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The Politics of Anti-Blackness, Music and Archiving on Black Lives

Bonaventure Ndiking
© Taylla de Paula

Monday the 23rd of April marked the beginning of Echoes of the South Atlantic, a Goethe-Institute international conference, whose goal in the next few days would be analysing and tracing the impact and legacy of the Trans-Átlantic slave trade on black minds, black experiences and black realities.  

The opening keynote was delivered by Lilia Schwarcz, a Brazilian historian and anthropologist who focuses on the Brazilian Empire and Afro-Brazilian peoples. Schwarcz' talk entitled “An Afro-Atlantic visual history” focused on a visual retelling of slavery in Brazil and the layered politics of representation, autonomy and white supremacy present in 18th-19th century art. The legacy of white voices speaking on black pain is nothing new and a dissonance is created when echoes of the South Atlantic are vocalized by a white voice in a country that denies the structural and social impacts of anti-black racism and yet where you hardly see black faces in positions of power;  be it in governance, historical archiving or mainstream television programming. Brazil’s “melting pot society” as mentioned by Schwarcz makes conversations on racism a lesson in cognitive dissonance but also begs the question on how and who should lead conversations on colonial legacies in a manner that increases visibility for those most affected but also creates a constructive dialogue with allies.

Lilia Schwarcz Lilia Schwarcz | © Taylla de Paula Schwarcz referenced the works of Francois Auguste-Biard throughout her presentation and also talked about the similarity of images to ghosts, “bound to the past and the present.” She pointed out the dynamics of freedom as seen through images where black people are begging for liberty and how such visuals created the narrative that for black people, freedom came as a result of white benevolence and not black pain, death and insurgency. Her images of enslaved black people were from the past but in contemporary times white supremacy and violence are still a regular part of black lived experiences. This point of connection was made by Mario Luis Junio from the black movement in Brazil who spoke of two separate incidences in Rio De Janeiro where young black people were tied and brutalized in ways similar to those shown in Schwarcz images of slavery. In closing talk Schwarcz talked about the recent murder of Marielle Franco, a Brazilian city councillor who was vocal about police brutality against black people, especially in Brazil’s favela communities. Schwarcz vocalized what seems to be an open secret in Brazil, which is that “Marielle Franco was killed by the state”. As she said this there were nods and murmurs of agreement in the crowd, a somber ending to a talk on the visual legacy of the 18th century slave trade which has ended in Brazil but where black people are still marginalized.

After a short coffee break, Bonaventure Ndikung delivered his keynote, “It is Dark and Damp on the Front-Treading the Sonic Path of Halim El-Dabh,” where he talked about the experimental and innovative aspects of African music. Ndikung, a Cameroonian art curator and biotechnologist introduced the audience to the evocative music created by  Egyptian-America composer, Halim El-Dabh who is best known for the compositions he created for the famed Martha Graham Dance Company. El-Dabh passed away late last year at the age of 96 and in his talk Ndikung unveiled the still unknown legacy of one of the world’s most talented composers. El-Dabh had a propensity for seeing music in everything be it sounds or colours and even created compositions based on the musical inspirations he drew from the colours which he said possessed a, “high frequency.” Not much unlike music.  He was also inspired by the emptiness of space creating music meant to envelope and encompass physical dimensions with a haunting and noticeable presence. Ndikung spoke of how El-Dabh’s music travelled to Europe and influenced Europe’s own musical creations. Through his presentation Ndikung focused on reclaiming and illustrating the legacy of a creator (El-Dabh) who inspired and continues to inspire millions with his musical works.

Nanette Snoep © Taylla de Paula The final keynote was delivered by Dutch anthropologist, Nanette Snoep entitled, “From the Cabinet of Curiosities to a Cabinet of Curious Histories.” Snoep talked about the myriad of ways cultural gatekeepers (anthropologists, museum creators, archaeologists )can respect and ensure the safety of artefacts or remains that exist and which provide a tangible link to past civilizations and histories. Snoep emphasised the need for museums to pursue an interest in non-western cultures in a manner that does not perpetuate an othering kind of curiosity but instead highlights the cultural importance of such histories on a global scale. She touched on the fact that the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized greatly affects how historical narratives are shared and understood but the complications of neo-colonialism, eurocentrism and racism were not truly highlighted as logical reasons why such cultural dialogue is intensely sensitive, with political intersections and ramifications that affect how history is created or manipulated. The talk ended with a question and answer were most inquiries focused on how European racism makes it difficult for non-European cultures to engage or even trust the ways European institutions collect cultural data. There was particular emphasis on the comments made by President Emmanuel Macron of France who recently made a pledge to return looted African art back to the countries of origin and out of French museums.

by Tari Ngangura