April 16-17, 2008 - Harvard University

In the wake of Africa's anti-colonial struggles and decolonization, the politically engaged artist has come to occupy a more complex and unstable terrain. Charged with exciting possibility as much as with challenge, the postcolonial era brings in its wake new subjectivities and new demands on art. In today's globalizing contemporary art world, shifting and rapidly diversifying forms of opposition make a strong and powerful imprint in what might become a kind of "global public sphere," one that seeks critical alternatives to the neo-colonial depredations of transnational corporations and the repressive governments that have replaced the old colonial state. Mid-century calls for freedom and democracy cede now to second wave activist movements demanding a 'second democracy.' As much in post-colonial Africa as in other parts of the world, the increasing traction of the concept of 'civil society' as a means for holding repressive regimes to account has also provided a new space and model for politically engaged artistic activity, alongside the socially committed endeavors of NGOs, campaigners, intellectuals, writers, and religious organizations.

With these phenomena as its focus, "Art as Activism (and its limits) in the Post-Colony" pushes the conversation in challenging new directions with two key events, a roundtable discussion on Wednesday April 16 (6:30-10pm), and an artist's talk on Thursday April 17 (6:30pm). Wednesday's program brings together three leading edge activist cultural workers from Africa, and three U.S. scholars whose work examines intersections between art and activism. Hailing from fields as diverse as contemporary theory, Africanist studies, and art practice, participants will briefly present their own work and join in what promises to be a fiery and provocative roundtable discussion, moderated by Professor Biodun Jeyifo.

The roundtable emphasizes contexts in Africa and the African Diaspora, but will also will consider these themes in other times and places. Thursday's program features internationally acclaimed artist, Sokari Douglas Camp. She will present her reflections on themes related to those suggested here, and on her recent work, powerful steel-wrought indictments of transnational oil companies in the Niger Delta, which have been responsible for systematic patterns of violence and environmental damage in the region.

These two events together offer an engaging entryway into critical themes and questions surrounding the aesthetics of political criticism; changing narratives of liberation and freedom; intersections between artistic and political strategies; possibilities and limits of artistic and cultural work designed to effect change, and the place of the artist in times of civic crisis. "Art as Activism..." also hopes to address some of the following questions: What strategies have been adopted by artists in Africa and its diasporas? What are the particularities of 'civil society' in its postcolonial contexts? What role have artists and 'protest art' played in giving form to civil society in postcolonial African contexts? Can artistic practice offer a viable means of deconstructing discourses of power? How do practitioners carve space for artistic engagement when, in many cases, everyday life is cast in the shadow of social and economic crisis? How do activist practitioners avoid or address the risk of de-radicalization or the instrumentalization of their art?

"Art as Activism (and its limits) in the Post-Colony" is sponsored by the Committee on African Studies, the W.E.B. du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, and the Harvard University Art Museums.

For additional information, please contact Gemma Rodrigues.

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    Page created April 6, 2008.
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