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Symposium panel

Yusuf Kalyango Jr. answers a question during the “African Identities Reinvented” symposium while fellow panelists Ghirmai Negash and Modou Dieng look on.

Modou Dieng

Modou Dieng, an artist from Senegal and instructor at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, discusses how growing up in post-colonial Africa and relocating to the U.S. influences him as an artist.

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Scholars, OHIO community discuss African arts, media and identity

World Music and Dance Festival symposium celebrates 50 years of African Studies at OHIO

Ohio University celebrated its fourth annual World Music and Dance Festival last week. Designed to create opportunities for the OHIO community to experience a variety of cultures while celebrating diversity at the University, this year’s festival included a program honoring the 50th anniversary of OHIO’s African Studies Program.

“African Identities Reinvented,” a symposium dedicated to African arts and media, was held Jan. 29 in the Walter Hall Rotunda. Moderated by Steve Howard, director of OHIO’s African Studies Program and the Institute for the African Child and a professor in the School of Media Arts and Studies, the symposium featured three scholars:

  • Ghirmai Negash, a professor of English and African literature and associate director of OHIO’s African Studies Program
  • Modou Dieng, an artist from Senegal and assistant professor at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Ore.
  • Yusuf Kalyango Jr., an associate professor in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and director of OHIO’s Institute for International Journalism

Negash’s presentation, titled “African Intertextualities: From Negritude to Post-Tigritude,” focused on these theories and the roles they play in post-colonial African literature and visual art.

A widely discussed and debated literary theory, intertextuality explores the ways in which texts relate to one another to produce meaning and how those relationships contribute to culture.

“When we have two texts within an image that speak to each other, we have intertextuality,” Negash explained.

Negritude is a literary and ideological movement that emphasizes an awareness of and pride in the cultural and physical aspects of the African heritage. Developed by black intellectuals, writers and politicians in France in the 1930s and born out of European colonialism and racism, Negash explained that negritude is “a way of connecting with our African roots.”

He noted that the concepts of intertextuality, negritude and tigritude (a term coined by 1986 Nobel Prize winner Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka as a critical response to negritude) extend to the visual arts, allowing contemporary artists to “alter, combine and reinterpret others’ work to create their own artistic world, vision and meaning.”

Negash turned his attention to a piece of art created by Dieng and owned by Howard. Conducting his own analysis of the piece, Negash noted his observations of negritude and tigritude, textual connections and playfulness among the image’s elements and how it relates to African identity.

Dieng then shared his vision for the artwork and how growing up in post-colonial Africa and relocating to the United States shaped and continues to influence him as an artist.

Born in Dakar, Senegal, Dieng has been a longtime friend of the African Studies Program at OHIO. A collection of his works is on display in the Yamada House on the Athens Campus.

Growing up in post-colonial Africa, Dieng said he was keenly aware of the influence of Western culture on African culture and explained that he uses his work to transform that relationship into the physical form.

“I am an African, and I am an artist, and how do you compose a life around that?” Dieng said. “That’s a question I have and I’m trying to live that.”

In explaining the piece that Negash analyzed, Dieng noted that at the time of its creation he was thinking about the Egyptian revolution and the connection between Facebook and that revolution as well as other social movements. He said he wanted to create something around those themes that also translated to his African identity.

Elements in his piece include pyramids denoting Egypt, tigers referencing African mythology, and black and white colors reflecting a conversation between Western and African culture with the entire piece framed in a way that resembles a Facebook page. In his work, those elements overlap and interact with each other, helping to create Dieng’s own context and identity.

“There is something to say about being a black body in the Western world because it comes from a different place and it has a history,” he said.

Dieng also noted the role media and technology play in his creations and the image those entities portray of Africa – a topic elaborated on in Kalyango’s presentation on “Africa’s Media: Outreach from Cities and Beyond.”

An expert and researcher in the field of international journalism, Kalyango discussed African identity and the role of media and how media contributes to the enhancement and development of local identities in African societies as well as perceptions of Africa in the Western world.

“When thinking about the media in Africa, especially from a Western perspective, you think about it in a negative light … in terms of free expression and information and freedom of the press,” Kalyango said. “What we don’t read about is how African media are promoting local identities and how it engages the public in social issues.”

Kalyango spoke specifically about community radio in Africa and the African film industry.

He noted that community radio in Africa is broadcast in local languages, countering a perspective among African youth that their local language is inferior to English.

“Since the colonial era, people in African nations have been led to believe that unless they learn a foreign language they are not educated enough, they cannot have gainful employment and they are not smart enough,” Kalyango said.

By broadcasting in local languages, community radio is enhancing the value of those languages as well as local cultures and is bringing people together – something, he said, that should be celebrated in Africa and studied.

“Because of the public participation in African community radio, you have elders now involved in informing and educating citizens about social issues and cultural issues that help you understand the value of cultures,” Kalyango added. “As such, you find young people now realizing that you don’t have to give up your own identity in order to be cool, to be perceived as educated and to advance in society.”

Kalyango also cited studies that show that community radio in Africa is actually more free, autonomous and independent than the media in the United States.

He also noted that there are now more films produced in Africa than in the West and that an increasing number of Africans are viewing and enjoying locally-made films, which serve as a source of identity formation and building and are advancing African values and cultures.

“But we still don’t see a lot of African films celebrated and promoted in the way Western movies are,” he added, citing studies that have found that African film audiences tend to perceive content produced in English as more credible and accurate than content produced in local languages.

Following the presentations, those in the audience engaged in a question-and-answer and discussion session with the scholars.

Mohamed Meissara, a first-year student in OHIO’s African Studies Program, said some of the topics discussed hit home for him.

Originally from Atar, Mauritania, in West Africa, Meissara said he could relate to feeling a need to speak English and was happy to hear about efforts in Africa to change that and place more value on local languages.

“I took from this event some very interesting things, especially in regards to the debate about African identity,” Meissara said. “It was clear to me that there is no one way to say that we have an African identity or not. Each person has his own evaluation to make and questions to ask. At the same time, there is a sense that there is something coming – if not an African identity, there is an African community.”

The symposium is one of several events planned during spring semester to commemorate the 50th anniversary of African Studies at Ohio University – all leading up to a celebratory gala titled “Passion for Africa: 50 Years of African Studies at Ohio University.” The gala will take place during African Cultural Week, which will be presented by the African Studies Program in collaboration with the African Student Union, the­ African Languages Association, and the Ohio University Press the week of April 7-13. African Studies started the celebrations in the fall. For more information on the 50th celebrations, please visit http://www.african.ohio.edu/Events/50YearAnniversary.html.