Researching Returns

In our ongoing research for The Ties that Bind: Waves of Pan-Africanism in Contemporary Art and Society we have explored many facets of Pan-Africanism, its connectedness to the South Side of Chicago, and how this movement has transformed considerably to make way for contemporaneity, internationalism, and multigenerationalism. We have examined maps, memoirs, diary entries, meeting logs, conference programs and abstracts, exhibition catalogs, and novels both fiction and non. We’ve met with influential artists, community leaders, and activists with ties to Chicago as well as those with roots nationally and internationally. We have posed many questions concerning Pan-Africanism as a movement, as an ideology, or as a way of life. Some of these inquiries are closely related to our personal encounters, while other questions have been excavated and rehashed from generations past. Our research has taken many twists and turns that were both surprising and enlightening.

Much of our investigation has included foundational reading on identity, race, representation, colonial history, and post-colonial theory. A few of the most powerful writings include essays by famed cultural theorist and sociologist Stuart Hall and equally famous writer and activist James Baldwin. Hall’s essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” (1990) examines the ways in which Caribbean cinema addresses the colonial imposition and influence of Europe. In exploring writings by famous scholars such as Marcus Garvey and Frantz Fanon as well as Rastafarian ideals, Hall challenges the commonly referenced notion of identity, suggesting that we approach identity as a “process,” one that is in constant flux. Hall firmly situates these ideas within the African Diaspora. Baldwin’s 1957 “Princes and Powers: Letter From Paris” gives an account of the first Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists, which took place in Paris in September of 1956. Here, Baldwin describes in detail the contentious interaction between celebrated African-American writer Richard Wright and famed Martiniquian poet Aimé Césaire where they discussed the imposition of colonial powers on African Culture. Wright openly praised the European influence on the continent, citing that it advanced dated African practices. Césaire vehemently disagreed with this assertion. Writings such as these have offered profound examinations of the connection to (or separation from) Africa that many within the diaspora have cultivated. These formidable texts have addressed the idea of Pan-Africanism and its multiple meanings and trajectories. 

Research for this project has provided the opportunity to meet with trailblazers who have closely engaged with Pan-Africanism in their lives, scholarship, and artistic practice. Of the enlightening meetings that we have had, a few that stand out specifically include our conversations with filmmaker Floyd Webb, photographer Marilyn Nance, and scholars Dominique Malaquais and Abdul Alkalimat. Webb shared with us his deep interest in Africa as a young child growing up on the south and west sides of Chicago. Nance recalled how she applied to be a part of the group of American artists who participated in FESTAC ’77, one of the largest Pan-Africanist festivals. Malaquais offered valuable insight into her in-depth research on the numerous Pan-Africanist art and culture festivals that marked the 1960s and 1970s including FESTAC ’77. As a native Chicagoan, Abdul Alkalimat offered his expertise regarding the extensive roots of Pan-Africanism in the city. He shared stories of F. H. Robb, also known as Hammurabi Robb, the scholar, writer, and filmmaker who fostered cultural exchange and knowledge at The House of Knowledge, located on the South Side of Chicago. The House of Knowledge was one of the many Chicago institutions that celebrated their connection to Africa as early as the 1920s. One of the founders of the Organization of Black American Culture, a collective of African-American writers, artists, historians, educators, and intellectuals that also originated on the South Side of Chicago, Dr. Alkalimat spoke about the city’s early and ongoing connection to Africa via the first Conference on the Negro, which took place on the Midway Plaisance in 1893. These conversations and many others highlight how Chicago’s connection to the continent informed our programming for the Returns convening.

Scheduled for October 13–15, 2017, Returns unpacks the impulse surrounding the return to Africa as a home or origin quite prevalent in Pan-Africanist ideals. Although perhaps not suggesting a literal return to the continent of Africa, the idea of returning either through practice, tradition, or ideology has reoccurred throughout our research. One of the most pointed and complex questions that we have encountered thus far remains “what encourages the return?” Further, what part does personal narrative play in propelling returns to the continent and what is the outcome of such a return?

Here are five informational readings that will further illuminate the focus of our first convening of Returns.

Sheridan Tucker
Curatorial Research Assistant