Africa Salon is a contemporary African arts and culture festival founded in 2015 at Yale University. The Salon is a week-long feast of visual art, music, dance, literature, film and more from Africa and the diaspora, and it has brought some of the African continent’s most cutting-edge artists to Yale. Check out some of the highlights from Africa Salon 2016 here.
Ifeanyi Awachie has curated Africa Salon since its beginnings in 2015, and Africa in Words was delighted to have this opportunity to talk to Ifeanyi about the process of putting together a major African arts festival like Africa Salon.
You might find it interesting to read this piece alongside Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire’s piece on Writivism literary festival.
Rebecca Jones for Africa in Words: Could you please start by explaining what the Africa Salon is, and your role in curating it?
Ifeanyi Awachie: Africa Salon is a contemporary African arts festival at Yale, and it’s a really unique event for the university. I started it after I had graduated, when I was working as a Fellow for something called the Yale Africa Initiative. The Africa Initiative was all about Yale honing its focus on Africa, supporting its programming related to Africa on campus and on the continent. I noticed, both from having been a Nigerian-American student at Yale and then also working on this programme, that no-one was talking about the arts when it came to Africa. No-one was talking about this outpouring of new, cutting-edge contemporary work, especially, that was being talked about everywhere else: museums and arts institutions, and festivals and fairs internationally, focusing on African artists, everybody from the Venice Biennale to different conferences going on in New York and Paris, and media such as Okayafrica and Ayiba Magazine, who are almost completely dedicated to talking about today’s African arts and culture.
I didn’t see that conversation happening at Yale, so I saw an opportunity to use the Africa Initiative to start a new platform that would bring African artists to campus, to engage with students, to perform. I thought it was really important that we have performances and readings and events that would allow people to experience the art first-hand, and then also events that would allow for reflection. And for faculty, scholars and other experts on the art, and the artists themselves, to draw out the themes that their work focused on, and make clear the stories that they were trying to tell through their work.
All of that was with an eye to increasing learning and scholarship on African arts at Yale. There wasn’t, while I was there, a course on African literature, until Professor Steph Newell came to join the English faculty. Professor Michael Veal, who has now participated in Africa Salon for both years it’s been running, intermittently taught a West African music course, and I think it had a contemporary focus. There’s a West African dance course. But besides that, there’s not really a robust curriculum around African art, especially not outside of traditional African art. We have an extensive art collection at the gallery but it’s predominantly West African, predominantly masks, predominantly artefacts. So we had this drought when it came to the arts from today, from African countries or African artists worldwide. So Africa Salon emerged from a desire I had to fill that gap.
In its first iteration, it was a two-day festival. It consisted largely of panels, though each one was introduced by a performance by artists from Yale and from the [African] continent, and from cities like Toronto and London. This year, it grew into a week-long festival, so African artists and Africa Salon took over Yale for a week. We offered several different types of events and ways of engaging with the art.
Africa in Words: I was going to ask you about the sentence you just said: that African artists took over Yale for a week. There’s a huge symbolic resonance to that, obviously; was that something that was in your mind when you were doing it, the idea of the kind of statement it would make to have an institution like Yale featuring African arts, or did it just emerge?
Ifeanyi Awachie: It was pretty deliberate. One thing that bothered me when I was a student, when I was working for Yale, was that we have all these forums and conferences and talks about Africa, and they’re not always given, led, or powered by Africans, by African scholars, definitely not African staff. That should be a given. Most of the talks I attended after graduating and working on the Africa Initiative for a year were about Africa and not by Africans. There was this single-minded view that accompanied many of those talks and programmes. I remember going to one called “Why is Africa poor?”, as if all of Africa is poor. That was of course not an African speaking, and there were Africans in the room who felt very silenced and felt that their experiences were being misrepresented.
So I recognised that there was a need to have Africans take up space that was devoted to African conversations. I think there was something powerful about me as an African creating that space, and collaborating with other Africans to shape that space. Because that just was not always the case at Yale. So it was really powerful to see panels in our first year completely comprised of black and African faces.
I remember one of the musicians who performed at the concert at African Salon 2015 was interviewed by Accra Dot Alt, this really great culture publication from Ghana, and he said it’s always powerful when Africans make space for themselves at institutions like Yale. That may have been the first time I thought of it as a kind of takeover, but at its heart that was an idea that I was thinking about when I started the event. This year, moving into even more visible spaces on campus and moving more into New Haven, expanding the event: all of that added to the sense that we were taking over, at least for a short time.
Africa in Words: I guess performance helps with that idea as well: people are able to speak for themselves, rather than people talking about them.
Ifeanyi Awachie: Yeah, that was really important to me too. I just went to this exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum called ‘Disguise’, around African masks. I kept reading texts, captions and publications about African masquerades etc., written by Westerners or others who went to the continent and studied these people and then translated their experiences for others. I know this is something that has been talked about many times, but there’s this pattern of outsiders going to Africa and then coming back and telling people about their Africa experience. And I’m guilty of having done this too, [although] my experience is slightly different because I am a first generation Nigerian. But I wanted to try to subvert that pattern of having others interpret African work, and get straight to the source.
So things like the concert where people are able to hear musicians perform, talk and engage with the crowd. Also at other parts of Africa Salon: be on a panel and talk about the work that they’re performing and writing and distributing in interesting ways. This year having several artists be present for an exhibit that showcased their work: that was amazing. People got to have their questions about the work answered, and have a chance to form their own thoughts and assumptions about it, but then test those against the artist’s intentions and ways of articulating their goals.
Africa in Words: I guess it must have been quite a generative experience for the artists as well, to be together with other artists that maybe they hadn’t met before, or come across before – there must have been some interesting conversations going on there?
Ifeanyi Awachie: Yeah, definitely. Efe Igor, my collaborator who curated the exhibit – she’s a History PhD candidate at Yale – and I commented that all of the visual artists who participated in ‘Movements: African Visual Subjectivities’, our exhibit from this year, seemed to form a group, and they got along very well together. There were many similarities in their work, definitely in terms of how they use digital media, but even in the themes they explore; amongst certain pairs of artists within the group, similar aesthetics were at play. So we’re excited to see how they’ll collaborate in the future, maybe, and be informed by each other’s work.
And then at the concert this year we had Blitz the Ambassador and Thomas Mapfumo perform, which even now I just feel like: ah, I did that! It was crazy to have them both in New Haven, sharing a stage. Blitz mentioned that he had wanted to perform with Thomas Mapfumo for a while, and knew some mutual friends or artists, so it was special for them to be able to share a stage because they had been thinking of doing it too, so to be able to put them together was – I gave myself a pat on the back!
Africa in Words: It was really striking, when I was looking through the programme, that it wasn’t just artists from Nigeria and South Africa, for instance – which in the UK, for obvious historical reasons, is what we tend to experience. Was it a very deliberate decision on your part to find artists from across the continent to work with?
Ifeanyi Awachie: Yes, and I had to really fight some subconscious biases, because I am Nigerian, and there are so many Nigerians at the forefront of these media, partly because there are just so many of us, but for other reasons as well. So I do try to make each grouping of artists as diverse as possible. For each event I pick the artists who I think are making the strongest work in that genre or related to the topic I’m trying to explore, but then I try to control for what country they’re from, what kind of educational background they might be from, what region of the continent. I try to make sure there’s a mix of male and female artists, artists of all genders.
So it was really exciting to have an artist from Namibia this year, for example. And we had a film from Morocco and I was really interested in it for a number of reasons, partly because we just never talk about that region in most African conversations I’m part of – and by conversations I mean these kind of large events. But it was really important to do my best to represent the diversity of the continent. It’s nearly an impossible task, but whenever possible I try to think about the countries that aren’t always in rotation, aren’t always present in these types of spaces.
Africa in Words: I wanted to ask you about aesthetics. I noticed a couple of mentions of ‘African cool’ on the website. Do you see that as a particular kind of aesthetic approach?
Ifeanyi Awachie: I’m glad it caught your attention because it was something I was interested in seeing played out. But for the most part I think it just confused people! I think it’s somewhat of a new concept. I think it exists but it hasn’t yet had a name put on it. But my goal for suggesting an ‘African cool’ dress code was to make people more conscious of the ways that they were showing up in Africa Salon spaces; in many ways I was just capturing a trend that I had already seen happen. Africa Salon is an academic event but it’s also a festival. I think certain types of people come to a festival: people who put a lot of work into styling themselves. And there is a tradition of dressing in a certain way to attend a festival, especially an African arts festival. I wanted to recognise those people who were influenced by the atmosphere of Africa Salon. So many attendees talk about the atmosphere of the event: that it’s empowering, it’s vibrant. So I hoped that people would dress in a way that reflected that, and formed an aesthetic, and made the attendees more part of the overall aesthetic of Africa Salon.
I put a lot of work into the design that surrounds the event, and that’s used to communicate and reinforce or reflect the vision that I have for the event. We have our staff running around in t-shirts, and they have a certain dress code so they kind of form a cohesive look. But I hoped that encouraging people to interpret as they would the phrase ‘African cool’, and coming to the space conscious of how they looked and what they added to the space, and bringing their interpretations of African fashion to the space, that we could enhance the sense that there is an Africa Salon community, an Africa Salon scene. I think definitely from the pictures from our after party you can see that; it felt like almost, I won’t say a sub-culture, but definitely a scene. You know, New Haven’s not in New York, it’s not a huge city, so we don’t already have that. We don’t have fashionistas or style icons walking around every day. So Africa Salon on some level functions as this unique cultural event, even outside of being an African arts event. So I think having people take that dress code and their own aesthetic seriously created a very different space for Yale and the city.
Africa in Words: It’s a really good way of reminding the audience that they are part of the event, they have some agency, and bringing them into the overall performance.
People have been talking so much about Afropolitanism, I don’t even want to mention the word. But on your website you talk about a ‘transnational African aesthetic of cool’. Do you think this is a different way of approaching that idea of some kind of cosmopolitan culture, through style, or are you doing something else?
Ifeanyi Awachie: It’s an interesting question, do I think it’s a different way of approaching that transnational aesthetic? You know, it’s actually maybe the opposite. Because another reason why I came up with this idea of naming a kind of aesthetics of dress for Africa Salon, was to encourage African students in particular – students who had access to African prints, ankara, different kinds of African-looking clothes – to feel comfortable and show off those styles in a way that they would in other African spaces, but maybe not to a party that was thrown by someone other than the African Students Association. They may not wear those things in mainstream Yale spaces. So I was almost targeting African students in particular in encouraging this aesthetic.
But I guess then the interesting thing is that non-Africans were bringing out their dashikis, they were borrowing friends’ clothes, so it was as if it extended this African aesthetic. I’m entering this tricky territory of non-Africans taking on African clothing; I don’t want to encourage appropriation by any means. But at the after party, for example, the Yalies and the New Haven community members were scrambling to find their ‘African cool’. I don’t know if I’ve thought about that enough to draw conclusions from it, but I think there’s something powerful about that: African fashion was coveted in that moment, was aspirational. There was a cohesive look in a social space, in a space that was part of a high profile event at Yale; African fashion was dominant there. I think that’s a really powerful thing, potentially, a really unique thing.
Africa in Words: It’s placing Africa at the centre and inviting people in, rather than people inviting themselves in.
You also mention on your website that the Salon takes a progressive approach to owning and telling African stories. In what way were you using the word ‘progressive’ there, and was that important to you?
Ifeanyi Awachie: Yeah, and I think my thinking on this has changed over the past two years, but I think the Salon is progressive in that it does what I mentioned earlier, which is putting African conversations in the hands of Africans. That shouldn’t be progressive but at a place like Yale it is. I think it’s progressive in trying to be expansive and comprehensive in its inclusion of different African experiences, trying to put on a week of events so that there’s plenty of space to include as many genres as possible that African artists are working in: African artists from as many regions as possible, so that we present a complicated broad view, rather than honing in on a specific topic or a specific region and then calling that Africa. I think in the diversity of experiences it showcases, such as, we had a film The Pearl of Africa which is a documentary on LGTBQ and transwomen from Uganda. That’s not an experience that we often talk about in African spaces even though it’s very much a reality, the way it is anywhere. I think in focusing really deliberately on modern and contemporary art from the continent and from African artists, the Salon’s doing something very different and more forward-thinking than perhaps other similar programmes are, versus looking towards the traditional and seeing Africa as a historic, stagnant space, a space that’s stuck in tradition and isn’t still innovating. And not thinking of Africa as a place whose most valuable offerings are from its past – that’s the way in which I think Africa Salon is progressive.
And it’s interesting because now I think I’m starting to question that, in that I don’t want to create a binary where contemporary is good and traditional is bad. I just went to Princeton’s African Music Conference and one of the speakers made a great point which was that African artists are still making traditional music, traditional forms are still being practised and work is being produced in those forms. And even as those artists try to stay true to the original forms and the original works that previous artists put out, that shows that the traditional arts aren’t stagnant, they’re not stuck in the past and they haven’t been abandoned and then contemporary arts took over; they still exist and they’re still relevant. So I think while it is special and powerful to focus on contemporary art, there can also be something progressive about a space that chose to focus on traditional art.
But for me what’s important to do is to make a space for contemporary African art because there aren’t many spaces, especially in institutions like Yale, that see Africa in that way, that understand how sophisticated and complex and worthy of study and close thought contemporary African art is.
Africa in Words: The portal between New Haven and Nairobi – how did that come about? Because that’s another feeling of doing something new, making things happen through technology that might not have been possible before.
Ifeanyi Awachie: The portals are produced by a collective called Shared Studios; they’re an art, design and technology collective. And this portal between New Haven and Nairobi was the first one they set up between an African city and another city in the West. I first learned of the portals when Shared Studios set up a portal between Tehran and New Haven at the Yale art gallery two years ago now. I remember being so moved by the experience I had through just a brief conversation in the portal with a woman in Tehran who was an artist, who I spoke with about one of the leading questions that the portal staff encourage you to ask: what would make today a good day for you? Being able to subvert small talk and instantly make a slightly deeper connection than you would with people otherwise, and with someone whose experience I perceive to be so far from mine, and then finding so many similarities: she’s also a creative person, for example.
It was clear to me that that was a powerful experience, and my immediate thought was that this would be so amazing in Africa. Both to reveal to Westerners, to Americans in particular, how similar their African equivalents on the continent are to them, how similar daily life in an African city is to life in a place like New Haven, I thought that would be a really valuable outcome. But also to reveal Americans to Africans. The more I talk to Africans who have grown up on the continent, the more I talk to my own family there, it’s clear that there are at least as many stereotypes and preconceptions about us that Africans have, as those that we have about them. So I thought what a great way to shatter stereotypes on both ends, what a great way to forge connections, and what a great way for Africa Salon to have a presence and a direct link to the continent in the time that it’s on campus.
Africa in Words: It’s a real idea of exchange and conversation then. How did the Yale student body, and Yale the institution, respond to the Salon?
Ifeanyi Awachie: I think the response is ultimately positive. I measure it in a couple of ways: informally seeing people engage with the events, and informal conversations that I have with attendees during Africa Salon. I’ve been so moved to have a number of African students tell me thank you for the work that you’re doing, you’re doing a lot for Africans on this campus. I think a big part of having the Salon is providing representation for African students, of artists from backgrounds that may be similar to theirs. To have high-profile African faces on campus is meaningful, and to have the Yale administration invite these artists is meaningful.
I think for the broader student body, Africa Salon is becoming more interesting. It’s becoming more established, something people talk about, now that it’s in its second year. Many of them seem to enjoy it, they love to see their friends participate, enjoy the event, enjoy being exposed to artists they may not have known otherwise. I saw Kimberley Goff-Crews, the Vice-President and Secretary of the university, at the fashion show, and I was so excited to see that someone so high up was taking interest. We had Jonathan Holloway, the Dean of Yale College participate in a panel after the staged reading of In the Continuum that we hosted toward the end of the Salon, and that makes me think that someone high up in the administration of Yale College sees this as an event that’s important to the college, to the university.
At the same time, I sent out a survey at the end of the Salon, and we got some criticism, and a lot of it was really thoughtful, and really deserved. The criticism I took most seriously was that we weren’t doing enough to include New Haven. And Yale does this all the time!. Definitely on my part there is a real desire to reach New Haven communities and invite them on to campus, have them participate in events and programming, everything that Yale has to offer, but when those personal relationships aren’t there, I think that can be a hard task. From the beginning I’ve really wanted participation from New Haven and not just Yale, especially because New Haven is a majority black city, and I think there’s something really remarkable about putting African artists directly in conversation with members of the African diaspora. So one thing I’m really serious about doing going forward is do my best to have the next curator build the necessary relationships, so that word of Africa Salon reaches as much of our surrounding community as possible, so that more of them get interested and feel welcome to attend.
[However], we do have attendance from non-Yale affiliated New Haven, I think it could be much higher, but I remember at Africa Salon 2015 two community members made comments that made the whole event worth it for me. One of them asked a question that was: how can African-Americans learn enough about the continent so that when we go back, we’re able to engage and be accepted by continental Africans? And I thought this festival is doing that work, and if I can bridge the gap that I observe between many African-Americans and Africans in the US especially, that would be an immensely meaningful thing. Another African-American attendee said that if he hadn’t have come to Africa Salon, he wouldn’t have learned about the continent in this way anywhere else. I think he meant this contemporary perspective, this perspective on Africa as vibrant, as varied, as modern.
Africa in Words: What’s next for you?
Ifeanyi Awachie: I’ll be attending SOAS in Fall 2016, to try to deepen my knowledge of contemporary African arts and culture. My plan is for Africa Salon to grow. I think there are lots of other partners that it could connect with and thrive from being associated with, a lot of other spaces that I think need it. And it’s always been my dream to see it happen on the continent. I think in many cases institutions on the continent don’t need help putting on this type of programming, but I think maybe there are some things that Africa Salon has to offer or add to existing initiatives like this. And maybe there are some spaces that don’t have anything like Africa Salon that could benefit from it. So I will be making efforts to grow the festival and extend its reach. And I’m excited to see what comes of that.
Africa in Words: Me too, I’ll be watching this space. Thank you so much for your time.
Ifeanyi Awachie is a Nigerian-American writer and curator is a Nigerian-American writer and curator. With a B.A. in English and creative writing from Yale University, Ifeanyi is Chief Curator of AFRICA SALON, a contemporary African arts and culture festival she founded as an undergraduate. She is author of Summer in Igboland, a work of personal nonfiction and documentary photography based on her experience visiting her birth country, Nigeria, for the first time. She won the Tristan Perlroth Prize to support her research on the book and showcased her photographs in multiple exhibits at Yale. In 2016, Ifeanyi was accepted to the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation writing workshops, where she studied fiction under author Tayari Jones. She has worked as a spoken word teaching artist and founded and curated a grant-winning reading and performance series for writers of color. Ifeanyi is an incoming Master’s student in the Global Creative and Cultural Industries program at SOAS, University of London.