Read this post in Portuguese in África em Palavras
Since I am spending some time in my beloved country (Brazil), I had decided to post about some Africa-related event in Brazil. As you know, Brazil was on the other side of the Atlantic slave-trade and for centuries it received regularly enslaved Africans on its main ports, including Salvador and Rio de Janeiro. It is hard to give a precise number, and scholars disagree on their estimate, but it is between 5 and 14 million African souls that were taken by force in slave ships. Not the same number arrived in Brazil.
So, it is not a coincidence that our history, culture and identity is deeply marked by this African presence. Why is a Brazilian studying African history/literature, some people ask me in the UK. They clearly don’t know Brazil and Brazilians. We have Africa in our lullabies, in our food, in our clothes, and dance, and religion, in our streets, in our veins! At least that is what we Brazilians like to think: that we know Africa, that because of slavery we have the inherited knowledge of this country… I mean, continent…!
Following my idea of writing about some Africa-related event, I started my research. Google suggested me to have a look on this article about an Africa art exposition that happened in 2003 in the CCBB, (a cultural Institute in Rio de Janeiro). “Art from Africa” was the title, and the website from the council of Rio de Janeiro says that “if you intend to go to the exposition Art from Africa you should be prepared to let go your tribal side and play the drums! (…) To be seen and not touched there are more than 300 hundred pieces from 31 African countries, that were produced between the 15th and 20th centuries.” The countries were never listed.
I remember this exhibition very well. Many beautiful sculptures, paintings and other objects of art all mixed in the same room. A Benin Kingdom’s bronze head from the 15th century was positioned just next to a 19th century Masaai (Kenya) necklace. It is all African, it does not matter the place, period, or even artistic movement. And this is a mistake that is made not only here in Brazil but all over world. I remember in Paris, my shock when I realised that African and Latin American sections were moved from the Louvre to the Musee du Quai Branly and named “Art primitif”. Over there, Benin’s bronze heads were also mixed with Masaai Necklaces.
I like to tease people who doesn’t understand my frustration with these kind of expositions and say: let’s organise an Art from Europe exhibition and mix DaVinci, Velazquez and Rodin. One next to the other, no explanation of their artistic movement. Oh, and of course, we can not forget the hand painted plates and pearl necklaces. Author: unknown.
In 2008, President Lula made mandatory teaching African history at the primary schools. When we had to go in the classrooms and teach about Africa to our kids we realised that the Africa we know here in Brazil is the Africa of the slave trade. We know the Africa that is in our stories, in our music, in our religion, in our streets, which means, the Africa that now is Brazilian. We think of Africa as an unity, as a country, that is frozen in space and time, with no history, or art movements. For us, Africa is defined by the horrible experiences of the slave trade in the past and famine and wars in the present. We don’t know anything about African countries, African histories, African literatures. We don’t know the difference between Benin and Kenya, between Chinua Achebe and Shaun de Waal.
As I said before, we are not alone. In this video here of a TED’s presentation, Chimamanda Adichie tells us about the idea of Africa she encountered in the US. It is what she called the single story, that only admits one version, and deals with stereotypes. In the case of Africa, a story of poverty:
“Of course, Africa is a continent full of catastrophes: There are immense ones, such as the horrific rapes in Congo and depressing ones, such as the fact that 5,000 people apply for one job vacancy in Nigeria. But there are other stories that are not about catastrophe, and it is very important, it is just as important, to talk about them.”
Where I want to get with this? well, may I let Chimamanda answer for me?
“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
When African history was made mandatory in our schools, it was the first step to tackle ignorance and the racism that comes with it. But the kind of history we are teaching matters. Are we contributing to the stereotype of poor Africa or are we empowering Africa? Are we saying that Brazilians descendants of enslaved Africans have their family history tied to a messed up continent (in the past and present) or are we looking at the many countries, many cultures, many histories that contributed to our Brazilian cultures and histories?
comments are really welcome =)