Oct 31, 2007

American Academy Lecture on Nov. 6

I am scheduled to give my formal lecture as Daimler Fellow of the American Academy in Berlin on November 6, 2007 (see the announcement here: scroll down). My lecture evaluates the history and reception of modern African art in discourses of art history as a means of eliciting new critical frameworks for interpreting modern African art's intersection with global discourses of modernity and its invention of specific visual languages of modernist expression in general. Various dignitaries of Berlin art world have been invited. Ambassador Abdul bin Rimdap of the Nigerian Embassy in Germany will attend as the special guest of honor.

Sylvester Ogbechie, Signs, ink, graphite on paper

Rail Rider: Potsdam to Ahrensfelde

I returned to the Schloss Sans Souci in Potsdam to review the “blackamoor” sculptures. The vast Schloss contains a complex network of palaces and garden and was quite a tourist draw. Potsdam is just outside of Berlin, at one end of the S-7 purple line train that runs on a diagonal axis from Potsdam Hauptbahnhof through the city to Ahrensfeld. The black marble busts were part of a set of sculptures at the rear entrance of the Schoss Sans Souci containing six busts, four of them of blacks, in a ring structure with 8 seats. Outside this rear entrance, there is an obelisk that looks original (i.e. from Egypt) but turned out to be a delightful simulacrum decorated with very modern Prussian figures in the style of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The marble busts of the Black subjects were posed regally and are very much a part of a complex series of busts of important historical figures. No details or citations are provided for any of the sculptures but then none of the busts is identified by name though I identified busts of Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius among the figures. There is thus no explanation for the female figure with a single bare breast (a classic wet-nurse iconography in Western art) although this is not exceptional since there were several sculptures of nude white female figures at the Schloss.

The black marble busts ring circles the rear entrance to the Schloss Orangerie with its collection of period artworks, part of the royal collection of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia who had the palace complex built as a private residence between 1745 and 1747. The regal nature of the black busts and their uninflected location among sculptures of eminent historical figures (which makes it wrong to call them “blackamoor” figures) may have something to do with the fact that black people were not unknown in Germany by this period. By 1745, there was already a notable African intellectual in Germany, the Ashanti-born philosopher and nobleman Anton Wilhelm Rudolph Amo Afer (Antonius Guiliemus Amo Afer, 1703-1759), graduate of law at the University of Halle and professor of philosophy at the University of Jena. In any case, these sculptures are quite interesting evidence of a complex heritage of Afro-German identity.

I photographed the airborne Rhinoceros at Luisenplatz Square, near Potsdam’s Brandenburg Gate and the store sign “Cleopatra” in Lindenstrasse alcove off Brandenburgerstrasse. The Cleopatra store sold “oriental” artifacts and was chock full of fine items including several bejeweled daggers.

Afterwards, I rode the S-7 purple line train to Ahrensfeld in search of additional posters, having noticed their prevalence at train station platforms (see map of Berlin S-bahn system here). The S-7 runs across the central upscale part of Berlin through the principal train stations—Zoologischer Garten, Hauptbahnhof, Freidrichstrasse, Alexanderplatz and Ostbahnhof, and then through parts of what used to be East Berlin, to remnants of Soviet-style arcologies at Ahrensfelde. There is a secondary ring line running through the ethnic neighborhoods through the Turkish enclaves of the city and somewhere on the northwest axis, there is an Afrikanische Strasse underground train stop on the U-6 line. Between all these lines, Berlin has very good coverage of its entire metropolitan area, something anyone who’s ever lived in Los Angeles, Houston or Eko-Lagos for that matter will greatly envy. There is a fantastic run of graffiti on the platforms fences between Charlottenburg and Sauvignyplatz stations that chronicles the ever expanding graphology of urban African-American black culture, the iconography of beat-box-rap and its hip-hop descendants. Eighteen years after the Berlin wall fell, there are still cranes everywhere, a construction boom that shows no sign of stopping even though as many locals will tell you, the city’s real estate is vastly oversubscribed. Rents are very affordable in most places, which accounts in part for the booming gallery scene. On the return leg from Ahrensfeld, a young white girl got on the train at Hauptbahnhof station and sat across from me reading a book about the crisis in Darfur. When I asked what she thought of the Darfur crisis, she said it affected her personally because her father was from Sudan. She was reading the book because she planned to visit Sudan for the first time next summer. Here was a classic example of the perils of essentialism in questions of identity, this young woman, eyes full of yearning, seeking knowledge about her father’s African country, a daughter of Africa and a German, whose self-conception demanded recognition not as either white or black but as both and neither.

Nnenna Okore NY exhibition

The Contemporary African Art Gallery in New York currently has on display an exhibition of artworks by Nnenna Okore, BA graduate of the University of Nigeria Nsukka (student of El Anatsui), graduate of the MFA program at the University of Iowa, and an assistant professor of art at North Park University in Chicago. Okore's work explores the aesthetics of recycling made famous by Anatsui's astonishing metal cloth sculptures, but through other types of urban recyclia like newspapers and found objects. She states that she is interested in drawing attention to the integrity and strength of discarded paper, and discovering ways of making it more visible whether in a gallery or an outdoor setting. She is also "interested in creating architectural and intimate spaces by referencing and replicating familiar structures from nature or man-made environments, such as fences, nests, and webs". The sculpture shown here (top: photo © CAAG) is made up of clay modules strung out on knotted newspaper ropes. The artworks in Okore's exhibition are promising and it will be interesting to see how she mediates the anxiety of influence that derives from her tutelage under Anatsui who was also my drawing instructor when I was an art student at the same institution and is easily one of the most creative contemporary sculptors anywhere on the planet today. Anatsui's influence on the development of Nsukka School aesthetics is so pervasive that one can speak of a Sub-style of El Anatsui within the larger framework of the Nsukka School. The photograph below showing Victor Ehikhamenor, Nnenna Okore and I was taken at the reception hosted by Bill Karg on October 19 at the CAAG. Karg's gallery is a significant space for contemporary African art in New York and the reception attracted a good turnout from Africanists attending the 50th annual meeting of the African Studies Association in New York that weekend.

Oct 29, 2007

Architecture and Decor

The lobby of the Radisson SAS Hotel Berlin (on Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse right by the riverfront) has a circular aquarium and one of the most impressive interior decors of any hotels in the city. The huge aquarium cylinder is built around a hollow core that contains a large amount of water, as well as large numbers of fish, photographed below.

Oct 28, 2007

United Buddy Bears in Berlin

I came upon this interesting exhibition of United Buddy Bears in Berlin on the premises of the Hessische Staatskanzlei on my way to the Brandenburg Gate a few days ago. The United Buddy Bears are a group of art sculptures of bears representing all the countries in the world, each one painted by an artist from the country represented (see pictures here). Each artist received a basic bear form that they embellish in individual styles. This kind of urban public art is now a common feature of many cities but I first encountered it in the Chicago Cows on Parade exhibition in 1999. I have seen variations of this themed exhibition various American cities-- some interesting, others less so (panda bears on parade in San Francisco, horses on parade in Kentucky, a less than thrilling show of furniture on parade as a follow up to the wildly successful Cows theme in Chicago, etc.). The United Buddy Bears concept takes this one step further, since the sculptures are on a world tour that is meant to promote peace and global understanding. The project hopes to “make us understand one another better, trust each other more, and live together more peacefully”, lofty goals in a world increasingly devoted to esoteric forms of violence. The exhibition also seems appropriate to Berlin whose symbol is the bear.

The Berlin exhibition featured several bears representing African countries (click here for individual photos of each). The bear representing Nigeria was produced by artist Aniama Kenneth Dazaa who conferred the title Omekagu (one who is brave as a leopard) on his bear-sculpture. I have never heard of this artist but his entry was sponsored by the Embassy of Nigeria (according to information provided on the UBB website). Other African countries represented include South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Mali, Lesotho, Madagascar, Sao Tome and Principe, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Ethiopia, Angola, Algeria, Egypt. African Diaspora countries like Cuba and Haiti were also represented. The United Buddy Bears sculptures are poignant and their appeal for world peace commendable. They have been touring the world since 2002 and are garnering many accolades. Below: Omekagu, pair of bears representing Namibia (Gizz Farrell) and Mozambique (artist: Livio de Morais), pair representing Haiti (artist: Fritz desRoches) and Guinea (artist: Mohamed Nana Kaba), and the Cuban Bear (artist: Nancy Torres).

Oct 27, 2007

Notable Person: Kwame Appiah

My notable person for this week is Kwame Anthony Appiah, Laurence S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, and a former Trustee of the American Academy in Berlin, who is scheduled to give a talk at the Academy tomorrow titled "Ethics for a Global Age." Born in London of Ghanaian and British parentage, Prof. Appiah is a multitalented and very erudite scholar whose research subjects include the philosophy of mind and language, African and African American intellectual history, and political philosophy. In 1992, he published In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture a landmark meditation on the question of African culture and identity that is now required reading for anyone with more than casual interest in these issues. The book has been praised for its forthright criticism of the nebulous intellectual framework of Afrocentric ideals of African identity but has also been criticized for its prescriptions of a cosmopolitan ideal of contemporary identity for modern Africa that appeared to negate the usefulness of strategic essentialism in questions of individual, cultural and national identity. In any case, all critics agree that this is a very important book that carries out a fundamental archeology of intellectual arguments on the subject of African identity. Appiah’s personal experience of growing up in a multiracial, multicultural family in Ghana and Britain provides the book with gravitas as the author negotiates the complex heritage of his own identity as a contemporary African. Appiah’s recent books—The Ethics of Identity (2004) and Cosmopolitanism (2007), return to broad form philosophical problems but only as a means of extending his analysis of identity issues to a global stage. I last saw Prof. Appiah when he gave a talk about this book at University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) in 2006, and saw him again tonight when we discussed some of his projects and my own projects over dinner in Wansee. The picture below was taken in the lobby of the Han Arnhold Haus, The American Academy in Berlin.

Found Objects Redux...

I've encountered several interesting objects over the past two weeks as I traveled around in Germany. During my visit to the Linden Museum Stuttgart, I photographed a group of ceramic sculptures of bodybuilders that included one black figure. These sculptures were on a bookshelf in the office of one of the curators who kindly walked me through the African art collection of the Linden Museum and provided useful insights into the working of the German museum system. Speaking about the figurines, The curator gave me an extended riff on the perils of subjective identity when he said that he personally identified with the black bodybuilder and suggested that the reception of his work in the German museum establishment (the management and study of African art in general) is akin to Germany's reception of black people in general, which is generally cool to say the least. Aspects of the subject’s marginality were evident in my earlier review of Afro-Deutsche identity issues, which I am now looking into in greater detail. In any case, I thought there wasn't any reason why the curator shouldn't identify with the black figure and wasn't surprised at all to hear that he got conflated with his subject of study. After all, most scholars spend the bulk of their adult life in deep engagement with their subjects of study. If one studies Africa, why shouldn't one end up feeling like an African or even adopting the continent to the extent of identifying with it. I personally think this is a good thing since it enables the scholar to develop greater understanding of the people he works amongst. In fact one of the most esteemed scholars in Igbo studies—Prof. Simon Ottenberg—worked for so long in Afikpo (from the early 1950s onwards) that he is today a bona-fide and very respected Chief of Afikpo and a fount of Afikpo cultural memory. Ichie (Elder Chief) Ottenberg, as he is widely known in this context, represents an example of a scholar whose honest engagement with his subject of study is worthy of emulation. Over the years, he has become an Igbo person.

One of the significant advantages of this age of ubiquitous images is that for the first time in history, we are actually seeing an emergent process of self-identification that crosses racial boundaries: black youth adopting prep-boy modes of dressing (see Jay Z and 50Cent for example). Suburban white boys growing dreadlocks, black girls in Trinidad and Tobago mourning Diana, Princess of Wales. My favorite example of this concerns the Ganguro phenomenon of Japanese youth who adopt urban hip-hop culture, to the extent of dyeing their skins black. There are valid arguments about the hegemonic overtones of this examples of cultural compression: ganguro aesthetics has been criticized as an example of racist blackface practice but I think this critique misses a great point of the whole concept of outsider culture in Japan. In any case, I think it is important to engage these issues in light of their contemporary applications rather than merely their historical impact. For example, what were once staggering swear words--the "n" word; "gay" queer" etc.--are now routinely incorporated into basic language usage of the communities they were used against. I concede that these new applications are contentious (see the firestorm over the racial commentary in artworks by Kara Walker), but it is still important to investigate the changing meanings of self-identity and self-representation in our age of total mediation. In the meantime, below are my photographs of the Stuttgart Strongmen.

Oct 26, 2007


I gave a talk today at the Institute for Art History, University of Karlsruhe, titled "Art History Beyond Europe: Perspectives, Protocols and Prospects", a discussion of the recent expansion of art history beyond its earlier focus on Europe/European art (its Eurocentrism), and efforts in art history to define new ways of interpreting the arts of African and other non-Western peoples through analysis of their indigenous knowledge systems and with cognizance of the fact that world history is a global history rather than merely a history of Europe's impact on the world. The talk was followed by a discussion/Q&A period during which I discussed collections of African art in the West and the state of African art museums. A Karslruhe sculptor asked if there are any art museums in Africa that collect European art. Outside of South African museums, I couldn't think of any that did. Not only is European art way out of the financial reach of most African museums, there is the larger problem that African museums are often cash strapped and simply cannot afford to bid for artworks that cost millions of dollars (as well as what some might consider the complex ethical issue of whether African countries with difficult economies should be spending hard-earned foreign exchange bidding for any kind of art). There is of course the greater issue of whether any of the art museums in Africa are interested at all in collecting Western art, or whether they should be attempting to reconstitute the classical mode of Western hegemonic collections in which the arts of conquered peoples are used to narrate the idea of the hegemonic nation state. In any case, I think this is a significant question: given adequate resources to build world class museums that enable Africa's incorporation into the global circulation of culture, what kinds of museums systems should these countries build? What forms of museum cultures are adequate to Africa's unique needs and how are these museums to be created and sustained in the 21st century? More on this later. Below: poster of the Zeltival Sommerfest photographed in Karlsruhe Hauptbahnhof. I was particularly intrigued by the large numbers of black performers on this schedule and the surrealist style of the poster.

Oct 25, 2007

Found Objects...

Additional posters of black models and performers from various locations in Berlin. Left: A composite image of Talawa Tuff Gong, the honorable Robert Nesta Marley (Bob Marley); right: Classic psychedelic image of Jimi Hendrix, both photographed at an Alexanderplatz shop called "Udopea". Bottom: a model for the Evelin Brandt store at the corner of Mittelstrasse and Friedrichstrasse in Mitte-Berlin.

Oct 24, 2007

Autumn in Wansee

Came back from my trip to find Autumn in full swing in Wansee. New York was hot (in the 80s) all last weekend but the weather in Wansee has gone quite cool. The leaves have turned and many trees are already bare. As William Gibson said, "winter is waiting, somewhere in the Balkans". In the meantime, we have a very busy week with American Academy programs. Elizabeth Goodstein gave her academy lecture yesterday on the German Sociologist George Simmel whose concept of "the stranger" played a significant role in the development of the anthropological idea of "participant observation" (for its applications in African sociology/anthropology, see William A. Shack, Elliott P. Skinner, Strangers in African Societies. University of California Press, 1979). Mark Butler is giving his own lecture tomorrow on Electronic Music performance. This evening, Robert Redford is giving a reception at a special screening of his new film--Lions for Lambs--accompanied by Tom Cruise who, rumor has it, is filming part of his new film on German army resistance to the Nazi regime a few doors down from the Academy here in Wansee. Redford's Sundance Film Festival and its training program for directors is a major factor in the mainstreaming of indie films in the USA. The Nigerian-born Hollywood actor, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who has appeared in many important blockbusters and also in the groundbreaking series Lost, attended one of the Sundance training programs recently. He was a special guest at the recently concluded Nollywood Foundation Convention 2007. Pictures below: left--at the reception for Goodstein Academy lecture; right--Elizabeth Goodstein.

Oct 23, 2007

Notable Person: Skoto Aghahowa/Skoto Gallery

My notable person for this week is Skoto Aghahowa, owner/operator (with Alix du Serech, his wife) of Skoto Gallery, one of the earliest New York galleries devoted to works by contemporary African artists. As the gallery’s website states, Skoto Gallery was established in 1992 as a space where some of the best works by African artists can be exhibited within the context of a diverse and international audience. As one of the first galleries specializing in contemporary African Art in New York City, it has been instrumental in the progression of this rapidly growing field. I can personally attest to its importance, having helped curate in 1995 (along with Skoto and Barthosa Nkurumeh) the first group exhibition in the USA to focus on Nsukka Uli artists (Uli Art: Master Works, Recent Works. New York: Skoto Gallery, April 1995). Skoto also assisted prominent African artists like El Anatsui into the mainstream of art discourse, having organized a very successful exhibition for the artist at Skoto Gallery in 2006. The incendiary Anatsui was promptly poached from Skoto Gallery by another New York gallery, which perfectly illustrates the predatory capitalism of Western interests that Nigerians characterize as “monkey dey work, baboon dey chop”, what a character in the film “Blood Diamond” defined thus: every time Africans discover something of value, sooner or later Western interests arrive to deprive them of it”. Nevertheless Skoto abides and has exhibited important contemporary African artists like Aime Mpane, Osi Audu, Wosene Kosrof, Obiora Udechukwu, Owusu-Ankoma, Olu Amoda, Afi Nayo, Etiye Dima Poulsen, Mohammed Omar Khali, and Tayo Adenaike, to name a few. In addition to its major commitment to contemporary African Art, his gallery has also managed to expand and diversify its involvement with contemporary issues by engaging a wide range of art and artists in its programming. Towards this end, the gallery has increasingly become a nexus of possibilities not only for contemporary African art but for mainstream artists of any ethnic or cultural persuasion. It has become a site where the adventurous viewer and collector can be involved in an ongoing cultural dialogue. African-American jazz luminary Ornette Coleman curated its inaugural exhibition. Some of its later exhibitions have included works by American and international artists such as Tom Otterness, Al Loving, Samia Halaby, Sol LeWitt, Emilio Cruz, Helen Ramsaran, SoHyun Bae, Richard Hunt, Frank Bowling, Carol Kreeger Davidson, Bob Thompson, Paul Gardere and Freddy Rodriguez. Skoto Gallery has been largely ignored in the discourse of contemporary African art despite its immense contributions towards promoting contemporary African artists in New York. In this regard, Skoto Aghahowa and Alix Du Serech both deserve respect and commendation, for remaining steadfast in the difficult terrain of gallery management in the global context.

(Reference: certain parts of this write-up is taken from Skoto Gallery’s “About us” section).

Borders and Access 6: Kiling Time

The point of my previous posts on the subject of borders and access is to define the constraints that prevent Africans from becoming true global citizens. In my previous posts, I stated that Africans suffer from typecasting at international borders and for black Africans this derives often from the fact of blackness. Another significant constraint to international travel lies in the overall cost of travel and incongruous schedules endured from foreign airlines. Despite the fact that Africans (I’ll use Nigerians as a specific example) constitute a significant portion of international travelers on many routes (at least to and from Africa), airline schedule for travel to Africa is often quite unbearable. Airfares are terribly expensive and layovers of 12-30 hours at London Heathrow (LHR) are not uncommon. For example, here are the layover times taken at random from a booking from Los Angeles to Lagos Nigeria on Virgin Airlines (round trip: October 30 to November 3) through London Heathrow: outbound flight layover: 6 hours 45 minutes. Return flight layover: 22 hours and 15 minutes. Average layover at LHR en route to Nigeria for most bookings I found varied from a meager 5 hours to a whopping 29 hours. Bear in mind that passengers are prevented by law from leaving the airport and must spend that time managing as best as they can. This obvious disregard for wasted time is something to worry about, especially since the West who invented the cliché that “time is money” does not seem to care about this incongruity. Does the time of African travelers matter at all and why is it possible to waste our time in this manner even when we are paying decent sums of money to secure our passage through international ports?

As a seasoned traveler, I check layover times first when booking an international flight, and then check prices second. I usually pay a higher price if it means less layover time. Of course the airlines count on this and subsequently charge higher prices accordingly. The variation in price is considerable but does not always correlate to layover time. Virgin Airlines has the worst schedules I’ve ever encountered, while British Airways can usually get you through with an average 4 hours layover time but usually extending from 1.30 hours to 9 hours in general. Cost of travel fluctuates between $1400-$2500 on average though slightly cheaper or more expensive tickets are not uncommon. It is thus a grim irony that Virgin airlines who has the absolute worst layover schedules also had the most expensive flights out for the designated route at a cost of almost $6000. Despite these costs, it is not unusual for flights to and from Lagos to be delayed or arbitrarily canceled, and you can always count on the service aboard the foreign airlines that fly these routes to be absolutely high-handed. I once flew on a British Airways flight to Lagos (old plane, inadequate resources) and had to personally ask the chief flight attendant to help supply additional tissue paper for the toilets, after speaking to three different flight attendants who did not take care of the problem. We had been flying for only three hours (on a six and a half hours flight) when the toilets ran out of toilet paper. You will thus hear many complaints if you speak to Nigerian travelers on international routes: abusive treatment of passengers, inadequate provisions, bad airline food, threats of arrest if you insist on your rights, and of course the fumigation of outbound airlines with pesticides designed to prevent mosquitoes from stowing away aboard the planes. Nigerians joke often that the only reason this last act is bearable is that the pilots and flight attendants breathe the same air and if it doesn’t kill them, then it won’t kill us either.

One of the gains of globalization is the ease and cheapness of international travel both of which are routinely denied to African travelers. To fly to points in Africa from the USA, you have to transit through Europe (London, Rome, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris for which you have to pay exorbitant transit fees if you don’t have a Western passport of permanent residency card) and then take other flights to your destination. Places like Lagos, Accra and Dakar have direct flights. However, when I attended the TEDGlobal conference in Arusha last June, my itinerary was from Los Angeles to London to Rome to Addis Ababa to Arusha. For many point-to-point African destinations (Lagos to Ethiopia, Lagos to Arusha, Lagos to Kenya, Lagos to Senegal), you have to first transit through Europe and then double back. African airlines are usually not allowed to fly to international ports (reflect on the first axiom from my October 12 posting: restrictions on international travel inscribes the locality of African subjects) but it is even more problematic that local travel within Africa is abysmal at best. The fault for this latter issue rests squarely with African countries but often as a result of their adoption of anachronistic colonial policies. There are however external factors at play in the lack of African airlines flying foreign routes. As African economies collapsed in the 1980s, African airlines were systematically barred from flying to Western airports and most international airports. In the 1980s when this became a policy of international travel, several excuses were provided to justify the draconian measures. Nigeria Airways was supposedly barred because of longstanding debts for landing fees and also because some pilots were caught smuggling drugs into a Europe on a Nigerian airways flight. However, any conspiratorial Nigerian will tell you that the accusation of drug-smuggling flight crews provided an excuse for an international ban on African airlines (I’m not denying that errant flight crews might have been a problem but the official reason for the ban is that African airlines do not meet international safety regulations). This allowed Western airlines like British Airways and Air France to co-opt the lucrative Nigerian routes, which carries huge numbers of Nigerian travelers to and from their various international destinations. Proportional to population, Nigerians travel farther and more often than most other peoples. We know that the Nigeria routes are profitable because when British Airways lost this concession during the Abacha regime, they lost millions of dollars in revenue and it didn’t take them long (three months to be exact) before they sent official delegations to Nigeria to beg for the airline to be reinstated. Air France, which was granted the official Nigerian routes and made a lot of money no doubt used a substantial part of their loot to fatten Abacha’s Swiss bank accounts. As it stands, only South African airlines, among African airlines, has full access to all international ports and has been given the lucrative collaborative deals that ensure its membership in the “Star Alliance” of significant global carriers. (It is significant of course that South African airlines does not fly to many African countries and it even cut its flights to Nigeria: this after Nigeria spent 10% of national GDP for two decades to support the struggle for independence for South African blacks. Purely economic decision old chap; yes, but contemptible nevertheless). Ethiopian Airlines flies to the USA and seems to be doing well. Kenya Airways supposedly flies to Europe but I’ve never seen its planes at any international airport though I’ve seen its insignia listed in many brochures.

The important point of course is that many African countries do not always have the funds to sustain national airlines and even when such funds are available, as in the case of Nigeria, African airlines are barred from flying to international borders for various reasons. In the age of globalization, there are solutions for this including hiring a foreign airline to handle the needed routes. Nigeria has an arrangement with Virgin Airlines to run local and international flights (Virgin Nigeria) within and from Nigeria. This has not prevented Virgin airlines from creating the worst schedules possible for its Nigerian operations. I also flew this airline from Lagos to Abuja and discovered that it had sublet its operations to a Bulgarian charter carrier, who was in turn flying barely airworthy planes on its Lagos-Abuja route. This means that an airline that was handed the concession to run local and international flights for an important African country couldn’t even be bothered to put decent planes in its internal routes. As a result of this, many Nigerians will only fly on Aero Contractors, an airline that (it was rumored) used to service a certain intelligence agency that shall remain nameless, but now handles general passenger operations. The operating logic is that if foreign officials and business fly this airline, they must have received enough assurances from their foreign embassies that it is safe to fly it, which means it is safe overall. Such are the means by which average Nigerians ensure their safety in local flights.

It is possible to escape most of the problems created by the constraints enumerated above and have a decent schedule of overseas travel. Sometimes however you can take all necessary precautions and still fall prey to the vagaries of fate. Yesterday at Heathrow airport, on the return leg of my flight to New York, I discovered that American Airlines botched my flight itinerary and had scheduled me for a 22-hour layover in London. The original booking was supposed to be changeable once I got to London but the airline later refused to make any changes. I had tried to counter the problem by buying a one-way flight from London to Berlin on Easy Jet but found I couldn’t get from Heathrow to Stanstead to get on the EasyJet flight (I needed a visa to transit between two airports in London) so the money I spent on that ticket was essentially wasted. American Airlines and British Airways, their codeshare partner for my itinerary, both refused to make any changes to my ticket, bouncing me from one desk to another in a catch-22 (we’ll put you on a flight if they agree to change your ticket; we’ll agree to change your ticket if they agree to put you on a flight first). I had already spent six hours at JFK waiting to board the flight to London, which lasted seven hours gate to gate. The prospect of spending another 22 hours at Heathrow for a total of 35 hours of travel time was unbearable. Effectively stranded, I opted to buy another one-way ticket to Berlin on Lufthansa at a cost of almost $1000. What should have been a roughly ten-hour flight (seven to London, two hours layover, 1.15 hours flight to Berlin) at a reasonable fare almost turned into a 35-hour total travel time. I managed to cut this time down to 20 hours and got back to Berlin by late Monday evening having spent more than triple the cost of the original flight. As I left the waiting area to board the aircraft, I noticed two passengers sleeping off their wait time and felt comforted. Time passes and a 22-hour wait was not the end of the world even though I was unwilling to wait for that length of time. It could be worse I guess. I had heard rumors of a man who was stranded at Charles De Gaul airport (something to do with his nationality being unclear) who then ended up living in the airport for several years. The Tom Hanks movie “Terminal” was based on a similar premise.

Borders and Access 5: Crossing...

Central to the underlying difficulty of international travel for Africans is the fact that black Africans suffer disproportionately from typecasting at international borders. This was clarified for me in my own travels and I decided to track those processes during a trip I made last week to New York from Berlin. My itinerary outbound: Berlin through Brussels to New York on American Airways. Return trip: New York to London to Berlin on Lufthansa. I thought it’s be interesting to count the numbers of passport checks it required to make this flight and on that basis, review the ease or difficulty of travel I had been talking about in earlier posts. I should point out that I understand how the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 greatly complicated international travel and the increased security oversight put in place since then. It is true that this increased security is mostly responsible for the increased difficulty of international travel. I am however interested in aspects of this development that appear designed to impose further restriction on the ability of black and brown peoples to travel internationally.

I left from Berlin Templehof on a Brussels Airlines flight (passport check number one, to determine if I had the appropriate visa to make the trip). The check in clerk mentioned that I needed a visa to go through London even after I explained that an American Permanent Residence card obviated that need. She asked her boss who confirmed my statement and afterwards she issued me a boarding pass. In Brussels, I came off the plane in Terminal A and needed to get to Terminal B to check in, passing through Belgian customs to get to Terminal B (passport check number two. Everyone went through this check, EU and non-EU passport holders alike). All Africans have to pay for a transit visa to pass through Western airports. However, if one doesn’t leave the airport between terminals what is the point of this check and why should there be a charge merely to transfer from one plane to another?

Afterwards, I needed to clear passport control security at Terminal B (passport check number 3). At this station again, the passport control security clerk insisted I need a transit visa to pass through London and I insisted I didn’t. She had to clear this issue with two different managers and then asked me several bothersome questions (Do the laptop and phone in my bag belong to me? Yes. What is my reason for going to the USA? I live there as a permanent residence. What is my business in the USA? I teach. How much is my income? No comment). She finally got clearance to let me through and put a sticker on my passport to indicate its documents are in order. However, her signature on the sticker was illegible. When I showed it to the person at the American airline check in station located next to the airport security check in—right next to the line I was standing in earlier in fact (passport check number four), she started asking me the same questions about my documents. I told her I had just passed through security passport control and answered all these questions earlier. She said the signature of the security control clerk was illegible and she will have to confirm that she actually signed it. I’m sorry she said, but if I’m only doing my job. Fine, I said, maybe you can tell the other woman to do her own job better and while you are at it ask her to put a new sticker on the passport. She went away and after a while, came back and issued me a boarding pass. "Sorry about all this" she said, “I’m only doing my job”. But does this "job" include harassing and humiliating black passengers? What accounts for the contemptible treatment you get passing through European airports as a black person? My passports (the three booklets of expired and current passports I stapled together) were full of visas and evidence of more than two decades of international travel. After I cleared customs, I stood at a vantage point and watched the security control procedure unfold. I noted that check in was perfunctory for all the white passengers who passed through these checkpoints, even for those who were carrying non-EU passports.

When the flight to New York was finally called (passport check number five), I walked down the on-ramp with an Indian (Asian Indian) man who had earlier observed my sparring with passport control. H gave me a look of commiseration: “It gets more difficult to travel these days doesn’t it”? He said. He was traveling on an American passport. I showed him my Nigerian passport and said, “Try traveling on this document and then you’ll understand difficulty”. “Believe me, I understand your situation. I am also constantly harassed at airport security despite my American passport. The worst thing, what I find most difficult to handle, is the way they look at you, the total contempt on their faces”. I did not know this man but we shared the same experience of being non-white people traveling through Brussels who despite our different background felt the same way about our treatment in this context. (I’m glad to report that I cleared customs at JFK without any problems. The immigration officer who reviewed my document (passport check number six: “welcome to Nuh Yawk”) was respectful and even welcomed me “home”. Afterwards I reflected on the fact that after fifteen years of residency, the USA was indeed home at some fundamental level even though whenever I use the word “home”, in my mind I am always thinking of Nigeria. The irony of course is that a first generation immigrant is a stranger in the land he adopts and also in the land he leaves behind).

Finally, during the flight to Brussels, I leafed through “There!” (the Brussels Airlines in-flight magazine) and found the image below in a section titled “In Africa: Inspiring photos from Brussels Airlines’ African Destinations”. The picture was captioned: A feather-clad witch doctor from Kikuyu tribe, Central, Kenya, Africa. In the year 2007, I found it quite unforgivable that Brussels airlines is comfortable using this kind of racist term to describe Africans but then Belgium in general has never quite come to terms with its racist dealings with Africa, especially in the horrendous history of its genocide against the Congo peoples. It occurred to me that this attitude explains the contempt of Belgians for Africans in general. My people say “you know you are worthless when someone stands over your corpse and boasts that he in fact killed you”. In a situation where Belgium, acting as a colonial power (under King Leopold and later through its various interventions in Congolese affairs) killed more than 13 million Congolese and was not compelled to answer for this Belgian act of genocide in any manner, why would Belgians care about how they treat those Africans left alive? Why would Belgium have any respect at all for Africans in general?

Oct 20, 2007


At a reception yesterday evening in New York, two important institutions in the international discourse of Africa announced a merger. NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Arts announced that it will henceforth be published by Africa World Press, Kassahun Checole's pathbreaking indie publishing house which he founded two decades ago and has since grown into one of the largest publishers on African studies subjects. AWP was formed in 1983, Checole said, to provide a platform for authors writing on African topics of study who were marginalized by mainstream publishers. In an age when such publishers routinely refused to issue books that deal with African subjects, Africa World Press and its affiliate, The Red Sea Press, heroically sustains intellectual work in this area. Its catalog of publications is extensive and it has since garnered serious credibility among African studies scholars.

NKA Journal was first published in 1994 by the trio of Okwui Enwezor, Salah Hassan and Olu Oguibe and has since become a notable journal of contemporary African art. Enwezor's meteoric rise to fame as an international curator owes at least in part to his involvement with NKA through which he enunciated a platform for renewed debate on contemporary forms of African art and visual culture. I have written extensively on Enwezor's curatorial projects elsewhere and he is undoubtedly one of the most significant interlocutors for this field of inquiry. His Documenta XI in Kassel in 2002 set a very high bar for such exhibitions and vaulted him into a recent list of the Artworld's 100 most important figures.

The collaboration between NKA and AWP promises to sustain the journal's importance to the discourse of African art history. NKA recently received a $100,000 grant from the Warhol Foundation to stabilize its operations. Such gifts are rare in the funding of Africa related research, which continues to shrink in every single aspect. Aachronym wishes NKA and AWP a successful merger and congratulates them on this effort to increase their global reach.

More on my NY trip later.

Oct 18, 2007


Two shots from Stuttgart: on the left, an altar ensemble composed of bronze and ivory sculptures from the Edo Kingdom of Benin at the Staatliches Museum fur Volerkunder's Linden Museum where I presented a talk on African art and the Colonial encounter; on the right an ad for Nike from a "sports shack" store at the intersection of Kroenenstrasse and Konigstrasse, the main shopping drag.

The Edo Kingdom of Benin was destroyed by the British Empire who invaded Benin in 1897 as part of the process of imposing colonial control over the regions ceded to it in the 1885 Berlin Conference's Partition of Africa. The looted treasury of the Benin Kingdom, which represents 600 years of national wealth, is at the cornerstone of a renewed call for a just and equitable response to the pillaging of Africa by the West. These calls, couched as a call for general reparations for the evils of the colonization of Africa, have largely gone unacknowledged by Western countries. However the specific issue of reparations or return of the Benin bronzes remains very topical.

I'm off to New York in the morning to attend the 50th annual meeting of the African Studies Association (ASA) a major advocate for increased focus on African studies (in all forms) in the American educational curriculum. It is also the parent organization of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association (ACASA) which focuses specifically on the study of African arts and visual culture.

Oct 16, 2007

Chromatopia...the Continuum of Color

Ads with multiracial subjects in Berlin have a definite United-Colors-Of-Benetton feel to them. They are however consistently tasteful at least in the ones I have seen so far.

Couple, Franzosische Strasse U-Bahn

Mannequins at Galerie Lafayette, Jagerstrasse, Mitte.

Borders and Access 4

An announcement for my talk at the Linden Museum, Stuttgart tomorrow, about how the colonial encounter shaped and continues to shape our understanding of African aesthetics, culture and social organization.

To return to my musings on "borders and access", I want to engage the question of African identity. Is there an African identity outside of the ones shaped by colonial discourses? Is there a way to discuss Africa that does not proceed from the viewpoint of its negation by the West? As the flap over my Mozambique post showed, African identity is contentious in ways, it seems to me, that Western identities are not. In my research on Afro-German identity (or Afro-Deutsch, both of them very contentious monikers), I found a discussion list in which someone stated categorically that while every type of European can ultimately become assimilated into German identity because they are European (he used the specific example of dark skinned Italians and Asiatic-inflected Slavs), he considers black people completely outside the possibility of such assimilation. Blacks, he concluded, could NEVER be German. We may disregard the obvious illiteracy of this view but it is quite entrenched in the discourse of ethnic, racial and national identity in Germany, if the examples I have experienced in Berlin are any indication. I have been trying to explain on this blog that African identity is multi-ethnic and multi-racial. The problem though is that we increasingly find it difficult to define who is an African once we drop the insistence on "racial" categories. This makes analysis rather difficult not because it is impossible to accept Africa's multi-racial heritage but because African identity remains an absolute marker of difference for black Africans and African Diaspora peoples. I frame this question in the following manner: If it takes a Dutch person 400 years to become an African, how long does it take a Zulu to become Dutch? The response from the essentialist on the Afro-German listserve suggests "never". This means we must consider the unequal power relationships involved in the prospect of assimilation, contrasting the ability of whites to adopt new identities in Africa against the inability of blacks to transcend their racial identity in the West.

I have actually tried in the past to engage the question of African identity through public discussion. In 1994, during the first year of my graduate studies at Northwestern University, I convened a conference on the topic "Who is an African?" The conference was a fiasco. First off, the North African students pointedly informed me that they did not consider themselves Africans and should be removed from our invitation list. Then the black and white factions of South African students went to war over which flag should be flown to represent South Africa--the Afrikaner flag of the Apartheid regime, or the new flag of the "liberated" post-apartheid South Africa. African American attendees demanded recognition of their African heritage but wanted the African Students Association to formally apologize for the enslavement of their forefathers. We did and they stayed for our deliberations. A young Zimbabwean woman rose to speak but was shouted down by another Zimbabwean for being a white person. The attendees (blacks and whites in tandem) then shouted down the black Zimbabwean for his essentialist attitude about African identity. An East African Indian (India Indian, not American Indian) requested we discuss where the large Asian (Indian) population in Africa fit into our equations and reminded everyone that there was a large Afro-Indian population in Southern India from whence his family originally emigrated. After several hours of contentious debate, we collectively agreed to disagree and ended the discussions without providing any credible answer to the original question. (I was the President of the African Students Association at NU at this time. The organization lapsed in 1997 due to lack of membership. As far as I know, I am still the president of this organization a full decade later because the number of African students at NU since then has never been enough to form a quorum for official recognition of the organization. This means there are not enough African students to vote me out of office and represents for me an ironic transition into the status of "president-for-life", a dreaded affliction of African politics since the colonial era).

The inability of the conference to reach an agreeable definition of who is an African stayed with me long afterwards. It was heartening to see that many people demanded inclusion into the umbrella of African identity (White Africans, African Americans, Asian Indians) but also disheartening to see that the North Africans students and the sole Ethiopian representative considered themselves non-Africans. I am sure that many North Africans and Ethiopians will disagree with their conclusions but their attitude reinforced a colonial demarcation of the continent into the culturally superior North Africa and the primitive Sub-Saharan Africa. It is not hard to see how such attitudes continue to shape our understanding of the continent today. As a scholar engaged with postmodernist discourses (contentiously I should add), I often read that "race is a construct". True, Africa is a construct but so is every other identity, including "whiteness" and the descent-by-blood that the listerve commentator defended as a basic requirement of German ethnicity. He also appeared comfortable defining who was a "European" even though Europeanness itself is also a construct.

Race might be an essentialist category but nothing is more topical than the question of one's race for a black African who routinely travels the globe. At every single border and in the USA where I reside, you are asked to check a box that identifies you by race. In Europe, one confronts an added peril as immigration officials herd Nigerians into a special line for closer scrutiny. I sometimes feel that at the rate things are going, Nigerians will soon get a special box to check at immigration and a special Linnaeus designation as Homo Sapiens Nigerianus and forced to wear special yellow armbands. (I avoid KLM for that reason; the transition through Schiphol-Amsterdam is most horrific for Nigerians and I wonder why my countrymen continue to subsidize this wretched airline). It bothers me that this practice has not gotten any international outcry. In any other context this practice would be denounced as racism of the highest order. The cumulative effect of an unstable African identity suggests a fourth axiom: the intangibility of "African identity" is a liability for Africans (however defined) since it denies them a tangible presence in global discourses as active political subjects with inalienable rights and definable claims to their own bodies and natural resources. If we cannot say for sure "who is an African" it leaves African knowledge systems and resources open for the taking without accountability, which is precisely what the West has done since Portuguese ships arrived on the African coast 500 years ago.

Oct 15, 2007

The Mbanefo Foundation

The Mbanefo Foundation is a non-profit organization that sponsors educational and cultural research into African art, with a focus on modern and contemporary forms of expression in Africa and the African Diaspora. Registered as a non-profit corporation in New York in 2005, the foundation fosters scholarly engagements with modern and contemporary African art by providing gifts to support important institutional initiatives, and by providing access to its art collection for research purposes.

The Mbanefo Foundation’s art collection comprises significant examples of classical, modern and contemporary African and African Diaspora art. It includes paintings, sculpture, ceramics, drawings, prints, and valuable numbers of textile and decorative arts whose provenance spans more than three centuries of African creative expression. The principal artworks in this art collection represent major orientations in contemporary Nigerian art, including examples from notable pioneer modern Nigerian artists like Ben Enwonwu and Afi Ekong, and artworks from major artists like Kolade Oshinowo, Josy Ajiboye, Ini Brown, Dele Jegede, Bruce Onobrakpeya, David Dale, Tayo Adenaike, and Ndidi Dike among others. The Mbanefo Foundation's expansive collection of figurative artworks from the Yaba, Zaria and Auchi Schools is the most comprehensive collection of this style of Nigerian art in the United States. It also holds important examples of traditional African art including rare artworks from the Edo Kingdom of Benin, widely regarded as one of the great art traditions of the world. It owns the only piece of artwork from the British loot of the Edo Kingdom treasury (1897) held by an African collector, which the foundation purchased at auction as part of an Ezechime cultural heritage reclamation initiative. (The Ezechime are Western Igbo peoples who claim ancestry from the Benin Kingdom). Additionally, the collection contains prestige artworks of titleholders of the office of Odu of Onitsha, an important indigenous Nigerian kingdom, the earliest object of which dates to the 19th century. These title objects constitute a major art and cultural archive of the history of Onitsha traditional leadership and are priceless. The collection also includes artworks from other African countries and premier examples of African American art from artists like Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, and Jean Michel Basquiat.

The Mbanefo Foundation makes its art collection available to scholars and museums for research into African art and culture, for K-12 educational outreach programs, college level instructional projects, and museum-oriented art exhibitions. In the 2005/2006 academic year, the Mbanefo Foundation enhanced its support for research in African art history through a major gift to the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of California Santa Barbara. The Foundation’s $100,000 gift supports a lecture series and provided total funding for a major international symposium on modern and contemporary African art that was held in May 2007. Through these funds, it supports effort to attract top international scholars of African art and culture to UCSB. The Mbanefo Foundation also promotes awareness of African new media initiatives through its support for the annual conferences of the Nollywood Foundation, concerning the Nigerian Film Industry, a non-oil sector grassroots initiative that has grown to become the one of the largest film industries in the world.

Africa and Technology: Afrogeeks/TEDGLobal

Afrogeeks is an initiative spearheaded by Prof. Anna Everett at the Center for Black Studies, University of California Santa Barbara, to engage the question of Global Blackness and the Digital Public Sphere. The information age is giving black people greater access to life-changing technology although a digital divide based on lack of access to these technologies persist. This divide may be most apparent in Africa where access to reasonable bandwidth for downloading information is still very limited. Nevertheless, Africans are using new technologies in significant ways and the continent is one of the fastest growing market for cellular-based services in the world.

The emergence and impact of cellular Africa was a much-debated topic at the 2007 TEDGlobal conference in Arusha Tanzania, where speakers like Alieu Conteh, Founder of Vodaphone Congo, confidently predicted that African use of new technology will be a main driving force for future development. His talk and those of many other speakers are archived on the TEDglobal website. I was awarded one of the 100 international Fellowships to attend TEDGLobal in Arusha. I found it a significant event with many luminous lectures and vast amounts of opportunity for networking. There are many significant things happening in Africa but most of this news is completely absent from the international coverage of African affairs.

These pictures were taken at the conference, with Chris Abani, a longtime friend and famous author (left), and Mohammed Bah Abbah, an award winning inventor who created a process of keeping items cool without electricity.

Shot the picture below on the road to my hotel in Arusha of a young biracial girl playing with her brothers and cousins. The impact of globalization on such human interaction are not often engaged in the discourse. Outside of the obvious fact that human beings of all types are found historically in Africa (the black population just happens to be most dominant and are likely autochtonous), the arrival of foreign populations in various waves and their interaction with indigenous peoples have quite often led to mixed-race descendants. One can track these hybrid populations all over the continent on the coasts, and in the interior borders between the Sudan and north Africa, from the Cape "Coloreds" to the very light-skinned populations of the Niger Delta, and the Afro-Chinese descendants of the Great Armada of the Ming Dynasty Admiral Zheng He, stranded in East Africa when a later Emperor ordered an end to such voyages. I got her uncle's permission to take her picture, but not her name, which neither she nor her uncle would give.

Posters and Charity

This UNICEF poster is all over the city. I shot this one at Ahrensfeld, on one end of the S-7 Sh-Bahn purple line that runs here from Potsdam. I have seen it in different places juxtaposed against ads for cigarettes, vacations, and myriad other products, same as the poster ad of the little girl scavenging food-aid corn in a barren landscape (see post, October). I was particularly intrigued by this juxtaposition, which contrasts the needful black child for whom your donation of 8 Euros could mean a future, with the happy white child for whom your protection of the environment guarantees a future. In that regard, I should point out that I hold the white child blameless for the good fortune of her birth. Although birthplace and its attendant ethnicity is perhaps the most important fact of our contemporary life, it is also the one thing that is completely outside the control of an individual. Ideally, no one should be disadvantaged simply due to this accident of birth or ethnicity. However, birthplace does confer advantages: the needful black child is rendered needy by perhaps no more than this accident of birth but poverty itself is not limited to black people as the poverty of Appalachian whites attest to. Despite this, one can still argue that pure destitution seems more cognate with black and brown peoples in general.

There is a more important issue here, which is that I am opposed to the institutionalization of charity as a response to African problems. There is increasing evidence that charity merely compounds existing social and economic problems, not to talk of its use as a political cover to mask the unwillingness of the West to reach equitable political and economic solutions to obvious problems in Africa. The activities of NGO workers in Africa are often heroic, but also in equal measure often odious, especially in the manner in which foreign aid and NGOization supercede local institutions (see a good critique of NGO impact in Africa here). The other scandalous truth is that most of the foreign aid to Africa is spent on recruiting foreign, mostly Western, workers. NGOs replicate the old colonial order in which twenty-one year old white supervisors lord it over vast numbers of Africans by virtue of their control of NGO funds and are unaccountable to local laws. It creates ahierarchy of valuation for individual lives in which the lives of destitute Africans is little in comparison with those of their NGO workers (as the Rwandam genocide aptly proved). I will return to this issue later to flesh out its implications. In the meantime, it is important to state categorically that NGO and other forms of foreign charity only fosters destructive dependence. As the Chinese proverb says: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Africa needs a fighting chance to get out from under the yoke of its exploitation in this global order that began five hundred years ago with the arrival of Europeans in West Africa (and even earlier with the Arab Slave Trade which still continues to this day). This requires a whole new covenant between Africa and the West that recognizes that Africans have an preeminent and absolute right to their own bodies and natural resources. I do not see this coming to pass anytime soon but it is worth mentioning nevertheless. When this new protocol of engagement exists, THEN talk to me about corruption in Africa and I will propose radical solutions.

Oct 14, 2007

Notable Person: Nkiru Nzegwu

My notable person for this week is Nkiru Nzegwu, Professor of Africana Studies at SUNY Binghamton, and Founder/Director of African Resource Inc., a webportal that distributes educational content about African art and culture. Africa Resource Inc. has grown from a web portal through which Prof. Nzegwu manages five peer-reviewed online journals into a brick-and-mortar operation with the opening of the
Africa House, a new 6500 sq. ft. multiplex Africa House, at 50 Washington Avenue, Endicott, New York. This facility provides space for an art gallery, an office for the overall operation and additional space for a media company.

Nkiru Nzegwu has had a long and illustrious career in African Studies, a large part of it devoted to challenging discursive interpretations of African culture based on colonialist and Eurocentric models. Her curatorial and publishing projects foreground indigenous African knowledge and interpretations while also locating African subjects as active agents in global discourses. On her web portal, she oversees five journals dealing with topics such as African contemporary art, African philosophy and Gender Studies. The strong feminist viewpoints of her writing owe a lot to her own intellectual development as a graduate of a Canadian university during the height of the feminist movement, but perhaps owes much more to her heritage as an Onitsha Igbo woman from a lineage of powerful and iconic women whose roles as traders, warriors, and independently wealthy citizens of the great port-city was usurped by British colonial prescriptions for a patriarchal social order. Nzegwu's trenchant criticism of similar tendencies in the discourse of modern and contemporary African art is notable and quite combative, as is her focus on developing the web portal through which she now disseminates information on subjects varying from art through philosophy to hip-hop. Prof. Nzegwu is currently chair of the African Studies department at SUNY BInghamton. Below is a clipshot of the front page of her book Family Matters:Feminist Concepts in African Philosophy. She has also edited two anthologies on Contemporary African art.

Oct 13, 2007

Borders and Access 3...

This view of the Wansee after a storm brought back echoes of a song I heard long ago titled Both Sides Now, written by Joni Mitchell and originally performed by Judi Collins. Found several versions of this song on YouTube whose role as a graveyard of vanities becomes more apparent as time passes. And that got me thinking about this movie starring Robin Williams (in one of his best roles) about a future in which lifecasting has become a standard aspect of human existence, with every moment of a person's life recorded on chips called "Zoe Implants" to provide a complete record of everything they saw during their lifetime, which can be viewed by their loved one as a sort of memorial after they die. Life as spectacle. Williams plays a"cutter", a expert at editing Zoe Implants into a coherent movie narrative called a "Rememory (see full plot outline here). His services are especially valuable because he is able to edit out unsavory aspects of Zoe Implants so that the rememory of his rich clients accorded with how their families wished to remember them. The remainder of the movie deals with the ethical issues of rememorying and attempts by an anti-Zoe implant group to undermine its ubiquity.

The coming age of totalitarian surveillance will find its apex in this kind of technology, where newborns (right after they get a Google DNA barcode stamped on their ass) are tagged with memory implants that allow them to record and if they wish, broadcast their lives and could, if needed, provide a full record of their quotidian existence. Such devices will be initially marketed as aids to law enforcement but will soon become ubiquitous as they are applied to other aspects of daily life. Broadly identified as biometricism, devices of this sort will go long way towards creating Homo Bionicus whose life dependency on various implants will then enable a totalitarian control of the individual and society. Such devices will make borders superfluous since it will be possible to simply shut down anyone who moves outside defined electronic boundaries.

These ideas are not new. The supposed perils and advantages of the age of bionics has been staple of science fiction writing and sci-fi films since its earliest incarnation. Notable among these are of course the exquisite narratives of William Gibson in his Sprawl Trilogy, Neuromancer, Count Zero, and MonaLisa Overdrive. However one of the most chilling interpretations of this possible future is in Dan Simmons' Hyperion, a very interesting adaptation of Chaucer's Canterbury tales dealing with a future where everyone is connected to an information network called "The All Thing". In the section of this novel titled "The Soldier's Tale" Simmons narrates the brutal suppression of a revolt by the simple expedient of overloading the neural shunts of 15,000 leaders of the revolt. This is comparable today to a hacker shutting down a computer system network by overloading it with data.

With regard to my earlier comments on borders and access, the above scenario (though obviously fictionalized) suggests that increased technological sophistication will create even greater limitations on movement for people whose presence is deemed undesirable in specific contexts. Current efforts to control immigration by issuing biometric passports and other forms of high-tech ID devices already point in this direction. This suggests a third axiom that technological advances are directly proportional to increased limitations in the mobility of undesirable subjects, which in the current global order means a limitation in the movement of African subjects across Western borders.

I have so far focused on the impact of power on migrant subjects at borders, at their initial point of contact with the possibility of global citizenship. I will have something to say about the causes, implications and impacts of such migrations in response to the usual taunt one often confronts at various borders where immigration officials routinely mete out large doses of humiliation to their African visitors: "If you feel so mistreated here, why don't you go back to Africa?"

Images from Berlin

After seeing the murals at Rathaus-Steglitz, I decided to start documenting the representation of Africans and Afro-Germans (a highly contested term) in public advertising in Berlin. I have seen some unique images in this regard among other interesting views of the city. Berlin is a city with a global history and this has sparked a very huge tourist industry in the post-Berlin Wall period. I search in the interstices of this history for those points where it intersects with Africa. There is apparently enough of this intersection in German history in general though they remain well hidden. In the meantime, some images from Berlin: top, notable architecture from the old DDR plaza at Schlossplatz, and below a poster representation of what Okwui Enwezor once described as the specular logic of Afro-pessimism.

Oct 12, 2007

Borders and Access...2

Previously, I suggested that we could formalize as an axiom the fact that the well-policed borders of the Western world serve as a means of inscribing the locality of non-Western subjects by subjecting them to restrictive codes of movement. This lack of access is mapped onto the geographical terrain and also seared into the conceptual imagination of the circumscribed population and it ensures their acquiescence even in the physical absence of an authority figure to enforce the barrier.This may explain the reason why all colonial ventures carefully map out spaces of access and use brutal measures to enforce restrictions on colonized people. In the “Dompass” system of the apartheid era, strict denial of access ensured the locality of the black African population by locking them into place as captive labor. In the Jim Crow era, similar measures made mockery of the freedom promised to African Americans after centuries of chattel slavery. In the contemporary era, the premise of a “global war on terror” allows for restrictions on the movements of members of the global population who "just happen" to be mostly black and brown peoples.

Restriction of movement is a favored strategy of oppressive regimes whose ultimate logic of totalitarian control was narrated in Orwell’s parable of the “Big Brother”. Today, much of the Western world seems comfortable with the idea that it is necessary to impose restrictions on movement as well as on individual liberties in order to safeguard the bastions of “civilization” from contemporary barbarian hordes. And we have seen in recent years a proliferation of legal and extralegal restrictions on free movement (just ask people whose names are on one “no fly” list or another). The public appears comfortable with these proliferating regimes of oppression, secure in the knowledge that “we” are not personally affected by such issues and only the guilty are afraid. This is what makes it possible for American prisons to incarcerate up to 30% of its black population and many Hispanics without much opposition. The prison-Industrial system is the ultimate context of restriction of movement and it produces conditions reminiscent of chattel slavery, something completely ignored by those who buy, sell, and trade prison stocks or who invest in the exactingly-named “poverty market” (lack of access to formal banking forces poor Americans into the clutches of "check cashing" companies, many owned and operated by the same banks that deny them access). This system also spawned the totalitarian modes of surveillance now unleashed on denizens of the Western world in the name of a global war on terror (Colonized populations are very used to this kind of oversight). Individuals and populations that do not speak up against the creeping totalitarianism implied in these acts forget Benjamin Franklin’s axiom that those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither safety nor liberty.

In this respect, the idea of a “global village” celebrates too soon a utopia whose eventual realization is extremely doubtful. The era of globalization fetishizes the free movement of capital and resources across the globe, which in recent times has been criticized as the freedom of predatory Western capital to manipulate and exploit non-Western locales and resources. While the USA for instance defends the right of capital to move across borders unrestricted by national or international legal codes, the physical USA builds vast walls to restrict the free movement of Mexican/Latin American labor into the country. I use the term “Western” in the manner suggested by James C. Farris, to refer to a "disquisition, not necessarily a location or people. In the context of Africa, it is usually (but not always, witness the Japanese) European or European American, usually (but not always, witness the midtwentieth-century Soviet Union) capitalist, usually but not always male” (Farris 2007: 141). Farris’s definition maps the locus of occidental power made manifest in its control of technologies of discourse backed by possession of weapons of mass destruction through which it imposes its will-to-power on the global order. Stripped of its appeals to “democracy” this will-to-power is revealed as naked aggression and crass self-interest, a grab-as-grab-can attitude that does not even merit elevation to the status of an ideology. This naked struggle for global dominance also supports a category of people who, through ethnic or racial identity, are permitted a share in its communities of power. The need to safeguard such communities of power provides an explanation for the increasing restrictions on the movement of non-white people into the Western world, framed as calls for control of international immigration (see the crisis caused by an outrageously racist poster in Switzerland which called for the ejection of “black sheep” from the Swiss body politic”).

Those privileged by their membership in these communities of power KNOW that they are privileged. A (former) friend once told me that she thoroughly enjoyed her position on top of the global totem pole as a white American citizen. Frank and shocking honesty but not an unusual statement: any honest person ought to be delighted to be in a position of unilateral power. The simple problem however is that not all holders of Western passports are assured protection from harassment at international borders. I have seen African Americans roughly treated at American ports of entry and subjected to intrusive searches as if they were foreigners, even when they hold American passports. I have heard of Black British tourists manhandled by police in other European countries despite confirmation that they are in fact British citizens. Since an American passport by itself is a very powerful document that ensures nearly absolute free movement across the globe, we can conclude that the Americaness of African Americans or the Britishness of Black Britons is called into question when immigration officials in their home countries or police in foreign countries question their right to the passports they hold. But their situation is still more comfortable than it is for holders of Nigerian passports (and black Africans in general) who are sometimes denied entry into Western countries for which they have valid visas, and must pay exorbitant sums of money to secure “transit visas” to pass through European ports--to pass through, not enter! (Sure, Nigerians have a bad reputation in the global context owing to the criminal propensity of some Nigerians whose minute number nevertheless tarnish the image of 150 million hard working Nigerians who are law abiding in local and international abodes. More importantly, a similar propensity to criminality among some Italians does not render Italian passports problematic in themselves (the vicious Italian mafia has become a romantic image in American television—see the Sopranos). It is thus difficult to see how criminality by some Nigerians should be borne as a collective burden by all Nigerian citizens).

If the common link in these problematic border access situations is not the validity of the passports in question, one could logically conclude that it is the fact of blackness that renders the legal status of such individuals questionable. We can thus formulate a second axiom here, that even for holders of Western passports, neither professional prestige nor legal status guarantees a black person stress-free passage through Western borders.