P179 – In Ruins
8 July, 14:00-15:30

De Jong Ferdinand / University of East Anglia


Recent social theory has launched the concept of ruination to conceptualise the colonial legacy. If the colonial legacy requires theorisation, ruination may indeed be the most appropriate metaphor. In European history, ruins have signalled the birth of a modern historicity, the idea that the present is more than mere repetition of the past, but the image of the ruin has also been employed as a critique of modernity. But what do ruins in the African postcolony signify? In this panel, we are particularly interested in the different readings ruins may inspire of the postcolonial present. Guy Tillims’ series Avenue Lumumba revisits the avenues named after Patrice Lumumba in various African capitals, and thereby offers a nostalgic view of a particular moment of modernist expectation in post-Independence Africa. Sammy Baloji, in his series Mémoire, investigates the legacy of the mining industry in DRC, critiquing both present and the past. What do the aesthetics of ruins tell us about the process of ruination of the colonial legacy in Africa? How do these ruins inspire a critique of the present? Do they point to the end of a meta-narrative of modernist progress? What do ruins signify in a context of growing abjection? In this panel, such questions will be addressed through a variety of anthropological, historical or literary approaches.

En ruines
La théorie sociale a récemment élaboré et diffusé le concept de « ruination » pour interroger le legs colonial. Cette métaphore utilisée pour désigner le processus de tomber en ruine semble en effet des plus appropriées pour théoriser les vestiges de la colonisation. Dans l’histoire européenne, les ruines indiquent la naissance de l’historicité moderne, renvoyant à l’idée que le présent est plus qu’une simple répétition du passé ; mais l’image de la ruine a aussi été utilisée comme une critique de la modernité. Mais que signifient les ruines dans la postcolonie africaine ? Ce panel s’intéresse principalement aux différentes lectures du présent postcolonial que les ruines peuvent inspirer. La série de Guy Tillim, Avenue Lumumba, revisite les avenues portant le nom de Patrice Lumumba dans plusieurs capitales africaines, et offre ainsi une vision nostalgique d’un moment particulier des espoirs modernistes de la période de la postindépendance en Afrique. Sammy Baloji, dans sa série Mémoire, explore le legs de l’industrie minière en RDC, critiquant ainsi autant le présent que le passé. Qu’est-ce que l’esthétique de la ruine nous dit des processus de tomber en ruine du legs colonial en Afrique ? Comment ces ruines inspirent-elles une critique du présent ? Pointent-elles vers la fin du métarécit du progrès moderniste ? Qu’est-ce que les ruines signifient dans un contexte d’abjection croissante ? Dans ce panel, nous traiterons de ces questions à partir d’approches variées en anthropologie, en histoire et en critique littéraire.

Paper 1

Archambault Julie Soleil / University of Oxford

Concrete aspirations, concrete decay: reimagining the city in Mozambique

There is something about concrete that captures the imagination. The thing of modernist aspirations, it offers an enduring mapping of the reach of the state, of social hierarchies. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, colonial cities were built on the conspicuous and contentious divide between the cement and the reed city. Concrete can simultaneously bind and divide; it can also be put to both constructive and destructive ends. In some places, wet concrete was used by fleeing settlers to sabotage the infrastructure they were reluctant to leave behind, such as in southern Mozambique where ruination has been further exacerbated by nearly two decades of civil war. In recent years, however, new cement houses are being built among the ruins as part of a hurried process of suburbanisation. The paper teases out the political economy of concrete in southern Mozambique by situating the current youth-led suburbanisation of the city of Inhambane in relation to colonial fault lines framed in terms of building materials. My inquiry into the politics and poetics of building materials engages with the recent literature on affect and ruination to think about the articulation between temporality and materiality. It looks at the affective and potentially transformative effects of everyday engagement with concrete to add to our understanding of how visions of the future take shape.

Paper 2

Fontein Joost / British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA)

Genealogical geographies, ruins and territoriality in the politics of land and belonging in southern Zimbabwe

For many around Lake Mutirikwi, a dam in southern Zimbabwe built in 1961, fast track land reform in the 2000s offered new opportunities to make real long-standing aspirations to return to ancestral landscapes from which they were evicted in the mid-20th century. They also provoked a series of fierce new disputes over boundaries and territory. This paper explores the ‘genealogical geographies’ deployed by chiefs and clans in the 2000s, and what they tell us about history, historiography and changing notions of territoriality. These genealogical geographies reflect how histories of 19th century Karanga expansion and Duma settlement sedimented into place through graves, ruins and sacred hills to constitute active and affective landscapes of belonging. They also reveal how pre-colonial forms of territoriality intertwined with the ruins of more cadastral, technocratic kinds of territoriality wrought by Rhodesian rule, reflecting how different past regimes of rule to do with land and authority can endure, coexist and give shape to current contests through the active materialities of landscape they constitute. The ruins of past regimes of rule active and affective through the materialities of place could be said to constitute an archive of past registers of meaning ready for strategic mobilisation in the present, but if so, they are also an active archive that demands responses and shapes action as much as it affords contested interpretation and meaning.

Paper 3

Quinn Brian / UCLA

Resisting ruination: commemoration at the ruins of the William Ponty School

The ruins of the former French colonial school the Ecole William Ponty in Senegal sit at the crossroads of an area in full renewal, yet have remained long untouched, without governmental support to restore or preserve the site. This colonial institution, once a training ground for French West Africa’s so-called indigenous elite, has had a conflicting relationship with the processes of ruination that have led to its current state of abandonment. It has served as a symbolic springboard for visions of a modern and prosperous future, and yet the ruined aesthetics of the site have also fed into nostalgic remembrances of what are seen as bygone dreams of an emerging, economically prosperous nation. Locally, alumni associations and grassroots curators connected with the former School have sought to resist the gradual ruination of the site, defending its place in the collective national memory. Multivalent narratives surrounding the ruins come to a head at this moment particularly, as the Senegalese government seeks to utilize the area of the Ponty School to revitalize the Dakar region in a vast urban revitalization project. In this talk, I will discuss the collective memories that invest such ruined sites as well as the local uses and recastings that often make them sites not only of memory, but also of resistance.

Paper 4

Vierke Clarissa / Bayreuth University

Ruins in the Swahili novel

In this paper, I try to explore meanings of ruins in Swahili literature from Kenya and Tansania. As in a number of literatures from other parts of Africa, dilapidated cityscapes with ruined houses and wrecked cars have turned into recurring motifs in postcolonial literature. Recurrently, these cityscapes have been highlighted to epitomize dislocations of postcolonial societies, primarily the disjunction between life worlds characterized by different social orders, technological possibilities and political regimes. In this paper, I would like to suggest a historical perspective to, firstly, highlight the ruin as a recurring figure in times of massive change, but, more particularly, to consider it as part of a cultural archive. As the ruin is a figuration, which already figures in pre-colonial Swahili literature, I would like to address the question how its meanings have been changed, forgotten und re-enacted in postcolonial texts. Doing so, I would like to highlight the ruin as a figuration, a complex of form and idea, which is part of a Swahili history of ideas. In that sense, I will reconsider the notion of ‘signifying’. Being a ‘commonplace’ in Swahili literature, the ruin does not only represent meaning in discourses, but also constitutes them.

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