By now, you’ve probably seen the trippy black, yellow and pink posters featuring negatives of gorgeous Black people. They are advertisements for Africa Salon, a week of events featuring contemporary African artists and intellectuals. Africa Salon itself is the brainchild of Ifeanyi Awachie ’14, a Nigerian-American Yale alumna, as an attempt to “reclaim the narrative about Africa through engaging contemporary African artists.”
In light of the controversies on campus last semester, the phrases “diversity,” “ethnic studies” and “racial tensions” bring on the same exasperation and weariness that a mention of Donald Trump does. Opening your mouth, posting a thought or even sharing an article is political, which before might have been recreational.
But like it or not, conversations about differences and identities — racial or otherwise — are a part of our “global” education. So where’s the middle ground?
I think we can find it through art.
For years artists of color have build their careers around putting their voices on paper, images, poetry, paintings, photographs, videos and music. In this tense, highly political environment, it’s hard to maintain the spontaneous, breezy cultural exchanges through which learning happens.
So far, I’ve attended two events which have been transformative. The mo(ve)ments reception was unlike anything I’ve experienced at Yale. Immersed in fine wine, music, fantastic and stunning photos, I had the opportunity to be in the presence of, and converse with the artists that produced the work I was enjoying.
Helen Harris from Namibia lamented the fact that it took a Western institution like Yale to bring African artists together. “We look to the West for inspiration constantly, and it’s sad that I must travel to the West to meet other contemporary artists.”
2ManySiblings, a Kenyan duo comprised of Velma Rossa and Papa Petit, said of their connection to their communities, “We have an obligation to make art that is honest.” Rossa spoke about the challenges of navigating a social media presence as an introvert. I can find nothing remotely inauthentic in examining their gorgeous, sociologically complex photos.
But Africa Salon is far from over yet; several not-to-be-missed events remain. Saturday’s interactive fashion show will feature various professional models on campus. Audience members will split into groups and stand as the models perform, showcasing the designs of Zimbabwe-born, cutting-edge designer House of Chihera. These designs blend contemporary African style with bold, classic, striking looks.
Immediately after the fashion show, the African Dance troupe Dzana will perform, prefiguring the afterparty at Harvest later that night. If you’ve never experienced the company, dancing and music of African students and professionals blended with the beats of famed DJ Kash, you haven’t partied at Yale.
The next day will include a brunch “darty” (or maybe a hangover cure?) at the Af-Am House and a staged reading at Battell Chapel, “In Continuum.” The reading will feature Director Risë Nelson of the Afro-American Cultural Center, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway and the viral and hilarious Hannah Giorgis. Now a well-known BuzzFeed contributor, she created the viral and necessary listicle “27 Facebook Life Events Every Black Girl Should Brag About;” items in the list range from “staying in your lane” to “narrowly escaped public ashiness.” Needless to say, she is expected to provide an interesting, light-hearted and entertaining perspective on Black life at Yale.
“In Continuum” will also include a reading of a contemporary play by FOLKS, a thespian group of Black artists at the Yale School of Drama aiming to create and cultivate a legacy of Black solidarity there. Later that night Thomas Mapfumo, known as “The Lion of Zimbabwe” for his ferocious talent and political activism, will give a concert at College Street Music Hall, made free by donors. He will be accompanied by the Ghanaian-American hip-hop and visual artist Blitz the Ambassador whose unique sound combines rap and afrobeats. Also featured will be Wambura Mitaru, who uses a blend of soul and traditional African sounds to create far-reaching pop music reminiscent of Angelique Kidjo. A student body that turned out in record numbers for President Peter Salovey’s bluegrass appearance at Toad’s will certainly find something to enjoy here.
So many Yalies make sure they can adroitly reference Alfred Hitchcock or Wes Anderson, but most of them know nothing about the founder of African cinema. The Tuesday screening exploring this legendary man, Ousmane Sembene, was sparsely attended, and I have no doubt why: we are uncomfortable expanding the boundaries by which we define our intellectualism. It’s easier to rely on the things that have always been termed “classics.” But by continuing to let our ideas be defined by the limited perspectives of those who built this University, we are missing out on the worth of modern Black voices and Black artists.
Even when political tensions seem overwhelming, we can explore our differences by getting together and collectively enjoying art. Art appreciation is often seen as, but doesn’t have to involve, wandering around a gallery in silent meditation about the greatness of the Western tradition, or musing on the angst of old white men. Art is now on Instagram, in pop songs, in film, in philosophy.
Africa Salon provides a window into one of the largest and most underrated influences in modern art — that of the continent, cultures and peoples of Africa. At the same times, it will help viewers resist the habit of making generalizations about African experience or art. Recently someone in my seminar referred to an “African friend” who provided an “African perspective” on a topic. This is just one example of the unfortunate tendency to reduce the planet’s second-largest, second-most-populous continent to the views of a single student, as if all of African experience could be summed up through one person’s “perspective.” Fortunately, it’s no longer acceptable to reference one’s “Asian/Queer/Native/Black/Trans” friend anymore; Africa Salon will help expand that ban to include the term “my African friend.”
So sit back and make sure you attend this week’s (free!) events. Do yourself a favor and talk to people who have traveled here this week from the continent. They are the living, breathing dynamic people that are not preaching post-colonialism but living it. Africa is not safaris, not the backdrop to a Taylor Swift video, not a purveyor of poverty porn or Facebook profile pictures from mission trips. “Africa is not gonna be the future,” proclaimed Rossa of 2ManySiblings at a reception Tuesday night. “Africa is the future, and it always has been.”