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

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Afriques Capitales/Capital Africas: A Barthesian multiplicity of cities presented at La Villette in Paris

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An exterior view of the venue for Episode 1 of “Afriques Capitales/Capital Africas,” exhibited at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris, 23 March – 28 May 2017. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The curatorial challenge Simon Njami set for himself when conceptualizing the exhibition “Afriques Capitales“[“Capital Africas”] was to provide a discursive, dialogical space where contemporary visual artists from continental Africa and the wider global African diaspora(s) could come together to “invent the city of all cities: a city that belongs to no one but in which everyone can find their own personal bearings” (Njami, 2017: 19).

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“The Minaret” (2012) by Egyptian artist and arts activist Moataz Nasr. This illuminated sculptural installation was displayed on the ground floor of the Grande Halle de la Villette as part of the exhibition “Afriques Capitales” (2017). Photo: Carol Dixon.

The results of this creative, cross-cultural and pluralist dialogue manifested in the form of  a large-scale, international group show of contemporary visual art presented in two episodes (or “chapters”) across expansive exhibition spaces in Paris and Lille:

  1. The first phase (or “Chapter 1”) comprised more than 100 works by 50 artists at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris – sub-themed “Afriques Capitales, Métropolis: C’est beau une ville la nuit” and  “Intermezzo: un projet stéréophonique, ” 23 March – 28 May 2017 (discussed in further detail, below).
  2. The second episode (or “Chapter 2”) – titled, “Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance” / “Capital Africas: From Lille to the Cape of Good Hope” – displayed work by a further 20 artists, combined with additional works by 12 of the same participants from the Paris strand of the exhibition, presented at the Gare Saint Sauveur in Lille (discussed and illustrated online at: http://www.lille3000.eu/gare-saint-sauveur/2017/), 6 April – 3 September 2017.
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Detail from the vivid red wall hanging “Alep” (2016) by Malian textile sculptor and painter Abdoulaye Konaté, displayed at La Villette as part of the exhibition “Afriques Capitales” (2017).

“Referring to Raymond Queneau’s 100,000 billion poems, Roland Barthes reminds us of that essential truth: there is never one city, but always several cities in one – a multiplicity of possible combinations.

[“Roland Barthes, en évoquant les 100 000 milliards de poèmes de Raymond Queneau, nous rappelle cette vérité essentielle: il n’y a jamais une ville, mais des villes.”]

Simon Njami, curator of the exhibition “Afriques Capitales / Capital Africas” (Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris, 2017)

Continue reading Afriques Capitales/Capital Africas: A Barthesian multiplicity of cities presented at La Villette in Paris

Installation Art by Otobong Nkanga (on display in Oxford, UK, until November 2016)

otobongnkanga-installation-at-portikusThe angular and multi-layered, architectural installation “Tsumeb Fragments” (2015) by Nigerian contemporary artist Otobong Nkanga is on display at Modern Art Oxford as part of the exhibition “KALEIDOSCOPE: It’s Me to the World” (20 August – 17 November 2016).

Like many works from Nkanga’s portfolio, Tsumeb Fragments addresses the themes of landscape, memory and the legacies of colonialism throughout continental Africa, utilising a diverse array of mixed-media and materials: from metal frames, paper and natural minerals, through to photographic stills and film footage.

THE HISTORICAL AND GEOGRAPHICAL CONTEXT TO “TSUMEB FRAGMENTS”

Detail from Tsumeb Fragments (2015) by Otobong Nkanga
Detail from “Tsumeb Fragments” (2015) by Otobong Nkanga featuring photographic images of Tsumeb, Namibia.

In spring 2015, Otobong Nkanga travelled to Tsumeb in Namibia to an area called The Green Hill – a site known for its precious minerals, natural crystals and copper reserves. However, throughout the late-19th and 20th centuries, when Namibia was colonised by the Germans, the entire area was exploited for these natural resources and over-mined until the landscape was almost totally depleted, left in ruins and transformed into an open-pit. At the time when Nkanga took images of Tsumeb in 2015 the site was no longer a green hill. However, some slight traces of green remained in the tiny, scattered fragments of malachite and azurite minerals – the only remains of the past to  evidence the area’s former environmental beauty and wealth. The artist’s inkjet-printed images on Galala limestone in this multi-level installation, therefore, symbolise an act of remembrance, and also a ‘re-imag(in)ing’ of times and places in the past – the palimpsest of memory.

Reflecting on her travels in Namibia, and her artistic process during the design and assemblage of Tsumeb Fragments, Nkanga said:
Continue reading Installation Art by Otobong Nkanga (on display in Oxford, UK, until November 2016)

ECAS: 7th European Conference on African Studies (Basel, 29 June-1 July 2017)

The 7th European Conference on African Studies (ECAS) will be taking place at the University of Basel (Switzerland) from 29th June to 1 July 2017. The theme for this year is “Urban Africa – Urban Africans: New encounters of the rural and the urban,” and I am aware from the preliminary call for panels that there is considerable interest in discussing and addressing issues about how current urbanization trends are impacting societies and individuals in terms of artistic, aesthetic and cultural responses, just as much as the more widely discussed dynamics and precarities of socio-economic, political and environmental change.

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Two sartorially elegant men from Congo Brazzaville involved in the lifestyle and performance of “La Sape” / “Sapeur aestheitcs.” Image source: c/o The Telegraph.

This conference is a gift for contemporary cultural geographers from continental Africa and the global African diasporas who wish to actively challenge and push back against the highly contentious and problematic pedagogies associated with so-called “African Studies” within the European academy. Indeed, the conference conveners at the University of Basel (CASB)  have stated the following in their recently issued call for papers, presentations and other contributions:

“The key issue… is how urbanization processes in Africa transform conventional objects of African Studies and how [you/me/we] gear up to face such changes … While the urban will be prominent, the proposed conference theme will also look into the entanglements of the rural with the urban, especially with a view to addressing an implicit assumption underlying the study of Africa and which concerns the supposed rural ‘nature’ of the continent as well as the constitutive nature of the tension between tradition and modernity.”

CASB conference conveners, University of Basel (Switzerland)

Continue reading ECAS: 7th European Conference on African Studies (Basel, 29 June-1 July 2017)