Outcomes relating to the ESRC RTSG Top-Up funding award 2014/15

Carol Dixon, University of Sheffield, Human Geography Pathway

Outcomes relating to the ESRC RTSG Top-Up funding award 2014/15



During the first year of my doctoral research, exploring “The ‘othering’ of Africa and its diaspora(s) in Western museum practices,” I attended two interdisciplinary conferences – Black Portraiture(s): The Black Body in the West (Paris, January 2013) and AfroEuropeans IV: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe (Senate House, London, October 2013).  Participating in both events as a delegate enabled me to gain useful information and insights from the panel presentations and conference discussions about the cultural interdependencies between Africa and Europe that helped me to finesse the enquiry questions and qualitative research methodologies around which my project investigating UK and French museums is structured.

Receiving an RTSG top-up funding award in 2015 enabled me to attend the follow-up conferences to these events two years later where, rather than participating as a delegate, I was pleased to present a research paper: firstly, as part of a panel titled “Representing Place and Race” during  Black Portraiture(s) ll: Imaging the Black Body and Re-staging Histories (Villa La Pietra, Florence, Italy, 29-31 May 2015); and, secondly, during a panel on “Memory and Museums” at AfroEuropeans V: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe (University of Münster, Germany, 16-19 September 2015).

The following report summarises the conference paper presented at both events and also details the overall programme content and networking opportunities provided.

The conference paper: Black bodies, white privilege and the poetics of (mis-)representation: 21st century ventriloquism masquerading as anti-racist art in the live performance installation Exhibit B (The Human Zoo).

The focus of my conference paper – “Black bodies, white privilege and the poetics of (mis-)representation” – was a critique of the controversial live performance installation ‘Exhibit B’ by white South African theatre director Brett Bailey. In this work Brett Bailey stages 12 tableaux vivants of black actors recreating historical scenes from 19th century World’s Fairs, human zoos and other colonial expositions, alongside more contemporary scenes of corporeal trauma inflicted on black bodies. Throughout my review of the installation’s content, and public responses to its staging in cities around Europe, I considered the validity of the director’s claims that Exhibit B was “anti-racist art,” by addressing the question:

Can the subaltern black body only speak in Western arts spaces through the ventriloquized voice of white privilege?

Having been actively involved in the anti-Exhibit B boycott campaigns in London and Paris during 2014, my presentation featured documentary photographs of the on-street demonstrations and interventions organised by the protest groups ‘Boycott the Human Zoo’ and ‘Collectif CONTRE-Exhibit B,’ respectively. These were further contextualised using a montage of archival images and documentation about past human zoos that also considered the negative, physical and psychological impacts on individual participants: notably the South African, Khoikhoi woman Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman, displayed in chains in Europe in the 1810s as the Hottentot Venus; and the Congolese teenager Ota Benga, who committed suicide in 1916 after years being exhibited with apes in New York’s Bronx Zoo in the early 1900s.

Exhibit B was, therefore, a controversial yet useful catalyst for initiating wider discussions about effective and sensitive ways to curate difficult knowledge of past and present racisms for diverse international audiences. Exposing its many flaws and contradictions enabled me to conclude my paper by presenting a selection of alternative examples of post-modern, anti-racist conceptual arts practice from the portfolios of renowned performance installationists and artist-curators such as Renée Cox, Coco Fusco and Fred Wilson.

Black Portraiture(s) II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-staging Histories

In addition to giving my own presentation at the Black Portraiture(s) II conference, I was able to attend several other panel sessions and participate in wide-ranging discussions about archiving visual, literary and performing arts histories of the black presence in Europe; the changing politics of blackness in the public sphere; transnational, hybrid and diaspora identities; and portraiture as a medium through which to consider the complexities and intersectionalities of race, gender, class, religion and sexuality.

One of the most thought-provoking sessions at the conference – titled “Activating Histories: Visualising and Restaging the Archive” – featured a range of presentations about how scholars from the African diaspora(s) worldwide were reappraising historical images of black people in the USA and Europe spanning several centuries. Art historian Kellie Jones (Colombia University) used images from the contemporary portfolio of African-American multi-media artist David Hammons to explore the notion of a simultaneous “absence-presence” with regard to historical images of black subjects and sitters within the Western visual arts canon. Mary Schmidt Campbell (Dean Emerita of the Tisch Shool of the Arts, New York University) used portraits of black women by Romare Bearden to explore intersections of race, gender and class in New York’s African-American communities during the mid-20th century – specifically to address questions about the politics of respectability and the subversion of conventional images of black middle-class lives in Harlem at that time. Gender studies scholar Tanisha Ford (University of Massachusetts) discussed the changing images of black women on album covers as a way of chronicling changing social and cultural politics about race, gender and representation in the post-civil rights era. Lastly, historian Tiffany Gill (University of Delaware) discussed themes of “Black Internationalism” and black global citizenship as seen through travel photographs compiled by pioneering black-owned businesses in the USA travel industry – many with extensive photographic collections featuring middle-class African-American men and women on tours around Europe, particularly during the early-to-mid 20th century.

For me, the most visually arresting and poignant presentation during the 3-day conference was given by London-based curator and art historian Renée Mussai, who reviewed the ground-breaking Black Chronicles II exhibition project developed by Autograph ABP, and initially displayed at Rivington Place in London in 2014 (http://autograph-abp.co.uk/exhibitions/black-chronicles-ii).  The featured images included photographic stills from the Hulton Archive/Getty Images dating back to the late-19th century, studio portraits of “The African Choir” (of South Africa), 1891-93, taken during a fund-raising tour of the UK, and portraiture of a young man named Kalulu – described in archival documents as  an African “boy servant” and companion to the British explorer Henry Morton Stanley. Through these archival images Renée Mussai was able to show how contemporary reinterpretations of Victorian visual archives from the colonial era were re-mediating and repositioning formerly colonised Africans as central figures in group portraits where (more often than not) they were conventionally marginalised. From an exhibiting perspective, one of the most successful outcomes of Black Chronicles II was the gallery exhibition that showcased many of the images retrieved over the course of the three-year research study, presented alongside quotes from the work of cultural theorist Stuart Hall as a way of re-narrating the life histories for contemporary audiences.

“They are here because you were there. There is an umbilical connection. There is no understanding Englishness without understanding its imperial and colonial dimensions.” Stuart Hall, 2008 (Source: http://autograph-abp.co.uk/exhibitions/black-chronicles-ii)

An overarching theme linking many of the papers and keynotes presented at Black Portraiture(s) II was that of “naming” – in the sense that the participating scholars attempted to name and give detailed biographical information about all the featured sitters in the historical and contemporary portraits – transforming them into rounded, whole and real individuals as opposed to superficially beautiful 2D illustrations retrieved from the archives and art history collections. This was especially important for the historical images of women discussed at the conference, whose presence was often only originally intended to serve as part of the enframing context to more centralised and privileged male subjects in portraits and photographic narratives.

AfroEuropeans V: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe

The AfroEuropeans V conference held at the University of Münster’s English Department in September 2015 was the fifth biennial network event exploring socio-political issues and spatialities relating to histories of migration, diaspora formation, transculturation, and contemporary cultural interdependencies between Africa and Europe. Like its predecessor events held in León (2006 and 2008), Cádiz (2011) and London (2013), the programme was designed to be interdisciplinary, with papers covering topics and themes from the visual, literary and performing arts, museum studies, history, politics, sociology and education.

In the welcoming address by conference convenor Mark Stein (Chair of English, Postcolonial and Media Studies) participants and delegates were encouraged to see the conference as a “threshold moment” during which to engage in cross-border, cross-cultural dialogues and exchanges, and also to see the various physical, historical and imaginary boundaries that have been constructed to separate people, places, and academic subject disciplines, as porous.

Black German histories, lived experiences and scholarship were regularly foregrounded throughout the programme, with a strong emphasis on discussing the continuing importance of activism within academia. This was initially evidenced through the opening keynote presentation by political scientist Jamie Schearer (a founding member of the European Network for People of African Descent (ENPAD), who provided a comprehensive review of the ways ENPAD was helping to raise awareness, run education campaigns and provide safe spaces for discussing issues of race and racisms faced by black people in Germany (and the European continent more broadly) – not least in relation to employment, housing, opportunities for civic engagement, citizenship and systems of justice. The resulting Q&A also helped to spotlight notable key figures in German history and political activism that have made highly significant contributions to discourses on challenging racism, xenophobia, stereotyping, anti-blackness, sexism and homophobia – including the Afro-German poet and educationalist May Ayim (1960-1996) and the African-American writer and rights activist Audre Lorde (1934-1992).

A particularly poignant feature of the conference programme was the way the organisers balanced topical discussions about current international border-crossings – especially the plight of Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi and other refugees enduring perilous journeys by sea and land to find safe havens in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe – with sensitively presented historical critiques, literary readings from fictional narratives, and emotive performance poetry presentations about migration and asylum.

During the panel session on “Memory and Museums,” my presentation about Exhibit B was followed by a screening and discussion of recent work by the Gabonese-born, London-based performance artist and curator Nathalie Mba Bikoro.  In stark contrast to Brett Bailey’s corporeal absence from his tableaux vivants, a very striking aspect of Nathalie’s artistic practice was the use of her own body as a living medium through which to communicate powerful counter-narratives about history and memory, cultural hybridity, diaspora(s), identities, anti-racism and alter-modernism. During her presentation she played very moving filmed extracts from an installation project “Future Monuments,” memorialising the victims of the Namibian genocide from the late-19th and early 20th centuries, and then concluded with a piece to commemorate the lived experiences of Africans in Germany during World War 2 – titled, “Planting Present Tense” – in which she is shown stitching a Star of David made from Dutch Wax patterned fabric into the skin of her upper left arm.


I am grateful to the ESRC and the White Rose Doctoral Training Centre for enabling me to contribute to important interdisciplinary dialogues and discourses about the historical and contemporary presence of Africans and Diasporans in Europe. The opportunities to share emerging findings from my doctoral research about effective ways to present complex cultural narratives through collaborative, multi-vocal exhibiting practices have been invaluable in helping to raise awareness about my doctoral research beyond the UK. Participation in the conferences has also provided entry routes into a number of important international academic networks that will be immensely beneficial as I continue to develop and pursue future research projects.

Web links for further information:

Autograph ABP exhibition, Black Chronicles II: http://autograph-abp.co.uk/exhibitions/black-chronicles-ii

Black Portraiture(s) II 2015 conference website: http://www.blackportraitures.info/

European Network for People of African Descent (ENPAD): http://bethechangenetwork.tumblr.com/

Nathalie Mba Bikoro – artist’s website: http://www.nbikoro.com

University of Münster, AfroEuropeans 2015 conference website: http://www.wwu.de/AFROEU2015/cfp.html

About the author:

Carol Dixon is a PhD candidate, based in the Geography Department at the University of Sheffield, with research interests in African and Caribbean diaspora studies, cultural geography and museology.

PhD research profile:  http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/geography/phd/pg/dixon_carol

Museum Geographies blog: http://museumgeographies.wordpress.com/

List of images:


Panellists for the session “Representing Place and Race” at the Black Portraiture(s) II conference, Villa La Pietra, Florence, 31/05/2015. Left to right: Ann Rice and Michelle Wallace (City University of New York); Marilyn Mobley (Case Western Reserve University); Lena Hill (University of Iowa); Deborah Jack (New Jersey City University); Carol Dixon (University of Sheffield).


The African Choir, London 1891. London Stereoscopic Company. Courtesy of © Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Source: http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/ 



Mrs Eleanor Xiniwe (née Ndwanya) of the African Choir, 1891-93. London Stereoscopic Company. Courtesy of © Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Source: http://autograph-abp.co.uk/exhibitions/black-chronicles-ii



Still from the filmed performance installation, “Planting Present Tense” by Nathalie Mba Bikoro (Berlin, 2015). Source: www.nbikoro.com/planting-present-tense-a-letter-from-the-war.html. See also film clips on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOWXqj2gv10.