Between localism and worldliness - Liminalities: Discussions on the Global and the Local

Art Journal,  Winter, 1998  by Okwui Enwezor

Julie Dash's film Daughters of the Dust (1992) is based on the epic tale of dislocation, migration, and acts of cultural survival forged under the despotic and inscrutable memory of slavery. Told on the eve of the migration of the Peasant family from Ibo Landing, in the Sea Islands of Georgia, this migration exemplifies that form of scattering and separation that bears portentous similarity to the context of many contemporary African artists. The presence of these artists in many parts of the world captures in manifold ways the reality of arrivals and departures that every day is played out in airport terminals, train stations, docks, etc., throughout the world. How has the language of these artists changed since migration? How have their identity, sense of placelessness, or presence been altered by re/dislocation and how have they transformed the normative forms of expression in the sites they occupy? Does migration necessarily mean the leaving behind of one's own country, culture, and ethnic enclave, or does it involve other forms of traveling that mean more than the physical crossing of borders?This last question is important if we consider how much things have changed in the last half century. The movement of populations - from rural to urban, agrarian to industrialized, national to postnational and transnational provides keys to new articulations about the meanings of identity, identification, affiliation, allegiance. Introducing concepts of hybridity, ambivalence, and indeterminacy into the lingua franca of cultural and political discourse, these movements pry open routes into the values of ethnicity, origin, and authenticity. Such reroutings not only question but also unsettle allegiances and make clear sites of myriad political, cultural, social, and expressive thought, so that speaking of "black" Africa has become not only an inadequate point of classification and differentiation but anachronistic. In this regard, various discourses are beginning to recognize the validity of Maghrebian, Caucasian, and other histories as integral to the ways we define and expand the notion of who and what is African.

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Thus in speaking of Africa today we need to ask how the struggles of independence, the problems of the national sovereign state, the expanding definition of national culture, citizenship, and cosmopolitanism (which are partially linked to economic malaise, social obsolescence, and political destabilization) define subjectivity. What role does the notion of individual freedom and desire play in the construction of identity? How do such definitions provide affective processes of critical thinking, radical revision, translation, and postnationality? These questions are urgent, for we must be able to account for new diasporic formations that have become part of the postcolonial experience of African artists and intellectuals. We need to investigate the cultural and intellectual productions based on this experience of diaspora, to explore how the conditions of exile and expatriation provide new motifs and challenges to the discourse of Africa in the late twentieth century. This investigation should contend not only with exile and expatriation in relation to movement into the crowded metropolises of the Western hemisphere but also with the transnational movements occurring today in Lagos, Abidjan, Johannesburg, Dakar, and Cairo.While movement and migration have been perpetual motifs of the twentieth century, and while many of us often fox on the problematics of dislocation and displacement, particularly those made through spatial distinctions between here and there, home and exile, we must not forget that vast numbers of migrations happen internally, within bounded national territories. Even when these movements happen internally, they are not always predicated on a shattered spatiality, in which particular kinds of migrants form clusters. These clusters, in addition to redefining the spatial character of the city, bring to those sites new cultural archetypes and languages that often compete with the rooted, settled communities.Though these convergences often serve as metaphors for conflict, the realization of a new temporality within the spatial problematics of the city makes the process compelling. Thus it is possible to live in one's own country, city, and culture and remain as distinctly alienated and distant from its social procedures as those who journey to the strange beyond of the global metropolis. This minimally recognized condition of migrancy, placelessness, exile, and displacement serves as a metaphor for what today's contemporary African artists embody.
They travel both at home and abroad, journey physically and psychically, migrate in between the pixelated and information-saturated sites of the cyberworld, and inhabit the complex matrices of popular culture that form part of the transterritorial dimension of the global network and exchange systems. They bring disparate attitudes and experiences to the zones where they trade (not only in symbolic exchanges), and they help to redefine and reshape the contours of contemporary cultural practice. These artists engage in critical conversation with the thorny issues of place, identity, and memory, which acquire new meaning insofar as they detotalize and deconstruct a performative African psychic space from a homogenized, political economy of race and authenticity to one of multiple identities.In evoking some of the problematic terms that have served as cannon fodder for African identity discourse, I have no interest in repeating those worn-out modes of postcolonial address that insistently and invidiously set up binary distinctions within the practices of those African artists who live on the continent and those who don't. Nor am I interested in the other distinctions that separate their practices into native/foreign-born, authentic/inauthentic; in such small spaces nationalism, ethnocentrism, and racism circulate their noxious fumes. Still, it would be fair to concede that, indeed, certain differences do layer some of the above distinctions. However, singling out differences is helpful insofar as we understand that we can only deploy them to establish paradigmatic attitudes that exist between disciplines, discourses, locations, and practices.

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   These and other contemporary African artists work within many critical, avant-garde procedures: video, film, installation, actions, performances, photography, and digital technology. Though they do not eschew traditional means of making art, they are deeply located within conceptual and postmodernist matrices. Often based on the critique of various hegemonic social, political, and cultural practices, their works aim to destabilize, challenge, and reinscribe the global terrain of culture as a complex territory in which they can stake a claim as much as can any contemporary practice coming out of Great Britain, the United States, France, or Germany. In so doing they invoke and highlight many transgressive and subversive movements and critical and radical articulations.Nonetheless, talking about these artists in this way does not give us a full picture of what it is to be an African artist in the age of globalization; all it says and repeats is what has always been known - that Africa is made up of multiple and disparate identities, cultures, territories. However, in following this most traditional of analytic routes, we are given a set of imperatives with which to examine what Homi Bhabha has termed "measure of dwelling," which speaks to how we define and determine belonging and place. What, in the late twentieth century, are the conditions of belonging and dwelling for Africans who live in places other than Africa?I have repeatedly raised these issues because very few of the discussions about belonging, identity, nationality, and exile have adequately explored that hinge where many Africans dwell, think, create, or, in some cases, while away their time dreaming paradoxically of home. And where exactly is home for these people? And where home has become unimaginable except in old, tattered black-and-white photographs, what set of imperatives within the nascent narratives of crossing, settling, dwelling, and transterritorialization do such immigrants conjure up to locate themselves in the new land and to stitch the unruly patterns of home? How do they accommodate the locations of departure and arrival?There are very few answers for such fraught questions, particularly when we focus on those expressive and social languages acquired in the temporal fissures of postcolonial migration. Making sense of the new temporalities and spatial configurations many Africans have entered into today - between what James Clifford calls localism and worldliness - cannot happen until we acquaint ourselves intimately with how African subjectivity has been defined within this reality. Moments of migration forged by contingent histories repeat through various signs, little bits and pieces or remembered conversations (articulations predicated on the falling away, the fragmentation of collective memory). Even while attempting to disguise those accidents of foreignness and hybridity - that exemplary piecing together, part myth and part experience - one easily slips between different forms of speech, from colloquial Igbo to clipped British stiff-upper-lip English; from classical Yoruba to Swahill to Arabic and Hindi. All these describe Africa, at home and abroad.In such a moment of contingent, indeterminate cultural histories, one must question why few discourses of contemporary Africa have taken notice of these patterns and textures of migration and movement. First, the degree to which the patterns of migration have been figured seems always to narrate that liminal space as only a temporary one; hence, the need to define and forge a broader affiliation of Africans in a foreign place was seen as unnecessary, for one always returns. Second, many African immigrants who left before or during the period of independence never imagined that various political and economic emergencies could so easily attenuate the desire to return. Moreover, many found secure situations for themselves in the places they had settled and so those places became legitimate homes away from home.If one pursues a more detailed picture of contemporary Africa in the late twentieth century, one finds that diaspora is not an equivocal term that excludes African artists. In its incremental and divergent formations, thinking about the links that diasporicity offers as tools to critically appraise the art of the continent does indeed give us access to the transcontinental and transnational regimes of the contemporary production of her artists. It short-circuits any essentialist reading of "African" as embedded in a timeless warp of precolonial African traditions. Clifford put it nicely when he wrote that diaspora could be "seen as potential subversions of nationality - ways of sustaining connections with more than one place while practicing nonabsolutist forms of citizenship." It seems to me that the terms under which we negotiate the sense of what is African in the late twentieth century are predicated on the values of this nonabsolutist, nonessential form of affiliation. The world of contemporary African artists is not circumscribed by any absolutist identity or territory. In this sense their work raises key questions not only for those who will have their views of what and who an African artist is, but equally for those critical Western establishments that will no doubt continue to attempt to sequester these artists into disqualified ethnic categories. But more important, these artists pose another, more salient and lasting, question. Like the Peasant family in Daughters of the Dust, as we cross and settle and resettle, how do the new accents we acquire during the course of migration or contact with other cultures change our positions of affiliation? How do we secure new communities, embody diverse identities, reterritorialize vestiges of the cultures of home, experiment with new ways of being and making, and create new economies of exchange and circulation for stories and symbolic and political values? Indeed, what are the ways one is and becomes African in the surging tumult and noise of the millennial clamor for a homogenized - and commodified - global identity?



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