Afroeuropeans: Black In/visibilities Contested

A Review of the 7th Biennial Network Conference, University of Lisbon, Portugal, 4-6th July 2019

By Carol Ann Dixon

“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. The three-day 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:

  1. Black Europe and its Intersections
  2. Afroeuropeans in the Arts and the Mediasphere
  3. Activisms, Resistances and Public Policy in Late Capitalist Europe
  4. Black Cities: Public Space, Racism, Urban Cultures and Segregation
  5. Decolonising Knowledge on Black Europe, African Diaspora and Africa
  6. Theorizing Blackness and Racial Europe.

The opening keynote – “Hidden in Plain Sight: Institutional Racism, Cultural Resistance and Knowledge Production in Black Europe” – was given by sociologist Stephen Small (Professor of African American Studies, University of California, Berkeley). His survey of the history of racism and anti-racism in Europe spanning several centuries addressed four “striking similarities” he had observed and examined about people’s lived experiences throughout the continent during 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; (2) “Entrenched vulnerability” – as recently exemplified via the Windrush scandal in the UK; (3) “Institutional racism” – experienced in every sphere and at every echelon of societies; (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.

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 a nuanced deconstruction of selected European nations’ structurally racist, “colour-blind” approaches to addressing issues of diversity, inclusion and community cohesion spanning several decades, Fatima El-Tayeb proposed a range of strategies for countering the neo-nationalism that has falsely constructed European people of colour as “eternal migrants” and also fuelled an upsurge in anti-Black racism. Central to her presentation was a call for more intersectional research and 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.

My research paper – “The Transformative Impact of Activist Artists in European Museums” – was part of a conference panel titled “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 was able to illustrate successful approaches to anti-racist and decolonial intervention through the following projects: (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) at the William Morris Gallery, London. The three other papers in this session focused on: the contemporary image-making of Portuguese installationist and scholar-activist Grada Kilomba (b. 1968); the self-portraiture and LGBTQ+ activism of Nigerian-British photographic artist Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989); and a socio-cultural and art historical appraisal of an 18th century religious portrait of an un-named black woman (c. 1791) by the Italian artist Giuseppe Trono (1739-1810) painted in the Bemposta Chapel, Lisbon.

Having contributed to important, wide-ranging discourses on “Image and Racism,” and also participated in other thought-provoking panel discussions on Afro-futurism in the arts, Pan-Africanism and the African Diaspora in Europe, and racism and anti-racism in the mediascape, I am grateful to the Sociological Review Foundation for providing an ECR conference support award to attend Afroeuropeans 2019. The next biennial network conference will take place in Belgium during 2021.

A lengthier version of this report, with photographs of the conference and cultural programme, can be viewed online via the blog, Museum Geographies.

Dr Carol Ann Dixon is a researcher and education consultant, affiliated to the University of Sheffield, with interests in African and Caribbean diaspora histories, cultural geography, museology and contemporary visual art. She blogs at https://museumgeographies.wordpress.com/.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: