Earlier in 2019 I was fortunate to present a paper at an international conference on African-European Studies that took place in Portugal at the ISCTE-IUL Lisbon University Institute. While there, I took the opportunity to visit a number of museums and galleries to review exhibitions and collections featuring works by modern and contemporary visual artists shown at sites such as the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in northern Lisbon and Museu Coleção Berardo in the district of Belém.
At the time of my visit to the Gulbenkian the display area near the entrance to the Modern Collection [Coleção Moderna] featured a film-based installation and performance lecture created by Portuguese artist, writer, academic and scholar-activist Grada Kilomba (b. Lisbon, 1968) – an internationally acclaimed artist known for producing thought-provoking, interdisciplinary projects focused on issues of cultural diversity, hybridity, inter-cultural dialogues, anti-racism, equalities, social justice and the decolonisation of knowledge.
The artist’s installation – ‘Illusions Vol. I, Narcissus and Echo’ (2017) – first developed as a commissioned piece, originally presented in 2016 at the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo as part of a diverse programme of contemporary artistic practices addressing the theme ‘Live Uncertainty’ [‘Incerteza Viva’]. As a Portuguese woman of colour with African (Angolan, São Tomé and Príncipe) and European heritage, who has been based in Berlin for many years, Grada Kilomba’s creative interpretation of the brief involved taking the mythical story of Narcissus and Echo from Ovid’s epic poem, Metamorphoses, and transposing its ancient narrative into a 21st century context to specifically examine issues of inequality, racism, anti-blackness and other forms of discrimination within contemporary multicultural societies.
The 2017 version of the filmed performance shown at the Modern Collection featured Grada Kilomba reading the story of Narcissus and Echo (in English, with Portuguese subtitles) from a solitary, seated position. Her small screen was angled diagonally to overlook a much larger floor-to-ceiling video projection that showed an ensemble cast of three German actors of African descent, dressed in black and performing a dramatic sequence of mimed interactions to the sounds of the artist’s mellow voice-over, an accompanying drumbeat and, later in the c. 30-minute looped piece, a recording of the famous jazz-blues song ‘I Put A Spell On You‘ by Nina Simone (Philips Records, 1965).
The interpretation literature written on the information panel at the Gulbenkian described the installation as a re-staging of oral storytelling traditions and oral knowledge production, whereby:
“[T]he myth of Narcissus and Echo is simultaneously a metaphor of the colonial past and a metaphor of the politics of representation, in the present, introducing the black body into the white space of the image, with references to the white space of the gallery and the museum (White Cube) marked by the historical absence of the black body.”
– Artist, writer and academic Grada Kilomba
At various instances the character of Narcissus is shown wearing a checked suit and hat, fashioned from the same type of material used to manufacture the distinctive red, black/blue and white, woven PVC plastic bags widely used for carrying shopping, laundry and other bulky goods, in addition to also being regularly used as low-cost suitcases (as shown below).
It is clear from the use of this familiar material that the artist has made a strong, symbolic association between the ubiquitous availability of cheap and disposable PVC carrier bags and the ways powerful industrialised nations in the global North have historically exploited (and continue to take advantage of) the labour of those migrating from the global South, often forced into low-skilled, poorly paid, precarious types of work commoditised as ‘disposable’ jobs and, thus, also seen by some as ‘throw-away people’.
The inclusion of this quotidian polyvinyl fabric evoked memories of its use by other internationally renowned contemporary visual artists from continental Africa and the diaspora when addressing similar themes to Grada’s Illusions. For example, the portfolio of Cameroonian painter and mixed-media artist Barthélémy Toguo includes the sculptural installations Climbing Down (2005) and Redemption (2012), which both feature assemblages of the PVC bags, interspersed with Dutch Wax printed cotton fabrics and other culturally significant materials and objects to draw attention to the socio-political and economic plight and precarious lived experiences of migrants, asylum seekers, undocumented workers and other oppressed communities in Europe.
The artist’s primary motivation for creating Illusions Vol. I – and her associated work within this series, Illusions Vol. II, Oedipus (2018) – was to critically analyse systems of knowledge production through the formulation and aesthetic expression of three underlying questions:
“Who can speak?”
“What can we speak about?”
“What happens when we speak?”
I am so grateful that Grada Kilomba has chosen to focus on considerations about these questions in such creatively experimental and interdisciplinary ways – always carefully combining powerful image-making and insightful storytelling with poetic oratory, music, classical literature, academic scholarship and theatre performance. It is this type of nuanced artwork about memory, the legacies of colonial trauma, identity, belonging and our ongoing relationships of interdependence with one another world-wide that enables our ancestral histories to remain ever prescient in the contemporary moment and essential for fostering collaborative engagements that shape more hopeful shared futures for us all.
To read more about Grada Kilomba’s interdisciplinary oeuvre and her bibliography of scholarly publications, please visit her website: https://gradakilomba.com/
The theme for the 1:54 FORUM accompanying the seventh London edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair (Somerset House, 3-6 October 2019) was “Looking Back and Moving Forward” – titled to pay tribute to the life and legacy of the late Nigerian curator and arts scholar Olabisi (“Bisi”) Silva (1962-2019), founder of the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) Lagos.
Many of the artists, historians and curators contributing to the discussion panels, practitioners’ talks and scholarly presentations over the course of the four-day programme reflected on issues that were central to Bisi’s own scholarship and activism, foregrounding the importance of archival research and archiving as a process within contemporary arts practice, innovative approaches to arts education (as exemplified via the celebrated “Àsìkò” Pan-African arts initiative) and the need to continually raise the profile of women artists from continental Africa and the global African diaspora within the art world.
Similarly to the 1:54 FORUM, the art fair’s exhibition spaces at Somerset House gave prominence to established women artists in its free-to-view galleries – including a stunning presentation of recent sculptural installations and photographic stills of performances created by Johannesburg-based contemporary artist Mary Sibande (b. 1982, Barberton, South Africa), titled “I Came Apart at the Seams” and shown throughout the Terrace Rooms near the main entrance.
The Lower Ground Floor galleries also displayed a series of thought-provoking, environment-themed photographs from Ethiopian contemporary artist Aida Muluneh’s recent project “Water Life” (2019). Commissioned by the charity WaterAid, and supported by the H&M Foundation, the exhibition comprised 12 photographic tableaux, set in the arid landscapes of north-east Ethiopia, staged to spotlight the harsh realities of water scarcity and its particular impacts on the lives of women throughout the African continent.
The vibrant primary colours of the garments and face-paints used in the styling for these tableaux – further reinforced via the use of bright yellow on the gallery walls – contrasted markedly with the aridity of the featured physical landscapes.
The 2019 edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London brought together 45 galleries representing more than 140 artists from Africa and the global African diaspora. This year’s commissioned Fountain Court installation was titled “Fortress” by Kiluanji Kia Henda (b. 1979, Luanda, Angola) and was part of his series of architectural structures – “A City Called Mirage” (2014-) – designed to provoke questions about the changing nature of life in cities.
In keeping with the tribute to Bisi Silva, there were a number of recently created artworks by artists from Nigeria and the Nigerian diaspora – including intricately woven, wall-mounted pieces by textile artist Nnenna Okore, displayed by the Frankfurt-based gallery SAKHILE&ME, through to new sculptures by Niyi Olagunju and Victor Ekpuk presented in TAFETA Gallery’s exhibition area.
Sculptures by Yinka Shonibare CBE (RA) also featured prominently in the section curated by James Cohan Gallery – specifically foregrounding a case of c.225 books covered in Shonibare’s signature Dutch wax printed cotton textiles and embossed with gold lettering taken from a section of his installation “The American Library Collection (Female Philanthropists)” (2019), as well as his classsically-themed, figural sculpture of a woman with a globe head, “Aphrodite Kallipygos” (2019) – which loosely translates as “Aphrodite of the beautiful buttocks.”
Among my personal highlights were the selection of wall-mounted offrandes de couleurs (“offerings” made from delicate fragments of coloured fabric) by the internationally renowned textile artist Abdoulaye Konaté (b. 1953, Diré, Mali) – including his stunning composition in black and red, “Gouttes Rouges” (2019).
Group portraits by the Addis Ababa-based painter Tadesse Mesfin (b. 1953, Weldia, Ethiopia) also caught my eye and held my attention because of the artist’s subtle use of a muted colour palette to create beautifully rendered street scenes, as exemplified in the artworks “Pillars of Life: Gathering” (2019) and “Pillars of Life: Guleet II” (2019), photographed below.
Among the many artists whose works were completely unfamiliar to me, but which left a very positive impression, were the Tunisian artist and scholar Sonia Kallel (b. 1973, Tunis), South African mixed-media artist Bev Butkow (b. 1967, Johannesburg) and Senegalese painter Ibrahima Dieye (b. 1988, Dakar).
For example, Sonia Kallel’s large-scale – yet extremely delicate – perforated paper sculpture “La Pièce” (2018) was presented by AGorgi Gallery, Tunis, and reflected a fine art practice steeped in the arts and crafts heritage of the artist’s home nation. During recent discussions about her quasi-anthropological and trans-disciplinary approach to artistic research and creative production she remarked:
“Working digitally is not only an aesthetic need, it is a language of the present, it offers multiple and infinite possibilities … The question of cultural heritage is essential to me. We are experiencing the loss of knowledge, of historical places … much is disappearing and getting lost … Digital technology allows us to transcribe and transpose data, to develop, to dream … I am interested in the transition from know-how, such as the hand becomes the machine and what happens when I repeat the same gestures digitally.”
Sonia Kallel, interviewed by Aymen Gharbi (2017) for COLLUMINA
Johannesburg-born artist Bev Butkow typically creates mixed media artworks from socially encoded materials, such as dishcloths. Her intricately woven, stitched and enmeshed sculptures and collages are designed to symbolise the artist’s reflections on the gendered labour of women and its invisibility within contemporary society. 1:54’s interpretation literature published about Bev Butkow’s oeuvre stated that she takes a “trans-disciplinary approach to painting, weaving, personal narrative, storytelling and feminist theoretical practices aimed at dissolving the traditional boundaries of genre and knowledge generation.”
A selection of large-scale paintings and collages by Senegalese artist Ibrahima Dieye was presented by Galerie Cecile Fakhoury and reflected the artist’s interest in representing urban fables, mythical narratives and dramatic stories inspired by a multitude of cultures. The complex amalgamation of hybrid animal-human characters, recurring motifs and other mysterious symbolic figures was illustrative of Ibrahima’s uniquely “poetic, yet ironic gaze on contemporary society,” as shown (above) in the intriguing composition “Not for Sale #1” (2019).
It was wonderful to view such a broad display of contemporary visual art by both established and emerging artists with links to continental Africa and its global diaspora(s). And, whilst I recognize that a day-ticket price of £25 puts this art fair out of reach for many communities and groups of art enthusiasts, I remain extremely grateful that a large-scale showcase such as 1:54 has now become an annual feature of Somerset House’s events calendar to coincide with Frieze London and other important art fairs in the capital’s cultural programme.
For further details about the artists, curators, galleries and other participants contributing to this edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, access to the virtual tour of Somerset House and archived information about past showcases, please visit the website http://1-54.com/.
How fitting that Tate Britain’s first solo retrospective about the 60-year career of Guyanese-British painter Frank Bowling, OBE, RA (b. Bartica, 1934) should be titled and themed around his own words:
“The possibilities of paint are never-ending” – Frank Bowling, 2017
This long-awaited exhibition was presented over nine rooms at the Millbank site in London, 31 May – 26 August 2019, each section providing insights into the aesthetic qualities of his oeuvre and the range of techniques and influences informing in his creative practice spanning the decades since his graduation from the Royal College of Art, London, in the early 1960s.
Given the longevity, excellence and international renown associated with Bowling’s outstanding career, one might have expected this type of exhibition to have taken place long before now for an artist who migrated to the UK from Guyana (formerly “British Guiana”) 13 years prior to its independence and who has spent most of his life living and working in London where he resides to this day. Regrettably, however, those who have known about and followed his achievements for a long time recognise the impacts of both overt and covert forms of racism within the Western-dominated art world – that have, without doubt, hindered and deferred the rightful accolades he has (belatedly) received in the UK during the 21st century: becoming the first British artist of African descent to be elected a Royal Academician in 2005 (at 71 years), and later receiving an OBE in 2008.
Room 1 presented paintings from his early years in Guyana, which were heavily influenced by the socio-political issues of the late-1940s and 1950s – not only in relation to the islands and nations of the circum-Caribbean region, but also world-wide. For Bowling, his arrival in Britain in 1953 was followed by service in the Royal Air Force in the years prior to pursuing his artistic studies (1959-1962) alongside peers such as David Hockney and R. B. Kitaj. Several of the featured works illustrated his early interests in geometry, often juxtaposed with pictorial references to recurring themes such as the dying swan.
The second room featured artworks from the early 1960s, that included paintings completed during his years studying at the Royal College of Art in London and throughout his time spent tutoring part-time at Camberwell School of Art prior to relocating to New York in 1966.
As a cultural geographer, I appreciated the strong emphasis on Frank Bowling’s numerous “Map Paintings,” displayed in Room 3, which signified a shift away from figurative representations of the human body and animals towards the use of stenciled images of the South American continent as well as the Guyanese coastline and other cartographic features throughout the Americas, thus exemplifying how identities – particularly the experiences of Caribbean diasporans around the world – are shaped by geo-politics, histories of migration, displacement and the legacies of imperialism.
Bowling’s “Poured Paintings” were presented in Room 4, representing the period during the 1970s when the artist created a tilting platform in his New York and London studios to allow him to experiment with pouring paint onto canvases from a height of two metres. The curators characterised this time period and series of works as an expression of Bowling’s interest in “the tensions between a structured approach to painting and accidental developments.”
I couldn’t help comparing the dynamism and vibrancy of this work from the 1970s with Jackson Pollock’s celebrated portfolio of ‘drip paintings’ and earlier compositions made using poured acrylics during the 1940s, in addition to more recent pouring techniques used by British contemporary artist Damien Hirst to create some of his famous ‘spin-art paintings’ in the mid-1990s. However, it is notable that Bowling’s name seldom appears in listings of high-profile, internationally acclaimed artists known for their innovative use of these types of techniques.
The fifth of the themed galleries was titled “Cosmic Space” and included works such as “Moby Dick” (1981), shown below. Here, the interpretation literature mentioned Bowling’s increasing use of pearlessence and hand-painted splotches to create spectacular marbling effects that were likened to “atmospheric impressions of skies, visions of the cosmos, or alchemical transformations.”
By Room 6 – titled, “More Land Than Landscape,” in reference to a description of Bowling’s work by the painter Dennis de Caires in the mid-1980s – attention turned to the artist’s use of acrylic gel to create impasto works that extended out from his canvases like three-dimensional sculptures more-so than two-dimensional paintings, thus blurring the boundaries between the respective artistic traditions. At this time, Frank Bowling also began to incorporate metallic pigments, fluorescent chalk, glitter and small found objects into his compositions to give the pieces greater complexity.
The exhibition concluded with a selection of Frank Bowling’s most recent artworks – presented in galleries titled “Water and Light”, “Layering and Stitching” and “Explosive Experimentation.” Each of these sections represented the artist’s desire to keep innovating – whether this was achieved through his ongoing ambition to capture the natural light he had often seen along the Guyanese coast-scapes during his youth and reflect this through his painting, or by continually experimenting with stitching, stapling and glueing techniques to join together several canvases at a time and create increasingly undefinable, genre-breaking works.
Additionally, the incorporation of this multiplicity of different techniques within his most recent compositions – ranging from poured and blotch-based painting styles through to his varied use of stenciled applications, acrylic gels, textiles and other materials – added completely new dimensions to previously established practices, thus presenting fresh perspectives on fluidity and flow within each individual artwork.
I was delighted to have seen this exhibition during the final two weeks of its run, as the galleries at Tate Britain were not too crowded and this provided opportunities to contemplate each of the artworks and the thematic assemblages within the nine rooms at an unhurried pace.
Although this major solo retrospective was presented somewhat late in the day for an artist who has always deserved far more (and much earlier) attention and accolades from the most important art institutions within the nation he has made his home, I was nevertheless very pleased to see Frank Bowling’s portfolio given this scale of exposition, which was certainly warranted for an artistic career comprising seven decades of consistently stellar achievements.
A full-colour catalogue of the exhibition, edited by Elena Crippa (Curator of Modern and Contemporary British Art at Tate), is available from Tate Britain.
Further details about the artist and his oeuvre can also be viewed online at the following links:
Zak Ové’s curation of the group exhibition Get Up, Stand Up Now(Somerset House, London, 12 June – 15 September 2019) foregrounds and celebrates the work of more than 100 artists from Africa, the Caribbean region, the African Diaspora in Britain and throughout the wider world who have made significant contributions to the UK’s cultural landscape in the decades since the Second World War.
As the exhibition’s sub-title suggests, its showcase pays tribute to generations of black creative pioneers whose artworks have served to voice, visualise and reflect the complexities, political dynamics, pleasures and challenges of black lived experiences in Britain throughout the modern and contemporary eras of the 20th and 21st centuries, as expressed through painting, sculpture, photography, film, music, literature, architecture, artefact assemblages, fashion and design.
Arranged into thematic sections, the artworks and archival exhibits were presented in 15 rooms and corridor display areas along the full length of Somerset House’s ground floor West Wing, with different colour-coded interpretation panels and 1970s-style decorative wall and floor designs signifying the transitions between each of the following five “chapters”: * (1) Motherland – a selection of works about anti-racist resistance and resilience: from the modernist wooden sculpture “Male Standing Figure, The Priest” (1939) by Ronald Moody and the portrait of “Loretta” (2006) by Franklyn Rodgers, through to Richard Mark Rawlins’ digital photo of a clenched fist in a tea cup, “Empowerment” (2018) from his series I AM SUGAR, illustrating a quote from the essay “Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities” (1991) by Jamaican-British cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall (1932-2014).
* (2) Dream to Change the World – two large galleries filled with politically aesthetic sculptural installations, artefacts, publications and archival materials providing commentaries on anti-racist campaign activities and struggles for civil and human rights spanning many decades. The poem “Ark” by Jay Bernard (a former writer-in-residence at the George Padmore Institute, London) was prominently displayed at the entrance to this section to testify to the material fragility of archives, as well as the challenges of memorialising difficult and traumatic histories (https://jaybernard.co.uk/).
* (3) Masquerade – four rooms addressing the historical origins, symbolism and legacies of carnival in the Caribbean and also in the UK. Ishmahil Blagrove Jr’s installation Carnival Trolley commemorating the founding of London’s Notting Hill Carnival was a focal exhibit within this section.
(4) Imaginary Landscapes – featuring works by Lubaina Himid, Cosmo Whyte, Carrie Mae Weems and Che Lovelace that each addressed issues of migration and the many geographical, cultural and psycho-social borders and barriers that have to be negotiated during this process of transition.
* (5) Mothership – the concluding section of the exhibition examining the influence of Afrofuturism within the work of artists such as GAIKA, Rashid Johnson and fashion designer Mowalola.
An overarching theme within the curatorial narrative was a personal and artistic tribute to Zak Ové’s father – internationally renowned photographer and filmmaker Horace Ové (b. 1939, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad) – whose works were included alongside contributions from the oeuvres of his artistic predecessors, peers and successors. What united all the featured artists was their inputs within an ever-expanding corpus of outstanding and trailblazing creative practices that have influenced – and continue to positively impact – British cultural life, whilst also producing ripple effects that have helped to transform and diversify the international art canon.
Although my primary catalyst for seeing this exhibition was to review Zak Ové’s selection of paintings, sculptures and photographic works by established and emerging visual artists from Africa, the Caribbean and the global African diaspora, I was equally inspired by the inclusion of literary texts, archival documents, films, video installations and musical soundscapes within each chapter that complemented and contextualised the more traditional fine art pieces.
A particular strength of Get Up, Stand Up Now was the volume and quality of documentary photographs and film excerpts chronicling black British life throughout the post-war period – with street-based images and group portraits by Armet Francis, Dr Vanley Burke, Charlie Phillips, Neil Kenlock and Horace Ové from the 1960s and 1970s displayed alongside more recent, 21st century photographic and video-based works created in the 2000s and 2010s by (amongst others) Ajamu, Jenn Nkiru, Cooly G and Phoebe Boswell.
Additional photographic installations and video art by influential African American contemporary conceptual artists such as Carrie Mae Weems and Hank Willis Thomas added further poignancy to the assemblages and helped to show the historical, socio-political and aesthetic connections and resonances within and between the portfolios of artists of African descent who identify as part of a wider, Black Atlantic diaspora.
Given that artworks by women artists of any ethnic background rarely cover more than 10% of the floor and wall space within mainstream European art institutions, it was encouraging to observe that women of colour represented almost a third of the individual contributors and collectives shown in this group exhibition. A balance of 50:50 would have been the ideal ratio, but c.30% representation by women artists was still far better than the disproportions that have persisted as a problematic norm.
Important works by LGBTQI+ artists and arts activists of colour also featured prominently in the selection – with Campbell Addy’s “Engender” (2019) and Ajamu’s “Body Builder in Bra” (1993) standing out as notable highlights.
Archival documentation loaned by heritage organisations such as Autograph (at Rivington Place), Black Cultural Archives, George Padmore Institute and Friends of the Huntley Archives at the London Metropolitan Archives (FHALMA) helped to align the exhibition’s artistic, literary and audio-visual content to important, pioneering, art-political campaigns, exhibitions and interventions by national and regional activist groups – from the Caribbean Artists’ Movement (CAM) of the 1960s and early ’70s, the BLK Art Group (Pan-Afrikan Connection) founded in Wolverhampton in the 1980s and the Black Audio Film Collective (1982-1998) based in Portsmouth and later east London, through to the more recent research network Thick/er Black Lines established in the capital in 2017.
An alcove at the end of the West Wing was transformed into a stunning, site-specific installation by Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk – titled as a“Temple of Learning”/”Shrine to Wisdom” (2019). Within this space, the artist painted an intricate matrix of white, glyph-based symbols inspired by Nsibidi writing systems from south-east Nigeria onto blue and red surfaces to create an immersive, contemplative reading space for visitors.
Get Up, Stand Up Now is, by far, the most thought-provoking and awe-inspiring exhibition I have seen this year, largely because of the sheer volume and depth of archival research integrated into the object assemblages, interpretation literature and audio-visual narratives.
I commend Zak Ové and his network of contributors for working in partnership with Somerset House to display this diverse body of work in a mainstream, central London arts venue – as black British, African and Caribbean diaspora art histories have all too often tended to be marginalised and displaced to the peripheries of social and cultural life in the UK instead of being rightfully centralised and acknowledged as core to the nation’s sense of collective, multicultural identity.
Get Up, Stand Up Now continues at Somerset House through to 15 September 2019. A 160-page, full-colour catalogue (ISBN: 978 1-9996154-4-4) has also been published to accompany the exhibition, with introductory texts by Zak Ové, Jonathan Reekie and Ceri Hand, as well as essays and other contributions by David A Bailey MBE, Margaret Busby, June Givanni, Vivien Goldman, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Errol Lloyd, Sharmaine Lovegrove and Caryl Phillips.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.