Thursday, 31 March 2011

Exploring African art in Washington DC

I recently returned from a trip to Washington DC to visit family. My time there was a welcome break from Durham and the archive, but not a rest per se. I have never been to DC and I was happy to find it is a great museum city: the National Mall is a museum lovers dream with seven (yes, that right seven) Smithsonians, the National Museum of Arts and more. This is not to mention the generous scattering of memorials, including one of the most interesting sites of memorial there is going - the two Vietnam veterans memorials. One of them, the wall, designed by a college student has been wildly successful in producing a site of national mourning and identity, the other, a statue of three soldiers, denigrated as a failure and eyesore.

As soon as you get interested in museology, all museums become intrinsically interesting, even if you don’t like or agree with them. Museums ended up punctuating my whole time in the States, even the day I spent catching up with a friend in NYC I could not resist the magnetic pull of the Met drawing me in.

There was plenty to interest a student of Africa, especially one with an interest in the politics of display.  Some of the African collections in Washington (and NYC) are truly amazing, but not unproblematic. I saw here a lot of the problems and successes of exhibiting Africa that I have also seen in Europe.

The first exhibit on Africa I went to was in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. This location was the main problem I had with this exhibition. What is an exhibition about African history doing in a The Museum of Natural History? Surely it should be in a museum of human history if anywhere?  You should not have to walk through a gallery about the ice-age into a display on post-apartheid South Africa: that just has to be the wrong message. A sign at the beginning of the exhibition announced that purpose was to display the history of African cultures from the evolution of humanity to the present day. In reality, there was very little on human evolution and it mostly concentrated on Africa’s colonial and post-colonial period. In their defense, the curators had gone to a lot of effort to stress the diversity and modernity of various African societies. However, I think whatever was done with the content of the exhibit, you could not get away from a creeping feeling of intense discomfort with the way that African cultures were being put in the context of natural history. The Ancient Greek and Roman collections used to be housed in the Natural History Museum but they have been moved, I am told. Africa remains with the beasts and rocks.

There were two massive cliches in this exhibit. The first was the decision to dim the lights. Exhibits on Africa are often dimly lit (this is the ‘Dark Continent’ after all) the Africa Galleries at the British Museum are also very dark. The second was the enormous number of proverbs printed above the cases, as if thinking in Africa only comes in mystical and poetic form?

Next we went to the Smithsonian Museum on African Art. My first impression was that they had fallen into another classic trap of displaying Africa - confusing art with artifact.  In the main hall there was a door displayed in a glass cabinet.

Nice, but is this ‘art’ or is this a door?

As we went in, we found they had a really nice exhibit of some contemporary South African and Brazilian artists. And the museum is nice, although there are a lot of empty spaces, but they seem to put on a lot of interesting events. I can't resist drawing attention to some really bad labeling we spotted. For example the label below starts with the sentence “Images of women with or without children appear frequently in African art”, this is not something unique to African art, as the Guerilla Girls have brilliantly made the point that 83% of the nudes in the Met Museum are female.

Finally I went to the Met while in NYC. I thought they have done a really nice job of displaying the permanent Africa collections.  My picture below makes it look a little dark but its not at all, some pieces you can walk all around and others are put together in cases.  For me part of the success of the Met has to be down to how genuinely fantastic their collection is, particularly the Malian pieces, I fully recommend. 

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Obscure books about Southern Issues...part 1

This is a plug for a book that is very difficult to find, so I apologise for that in advance.

I just read the autobiography of Stanislaus Paysama, called “How a Slave Became a Minister”. It was published in 1990 in Khartoum with an introduction by Abel Alier and edited by someone called Fr. V Dellagiacoma.

It’s very short, 82 pages. The first part is written by Stanislaus and tells about how he was abducted in raids from a village in South Darfur and taken into slavery in Kafia Kingi and eventually, through a series of events, he is taken to Wau (in Bahr el Ghazal) in 1914. The second half of the book is based on interviews with Stanislaus in Wau in 1985 and it describes how he was then educated in Wau, employment in the Government and his later, important political career. Stanislaus died in 1985 so the book is very much his reflections, particularly on the politics of politics in Southern Sudan around and post-Independence.

Stanislaus’ life is interesting on many levels and the book is a remarkable account. It also benefits from Stanislaus’ talent as a writer. He starts the book by explaining how, for many years, he had been asked by all sorts of people, if he had read the book “History of Wau Town” by Fr. Santandrea. He was somewhat perplexed by these questions, but one day the mystery was revealed

“I found out that Fr. Santandrea had mentioned my name in one of the chapters of the book dealing with Wau Mission School, and I found out that they were afraid to tell whether a man mentioned there was I myself or another Stanislaus A. Paysama. Had they asked me that question I would have answered them frankly and they would have gone away satisfied. To say that I was a slave is not shame: I brought up myself and therefore I am not afraid to tell the truth…I was not born a slave, but I came from a respectable family, who lived and earned their living in the most honorable way. I would feel ashamed and a slave had I used my life extravagantly and doing shameful and degrading things”

As Eddie Thomas explains in his report, this autobiography is one of the most detailed accounts we have of the early twentieth century slave trade in Darfur. Stanislaus was captured around 1904, amidst violent upheaval when the Sultan of Darfur, Ali Dinar, was leading a punitive campaign against Baggara groups (like those who originally captured Stanislaus) in South Darfur. When he was taken to Kafia Kingi, a town under British control where slavery was officially banned (although this ban was not very rigidly enforced) he met slave traders again. This time he was abducted by a professional Fur slave dealer and his account of this experience reveals something of how the slave industry operating at the time.

After being freed from slavery, Stanislaus is taken to Wau. He is educated and takes a job as a clerk in the British administration in the south. He worked in Rumbek and Yirol between 1933 and 1943. Again, his very short account this experience is fascinating. There has been a lot of interest in African history in recent years about African colonial intermediaries (clerks, court workers, interpreters etc). Scholars have shown how they can help us to understand the ways British ‘hegemony on a shoestring’ worked in practice as well as break down a binary between coloniser and colonised. Stanislaus describes how he negotiated his promotions with the British system and the attitude of the District Commissioners towards Sudanese employees. In one paragraph he explains how the Governor of Bahr el Ghazal enforced a strict uniform policy (a significant material aspect of colonial experience), preventing Dinka chiefs from wearing anything but the jellabiah (strictly not European clothes) and how the clerks could not wear shoes from the shop and had to wear a sort of shoe called shamut khalit.

One of the most interesting parts of Stanislaus’ life is how he became a Southerner. Born into the Fur ethnic group in South Darfur, through his move to Wau, conversion to Christianity and instrumental role in early Southern politics he became Southern Sudanese. My flatmate, Nicki, has been doing research into the definition of ‘Southern Sudanese’, how it has emerged historically and how it has been used in current referendum processes.  Who is and who is not a Southerner, and the different ways someone can be Southern Sudanese (or South Sudanese) is very complicated. Stanislaus’ account throws light on how he negotiated these complexities – which have become much more critical in light of South Sudan’s vote for Independence. 

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Still Time to Party

This may or may not be research. But at least it is good to be able to in some way justify going to parties as part of your research.

On Saturday I went to a party to celebrate the results of South Sudan’s referendum. Southern Sudanese voted (as predicted by all observers) in a landslide for Independence. So on 9th July 2011, South Sudan will become Africa’s newest country (does this mean I need to change the name of my blog?). Such a momentous event is cause for celebration indeed.

I arrived with a friend a little bit late and the venue was already packed. The event itself was a lot of speeches, performances and dances. A particularly nice one was a potted history and song performed by a group of children wearing matching ‘I am South Sudan’ t-shirts. They were great, and your heart would have to be made of stone not to enjoy it.

Children's performance

The speeches eventually gave way in to eating food, dances, chatting and later music (and an excellent local drink made from sesame and slighting alcoholic – thanks to the lady who gave me that). The most enjoyable part of the evening was seeing a lot of friends and making some new ones. If I am being honest I would probably say that going to parties is an essential part of research anyway and when was there ever an easy distinction between life and work? I am sure, since I will be in South Sudan on Independence Day this will not be the last chance to party.