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“My soul has grown deep like the rivers”

CURATORS’ CHOICE: BLACK LIFE MATTERS – Exhibition in The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Harlem, New York – A Conversation

by Mariam Popal


I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

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My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
(Langston Hughes)

In 2015 THE SCHOMBURG CENTER FOR RESEARCH IN BLACK CULTURE celebrated its 90th anniversary.

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On the floor right at the entrance hall of the Schomburg Center is a dark crimson cosmogram with blue streams that depict rivers. The cosmogram is named Rivers after a poem of Langston Hughes (1902-1967). Inscribed in its center is a line of this poem: My soul has grown deep like the rivers. Interred here are the ashes of Langston Hughes one of the United States and African Diaspora’s  most important modern poets and central figure of the Harlem Renaissance.

During my research stay in NY I was drawn to an exhibition that had been organized by the Schomburg Center itself:

Curators’ Choice: Black Life Matters – the exhibition took place from February 2nd to August 15th.

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It featured different angles of Black lives and creativity out of a vast repertoire of collection materials of the Schomburg Center from documentary films to children’s books, to hand written letters, audio recordings and LPs to photographs and lithographs.

The diverse and rich assemblage of archival material that were shown in this exhibition have been impressing. They seemed to track the paths of a multi-layered heterogenous Black America to which the US owes its (cultural) (de-hegemonic) allure worldwide. To say it with Langston Hughes words: I too, am America.


Pic 5It is the history of suffering and the spirit for political movements and thinking but also of everyday poetics and arts across different inter-artistic expressions. The material also represents thinking along future horizons that have touched and politically influenced and inspired people on a global scale, only sometimes and far too less acknowledged and remembered yet worldwide.

This in fact is one of the core foci of the Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies, to bring African and African Diasporic archives across disciplines and arts into the focus of artistic and academic pursuits and to begin here the search for future narratives.

Perhaps it is not unjustified to describe this history as the path of the soul of American understandings of and for ‘freedom’ and as humanities (living archives of) world heritages for what (post-) humanism could be and could mean. Texts of African as well as African American and African Diasporic theory, arts, political movements and activism used to be and still are part and parcel of critical postcolonial thinking and struggles in the rest of the world (Stuart Hall) as well. African and African American cultures and thinking still influence the composition of the world-texts be they written or otherwise real. This is also true for the far reaching digital Black civil rights movement #BlackLivesMatter that Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the director of The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture describes as follows:

“Form billboards to T-shirts, protest banners and news headlines — all emblazoned with the words #BlackLivesMatter – we are witnessing the makings of a social movement of the 21st-century . {…} #BlackLivesMatter has reinvigorated the youth-led activism of 50 years ago. Young people again are shaping a movement in their own image, although this time it is far more democratic, transparent, and inclusive. This time the racial justice movement is about human rights and civil rights. This time change is in the cities as well as in the suburbs. And this time ‘the revolution will be live’ on Twitter.” (African Heritage – Spring/Summer 2015/Vol. 15, No. 3)

The exhibition Curators Choice: Black Life Matters, understands itself as a work along the self-understanding of the Schomburg Center as well as the social media movement #BlackLivesMatter.

It is in this sense that it strived to shed light on the diverse aspects of Black lives. The exhibition has been one of the first exhibitions of many to follow organized by the center itself. It was curated by a team of five in-house curators who through their choices out of a prolific collection of material, assembled and presented different facets of black life, art and thinking with five exhibition-arrays around distinct topics:

(Photographs and Prints Division)
Richard Sounders. A bit of life

(Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division)
Evidence of Things Un*Seen

(Jean Blackwell Hudson Research and Reference)
Telling the Stories of the Black Experience to Children

(Art and Artifacts Division)
Digging in the Vault

(Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division)
Letters Written by Black Gays and Lesbians



Pic 6I had luckily the chance to meet MAIRA LIRIANO and SHOLA LYNCH
by chance and dared to ask them for an interview that developed into the following talk:
– with special thanks! to Dilan Zoe Smida for the transcription of the interview –

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Once again thank you very much for making this interview possible. The exhibition is very impressive. Will it travel? You mentioned that the Schomburg Center hosts exhibitions? I am really grateful for this interview. Part of what is taking place now at the Schomburg Center will travel with me now digitally. That will  give a lot more people the possibility to access your work. It is so important for thinking our pasts, presents as well as the future through and with these  archives.

Both Shola and I have been here exactly two years. Our anniversary must be today or something. So we are sort of new to the Schomburg. Of course we have heard of what has been done in the past. So my sense of it is that especially in more recent years we have been hosting exhibitions. Some of them are traveling exhibitions and sometimes they may be someone that we collaborate with and then they come and do an exhibition here, like we did a show on Motown. And the Motown Museum in Detroit was our collaborator. So, the majority of the items that were displayed was from that museum and then we incorporated a few things from our collection.
It has been a  long time since the Schomburg had an exhibition that was just from the collections. So we have been long overdue to have something like this.

Part of what we like doing here is to connect with what is going on in the culture and #Blacklivesmatter felt very immanent. We want to be in conversation with that. The exhibition went out faster than I think normal. It wasn’t planned for three years. In that planning there is often an opportunity for traveling and to make those kinds of associations. What we did discover is that we like it. And the Schomburg wants to return to having exhibitions that are from our material.

It is a vast repertoire that surely invites for so many possibilities…

Yes, and all that visions that were collected over decades….

You mentioned that you were inspired by the social media movement #Blacklivesmatter. Can you tell me more about how this connects to your work? How far  were you inspired by it and decided on making such an exhibition, parallel to what was going on?

I mean it was happening simultaneously. At the time that we were planning to make this exhibition it was almost exactly parallel to the movement. And the mission of the Schomburg Center really is – the fact of it’s very existence is that Black life matters and this is why this library was founded. So it kind of goes back to our core values and our mission. When we were planning to showcase items from the collection and each curator would be charged with selecting from the collection of their division, it was sort of an obvious thing  to use the slogan #Blacklivesmatter. Because of it is sort of what we do.

First, it is called Curator’s Choice: Black Life Matters. And I think that it is really important and constructive that each of the curators took that and interpreted their collections through that lens. And Black life matters is, as Maira is saying, foundational to the SBC.
I mean it is not even a question for us. It began with Arturo Schomburg. In the teens and twenties and before collecting what he calls „vindicating evidences of Black history and culture globally throughout the diaspora’. And his single vision has become the center. Which is incredible, it is absolute incredible, and the 90th anniversary of the collection, is happening this year. I think for all of us  #Blacklivesmatter – the movement is a protest movement. Black life Matters is a lens that sees the diversity of our voices, our intellect,  our art,  history. And each curator took their division’s materials and thought about that through that lens. So for Maira it was children’s books, like who knew that we had this voice. And for me it was about showing that we actually have had voice, literally. Through the recordings …

…which are also some kind of oral history and so important to remember and listen to…

Absolutely! …and also through film. There are alternate views of ourselves. We’re just waiting for people to come in {laughing} and discover and be guided by their curiosity, to explore and remember that we are a lot more than the stereotype.

As there is no specific way of ‘being’. ‘Being’ Black or ‘being’ of Color…

Absolutely, there’s always been the articulation of our voice and the diversity of those voices and that is what we collect in various formats.

As Shola was saying when we decided to use the #Blacklivesmatter and than taking that and almost spinning (but spinning often has this negative connotation) that to sort of saying BlacknLife Matters and taking that idea and showing the diversity.
Because for instance the collection that I oversee is the one that people consider as one of the more general collections, so it’s the books and newspapers and the periodicals and information of all kinds of articles and information that is helpful to people whether you are a young student or a scholar and all kinds of ranges of readers and users so the collection is quite large.

It’s enormous.

It’s hundreds of thousands of items.

That would also be a question. How did you select specific items?

Pic 8MAIRA: In thinking about this, especially in thinking about this in terms of an exhibition, for me mostly I have a lot of books with a lot of text. And for an exhibition that is not necessarily the easiest thing to display. So, you kind of immediately tend it towards  the more visually appealing. Children’s books is something that  came up as such as an idea. But even more importantly, just a few months before we were charged with coming up with this exhibition I had read a piece in the New York Times by Walter Dean Myers who is, or was because he passed away, one of the most famous children’s book writers living – was alive then – and a very prolific writer. He was in his 70s when he died, he had published over a hundred children’s books, had served as the Library of Congress’s Ambassador of children’s literature. And in thPic 9at role he wrote this opinion piece in March 2014 in The New York Times:  “Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”. He is African American and grew up in Harlem, originally from West Virginia. What he was responding to,  was a study that had been released about the poor state of publishing for Black children in Black themes.
One question that this  organization tracks is the publishing of children’s books and one of the areas they look at is  publishing by People of Color and more specifically African Americans.  So in their latest study at that time they said, out of 3200 children’s books published that year only 93 had Black themes and out of those only 63 were actually produced by a Black creator so either a Black writer or a Black illustrator and that is under 3% of what was published and African Americans is close to 15% of the population.

Pic 10So this one thread, thinking about children’s books being an important topic to display but then also of looking at this issue of what is happening in publishing today and what can be done and in that opinion piece Walter Dean Myers wrote, he basically ends it by saying there is work to be done and he is kind of asking people to take up this issue and to find ways to increase the publishing of children’s books for Black children.
So I said I’m going to take up this call for action and my exhibition will be about that. And then he ended up passing away a few months after he wrote that piece and so at the same time I said it would be a nice way to honor him.  So part of the exhibition was about Walter Dean Myers, his career and  legacy. And from there I took what he was able to do during  his career and then parallel that with his contemporaries. And so I looked at children’s books publishing during the same time that he was also publishing. And he was also very critical – in the late 60s – how also at that time there is very little publishing for Black children. And he was the beginning of an awareness and a movement that tried to bring in more PoC into children’s book publishing.
And so he won an award in 1968 to publish his first book. And from then, from there he managed to have a very successful career with challenges along the way. So it was interesting to learn about his journey and his struggles. You think you make progress but we’re kind of back to where he was. Maybe not as drastic to an extent as it was in the late 60s. But you know you make progress but you have to keep writing because you kind of slip back.

This is what I thought when I went through the exhibition. Linking the past and the present and the future to each other and children’s books are a sight of empowerment, a sight of agency, a beginning of going into the text and finding one’e way. Something that is often forgotten: To give children the possibility to connect to texts and a world to come, to build on something in a many perspectival way.

Pic 11.jpgAnd one of the lines in that opinion piece that he wrote, was that books that he wished had been available  to him as he was growing up. And that was always in the back of his mind as he produced.  And he was a very gifted writer. He could have chosen to go down a different path he could have chosen to write for adults and instead he was committed to write for children and young adults. And he became very well known for doing that and not just writing for African American kids but really for all children.

This is also another point. There is the necessity to work for one’s community and to link the past of the Pic 12BlackCivilRightsMovement in the US and there is also a greater third world-ism  (in a positive, empowering sense – although I am not sure, is there still?) that connects maybe all these not only but also ‘decolonial’ thinking, movements together and there is an urge to say that it is not about ‘us’ a construction anyway that is historically driven, but it is about all ‘humanity’ and the planet, an understanding of past and present for an other future so to speak. Wouldn’t you think? For example if you think about the texts or songs that are written…

Oh yes, there is a universal aspect to human emotion. And if you are anybody with the littlest bit of empathy you can enjoy a song that is not from your culture, you can enjoy a book that is not exactly from your culture. {laughing} And you can even link to it.
And as PoC we are practiced to live in this period because we live in a majority world where we are – I don’t like the word minority – other. But that is not always the same in reverse and that is where some of the challenges are.
But the world we live in, we are not other {laughing} – we are it. That is so great about places and institutions like the Schomburg Center, is it is a space where we are not other we are center stage. Nobody’s gonna say, well, maybe there are too many PoC in this exhibition. {laughing} Really! I mean there are other issues, certainly. I mean I feel spoiled. {laughing}

Yet it is still far too less, niches. When I came to see the Schomburg Center in the middle of Harlem.: I thought Wow!
And on the other hand when you compare it to all the other institutions in New York, the US, Manhattan, it is rather small and it may not be supported financially so ideally – but that would actually also be a question. Is that the case, and is it probably also due to an overall cutback?
I have visited for example the Folger’s Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. and you can guess that there are a lot of possibilities from a material/financial point of view. The question seems to be what really matters and who is responsible for that maybe –  in these times, what about the state?

I think we are kind of fortunate in many respects. There is always the need for more money and there have been huge cutbacks when it comes to libraries nationwide. That is being rectified to a certain degree with changes in budgets this year, the NYPL as a whole is beating  to get back to its pre-cut back level in terms of budget. The Schomburg Center is part of the NYPL we’re one of three main research branches, so one of the crown jewels but we are not a private institution. We rely on donations. Financial donations but also materials. These collections would not have been possible, we would not have been able to become what many researchers called The Black Library of Congress – I love the term – the magnitude of that -without people offering their collections for safekeeping here and I think we’re taking this very seriously here. {laughing} It has its challenges but we take it seriously.


Pic 13MAIRA: The history of the Schomburg Center and its support financially has been an uphill struggle almost from the very beginning. The fact that it was created was sort of a kind of a golden moment in the twenties when it was recognized that a collection was needed in Harlem because of the Blacks that were living here at the time and their desire to learn about their history and to create and to have access to information that the library just was not supplying. And so that was when the Schomburg collection was purchased with the help of the Carnegie foundation. But after that for many, many decades the Schomburg had struggled and was definitely able to survive from the commitment of the people who were working here as well as  the fact that many great collections came into the Schomburg as donations as opposed to purchasing.

This is also so important for the Schomburg Center in terms of being part of the community around it and not just an intellectual and scholarly institution for an elitist minority?…

…the local community, the national community, the global community…

Maybe we can come back to your exhibitions and your parts. And maybe you can tell me how you got to this very impressive title that you gave to your part of the exhibition, Shola?
Pic 14SHOLA: The Evidence of Things Un*seen? Well, I meant it in various ways. I meant that collections and libraries are kept and cared for but they are unseen and also the fact that LPs and films are considered commercial items you don’t immediately think of it as art or rare. But over time they really do become rare and they also are part of cultural moments and they are important artifacts for learning about a person or a moment in time. Pic 15And so that’s what I meant by The Evidence of Things Un*seen. Also, much of the exhibition is audio, so you are not seeing it, you’re hearing it. And the importance of voice. Metaphorically to give voice to a group of people but also, you know, when you read a book by James Baldwin, Walter Dean Myers or Maya Angelou or somebody and you have their voice also, it gives you another dimension and it adds to your historical family and your foundation and your sense of self in a way that I think is important and also film does that as well with movement. When you see how somebody moves they become part of your historical family and that is the thing that has been robbed of us through slavery, colonization and those kinds of economic situations. And so a place like the Schomburg helps restore that through the artifacts.


Although it has also always been probably part of the  struggles for freedom, the audible, the oral and so on. And everything that can be transported by a voice.
Pic 15SHOLA: Yes, and also even the diversity. Let’s say Martin Luther King. Everything we hear about him is I have a dream, I have a dream. Do you know how many speeches he gave and talks he gave? So even the LP that we chose – the title is Remain Awake through the Great Revolution – Remain awake, remain awake! And so even in that  title you can recognize his activism and he is not a passive, dreaming person  {laughing}. So even it is how we re-shift our lens on how we see people that we think we know. Because we don’t, always.




I have always the feeling that – and this is something I also come across  in Germany – that figures like Martin Luther King and Malcom X are played out against each other on an intellectual and political, discursive level. There is the good one and there is the bad one, so to speak. And I am very fond of Malcom X’s speeches and his brilliant analytical strength and he was so young, and so young when he died. I am actually working on a small book on him. I can’t see him as a ‘radical’ , violent thinker, or to say it another way, one has to relate his speeches within a specific, very violent context and moment in the US-history. There is so much power in what he says. And he is very critical of the things going on in the political structures of the historical moment in which he lived.

And I also have the feeling now in Pic 17NY that there is not much space for Malcom X. Martin Luther King is rather remembered, but Malcom X is not really. I felt happy to see the mosaic imprints of the metro-station with his image and an Avenue in Harlem that is named after him. And you have here a huge amount of material about him. I am lucky to have purchased some books with his speeches. But what is this, what seems to be a marginalizing? I don’t know whether it has something to do with his religion? I am ‘originally’ from Afghanistan which was of course also very much connected with anti-colonial struggles all over the world and also with Black movements. And Malcom X was, is,  a very known figure there as well, like Mohammed Ali and of course also Martin Luther King or Patrice Lumumba for example. What would you think, am I wrong with this impression?

I think in the Black community Malcom X is still very much relevant and some might even argue that he is sort of more important than Martin Luther King. I mean I think people in the Black community, I think reference him more, they quote him more, they see what is happening today as something that Malcom X had been talking about. And they can still see that his words in some ways bring more truth. I think within the broader American community they try to dismiss Malcom X. I think that especially for white Americans he is still seen as being…

SHOLA: scary! {laughing}

Yah, controversial and confrontational. It is this kind of passed down fear that is not based on anything real because, like you say, if you actually read Malcom X, his writing and you hear him, it’s a very different kind of message. I mean obviously there were some things where he was being more passionate about. He does say certain things. But if we look at the full scope of what he was saying it is a very different message than what a lot of Americans think it is today.

I can only really think of legacy and he has been less  coopted as a brand. Martin Luther Pic 18King has become a brand. He’s been homorgized. He has been turned into something other than what he was. I mean, we don’t even see his activism {laughing}. I think that is particularly damaging. I think for a lot of young PoC that’s how they view Martin Luther King, they may or may not know Malcom X until they’re taught otherwise. Which again brings us back to the collections that are here and why they’re important and why we exist because then it’s discoverable. So for each person when they’re in highschool or gradeschool or college or whenever it is you have the great awakening {laughing} – right?! We all had it. We were like: WoW. We had no idea, this is Black history and culture?! This is what I am part of?! And it’s amazing. I only wish we could do it faster, better, so that there wasn’t a great awakening. So that it’s just part of what we learnt as all Americans. But that’s not where we are. So until that time we are collecting, preserving and promoting {laughing}.

MAIRA: …promoting…

SHOLA:…and promoting…

You also made something else very interesting. It is not only the audible that you bring into the exhibition. But also something that is rarely looked at. You took up the covers of LPs which is so much  marginalized,  isn’t it, even as art, as a piece of  history? Like children books, usually you have othered spaces, specific spaces for such kind of material that may not be connoted as ‘intellectual’ enough apparently, or too ‘everyday’, assumingly too much at your disposal and yet – actually because of that so important, so meaningful. And you have taken  them and arranged them as artifacts and pieces of art and history. Maybe you can say a bit more about the selection process?


{all laughing}

Pic 19SHOLA: We have 25 000 records  and it’s an impossible task and they said you have this much space. So literally, through the lens of a curators choice, I went through the albums looking to see what artwork, what graphics, which of the images spoke to me through the lens of #Blacklivesmatter. Because I think, and I said this earlier, we think of it as a protest, the current movement. But it is not a protest that there is actually points of view and voice that has been articulated decade after decade and it shows some sense of Black history through those voices.
And the LP is a great format because of the size and because of the artwork. By putting it in a frame it asks you to reconsider it as art as an important reflection of a cultural moment.
MAIRA: And like Shola I also struggled because we probably have more than 10.Pic 20000 children’s books. You know, luckily I gave myself the period that I wanted to do Walter Dean Myers and his contemporaries, so that helped a little bit. It’s a lot of material to have to consider but for me it was also selecting artists, writers and illustrators that were noted in the times that they were publishing, so to make it easier for myself I did choose books that were, won some kind of awards or were honored in some way or were popular. So that helped a little bit. Not every single book in the exhibition was an award winning book but I definitely considered the writers and illustrators who were sort of recognized throughout their career. I also chose some well-known writers that maybe are not people that write for children or exclusively write for children.

I was so surprised by bell hooks…

Yes, so actually there were many examples.

…and she is so important in her form of thinking agency, thinking the everyday, thinking the future…

…and it’s also just a reminder that you don’t have to exclusively – if you write for children it’s not like that is the path you chose, you can be a writer of any kind and then decide to write a children’s book.
Not that everybody who writes can write a children’s book but it’s nice that people can at least see, if you’re a good writer that you can explore that. Like we have Edwidge Danticat. One of the first books I had in the exhibition was her first children’s book and it was a story about the earthquake in Haiti. And she wrote it because she has two young daughters and right after the earthquake she was trying to find a way to tell the story of this horrific event to her young children and she decided that would be a struggle that many people would have and so she wrote in just a few weeks after the earthquake, she wrote this manuscript. And then one of the publishers decided that they wanted to publish it within a year. So you have someone like her who had not written for children before really, maybe for young adults but not children and she took that up and now she is actually starting to publish a little bit more for children. So just finding the mix of stories. Some of them are based on historical events, some of them are just fun children’s stories, silly stories, some of them are more serious. And there are a lot of biographies.

…and it is so wonderful that it can be arranged within different topics. It is not reduced to something specifically…

…and that can be from contemporary period to 200 years ago.

I think that is one of the things that comes out of the way we curated the shPic 16ow. Because if you go to Barnes & Nobel or a bookstore and you see what’s been published now, because they don’t have all of these. When I go to a bookstore with my kids they don’t have that range you don’t get that sense. So again that’s why the Schomburg is important for the collecting. You get a very narrow view, a very kind of protest view that children are not always attracted to {laughing} because they have imagination and sometimes the books about us limit our sense of  imagination about ourselves – which we are not interested in. We are interested in the opposite. So I think that was one of the best things about it, the range of material that children can be attracted to

….and it makes one feel free when you have space to think and to consider and to choose, and to look…

Right, that Black life matters…

…that’s a wonderful sentence, lets take it as our last.
For more information about the exhibition please visit Curators-choice-Black-life-matters



Fiction, facts, fantasy. Here’s a visual route, an installation, instagramm-gallery, ad? Whatever “abdoudiouf1993 ” is: both ‘Future’ and ‘Africa’ are concepts widely used here.

And a lot of both are present in the comments below. Like:

Catherine Hester

“He claims to have paid thousands of euros for a place on a boat?” and used his own instagram account to record the journey. He’s obviously doing better than the indigenous born people like myself who worked damn hard for years for minimum wage in this British hellhole, and were robbed of thousands of pounds in taxation to fund the welfare state freeloaders benefits kitty. I don’t have any savings, let alone be able to afford to pay thousands to travel over to Africa. I rest my case.
Like · Reply · 9 · 3 hrs
Lauren Conway

You could save up if you were desperate and willing to live way below poverty levels as this man has.
Like · Reply · 1 · 2 hrs
Catherine Hester

Lauren Conway Why would you want to live way below poverty levels and what was he living off of while he was saving up his money to illegally travel?
Like · Reply · 1 · 1 hr
Hassan El Forkani ·

in Africa, they take loans for that trip, and the family is the garantee in case they die, they pay back, once in europe, with a job, they have to pay back, not oly the loan, but also the community who supported them. as for his motivation, what can i say, visit African city slums and poor neighbourhoods and you will understand instantly”

blogging on hope/optimism

re-blogged from m&g/voices of africa

No child dreams of being a domestic worker when they grow up

I’m an optimist.

I have hope. If there’s an opportunity to look at something humorously, I’ll take it. That’s why I wrote “16 Things Black People Wish They Could Explain to Their White Friends”. It’s good not to take ourselves too seriously.

But every optimist needs to cross over to the dark side now and again. Every optimist needs to stop and realise that, “Whoa! The world is really, really messed up!” Every optimist needs to turn off the Kardashians and get a dose of reality.

On a long-distance bus ride from Johannesburg to Bulawayo I eavesdropped on a conversation between two women sitting behind me. Both of them were well-dressed black women. They were gossiping about some of the other passengers, talking about their families and work.

One of them was a domestic worker. She spoke fondly about the little white babies who called her Mama and her white “Mrs” who loved pap. And how the little boy who adored her interrogated her about who she was: “Are you my aunt? No, you can’t be my aunt because you’re black!”

I chuckled inwardly.

And then reality struck: this forty-something-year-old woman sitting behind me was a domestic worker. She probably didn’t finish high school. She never went to university or had the opportunity to choose a career. She spends most of her days with little ones who call her “Mama” but aren’t her children. Hers are somewhere in Zimbabwe, being raised by a grandmother or aunt.

She’ll endure hours at the border, as they search she’ll pray that they don’t look too deeply for the stuff she didn’t declare. Back at home the children will be waiting. Her oldest girl will have supper ready for the family, and her little boy will be in for a scolding because he got into a fight at school. She’ll check their reports, help them say their evening prayers, take a quick bath and collapse into bed. Exhausted. At the end of the weekend she’ll hug them goodbye and say hello to her other children.

No child dreams of being a domestic worker when they grow up. Or a car guard. Or a waiter at Spur. Little girls dream of being doctors and pilots and social workers. Little boys want to be lawyers and musicians and engineers. Most parents can’t afford to take their children to ‘O’ Level and if they can, they’re educated children will enter a market where their education is worth nothing and they’re forced to do what’s available.

They may never pursue a diploma or degree or even technical training. The pilot will be a car guard; the engineer a cleaner; and the doctor a domestic worker. Their dreams will be extinguished by the harsh reality of a poor education system and economic inequality.

I’m still an optimist.

Because there is dignity in all work. The idea of ‘menial’ jobs is false because all work is worthy of respect. My grandmother and that woman on the bus, the people you call your ‘sisi’ or ‘Mama’- they do important work. And the fact that their careers were constrained by their circumstances doesn’t change the fact that their work matters.

I still have hope.

Because there is a man in Soshanguve who was born into poverty. So poor that he couldn’t stay in school and became a gardener instead. That same man worked at his job and raised enough money to finish school, study towards a Bachelor of Arts, his Masters and finally his PhD. Read Fannie Sebolela’s story.

Crazy, right?

Not if you’re an optimist. Not if you have hope.

Zola Ndlovu is a blogger whose aim is to encourage women with her writing. She blogs at

Wow: Lecture by Prof. Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Columbia University)

What a great opening the ALA –  and a focus on the beauty of an ongoing conversation. Last week, we discussed Sarkozy’s speech held in Dakar in 2007. It also came up again in this lecture, termed “”On Prospective: Development and a Political Culture of Time”. Professor Souleyman Bachir Diagne opened the floor by saying “Time is one of my obsessions – used to be” . In a concise lecture of only 45 minutes he said it all : “We do not need to have the Afro-pessimistic implication of African time. We don’t need Afro-optimism either. We just need Afro-responsibility at any time.” Prof Diagne unfolded his argument by providing a critique of Prof. John Mbiti’s  ‘ethnologized’ contribution on African time concepts and contrasting it with Prof Gaston Berger. By the swift and radically true sentence “It took trains to unify time”, Prof Diagne wrapped up his argument that there’s no need to assumingly contrast ‘mono-chronic’ and ‘poly-chronic’ cultures, but to take a close look at a “political culture of time”. On the question of fundamentalism, Prof Diagne had the following to say ‘you don’t only hate time and ‘the past’ but humanity’.   xxx   Discuss, colleagues!

ACADEMY: The Housing System


Call for Applications

Einsendeschluss: 1. Juni 2015

Die Wohnungsfrage ist universell. In verschiedener Hinsicht und an unterschiedlichen Orten thematisiert sie die unmittelbaren Herausforderungen, die unsere Zeit definieren: soziale Ungleichheit, ökologische Krise, Vertreibung, Flucht, Migration, Privatisierung und mehr. Vor diesem Hintergrund möchte das Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) die Wohnungsfrage im Sinne eines globalen „Housing Systems“ neu denken. In den anderthalb Jahrhunderten seit dem Erscheinen der Artikelreihe von Friedrich Engels „Zur Wohnungsfrage“ hat sich diese Frage zu einem globalen System entwickelt. Dieses System bildet den theoretischen und praktischen Ansatz der Wohnungsfrage-Akademie unter der Leitung von Reinhold Martin (Buell Center, Columbia University) in Zusammenarbeit mit Nikolaus Hirsch (Co-Kurator des HKW-Projekts Wohnungsfrage). Die einwöchige Akademie bringt Wissenschaftler*innen, Praktiker*innen, Künstler*innen und andere Expert*innen aus unterschiedlichen Bereichen und Disziplinen zusammen und ermöglicht so eine interdisziplinäre Untersuchung dieses Systems.

Das HKW-Projekt Wohnungsfrage initiiert neue Formen transdisziplinärer Diskurse und Forschungen und bildet den Rahmen für die Akademie. Es untersucht die Beziehung zwischen Architektur, Wohnungsbau und gesellschaftlicher Realität. In einer Ausstellung experimenteller Wohnungsformate, einer Publikationsreihe, einem diskursiven öffentlichen Programm und der internationalen Wohnungsfrage-Akademie will das Projekt einen Diskurs über sozialen, bezahlbaren und selbstbestimmten Wohnungsbau anregen. Das Wohnungsfrage-Programm, kuratiert von Jesko Fezer, Nikolaus Hirsch, Wilfried Kuehn und Hila Peleg, zielt darauf ab, einen gemeinschaftlichen Prozess zwischen internationalen und lokalen Akteuren aus Architektur, Stadtplanung, Politik, Kunst, Wissenschaft und Aktivismus anzuregen.

Der Begriff „Housing System“ beschreibt ein Feld transnationaler Beziehungen, ein Netz von Interaktionen, die sich nicht auf offizielle Stadtplanung, architektonische Typologien oder Marktmechanismen reduzieren lassen. Er bezieht sich auch nicht auf unspezifische „globale“ Verknüpfungen. Vielmehr handelt es sich um ein höchst spezifisches Zusammenspiel von Gesetzen, Politik, Investitionen, Aktivitäten, Objekten, Vorschlägen, Praktiken und Vorstellungen, zusammengehalten und zugleich voneinander getrennt durch technologische, finanzielle, soziale, institutionelle und räumliche Infrastrukturen.

Die Akademie hat drei grundlegende Ziele: erstens, den Teilnehmer*innen die analytischen Instrumente für das Verständnis des Housing Systems zur Verfügung zu stellen, um es überall und in jedem seiner Einzelteile erkennen zu können – in einem einzelnen Häuserblock, einem einzelnen Gebäude oder einem einzelnen Zimmer. Ausgangspunkt ist, zu lernen, unterschiedliche Subsysteme zu lesen und sich mit ihren Komplexitäten auseinanderzusetzen. Das zweite Ziel ist, spezifische Hegemonien und die Funktionsweisen von Macht und Ausbeutung, Ungleichheit und Ausgrenzung, die das System formen, zu identifizieren. Drittens soll eine Diskussion um Alternativen angeregt werden – und Möglichkeiten, diese kritisch zu reflektieren. Auf Basis dieser Erkenntnisse sollen Handlungsmöglichkeiten ausgelotet werden. Gemeinsam mit sechzehn Tutor*innen werden sechzig Akademieteilnehmer*innen eine Reihe von internationalen Beispielen aus dem Housing System im Detail untersuchen. Sie werden dieses Material in unterschiedlichen Formaten und Konstellationen interpretieren, analysieren und ergänzen. Dabei werden sie Fakten herausarbeiten und Werte vergleichen, Geschichte erzählen, Annahmen diskutieren, Hypothesen überprüfen und Strategien skizzieren.

Ein Atlas mit Text- und Bildinformationen über Geschichte und Gegenwart des Wohnungsbaus wird vor Beginn der Akademie zur Verfügung gestellt, ebenso ein Lehrplan und eine Literaturliste mit von den Tutoren*innen und Organisatoren*innen ausgewählten Texten. Die Akademiesitzungen werden in zwei Teile unterteilt. Vormittags werden die Tutor*innen das Material in Form von Dialogen mit weiteren Tutor*innen behandeln. Nachmittags erörtern die Teilnehmer*innen Material aus dem Atlas thematisch, überprüfen und hinterfragen die von den Tutor*innen angeregten Themenkomplexe, Interpretationen und Methoden. Im Rahmen der Academy werden die Studierenden an der Ausstellung beteiligte lokale Initiativen und andere Orte besuchen, die beispielhaft für das Housing System stehen.

Tutor*innen sind u.a.:
Daria Bocharnikova (Harvard University, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies; Cambridge, MA), Mariana Fix (Unicamp, Instituto de Economia, Centro de Estudos de Desenvolvimento Econômico – CEDE; Campinas, Brasilien), Andrew Herscher (University of Michigan, Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning), Sandi Hilal (DAAR – Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency; Beit Sahour, Palestina), Anne Kockelkorn (ETH Zürich, Institut für Geschichte und Theorie der Architektur), Philipp Misselwitz (Technische Universität Berlin, Department of Architecture, Habitat Unit), Andrea Phillips (Goldsmiths – University of London, Department of Art), Susanne Schindler (Columbia University, Buell Center; New York) und AbdouMaliq Simone (Max-Planck-Institut zur Erforschung multireligiöser und multiethnischer Gesellschaften; Göttingen / Goldsmiths – University of London)

Der Call wendet sich an Doktorand*innen (oder äquivalent), Master-Studierende und Postdocs aus einem breiten disziplinären Spektrum. Des Weiteren sind Praktiker*innen mit professioneller Expertise in den Bereichen Städtebau und Stadtentwicklung eingeladen sich zu bewerben, ebenso wie Forscher*innen und Akteur*innen außerhalb des akademischen Feldes, zum Beispiel aus zivilgesellschaftlichen Initiativen, den Künsten und der Politik.

Einsendeschluss für die Bewerbungen ist der 1. Juni 2015. Bewerbungen sollten einen Lebenslauf und eine Kurzbeschreibung Ihres Interesses am Housing System im Allgemeinen wie auch an der Akademie im Besonderen enthalten. Schicken Sie Ihre Bewerbung auf Englisch mit der Angabe einer Referenzperson an: .

Die Teilnahme ist kostenlos. Die Teilnehmer*innen sind selbst für die Finanzierung der Reisekosten verantwortlich. Für diejenigen, die keine andere Finanzierungsmöglichkeit haben, steht eine begrenzte Anzahl von Reisestipendien zur Verfügung. Bitte geben Sie in Ihrer Bewerbung eine kurze Begründung für benötigte Unterstützung an.

Für weitere Informationen wenden Sie sich bitte an:

City Writer 2015: Moses Serubiri.

We are happy to announce this year’s City Writer in Bayreuth: Moses Serubiri. In May and June, Moses Serubiri will write about Bayreuth, about life in Bayreuth – and bring new perspectives, new stories, unheard fictions, necessary comments. We are looking forward! Follow the activities on the City Writer’s blog and in the local paper.

official_portraitMOSES SERUBIRI

is an independent art writer, researcher, and curator. His interests lie in coloniality, language, and politics of urban space. He is published in magazines such as Chimurenga (South Africa), Kulturaustausch (Germany), and C& – Contemporary And (Germany). He holds a Higher Diploma in Software Engineering (2013), and graduated from the 5th CCA Lagos International Art School in Dakar, Senegal. His research and curatorial projects include ‘Life mu City’ (2014), a research project on urban language, currently in it’s 3rd volume, at the Goethe Zentrum Kampala; the biennial contemporary art festival, KLA ART – UNMAPPED (2014) looking at sociological studies on urban mapping and social classification in Ugandan cities; as a research intern for C& – Contemporary And, he explored African contemporary art on the international art scene. He is the second international city writer in Bayreuth, after Dr Tom Odhiambo’s stay in 2014.

The program is organized and funded by the Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies and coordinated by Katharina Fink (Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies, University of Bayreuth). The articles will be online at the city writer blog (www. and the web page of the Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies; German versions of his works will be in the local newspaper “Nordbayerischer Kurier”, as with each City Writer in Bayreuth.

Welcome, Summer Term.

Looking forward to Working Group E:

Future as Commodity and In(ter)vention: Narration, Knowledge and Technology

After the previous Working Groups investigated and discussed notions of temporality, space and nature in their relation to ‘Future/s’, this Working Group E will explore the idea of future as commodity in regard to narration as guided by the question: What is narrated when about the future by whom, how and why and how do these narrations commodify futures?

Narrations are trans-spaces that entangle the world throughout time and space. Being societal textures, narrations shape different forms of texts (be it fictional texts, ethnographic texts, sounds, visual languages, sets of images, codes and/or numbers) that rely on and feed into epistemologies. In fact, any narration relies on the interaction of ‘discourse’ (content) and ‘story’ (structure) and thus the entanglement of ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘how?’ In other words, the discourse (i.e. ‘what’) is communicated via chains of events, narrative texts, images, or cultural artifacts (i.e. the ‘how’)? When complementing the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ with time (‘when’), reason (‘why’) and subjectivity/agency (‘who’), narration turns out to be a commodifying performance.



Workshop in Thurnau

Workshop Summary
On 5-6 February, members of the Bayreuth Academy gathered for a retreat in Schloss Thurnau to intensively discuss over two days the state of current research projects, the concepts which underpin the project  ‘Future Africa: Visions in Time’ and the future of the Academy.  This workshop was organised by Peggy Piesche and Katharina Fink as a complement to and extension of the research workshop co-ordinated in Bayreuth in November 2014 by Annalisa Urbano and Christine Whyte.
Six members of the research staff presented their research projects and findings. The workshop launched with Mariam Popal’s (Sub-project 4) paper, ‘Space-time in/and the ‘Visual’ – (Internal) Sights and (Future) Horizons’. In this paper, which forms a small part of Mariam’s habilitation work, she drew out the parallels between scientific and literary understanding of space-time. Building on the work of physicists such as Herman Minkowski and Richard Feynman, artists, such as Academy Guest Fellow Grisha Coleman, and theorists, like Gayatri Spivak and Michel Foucault, Mariam seeks to problematise the standpoint of the observer, in relation to the work of the Academy in producing knowledge about Africa and the Diaspora.
The second presentation, ‘A S(Pl)ace where ‘Future’ can grow — Generating Future in Pumzi’, by Peggy Piesche (Sub-project 4), analysed the film Pumzi (which had been shown as part of a curated film event organised by Academy sub-project leader Henriette Gunkel at the VAD Conference 2014). Peggy’s research project at the Academy focuses on how black collective identities are re-conceptualised through or in digital spaces and, specifically, how searching for future in these communities is done or performed. As part of her larger project, in this paper, Peggy questions how the idea of utopias/dystopias differ in classic sci-fi text from new African contributions. By comparing the Kenyan short film Pumzi with US American feature film Gattaca she drew out how both main actors set out into different spaces of utopia (Gattaca)/ dystopia (Pumzi) that will somehow negate or destroy them; that in order to facilitate the future, they ‘sacrifice’ themselves.
The themes of space and spirituality arose again in the third presentation by Kupakwashe Mtata (Sub-project 2), BIGSAS doctoral researcher and Academy Fellow. Kupa’s paper, ‘Reading Religion in Notions of Nature: The case of Matobo Hills’ described how different interest groups in the World Heritage Site of Matobo Hills in Zimbabwe have collaborated and clashed over the construction of the many meanings and uses of the area. To mention just a few, this site boasts near-extinct rhino, the grave of the first Ndebele king, the tomb of Cecil Rhodes, the shrines of a fertility cult, and a shrine erected to memory of Rhodesians who died in both World Wars. Kupa, drawing on the work of Rudolf Otto on the ‘numinous’ feeling engendered by religion, argues that this site is now charged with forces not only of a spiritual but also of a commercial nature.
The first day closed with a discussion of the movie Adua by Haile Gerima in the evening, before moving onto the second day, focused on Kenya. The first presentation of the day, ‘Translating adaptation and mitigation in Kenya: Decision-making for an uncertain future’ by Sybille Bauriedl (Sub-project 2), took up the complex relations of climate policy within a post-colonial context. By focusing on the example of Kenya, Sybille demonstrated the impact of international climate policies on Kenyans’ everyday lives. The paper explained how Africa has been imagined in climate change discourses, what kinds of market-based climate policies have emerged since climate change became a prominent international topic in the 1990s, and how nature is contested in these discourses.
The final two presentations showcased the research of Sub-Project Three, Middle Classes on the Rise. The first presentation by Florian Stoll, ‘Imaginations of the future among middle class milieus in Nairobi. Societal and cultural implications of imagined futures in the research of social groups’, analysed the different future visions of different social milieus amongst the middle-classes in Nairobi. Florian’s research project examines the triangle of space, time and narration from the perspective of the actors involved, which Florian has categorised into the different milieus of young professionals, social climbers, Christian religious, cosmopolitan civil societal, neo-traditionalist, and family-oriented. Florian’s paper argued that the futures imagined in these groups are not just temporal, but are determined by their specific context: living conditions, lifestyles and social backgrounds.
Lena Kroeker, who is also part of sub-project 3, made the final presentation. Her paper, ‘Uncertainty and Future: Securing the Future’ tackled the question of how the Kenyan middle-classes confront uncertainty. What range of options, formal and informal, do they posess to bring situations under control? Lena’s paper argued that uncertainty is something within the mind, a range of emotions encompassing fear, threat, and doubt which, combined with external risk factors, make your life unstable. It is not something which can be completely eradicated, rather a number of risks may overlap and intensify insecure feelings. Lena’s research will question how these threads and subjective feelings of uncertainty are influenced by having institutions that may help you to face certain risks and what kinds of material tools are at hand for the Kenyan middle-classes to deal with uncertainty and risk.
The papers and the related discussion brought together the empirical research conducted by the individual researchers under the broad theme of Future Africa, and pointed to various connections and potential engagements. The papers presented will be published in revised form, along with some collaborative works, in an edited collection.