The interdisciplinary conference ‘Memory & Performance in African-Atlantic Futures’ was held at the University of Leeds from 31 August to 2 September, 2018. The symposium brought together artists, curators, academics and activists to discuss current trends in performance practices in the African diaspora, including Britain. The three days of discussions focused on the ways in which contemporary performance practices in Britain and the African diaspora at large are generating and reflecting new ideas about social, political and artistic futures for Black communities in the contemporary moment.
Emphasising memory as a way of conceptualising the future, this conference facilitated a conversation around current political uses of performance in the African diaspora. Because of this, the constellation memory-performance-futures was one that was thought to be deserving of exploration, especially given what was being suggested by the conference’s call for papers: that performance, in a political sense, was leading communities and social actors to think of memory outside of the prism of despair, mourning and the re-experiencing of trauma, and that this approach to memory was of crucial importance for Afro-diaspora artists and activists in the current moment. In other words, while the work of mourning is undoubtedly important, it was deemed necessary to consider processes of psychic resilience and the ways in which Black communities create spaces of humanness for themselves, despite systemic western dehumanisation of Black life. This consideration beckoned us to think about the political value of storytelling through performance – or, put differently, about how storytelling, in its myriad deployments within performance practices, can be made to function as concrete political action, particularly where other would-be corrective actions (law, justice, social reparations, official recognition of atrocities, and so on) have failed.
The keynote speakers were leading artists, curators and scholars from the UK and wider African diaspora. They were Lubaina Himid (2017 Turner Prize winner), Louise Bernard (a Yorkshire native and part of the design team of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC), Tavia Nyong’o (Professor of Performance Studies at Yale), Adam Sitze (Professor of Jurisprudence and Social Thought at Amherst College), and Chokri Ben Chikha (Belgian performance artist and scholar at the University College Ghent whose work examines Belgium’s ‘human zoo’ colonial tradition).
Lubaina Himid’s opening keynote address, which was an examination of her own work over several decades, emphasised the work of visual art in forming a sense of what the Black body is, over and against its commodification by capitalist and colonial ideology. In different ways, her talk turned attention to European colonialism’s violent disruption of subjectivity through the capitalist mastery of the body. Given this disruption of subjectivity, Himid’s work could be seen, through this vivid and moving presentation, as wrestling with the uncanny sense of temporality that attends to the black body – an aporetic and uneasy one, but, above all, a temporality that is ‘queered’, not certain and mastered, but precarious and plastic. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Himid's talk focused on her attempts at breaching conventional parameters of time through her work and its theatrical staging of bodies.
Tavia Nyong’o’s keynote in the afternoon of the first day solidified the theme of storytelling (‘afrofabulation’ is the term Nyong’o uses) which became more and more resonant as the conference progressed.
Day 2’s first keynote was by Louise Bernard, who reflected on how an understanding of architectonics – the intricate relationship between knowledge formation and built space – informs (both shaping and reflecting back) the idea of memory and performance in the African diaspora. Focusing on the installation Thrival Geographies (In My Mind I See a Line), an intervention by Amanda Williams and Andreas L. Hernandez in the courtyard of the US Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, her afrofuturist reading of the space of the museum centred on how testimony can be used for its ‘legislative power’. Bernard’s illuminating presentation showed, firstly, how Williams and Hernandez assimilate social freedom to the idea of transforming space. Secondly, it demonstrated the artists’ awareness of the importance of using the symbolic space of the museum as a microcosm of this transformation, given the museum’s institutional power to body forth narratives of the relationship of human bodies to space, in terms of both geography and affect.
Adam Sitze’s keynote lecture, ‘A question of both and: Derrick Bell’s Afrolantica Legacies at 20’, brought together seemingly unaligned fields of thought, tracing the organic links between law, tragedy and theology in the modern framework of race. Considering the animating energies between prophecy, storytelling and the law in the work of Derrick Bell, Sitze sketches out pathways between contemporary tragedy and African diaspora futures. Examining what enabling potentials there might be in Black social tragedy, he issues the following provocation: ‘What if the task is not to not bother speaking of the future because we see no way forward? What if the task is to speak of the future because we see no way forward?’ Sitze therefore makes the case for narrative as a way of redefining the limits of the possible, an idea that chimed with Tavia Nyong’o’s notion of ‘afrofabulation’ discussed in his keynote presentation on Day 1. Prophetic narrative, to paraphrase Adam Sitze, puts emphasis on the subjunctive, emphasising futures that have no real precedent. This tied in well with discussions around afrofuturism on the second and third days of the conference..
The final keynote, on Day 3, was by Chokri Ben Chikha, a performance artist and scholar based at University College Ghent. Ben Chikha spoke about his own site-specific performance called ‘The Truth Commission’ that revisits the once silenced history of the human zoos in the colonial exhibitions organised by Belgium in the twentieth century. Though Ben Chikha’s particular approach of ‘using stereotypes as a thinking tool’ proved controversial for many, including myself (given his work’s heavy reliance on the re-performance of trauma), his work does prompt us to think about what the different possibilities for using the model of the Truth Commission might be, given similar yet differing unresolved colonial atrocities in the African diaspora.
Of course, time won’t allow for a comprehensive report on the many stimulating panels we had. ‘Musical legacies, archives and futures’; ‘Memory making in public space, archives and museums’; ‘African feminisms and its diasporas’; ‘Challenging epistemologies’; ‘Queer performance and embodied memory’; ‘Blackness, justice and temporalities of violence’; and ‘Black women’s redress and remembering in the African diaspora’ are only some of the topics covered.
The reading by Kei Miller on the first evening and his conversation with Prof. John McLeod were a treat and tied in beautifully with the conference themes.
The conference will lead to further activities geared at a direct impact on African diaspora communities in Britain and in Europe, through a partnership that explores the role of forms, genres and media in contemporary performative interventions in the African diaspora.
We are deeply thankful to the Institute for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies (ICPS), the Leeds Centre for African Studies (LUCAS), the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies (LCS) and the Leeds Humanities Research Institute (LHRI) for making this conference possible.