The Exhibition and Plenary Lecture at the African Popular Cultures Workshop: Review

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The second half of the African Popular Cultures Workshop at Sussex was held in a modern studio space called the ‘Creativity Zone’. Made up of three adjoining rooms, each of these exhibited different elements of work brought together under the theme of public and popular spaces by doctoral students within the Sussex Africa Centre. Unsure, initially, of what to expect by the quirkily named venue, I was nevertheless intrigued to experience the advertised ‘immersive and interactive exhibition’. The interest sparked by the event was palpable among the audience as we filtered into the rooms and drifted between an array of projected images and text.

In the first room, a series of tables and accompanying screens were set up to showcase text, sound and photography relating to each research presentation. Work by Katie Reid looked at ‘Community Spaces’ in South Africa, including photos taken in the District Six Museum offering a unique snapshot into public life in this particular place in Cape Town. Moving to the next table, Katie McQuaid’s research on sexual minorities in Ugandan refugee camps provided engaging glimpses into a space that I previously knew little about. Another series of images gave insight into work by Victoria Blessing on lower limb prostheses in Malawi, and also by Caitriona Dowd on armed conflict among violent Islamist groups across Africa. Experiencing the research in this varied and visual way gave a new dimension to the questions being asked across the day about how the terms ‘popular’ and ‘public/s’ are used in relation to research about Africa.

Further material to feed the senses could be found on other table-tops arranged around the room. I was excited to spy a stall heaving with purchasable Kwani? editions and the latest Chimurenga Chronic. I also found myself eager to explore the copies of the South African literary magazine, Staffrider. Heading into the next room, recordings of Inua Ellams’ poetry were played alongside visual images of his performances. The final room – in which the plenary lecture and roundtable took place – was surrounded by much larger photographic projections on each available wall portraying a series of images relating to the showcased research. In addition to the bean-bags and colourful lighting, the effect was indeed thoroughly immersive!

Karin Barber

Karin Barber

The plenary lecture was by Professor Karin Barber on ‘Popular Culture in Africa: Defining Questions’. Marking the launch of Stephanie Newell and Ono Okome’s (eds.) Popular Culture in Africa: the Episteme of the Everyday (Routledge, 2013), Barber’s lecture led us through the history of the study of popular cultures in Africa to their relevance today. Barber began by discussing her foundational essay, ‘Popular Arts in Africa’ (1987), in order to highlight the enduring questions in the field. At the time, she stated, there was no coherent sense of the field of popular culture, and it is certainly the case that her work has gone on to provide the methodology necessary to engage with this genre. Building on the ‘lack of definition’ and ‘zone of indeterminacy’ that popular cultures inhabited, Barber has positioned this flux as a central aspect of the study of popular cultures today. She referred to the challenge of ‘people innovating ahead of paradigms’, recalling a wonderfully apt Yoruba proverb, translated as: ‘The world goes on ahead, and we follow on after.’

Turning to Popular Culture in Africa: the Episteme of the Everyday, Barber noted that each of the essays in this collection investigate previously unexplored subjects. James Tar Tsaaior, for example, examines football in postcolonial Nigeria, while Miriam Maranga-Musonye’s chapter focuses on Nairobi’s popular arts scene. Barber made a strong case for the importance of learning from the subject matter and becoming involved in its processes as defining features of the study of this genre. Each chapter of the text begins with an empirical starting point, and Barber emphasised the importance of not importing ones own assumptions. This approach very much follows on from Barber’s own important work on Yoruba popular theatre, which she studied and participated in whilst in Nigeria. The hybrid, interactive, innovative and artisanal nature of this theatre company became a model for Barber, from which she could propose paradigms for analysing other forms across Africa.

So, how has the study of African popular cultures changed over the last 25 years?   Barber highlighted in particular the significance of new interactive technologies available, including mobile phones and social media. Having spent most of the morning on Africa in Words’ Twitter account, this came as no surprise to me! Barber also interestingly noted the blurring between global and local, elites and common as defining and complexifying features of the popular sphere today.

Considering this reconfigured field, the new theoretical questions surrounding popular cultures that Barber’s talk drew attention to are crucial and multiple. These include exploring the generative nature of popular cultural forms: how are they produced? What is the interaction between enunciator and receiver? How does the form acquire meaning and how is it recuperated? What interactions take place and how can they be constituted into something that requires interpretation? How do people think? These questions, according to Barber, help to forge a sense of people interacting in common; the most useful definition of what we mean by the popular.

Listening to Barber’s lecture, questions around what ‘popular’ might mean resonated with some of my own recurring concerns as a student of African literature in the UK.  I have often wondered whether the internationally-published Anglophone texts that I study are readily accessible and available to, for example, the average Kenyan reader. If not, what other art forms are proving popular and why? What can, for instance, the study of popular music and street art tell us about the cultures to which they speak? That the paradigms and frameworks produced by Barber’s work continue to inspire and equip academics to rigorously address these questions in the constantly evolving field of African popular culture is something that needs to be celebrated.  Fittingly, this is just what we did at the workshop – through our conversations, through the exhibition and by raising a glass to Newell and Okome’s new edited collection.

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Emerging Research Landscapes III – into Public Space

‘Emerging Research Landscapes III – into Public Space’ was an immersive and interactive exhibition showcasing new research crossing public and popular spaces by doctoral students from the Sussex Africa Centre, put together by the Sussex Africa Centre PhD Steering Committee, and curated by Katie McQuaid.

Exhibits were put forward from a lively community of doctoral students researching, not just in diverse geographies on the continent, but also in the social sciences, humanities, development studies, environmental studies, and science and technology policy research.

Though some of this work does not obviously fall into ‘popular cultures’ or even ‘public space’, the exhibition was conceived so as to provoke thought about the range of research from the Centre and to think about alternative ways of sharing knowledge, potentially freeing up possibilities for new connections and new collaborations across an interdisciplinary reach, and opening conversations about the many ways academic research travels into, is embedded, and may be implicated in, by, or through these spaces – ‘popular’ and/or ‘public’.

Committee members: Lorenz Gollwitzer (SPRU); SungKyu Kim (IDS); Katie McQuaid (Anthropology); John Spall (Anthropology); Katie Reid (English); Francesca Salvi (Education); Dan Watson (International Relations).

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This post is part of a series that engages with the third African Popular Cultures Workshop held on 31 March 2014 at the University of Sussex. This collaboration between the Sussex Africa Centre PhD committee, tutors from the School of English’s 3rd year Literatures of Africa course and the African Popular Cultures workshop (established by Professor Stephanie Newell), enabled a series of exciting explorations and connections around popular and/or public spaces, and cutting edge research and cultural production today. Across this week Africa in Words will be publishing pieces that document and respond to some of the conversations and exciting work showcased at the event.  Read:

Eleanor McConnell on ‘Nairobi Half Life’

Lilly Kroll on Inua Ellams

Thank you to Grace Pavey and Sung Kyu Kim for permission to use their photos.



Categories: African Popular Cultures Workshop, Events, Reviews - Events

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