ANN: Report on Afroeuropeans: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe, 6th Biennial Network Conference (University of Tampere, Finland, 6-8 July 2017)

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Afroeuropeans: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe – 6th Biennial Network Conference

(University of Tampere, Finland, 6-8 July 2017)

A review, by Carol Ann Dixon, Ph.D.

In July 2017 circa 200 delegates from twenty countries gathered in Finland for the 6th Biennial  Network Conference “Afroeuropeans: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe” – convened and hosted by Dr. Anna Rastas (Academy of Finland Research Fellow, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Tampere), in partnership with social scientists, artists, and scholars from the Aalto University, Sibelius Academy, and the University of Helsinki.

The three-day conference took place at the University of Tampere on 6-8 July 2017 to specifically coincide with the city of Tampere’s hosting of FEST AFRIKA 2017 – a diverse cultural programme of live music, dance, poetry and spoken word performances, curated by Zimbabwean musician and choreographer Menard Mponda, and involving instrumentalists, dub poets, singers and other artists from continental Africa and the African and Caribbean diasporas in Europe.

Professor Paul Gilroy’s Keynote Address

The internationally renowned social scientist and cultural theorist Professor Paul Gilroy (King’s College, University of London) gave the opening keynote address – “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.” In it, Professor Gilroy explored wide-ranging issues of race, migration, border politics and the impacts of an increasing shift in Western cultural discourses towards the mainstreaming of right-wing ‘securitisation’ politics. Through a skilful articulation of “The Slave Historical Arc” – a tracing of key acts of resistance and struggles for self-determination, from the era of transatlantic enslavement through to the most recent manifestations of anti-racist campaigns in the 21st century to push back against the rise in hate crimes and intolerance – Professor Gilroy advanced his understanding (in reference to the philosophy of Hannah Arendt) of “the impossible condition of being” for black and brown people forced to negotiate the many enduring complexities, paradoxes, and precarities associated with significantly compromised states of (non-)citizenship in Europe (see also, for example, Arendt’s The Human Condition, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958).

The conclusion of the keynote touched on the increasing international circulation of ‘un-mediated’ photographic images, shared around the world by ‘citizen camera-men/women’ using smart-phones and social media to poly-vocalise and democratise the instant reporting of major social and political events. This digital documentation of alternative imagery and counter-narration to the ‘official’ news content broadcast via more conventional media was seen as a means of circumventing and destabilising the scripted messaging we have historically been exposed to via state-sanctioned and commercial broadcasters – often to the detriment of truth-telling.

Two of the images placed in sharp focus – but, respectfully, not shown on screen in the conference auditorium because of their tragic and highly sensitive content – include firstly, the photograph of three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body was found washed up on a Turkish beach having drowned at sea during a fatal Mediterranean crossing in 2015; and, secondly, the equally poignant camera-phone footage of 22-year old Gambian refugee Pateh Sabally, who drowned in Venice’s Grand Canal in early 2017 as groups of Italian onlookers and tourists took pictures, laughed and hurled racist abuse from the canal side without attempting to come to his aid.  Both examples provoked sombre reflection as Paul Gilroy spoke with heartfelt sincerity about the need for “a post-humanist humanism,” and a much more compassionate future in Europe characterised by “sympathetic,” “empathetic” and “convivial interactions” with our fellow human beings in ways that utterly reject the false binaries of “Us vs. Them,” “Insider vs. Outsider,” and “Self vs. Other.”

Museums, Galleries, Arts Activism and Decolonisation

The panel discussion I chaired about “Western museumscapes and the political aesthetics of decolonisation: African and Diasporan arts activists agitating for change” was specifically themed around issues of ‘othering,’ exclusionary museographic practices and alterisation.  It was catalysed by the following three presentations:

 (1) “Rendered Visible: An Artist’s Response to Museum Spaces in Bristol (UK),” by British visual artist Ros Martin – who showed film clips from two performance installations in her portfolio: (a) “Being Rendered Visible” (2016) – an integrated projection installation (in three voices), commemorating the life and legacy of a formerly enslaved African Igbo woman, Fanny Coker (1767-1820), who lived in Bristol during the late-18th century, and whose biography was narrated as a walk of remembrance and memorialisation through the city’s Greenbank Cemetery; (b) “I Witness” (2007) – a ‘multi art-form’ collaboration with the former British Empire and Commonwealth Museum commemorating the activism of Caribbean historian and Jamaican independence campaigner Richard Hart (1917-2013), presented through a series of songs, dance sequences and poetic monologues.

 (2) “On some ‘documents of Euro-African contact’ (MacGregor),” by Dr. Mischa Twitchin (British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Queen Mary, University of London). This paper featured a critique of the British Museum’s curation of masquerade masks and other works of fine art displayed in the African Galleries. A particularly interesting aspect of this presentation was a survey of the institution’s transition away from former director Neil MacGregor’s object-focused approach to collection interpretation, with the exhibits serving as cultural metonyms for “telling history through things” (see MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects, London: British Museum, 2010); and then a turn towards new director Hartwig Fischer’s post-2015 commitment to opening up the collections to more dynamic, ideas-based thematic interpretation, and politicized engagement with object assemblages (including ‘decolonial’ perspectives on interpretation).

(3) “#RewriteTheInstitute and #DecolonizeTheMuseum – Barrel of a Hashtag,” by the Amsterdam-based writer and campaign organiser Simone Zeefuik. During this talk, Simone Zeefuik discussed the genesis of several social media initiatives developed to increase public involvement in challenging and decolonizing the historically racist and Eurocentric language featured in some Dutch museum and gallery displays, at sites such as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam. Throughout this highly engaging talk, question were posed about how all of us (as scholars, artists, educators and activists, etc.) might work more collaboratively to make institutions in the Netherlands, and elsewhere, more culturally inclusive, welcoming, and accessible to young people to “reflect the needs and discourses of the times we are living in now!”

Artists’ Portfolios

Among the most interesting panels scheduled on Day 2 was an artist-focussed session titled, “Afropean Firsts: Blackness in Cultural Heritage and Visual Arts in Europe” – chaired by art historian Dr. Temi Odumoso (Malmö University). This session included a portfolio presentation by the Zurich-born artist Sasha Huber Saarikko (www.sashahuber.com). The ‘Firsts’ in the title was a direct reference to Sasha’s portraiture series – “THE FIRSTS” (2014-ongoing) – featuring representations of pioneering figures of African descent who came to prominence and achieved key positions of influence within the fields of politics, finance, medicine and the arts, depicted in mixed-media, using staples on board. The artist’s process of applying thousands of these tiny metal fasteners using a staple gun was described as a counter-mechanism (and, more viscerally) her “weapon” for “shooting back” against histories of colonialism, scientific racism, and global injustice spanning many centuries.

Geographies of Blackness

One of Day 3’s closing panels on “Geographies of Blackness: Performing Africanness through Art and Activism in Europe,” turned out to be my highlight of the entire conference programme, featuring scholarship from academics researching the cultural geographies and political aesthetics of African and Diasporan artists in Italy, France, and the UK. Dr. Claudia Brazzale (University of East London) presented on “Afropean choreographies and the economy of West African dance in Italy.” PhD candidate Deonte Harris (University of California) shared emerging findings from recent interviews conducted with organisers and artists involved in London’s Notting Hill Carnival, who articulated the ongoing art-political struggles to retain the Caribbean diaspora Carnival’s historical and spatio-cultural heritage as a community-led street festival in Kensington, campaigning against a relentless tide of mainstream political opposition.

Lastly, Kamal Ahmada (from the Make a Difference (M.A.D.) Project, London) presented his paper “Afro-French conscious rap: identity, resistance and solidarity with Palestine” – using the music and lyrics of French-Guadeloupian, Muslim rap artist Kery James (aka Alix Mathurin) as a departure point for examining the way multilingual expressive arts can serve as a unifying medium through which to share related experiences of subalternisation and marginalisation in different regions of the world. The powerful visuals and poetic symbolism featured in the video for Kery James’s “Lettre à la République” [“A Letter to the Republic”] (available to view online, in French with English subtitle, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XI-7NKDQKoU) served as a rousing and anthemic invitation for every delegate to re-double our individual and collective efforts to be part of the progressive change we aspire to achieve in a Europe where Gilroy’s afore-mentioned “post-humanist humanism” still remains a hoped-for future aspiration and not (as yet) a lived reality.

Dr. Carol Ann Dixon 
Researcher and Education Consultant
(https://museumgeographies.wordpress.com/)