebrated Portuguese graffiti artist Nomen, and a group portrait “Loures Arte Pública” (2016) by the Uruguayan artists’ collective, Colectivo Licuado celebrating diverse, gender-fluid identities.

“Take your mask off!” (2016) by the Portuguese graffiti artist Nomen, painted on a residential building in the Quinta do Mocho district of Lisbon as part of the Bairro de Arte Pública. Photo: Carol Dixon.
Group photograph of conference delegates on a tour of the Bairro de Arte Pública, Quinta do Mocho, Portugal, 7 July 2019. Photo: Ema (Kallema, Guias do Mocho).

I am grateful to the Sociological Review Foundation for providing an ECR Conference Support Award to attend Afroeuropeans 2019, which enabled me to participate in important discussions pertaining to anti-racism in the arts, Pan-Africanism and the African Diaspora in Europe, and decolonising the mediascape.

The 8th Biennial Afroeuropeans Network Conference will take place in Belgium during 2021.

5000 Miles and 70 Years: Vanley Burke’s Windrush-inspired installation at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham

A new site-specific installation ‘5000 Miles and 70 Years’ by the internationally renowned photographer Vanley Burke was launched at Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) in Birmingham on Friday 4 May 2018. The installation featured a collage of archival materials and photographs from the artist’s extensive portfolio of images relating to the lived experiences of African and Caribbean diaspora communities in Britain since the mid-20th century.

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Detail from the collage-based installation ‘5000 Miles and 70 Years’ by Vanley Burke – displayed in the Terrace Gallery at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham, UK. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Displayed across the length of the Terrace Gallery on the venue’s ground floor, and also as a full-colour frieze exhibited across several 1st floor window panes, the installation offered poignant insights into the lives of Vanley Burke’s family and friends, as well as wider African-Caribbean diaspora communities settled in the West Midlands and other regions of the UK over several decades.

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A section of the installation ‘5000 Miles and 70 Years’ by Vanley Burke, presented across the 1st floor window panes at Midlands Arts Centre. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The artwork ‘5000 Miles and 70 Years’ was specifically commissioned to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush passenger ship at Tilbury Docks in Essex on 22nd June 1948 carrying on board c.500 migrants from islands and nations in the Caribbean region – many of whom were former servicemen and women who had served in the British armed forces and auxiliary services throughout the Second World War. The arrival of the Windrush has subsequently become a symbolic event in the social, economic and cultural history of Britain and the Commonwealth and, as such, the arrival date signifies the beginning of what is now referred to as the era of the ‘Windrush Generation.’ However, as Vanley’s installation illustrates, the imagery and documentation featured in the collage communicates a longer-standing, further-reaching and more complex history of Britain’s relationship with the Caribbean region and its people that encompasses the era of transatlantic enslavement, centuries of colonial exploitation, global trade links and the legacies of British imperialism in the West Indies. Interspersed with the family photographs, street scenes, images of domestic interiors and documentation about working class life from the past seven decades are also extracts from political posters, anti-racism campaign leaflets, news cuttings and photographs of protest marches and demonstrations that articulate the ongoing struggles of diasporans from the Caribbean to achieve their rights, equalities and freedoms as British citizens – not only for themselves, but also for subsequent generations of descendants born in the UK.

Photographer Vanley Burke was born in Jamaica in 1951 and migrated to Britain as a teenager in 1965. Since that time he has become one of the most important documentarians of black British history – using his skills as a photographer, as well as his passion for archiving, to produce and preserve a powerful, emotionally charged and thought-provoking visual narrative about the post-war lived experiences of black Britons. It is for these reasons that many art historians, sociologists and cultural studies scholars rightfully refer to Vanley Burke as “the foremost chronicler of Birmingham’s black history” and  “custodian of the history and the cultural memory of Black Birmingham” (see, for example, the book ‘Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s’ by Eddie Chambers (IB Tauris, 2014)).

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Photograph of Vanley Burke, pictured in front of his installation artwork ‘5000 Miles and 70 Years’ at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham (4 May 2018). Photo: Carol Dixon.

It was an honour and a privilege for me to meet Vanley Burke at the launch event for his new site-specific installation, and I even managed to get a picture of him standing in front of his thought-provoking new artwork (shown above). Continue reading “5000 Miles and 70 Years: Vanley Burke’s Windrush-inspired installation at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham”

Decolonising and diversifying institutions: creating inclusive spaces where difference is respected

The 2017 Serpentine Pavilion – designed by Diébédo Francis Kéré from Burkina Faso, and displayed in Kensington Gardens, London (23 June – 8 October) – represents an architectural structure designed with community gatherings and convivial interactions in mind. Kéré’s harmoniously cylindrical, indigo-blue, textured structure, with its lattice-like wood and metal-framed roof fanning out to form a funnel-shaped sloping canopy,  evokes the atmosphere of a central communal meeting place, with multiple openings overhead for letting in natural light to illuminate the interior while also providing shelter from the rain.

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Serpentine Pavilion 2017, designed by the architect Francis Kéré from Gando in Burkina Faso. Photo: Carol Dixon.

This beautiful artwork, inspired by the broad canopies and buttresses of tropical baobabs, signifies a pluralist space where diverse conversations and opportunities to exchange ideas are welcomed. The pavilion’s design, therefore, serves as an appropriate image through which to introduce and illustrate the overarching theme for this year’s Royal Geographical Society annual international conference – “Decolonising Geographical Knowledges.” This complex and wide-ranging theme, which also served as a call to action, was addressed over the course of a stimulating, four-day event programme of lectures, panel sessions and workshops attracting more than 1000 delegates from around the world.

Given that these geographical discussions  were taking place in Kensington less than a two-minute walk from the Serpentine Pavilion signifies that, similarly to the architect’s desire to create a contemporary equivalent of a central community meeting space where all are welcomed to converge and consider the key issues of the day, the RGS-IBG was symbolically also opening up (and opening out) the institution to invite in a greater diversity of publics (and broader critical perspectives) than had hitherto been seen as integral to geography as a subject discipline, where scholarship pursued by privileged white men from elite schools within the Euro-American academy still dominates most of the academic geographical discourse.

The 2017 Chair of the Conference, Sarah Radcliffe (Professor of Latin American Geography, University of Cambridge) was responsible for catalysing debates related to the theme of decolonisation. Her address drew attention to the various ways geography within academia has begun to provide a platform for considering how institutions established during the colonial era can be transformed into more inclusive and ‘decolonial’ spaces, fully divested of the structural inequalities and power hierarchies that previously allowed elitism, exclusions and discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, religion, nationality, educational background, disability, LGBTQ+ identities to persist and endure long after the end of formal colonial rule. Continue reading “Decolonising and diversifying institutions: creating inclusive spaces where difference is respected”

African Diaspora Arts and Scholar-Activism at the 6th Biennial Network Conference on Black Cultures and Identities in Europe (University of Tampere, Finland, July 2017)

On 6th July 2017 more than 200 delegates from 20 countries gathered in the city of Tampere, Finland, to participate in the 6th Biennial ‘Afroeuropeans’ Network Conference on Black Cultures and Identities in Europe – convened and hosted by the Academy of Finland Research Fellow Dr Anna Rastas (Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Tampere), working in partnership with a team of scholars, artists and administrators from Aalto University, Sibelius Academy, the University of Tampere and the University of Helsinki.

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Delegates at the 6th Afroeuropeans Network Conference, Linna Building, University of Tampere, Finland. 6 July 2017. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The  conference took place over three days, specifically scheduled to also coincide with Tampere’s hosting of the FEST AFRIKA 2017 cultural programme of live music, poetry and spoken word performances by solo musicians, dancers, bands, dub poets and other literary and performing arts practitioners from continental Africa and the African and Caribbean diasporas in Europe.

Keynote Address by Professor Paul Gilroy

The conference’s opening keynote address was given by the internationally renowned social scientist, literature scholar and cultural theorist Professor Paul Gilroy (American and English Literature, King’s College, University of London), who gave a wide-ranging presentation about race and racism, inequalities, border politics, the dynamics and impacts of securitisation, and associated activism to stem the problematic rise of ‘securitocracy’ throughout Europe – titled, On the necessity and the impossibility of being a black European [a 2017 re-mix] or the value of anti-racism in the ‘Alt-right’ era.

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Professor Paul Gilroy speaking at the 6th Afroeuropeans Network Conference, University of Tampere, Finland, 6 July 2017. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Through Paul Gilroy’s skillful articulation of what he termed “The Slave Historical Arc” – a tracing of key transitional events, change processes and resistance struggles from the era of transatlantic enslavement through to the contemporary racisms and exclusions imbricated within the political apparatus of our 21st century societies – he was able to explain the emergence of “the impossible condition of being” for black and brown people negotiating the complexities, paradoxes and precarious conditions of our compromised (non-)citizenship in Europe. Continue reading “African Diaspora Arts and Scholar-Activism at the 6th Biennial Network Conference on Black Cultures and Identities in Europe (University of Tampere, Finland, July 2017)”