P037 – Aesthetic Rights: A Study in Urban Africa
8 July, 16:00-17:30

Thompson Drew / Bard College
Gastrow Claudia / University of Witwatersrand


Henri Lefebvre’s idea of “the right to the city” was formative to interdisciplinary investigations on urbanization and economic development in Africa. However, the question of “rights to the city” has taken on a new urgency across Africa as megacity planning threatens to dislodge thousands and fundamentally reshape the urban environment in ways that elicit desire from, but also shock inhabitants. For the past two decades, ongoing urban renewal projects are emerging from within the ruins and geographies of colonialism. The promises and sites of development are now becoming spaces of struggle over resources and the ability to govern. These changes have not only resulted in displacement but also reconfigured the very spaces of self-expression and socio-political participation. One of these key spaces has been that of aesthetic. From ambivalences over new architectures, to photographic investigations of urban space, and to the beats of kuduru, various forms of cultural expression and aesthetic form have become battlegrounds for a remaking of the city. We are interested in how collective mobilization, political claims, and new forms of association, accommodation, and resistance can be tracked and understood through the realm of the aesthetic. By exploring the politics of aesthetics in contemporary urban Africa, this panel seeks to illustrate new methodological and theoretical constructs from which to explore and interpret changes in the meaning and practices of a right to the city.

Direitos Estéticos: Um Estudo em Africa Urbano  

O pensamento de Henri Lefebvre sobre “o direito à cidade” definiu as investigações interdisciplinares sobre urbanização e desenvolvimento económico em África. Contudo, a questão do “direito à cidade” assumiu um carácter de urgência um pouco por toda a África, na medida em que planos de construção de mega-cidades ameaçam deslocar milhões de cidadãos e, fundamentalmente, redefinir o ambiente urbano sequer estimulando o desejo cosmopolita sequer afectando negativamente os habitantes. Nas últimas duas décadas, os projectos de renovação urbana têm emergido das ruínas e geografias do colonialismo. As promessas e os locais de desenvolvimento estão a tornar-se em espaços de disputas sobre recursos e a capacidade de governar. Essas mudanças têm causado não apenas deslocamentos, mas também têm reconfigurado os mesmos espaços de expressão individual e participação sociopolítica. Um desses espaços principais é o da estética. Da ambivalência sobre as novas arquitecturas às investigações fotográficas dos espaços urbanos, ao ritmo do kuduro, várias formas de expressão cultural e estética estabeleceram-se como campos de batalha na remodelação da cidade.  Interessa-nos, desse modo, aferir como a mobilização colectiva, as reivindicações políticas e as novas formas de associação, acomodação e resistência podem ser identificadas e compreendidas no domínio da estética. Ao explorar as políticas de estética e urbanismo contemporâneo  em África, este painel procura demonstrar novas construções metodológicas e teóricas, através das quais se pode explorar e interpretar mudanças sobre o significado e as práticas do direito à cidade.

Paper 1

Thompson Drew / Bard College

Ricardo Rangel: Photography, the City, and Narratives of Struggle

Ricardo Rangel is one of Mozambique’s most famous press-photographers, and his professional career as photographer, newspaper editor, and archivists spans periods of colonialism, independence, and war in Mozambique. Rangel began his career as a laboratory attendant in a commercial studio only to go on to work as a press-photographer and editor for colonial-era newspapers. At independence, the state charged Rangel with educating a new generation of press photographers, first as a newspaper editor and then as the director of Mozambique’s photography school. Central to his professional trajectory and political life was the act of taking, printing, and exhibiting images of Mozambique’s capital city first known as Lourenço Marques and today referred to as Maputo. Within the archive, Maputo as a photographic backdrop goes from a developing and racially-divided colonial capital to one of decaying buildings and overcrowded with populations displaced by war. Since his death, Rangel’s life, images, and technical practice have been used to contest, re-write, and even support the struggle narrative articulated by FRELIMO, the governing power. This paper uses Rangel’s body of photographic work and practice as revealed through oral histories and visual analysis to consider the aesthetic as a historical framework. In so doing, this paper explores the representational politics associated with the struggle narrative that emerges around and filters through Rangel’s photos of Maputo.

Paper 2

Gastrow Claudia / University of the Witwatersrand

The Political Aesthetics Infrastructure of of Rights in Luanda, Angola

Within African Urban studies, the question of infrastructure and its failures, promises and hopes has risen to the fore. New infrastructure projects have caused some to suggest that Africa’s cities are experiencing renewal, while others argue that these are merely a surface phenomena that cannot resolve deeper structural and political issues. At the same time the question of infrastructure has been expanded, with the body, social relations, and informality all being areas that have come to be more broadly understood as forms of urban infrastructure that can hold the city together. This paper looks at Luanda, Angola to examine the politics of infrastructure. Tracking residents experiences of the failure of infrastructure and their adaptations to this, I argue that infrastructure neither resolves problems nor is the source of anger in any direct way. Rather through studying the history and present of the aesthetics of infrastructure – the sensual experiences of it and the historically formed judgements that follow from this – its political salience can be understood.

Paper 3

Vanin Fabio / Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Contemporary Aesthetic Rights in Maputo and Luanda

Maputo and Luanda represent in different ways two paradigmatic cases with respect to the question of “rights to the city” where various aesthetics can reveal both unequal urban development processes, emerging practices and expressions of resistance against them. Until few years ago, Maputo was a self-regulated city that despite poverty and the lack of governance was “incredibly safe” (Forjaz, 2006). In that context the use of painting, murals and goods disposals were revealing a city in which informal practices were able to guarantee a certain (fragile) equilibrium. Today urban transformations go hand in hand with aesthetic changes: what is the destiny of that urban reality and how can we interpret those signs? On the opposite coast, Luanda is undergoing rapid changes with significant contradictions related to spatial and class differences where new developments, the diffuse militarisation and control of space clash with the needs of civil society. The issues of publicness, center vs periphery, social security and balance, emerge strongly in the local debate on the role of art, cultural events and heritage. This paper seeks to highlight problems and opportunities related to the realm of aesthetic in contemporary Maputo and Luanda in light to their common and different colonial and post-independence history.

Paper 4

Agbiboa Daniel / University of Oxford

“This is Lagos”: Popular Imagination OF The Everyday Life in Africa’s Largest Metropolis

The everyday life has been described as the most self-evident, yet the most puzzling of ideas. This paper aims to piece together an integrated understanding of the everyday life grounded in the routine and lived experiences of informal road transport operators in urban Lagos, Africa’s largest city and one of the world’s fastest growing metropolis. My goal is to elevate the lived experiences of informal transport operators to the status of a critical concept in order to advance a theory of everyday life in an African metropolis. The paper draws extensively on six-months ethnographic fieldwork (July–December 2014) undertaken in the densely populated city of Lagos as part of a doctoral research. To gain insights into transport operators’ representation of the everyday life in Lagos, I focused analytic attention on the popular semiology and everyday vehicular language of the city (mainly ‘Yoruba’ and ‘Pidgin’), with particular attention to the slogans which are so prominent and ubiquitous on the bodies and windscreens of danfos (minibuses), okadas (commercial motorcycles) and Keke Napeps (tricycles). I then explained these vehicle slogans using the transport operator’s religious, social, cultural, economic and political worldview. In particular, vehicle slogans were interpreted in the light of my own cumulative observation as an ‘outsider within’, as well as my active participation as a danfo conductor in Oshodi – the key transport node in Lagos.

Paper 5

Masquelier Adeline / Tulane University

Writing on the Wall: Ma(r)king the Place of Youth in Niger

Much has been written on imagination as an expression of subaltern consciousness through which people everywhere give shape to their future. What happens when underemployed young men anxious to get on with their lives reclaim their cities so as to bring their dull present in line with their imagined futures? In urban Niger members of fadas (conversations groups) meet daily in the street to drink tea, play cards, and talk. They etch the names of their fadas on the walls against which they sit, a trend that has radically reconfigured the look of cityscapes throughout the country but particularly in Niamey. These “writings on the wall” range from barely visible inscriptions to elaborately designed images; some feature childish scribbles, aggressive tagging, and awkward self-portraits while others are more sophisticated creations, painted by professional artists. Through a focus on the politics of aesthetics, I explore how young Nigerien men seize space and mark these locales with the visible signs of their presence, transforming anonymous spaces into places of cultural production and sites of political practice, which they inhabit and make their own. Through their choices of acronyms, geographical referents, cultural emblems, and political symbolism, young men use the power of images to express their engagement with the world. I therefore read these aesthetic projects as part of a wider effort on the part of young Nigeriens to understand their place in the world.

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