“Black In/visibilities Contested” was the title of the 7th Biennial Afroeuropeans Network Conference, held at the ISCTE-IUL (Instituto Universitário de Lisboa), University of Lisbon, Portugal, 4-6th July 2019.
In keeping with previous gatherings, this transdisciplinary event provided a forum for knowledge exchange and critical dialogues pertaining to the histories, lived experiences, cultural geographies, political activism and diasporic identities of African-descended people in Europe.
Over the course of three days the schedule featured two keynote presentations, 32 panel sessions, six poster presentations, a cultural programme of film screenings and artistic performances, and a concluding round-table discussion through which delegates were able to engage with the conference’s six sub-themes:
- Black Europe and its Intersections
- Afroeuropeans in the Arts and the Mediasphere
- Activisms, Resistances and Public Policy in Late Capitalist Europe
- Black Cities: Public Space, Racism, Urban Cultures and Segregation
- Decolonising Knowledge on Black Europe, African Diaspora and Africa
- Theorizing Blackness and Racial Europe.
The opening keynote – “Hidden in Plain Sight: Institutional Racism, Cultural Resistance and Knowledge Production in Black Europe” – was presented by sociologist Stephen Small (Professor of African American Studies, University of California, Berkeley). His wide-ranging survey of the history of racism and anti-racism throughout the continent spanning several centuries commenced with information about the legacies of Portugal’s imperialist past, which continues to be celebrated via valorisations of Vasco da Gama and other key figures in the nation’s maritime history, the promotion of architectural structures such as the Padrão dos Descobrimentos [Monument to the Discoveries] on Lisbon’s tourist trail, and the enduring myth of “Luso-tropicalism” in relation to Portuguese enslavement histories and colonialism.
A central focus of the keynote was to foreground the many and various acts of individual and collective resistance that have always characterised African-descended people’s diverse responses to the strident imperialism of European nations – citing examples, from the successful anti-slavery rebellions of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), through to the anti-colonial struggles for independence in the 20th century led by figures such as Amilcar Cabral (1924-1973) of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde.
Stephen Small’s analysis was summarised according to the following four “striking similarities” he had observed and examined when undertaking research for his monograph, 20 Questions and Answers on Black Europe (Amrit Publishers, The Hague, Netherlands, 2018): (1) The ambiguous “hyper (in)visibility” of blackness – from acute tokenism in the upper echelons of the legal, political and financial sectors, through to a proliferation of stereotyped representations via the visual arts, news media and sport; (2) “Entrenched vulnerability” – as recently exemplified via the Windrush scandal in the UK; (3) “Institutional racism” – experienced in every sphere, from the political manipulations of the state, through to quotidian acts of micro-aggressive discrimination encountered in employment, housing, health and social services; (4) “Irrepressible resistance and resilience” – seen through the social mobilisation and community activism of grassroots anti-racist organisations, as well as via the creative and expressive arenas of the visual, literary and performing arts, and the mediascape.
In conclusion, the speaker focused on the importance of artists, scholars, educators, activists and campaigners establishing anti-racist alliances with African-descended communities in all nations (far beyond the “usual suspects” of the UK, France and Germany), and especially in less diverse, non-urban areas of Europe, as well as establishing intersectional solidarity with religious, migrant, Roma/Traveller, LGBTQ+ and other minoritized communities to fight discrimination, inequalities and social exclusion in all their manifestations.
Quotations from philosophers, political campaigners and social reformers were referenced – from the writings of Africa-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Martiniquan intellectual Aimé Césaire, through to the publications and scholar-activism of Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Kwame Nimako – to enable members of the audience to follow-up on his poignant and important closing commentary about the necessity of positive self-definition (e.g. rejecting the term “non-white”), “talking back,” and “self-care”.
The second keynote – “Beyond the Black Paradigm? Afro-diasporic Strategies in the Age of Neo-Nationalism” – was presented by Fatima El-Tayeb (Professor of Literature and Ethnic Studies, University of California, San Diego). Through her nuanced deconstruction of selected European nations’ structurally racist “colour-blind” approaches to addressing issues of diversity, inclusion and community cohesion over several decades, Fatima El-Tayeb also discussed a range of strategies that had been used to counter the neo-nationalism that has falsely constructed Europeans of colour as “eternal migrants” and also fuelled an upsurge in anti-Black racism.
Central to this presentation was a call for more intersectional analysis of black diasporic populations in Europe to better understand how racialized religious allegiances, class and LGBTQ+ rights activism intersect with ethnicity. She also advocated the importance of building coalitions through the use of “storytelling narratives” that show the connectedness of different forms of oppression, as well as the need to focus on “trans-local” agendas that circumvent national borders. The achievements of collectives such as “Strange Fruit” in the Netherlands (c. 1989- 2002) and “Indigènes de la République” in France (est. 2005) were cited as examples of coalition-building activist organisations that had successfully employed these strategies.
Image and Racism: Breaking Canon
My research paper – “The Transformative Impact of Activist Artists in European Museums” – was presented within the panel session on “Image and Racism: Breaking Canon.”
Through my critique of selected, site-specific and ‘politically aesthetic’ installations created by the British-Nigerian contemporary visual artist Yinka Shonibare CBE, I discussed several contrasting approaches to anti-racist and decolonial intervention within cultural institutions in France, the Netherlands and the UK.
The case studies in focus were: (1) Jardin d’amour [Garden of Love] (2007) at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris (2) Planets in My Head (2010) at the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam; (3) The William Morris Family Album (2015) – an archive-themed photographic installation at the William Morris Gallery, London.
The three other papers in this session were:
- “Contemporary In/Visibilities and Pseudo/Visibilities: the black woman’s portrait in the Bemposta chapel in Lisbon” by Giuseppina Raggi (CES – Universidade de Coimbra) – which discussed the socio-cultural and art historical significance of an 18th century religious portrait of an un-named black woman (c. 1791) by the Italian artist Giuseppe Trono (1739-1810).
- “Breaking Canons in Art History and Beyond: Intersectional Feminism and Anti-Racism in the Visual Production of Black Women Artists” by Ana Balona de Oliveira (IHA-FCSH-NOVA) – which appraised and critiqued the contemporary image-making and interdisciplinary artistic practice of Portuguese installationist and scholar-activist Grada Kilomba (b. 1968)
- “Corpo, Ancestralidade e Êxtase: fluxos imagéticos afro-europeus do corpo negro gay e modos de usar” by Jânderson Albino Coswosk (Instituto Federal do Espírito Santo – Ifes) – which examined “black queer aesthetics” in the self-portraiture and LGBTQ+ activism of Nigerian-British photographic artist Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989).
Bairro de Arte Pública
The final event in the conference’s cultural programme was a tour of the Bairro de Arte Pública led by representatives of the residents’ organisation Kallema in the Quinta do Mocho district of Lisbon – home to the biggest outdoor public art gallery in Europe.
Among more than 100 murals painted on the facades of residential buildings, created by established and emerging street artists from (primarily) Portugal, Spain, Angola, Brazil, Cuba and France, were a Frantz Fanon-inspired figurative work titled “Take your mask off!” (2016) by the celebrated Portuguese graffiti artist Nomen, and a group portrait “Loures Arte Pública” (2016) by the Uruguayan artists’ collective, Colectivo Licuado celebrating diverse, gender-fluid identities.
I am grateful to the Sociological Review Foundation for providing an ECR Conference Support Award to attend Afroeuropeans 2019, which enabled me to participate in important discussions pertaining to anti-racism in the arts, Pan-Africanism and the African Diaspora in Europe, and decolonising the mediascape.
The 8th Biennial Afroeuropeans Network Conference will take place in Belgium during 2021.