P160 – Art, Activism and Violence in the Postcolony
8 July, 14:00-15:30

Förster Till / University of Basel
Kasfir Sidney L. / Emory University, Atlanta


African artists today often walk the thin line between art and activism. Many are consciously engaging in an activism that criticises the postcolonial condition. Others are pushed into an activist position. Already by depicting daily life in the postcolony, they may unwillingly express a growing discontent of the populace. The forms of such art are as diverse as the artists and the societal situations that they have to face: difficult to define and hence difficult to control for the authorities. Artists may paint walls of public buildings with murals that these authorities may understand as caricatures; organise performances that the administration then frames as political manifestations; set up art centres and workshops that, the government may suspect, serve as meeting places for political opponents.
Artists are often faced with attempts to silence them – some subtle, others direct and violently oppressive, and still others as disordered as the postcolony. Many artists develop means to resist these attempts and cultivate subversive ways of articulating what they experience as the social reality of their time. Their art takes unexpected forms that fluctuate between straight political claim making and subversive ways of articulation.
This panel aims at exploring these elusive, intangible and often surprising forms of art that answer the structural violence of the postcolonial condition and the agencies of those who create it on the one side or judge it on the other.

Art, activisme et violence dans la postcolonie

 Aujourd’hui, les artistes africains sont souvent obligés de choisir entre l’art et l’activisme. Beaucoup se sont engagés consciemment dans une critique de la condition postcoloniale. Montrer la vie quotidienne dans la postcolonie est déjà perçu comme une expression du mécontentement croissant de la population. Les expressions artistiques de ce genre sont aussi variées que les situations et problèmes sociaux auxquels les artistes sont confrontés : difficile à comprendre et par conséquent difficile à contrôler par les autorités. Ces artistes peuvent, par exemple, décorer les murs d’un bâtiment public avec des peintures que les autorités considèrent comme étant des caricatures ; ils pourraient organiser des scènes de théâtre que l’administration perçoit comme manifestations politiques ou fonder des centres ou des ateliers que le gouvernement soupçonne d’être des lieux de réunion pour des opposants politiques.
Ainsi beaucoup d’artistes africains sont confrontés à des tentatives de réduction au silence – certaines tentatives sont subtiles, d’autres violentes, ou sont désorganisées comme la postcolonie elle-même. Ils ont acquis des moyens de résistance contre ces actes de d’oppression et ont cultivé des pratiques subversives qui leur permettent d’exprimer les réalités sociales de leur époque. Les arts adoptent des formes inattendues qui flottent entre pleines articulations politiques et toutes sortes de subversion.
Ce panel essaye d’explorer ces arts furtifs, intangibles et surprenants qui répondent à la violence structurelle de la condition postcoloniale et à ceux qui s’en servent pour dominer une culture populaire qui refuse de se subordonner. 


Paper 1

Burnet Rob / WellToldStory.org

Can 40 Million Comic books change the future of East Africa?

Since launching in 2010 as an independent response to the 2008 post election violence, Kenya’s Shujaaz youth media platform has reached 70% of the youth population. With more than 40 million free comic books now in circulation alongside syndicated FM radio shows, TV, SMS and social media, Shujaaz has become a significant cultural force, with the power to influence the lives of millions of young people in Kenya where more than half the people are under 18, and the percentage is growing. Kenya’s population has doubled in the past twenty years but there are far too few jobs outside the informal economy.This, coupled with life in crowded urban slums, leads to youthful disaffection and the temptations of criminal gangs, petty crime and political radicalization. On the other hand,across Africa young people are finding the voice and means to define themselves as a generation apart, using expanding access to new technology and media to express their dynamism and exclusivity. Will they break away into anti-social counter cultures – Al Shabaab is one, Boko Haram another – or will they find positive, socially responsible direction for their energies?This presentation will describe how the Shujazz visual/verbal multi-media platform has evolved.

Paper 2

Dallywater Lena / University of Leipzig

“From his grave, he disturbes the sleep of the living” – Engelbert Mveng (1930-1995)

The aim of this paper is to depict and analyse the life and work of Engelbert Mveng, a Jesuit priest, artist and scholar who has published several books on “The Art of Black Africa” or “The African Art and Craft” . Mveng, a Cameroonian intellectual who was assassinated on April 22, 1995 , was born in 1930 in a small village in South Cameroon. He studied philosophy in Belgium, and commenced studies in theology in France. In this period Mveng succeeded to publish his “History of Cameroon” (1963). Since then he has published numerous publications on religion, African art, Pan-Africanism, as well as Negro-African and Cameroonian history, among others. Since 1965 Mveng has been professor at the University of Yaoundé and director of the Department of History since 1984. He initiated the “Atelier d’arts nègres” in Yaoundé and tried to inculturate African symbolism in his art. After Mveng’s unexplained death in 1995 a “disconcerting silence” was installed around the Jesuit Priest. “From his grave, Engelbert Mveng disturbes the sleep of the living” , as Messina puts it. In this process, Mveng became a myth for Cameroonian intellectuals and stimulated the thoughts and dreams of young African scholars. Apparently, Mveng created a “Mvengism” in his nearer surrounding. This paper looks at the social and intellectual dimension of his scholarly and artistic work, as the particular lifeway of Mveng translated itself into a specific body of thought.

Paper 3

Scherer Christine / University of Bayreuth

Tales of Epistemic Violence and Strategic Essentialism: The Case of Contemporary Visual Arts in Zimbabwe since the Year 2000

Zimbabwe became independent only in 1980 and surprised the world by its leader’s famous ‘reconciliation speech’, that Robert Mugabe gave on 18 April after years of violence and tension in the fight for independence. The beginning of a new era was accompanied by the opening of new spheres of critical engagement and interaction in the new nation and it fostered artists and aesthetic production on the basis of mutual curiosity, increasing interaction and relative freedom of expression.
The beginning of the New Millennium influenced the social field of arts in various ways. Triggered by socio-political changes, the dialectics of colonial legacies and questions of representation divided the local art world. These dialectics silenced artistic forms of expression as much as they fostered the quest for ways of subtly and nevertheless subversively expressing individual positions as artists.
On the basis of a long term study, the paper looks at visual artistic practices and examines the discourse in Zimbabwe between 2000 and 2015. It analyses how institutional and individual actors work within the vicissitude of epistemic violence and art-world pragmatism. The questions that will be posed are how and in which context this influences the production of art in general in Zimbabwe as well as the artistic and aesthetic practices of Zimbabwean artists in particular.

Paper 4

Fenton Jordan / Ferris State University

Voice of the Voiceless: Youth Masquerade as Activism in Calabar, Nigeria

The urban milieu of Calabar, capital of Cross River State, Nigeria, is home to Agaba: a violent and aggressive youth masquerade known for performing youth marginalization. Since its inception in the early 1980s, Agaba masquerade unleashed decades of violent masquerade performances in Calabar, often turning into riotous expressions of societal disruption. In an effort to suppress these violent confrontations, The Nigeria Police Force issued a “shoot on sight” directive in the early 1990s in order to pacify Agaba and clean-up Calabar to pave the way for an upcoming tourism industry. Although the action taken by the police has greatly reduced Agaba activities today, in March of 2010, a lorry truck driver was killed for challenging Agaba performers and not yielding to their performative space.
This paper explores the ways in which Agaba masquerade performance of the last three decades speaks to these “area boys’” marginalized place in society. The performances may be understood as a ploy for space as older masquerade societies are locally known as the traditional powers and demonstrate their place in society through elaborate street performances to establish agency. The threating and confrontational manner of Agaba masquerade may thus be understood as a form of activism, challenging both long-standing and contemporary forms of government by unmasking and forcefully claiming space in an effort to voice their struggles within the post-colonial Nigerian state.

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