Words on… Februarys past and present: digital spaces and archive connections

A dip in and through our site archives and some Februarys past and present…

Because Heroes and Scholars are everywhere (see here for the AiW Q&A of that title, between AiW Guest Aurelie Journo and Abu Amirah, founder of writers’ collective, Hekaya, based in Mombasa – incidentally, our most popular post of 2020 so far)…

And because our latest Twitter #ThrowbackThursday links back through our own February archives to an early piece by our Founder, Nara Improta, penned in February 2013, called ‘Preserving for whom? Discussions on the conservation of archives’

‘Preserving for whom?’ is a closely thought response to international interest in the question of archival and manuscript tradition in Mali’s historic city Timbuktu. It takes its prompt from the arson attack in late January 2013 on the two libraries housing the famous Timbuktu manuscripts by Islamist insurgents retreating from the approach of French-led and Malian troops, and the subsequent secret preservation operation for the ancient documents and their tangible heritage.

“These manuscripts are really precious to us. They are family heirlooms. Our history, our heritage,” says Dr Abdel Kader Haidara, owner of one of Timbuktu’s biggest private libraries, containing manuscripts dating back to the 16th Century. “In our family there have been generations and generations of great scholars, great astronomers, and we have always looked after these documents.” ‘How Timbuktu’s manuscripts were smuggled to safety’. Naveena Kottoor, BBC World Service. 4 June 2013. Picture credit: ‘Brent Stirton/Getty Images, NYTimes, April 28, 2016.

Spearheaded by Librarian Dr Abdel Kader Haidara, along with other book-owning families and together with officials of the state-run Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies, the precaution of smuggling and ‘book rustling’ the manuscripts out from these major collections had already been steadily underway. From under the insurgents’ noses, these documents were re-homed, re-archived, stored and hidden in the domestic recesses of family and private homes, before being moved out of Timbuktu altogether and transported across miles of war-torn desert — stashed “beneath mud floors, into cupboards, boxes, sacks and secret rooms, into caves in the desert or upriver to the safety of Mopti or Bamako, Mali’s capital”.

“…It was very risky. We evacuated the manuscripts in cars, carts and canoes… One car could only take two or three metal boxes at the most. So we did it little by little.” (Haidara in ‘How Timbuktu’s manuscripts were smuggled to safety‘. Naveena Kottoor, BBC World Service. 4 June 2013.)

Improta’s piece draws on Ciraj Rassool’s Chimurenga Chronic article, ‘Discoveries of Timbuktu’ of February 13th, 2013 (the dynamic Pan-African project of Chimurenga and the Chronic itself a cascading series of meditative and shifting archival turns and critical questionings across digital and material, actual spaces, with their own distinctly radical and collective bent…).

In his Chronic article, ‘Discoveries’, Rassool describes his experience with the Tombouctou Manuscript Project, run by Shamil Jeppie, based at the University of Cape Town, involved in building a digital archive to complement the manuscript collection. Rassool stresses how the emergence of “parallel, independent systems of conservation” challenge narratives of Timbuktu both as a “literate archival edifice of history and modernity” that tends to be re-imagined and so appropriated for the West as a “recovery of African history”, and those narratives of “bringing ‘development’ to Mali” in conservation management and technology. The establishment of the new state-of-the-art Ahmed Baba Institute in partnership with South Africa in 2002, after Thabo Mbeki’s visit of November 2001, is the prime example, a development based on those very encounters in the archive “which flew in the face of colonial notions of pre-colonial African non-literacy, and non-historicity”.

The New Ahmed Baba Institute, image c. of TomboUCTuo Manuscripts Project website.

Into these geographies and concerns, Rassool brings Haidara – as a “charismatic advocate of preservation and digitisation” – citing him on “the history of concealment of manuscripts by Islamic scholars in leather bags and abandoned desert caves for more than a century, with libraries sealed with mud, as measures to prevent colonial plunder”.

The breadth of knowledge and conservation dilemmas experienced at Timbuktu in the development of the Manuscript Project founds a unique archival model, Rasool concludes. It is one of “preservation and partnerships…founded on the capacities and commitment of citizens”, working with a “notion of conservation, not as an infrastructural or technical issue, but as a social question”. Improta closes by taking this up via a reflection on Professor Patrick Ngulube‘s work on preservation in African Institutions and the importance of prioritising “local technical demands” in archival practice. For Improta, the choice of how we archive is one that must be centred by the people who will make use of the archives, a call, then, not just for indigenous knowledge bases in creating new archival practices but a wider opening of the archive’s doors that can extend a welcome that goes beyond the ‘specialist’, or ‘expertise’…

All of which gets us to thinking…

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On 10 Feb 2020, a series of AiW Instagram stories went out over the course of the generous day programme for the ‘JM Coetzee: Scenes from the South’ exhibition launch at Amazwi South African Museum of Literature in Makhanda, the morning after the launch night before and celebration of Coetzee’s actual 80th birthday. The exhibition, a long-look archive of a writing life, has been co-curated by two UK-based academics – Kai Easton (SOAS) and David Attwell (York) – from a selection of Amazwi’s Coetzee collection, and papers and effects archived at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin (where Coetzee completed his PhD, conducting research in the Ransom Center’s collections for his dissertation on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett), the ephemerality of the Insta story perhaps balancing the weight of all the institutions and geographies – literal and metaphorical, human (and canine!) – gathered by that heading.

‘Scenes from the South’ runs at Amazwi until 6 July, when it will be taken to the HRC in Texas – 15 August 2020 to 3 January 2021. Kai Easton, co-curator, will lead walkabouts of the exhibition during the National Arts Festival in Makhanda, 25 June to 5 July.

Photos of ‘Scenes of the South: JMC@80’ at Amazwi – Katie Reid. For more images of the exhibition launch, see Catherine Knox’s recent ‘Photo gallery of an exhibition celebrating JM Coetzee’s 80th birthday’ for Litnet.


February 2020 brought other archive and good Twitter news for Jay Pather and Catherine Boulle’s edited Acts of Transgression: Contemporary Live Art in South Africa (Wits UP, 2019), a collection of fifteen essays about contemporary live art in South Africa’s new climate of political urgency and distrust.

Tom Penfold’s AiW review of the collection, ‘Moving Futures, Moving Bodies‘ (Jan 27th, 2020)  concludes:

“Today is an age of political crisis where post-truth discourse prevails and our faith in facts and the historical objects that represent them – statues, monuments, archives – has declined. In response we have had to turn to our emotions to tell our histories and explain our world. But how do we curate and maintain an archive of feelings? How do we curate the performance of these feelings? Indeed, curation is often understood as being about imposing boundaries and recognisable thematic groupings through which to link works. In Acts of Transgression we see how this is not possible for live art. Every performance we encounter in the book represents a breaking down of what is known, the unravelling of forms, and the letting loose of new possibilities. Therefore, “perhaps the term ‘curation’, or the act of curation itself, has run its course” (Pather 93)?”

Read two excerpts from Acts, with permission from Wits University Press, alongside Penfold’s review: click for ‘Upsurge’ by Sarah Nuttall, and Mwenya Kabwe’s ‘Astronautus Afrikanus: Performing African Futurism

Where there are archives, there are curators – readers, editors, gatekeepers and those in positions of ‘care’ – from curare: to care – and of ‘management’ in custody and custodianship. Thinking about digitisation and the online space in light of the archive as a promise to the future returns us to Improta’s timely reminder: issues related to preservation go beyond the question of how and where – before “who decides?” and “what are the criteria?”, the important question must be “for whom”.

Categories: Research, Studies, Teaching, Words from the team

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