The 2017 Serpentine Pavilion – designed by Diébédo Francis Kéré from Burkina Faso, and displayed in Kensington Gardens, London (23 June – 8 October) – represents an architectural structure designed with community gatherings and convivial interactions in mind. Kéré’s harmoniously cylindrical, indigo-blue, textured structure, with its lattice-like wood and metal-framed roof fanning out to form a funnel-shaped sloping canopy, evokes the atmosphere of a central communal meeting place, with multiple openings overhead for letting in natural light to illuminate the interior while also providing shelter from the rain.
This beautiful artwork, inspired by the broad canopies and buttresses of tropical baobabs, signifies a pluralist space where diverse conversations and opportunities to exchange ideas are welcomed. The pavilion’s design, therefore, serves as an appropriate image through which to introduce and illustrate the overarching theme for this year’s Royal Geographical Society annual international conference – “Decolonising Geographical Knowledges.” This complex and wide-ranging theme, which also served as a call to action, was addressed over the course of a stimulating, four-day event programme of lectures, panel sessions and workshops attracting more than 1000 delegates from around the world.
Given that these geographical discussions were taking place in Kensington less than a two-minute walk from the Serpentine Pavilion signifies that, similarly to the architect’s desire to create a contemporary equivalent of a central community meeting space where all are welcomed to converge and consider the key issues of the day, the RGS-IBG was symbolically also opening up (and opening out) the institution to invite in a greater diversity of publics (and broader critical perspectives) than had hitherto been seen as integral to geography as a subject discipline, where scholarship pursued by privileged white men from elite schools within the Euro-American academy still dominates most of the academic geographical discourse.
The 2017 Chair of the Conference, Sarah Radcliffe (Professor of Latin American Geography, University of Cambridge) was responsible for catalysing debates related to the theme of decolonisation. Her address drew attention to the various ways geography within academia has begun to provide a platform for considering how institutions established during the colonial era can be transformed into more inclusive and ‘decolonial’ spaces, fully divested of the structural inequalities and power hierarchies that previously allowed elitism, exclusions and discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, religion, nationality, educational background, disability, LGBTQ+ identities to persist and endure long after the end of formal colonial rule.
My specific contribution to the conference was to present a paper and participate in a series of discussions themed around “Decolonising institutional arrangements: insights from the arts, education and policy.” The two consecutive sessions I attended on Thursday 31 August were convened by members of the Royal Geographical Society’s Race, Culture and Equality Working Group, coordinated by Dr James Esson (Loughborough University), sponsored by the co-editors of the journal Area (Prof. Kavita Datta and Prof. Peter Kraftl), and chaired by Dr Patricia Noxolo (University of Birmingham).
The first of these sessions featured nine short presentations – each selected to serve as provocations related to the theme, with advocacy around both the structural changes and the more day-to-day, quotidian forms of decolonial practice. Two of the early papers discussed the problems that a lack of cultural diversity within academic geography was doing to make knowledge production seem to be the sole preserve of Western elites from a very narrow section of society. Dr Vandana Desai’s paper, for example, reported that, despite the presence of long-established promotional schemes marketed to young people to encourage them to pursue geography through to degree level – most notably, the Society’s Geography Ambassadors programme – the proportion of black and minority ethnic (BME) students studying geography at undergraduate level in British universities typically remains below c.7% during most years (HEFCE statistics, 2014/15). Geography teacher Hafsa Garcia continued along this vein, quoting from the research of Lawrence Berg to convey her concerns about the paradoxical situation of this academic subject being predominantly pursued by white male scholars, when the international scope of geography should ideally reflect uptake by a much more culturally diverse pool of researchers from different ethnic and class backgrounds, concluding: “Geography is so white that its whiteness has rarely been queried in any thoroughgoing manner” (Berg, 2012).
The impacts of these statistics were also discussed in terms of the career pipeline, and the relative lack of progression from school geography through to university level study and subsequent attempts to gain employment as an academic geographer in HEIs for people from BME backgrounds – with the current percentage of black and minority ethnic staff of African, Asian and Caribbean heritage working as geography lecturers in UK universities at only 4.3%.
Additional presentations by Dr William Tantam and Dr Adom Philogene Heron from the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS, School of Advanced Study, University of London), lawyer and poet David Neita from the Society of Black Lawyers, as well as my own paper “Some perspectives on decolonising museums, galleries and the arts in the UK and France” (discussing findings from my doctoral research), all concentrated on ways to transform institutional practices within the arts and heritage sectors that might be considered ‘decolonial’. This included making changes to the way cultural institutions dealt with sensitive and ethical issues about the continued custodianship of colonially-sourced artworks and art objects within long-established collections of ethnography, holdings of ancient and rare antiquities, or more recent works of fine art – moving away from any prior notions of ‘ownership’ in recognition of the highly contested nature of colonial acquisitions, often taken by force as “spoils of war” and looted during punitive expeditions throughout the 19th century. My presentation also mentioned the necessity of Western cultural institutions formally acknowledging and entering into meaningful dialogues with national governments and representatives of activist organisations about the ‘restitution’/’repatriation’ of objects stolen during the colonial era. For me, the process of setting in motion the formal (and, in some cases, ceremonial) return of contested and highly treasured exhibits back to their countries and communities of origin – such as the Benin Bronzes, stolen during the punitive Benin Expedition of 1897, originally from what is now the Edo region of Nigeria – was of paramount importance in any debates concerning how to meaningfully decolonise museums, archives and the arts.
Both William Tantam and David Neita raised points about the need to decolonise face-to-face customer service provision – and address the different types of treatment people receive when trying to access and utilise historically elitist cultural spaces such as university libraries, archival research repositories and the nation’s fine art museums. This was specifically the case in relation to the increasing numbers of black and brown visitors and disabled visitors of all ethnic backgrounds made to feel unwelcome and out-of-place in certain cultural and learned institutions, often because of the disproportionate levels of negative surveillance by security staff and attendants, who often regard with suspicion anyone who happens to be visibly different to the assumed and expected audiences.
Regarding the decolonisation of knowledge across a range of subject disciplines, PhD candidate Sweta Raghavan (King’s College, University of London) spoke about the way in which the history and legacy of colonialism in India had resulted in the marginalisation of important schools of thought – such as the work of ancient Vedic scholars and Hindu scientists, whose ancient philosophies and formulae were the foundations of many aspects of modern-day mathematics and science. Sweta’s presentation made a strong case for institutions to undertake more meaningful research to accurately convey the international scope and non-Western provenance of the many knowledge systems taught in our universities (especially those underpinning the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)) falsely assumed to be European in origin.
Scholar-activist, musician and performance poet Femi Nylander chose to present his intervention in the form of a poem, and recited a powerful treatise about language. In just a few minutes, his rapid-fire recitation of an expertly delivered multilingual narrative – titled, “A poem that migrates through tongues” – covered very complex histories, cultural hybridities, tensions and flows associated with the dynamic circulation of languages throughout the era of enslavement, colonialism, global military conflicts, transnational migration, world trade, and the ongoing formation of diaspora(s).
It was appropriate that the concluding presentation by geographer Amita Bhakta (Loughborough University) addressed decolonisation through the prism of intersectionality and the politics of identity – sharing her personal experiences of discrimination as a British woman of Indian heritage with Cerebral Palsy, negotiating her way through the many barriers, exclusions and discriminations that exist within and outside the academy to fulfil her ambition of achieving a doctorate. Her very poignant presentation concluded with a call for the creation of what she termed “enabling spaces” – institutions that recognised and responded flexibly to the diverse needs of different students through the provision of a suite of supportive and adaptive services, as opposed to enforcing the more conventional “one-size-fits-all” and so-called “colour-blind” approaches that simply reinforce already long-established inequalities.
Although one afternoon of stimulating presentations, provocations and debates does not (in and of itself) transform overnight institutions like the Royal Geographical Society, it was nevertheless still vitally important to provide a prominent and central space during the RGS-IBG annual international conference to signify that decolonial agendas are moving (and will continue to move) rapidly and progressively towards the centre from their former fringe positions at the margins of the global community of academic geographers to establish a prominent and permanent location at the discipline’s symbolic institutional core sited in the heart of Kensington.
As one of the organisers of the session, it was very apt for James Esson to feature a quote from a former student, Ama Biney, on his introductory slide that exemplified how important is was for these concerns not to be perceived as “add ons,” but to be recognised as a call to action to transform the academic discipline in ways that befit and benefit a subject as international in its scope, scale and areas of spatial, environmental, socio-political, economic, and cultural investigation as geography.
FURTHER INFORMATION AND WEBSITE LINKS:
Berg, Lawrence D. (2012) “Geographies of Identity 1: Geography — (neo)liberalism — white supremacy.” Progress in Human Geography, Vol. 36(4): 508-517. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132511428713
Desai, Vandana (2017) “Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) student and staff in contemporary British Geography.” Area, Vol. 49 (3): 320–323. doi:10.1111/area.12372
Esson, J., Noxolo, P., Baxter, R., Daley, P. and Byron, M. (2017) “The 2017 RGS-IBG chair’s theme: decolonising geographical knowledges, or reproducing coloniality?” Area, Vol 49 (3): 384–388. doi:10.1111/area.12371
Noxolo, Patricia (2017) “Introduction: Decolonising geographical knowledge in a colonised and re-colonising postcolonial world.” Area, Vol. 49 (3): 317–319. doi:10.1111/area.12370
David Neita: The People’s Lawyer and the People’s Poet – http://www.daveneita.com/
Femi Nylander’s poetry website: https://www.feminylander.com/
Kéré Architecture website: http://www.kere-architecture.com/
Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) website: http://www.rgs.org