Destination Africa: old and new connections

Mayke Kaag is a social anthropologist and a senior researcher at the African Studies Centre Leiden. She has written this blog as convenor of the Collaborative Research Group Africa in the world - Rethinking Africa’s global connections.

The National Museum of Ethnology is one of my and my family’s favourites: living in Amsterdam, we frequently come to Leiden over the weekend to explore all of the Museum’s treasures. On 22 March, the Museum of Ethnology was the venue for the International conference ‘Destination Africa: Contemporary Africa as a Global Meeting Point’. We chose this setting on purpose. Interestingly, in the museum the collections of Asia, Oceania, North America, South America and Africa each have their own separate section: on the right, on the left, upstairs, downstairs…[1] However, upon a closer look, one is able to discover all kinds of connections between the different sections and their collections, invisible threads weaving relations and telling stories of discovery, of exchange and trade, war and peace, of astonishment and unexpected familiarity, of copying and innovation.

Global meeting point
In this way, the Africa collection, in a room behind the Asia section on the ground floor, testifies to the basic idea of the conference, namely the fact that Africa has already been a global meeting point for ages. This can be read in what is displayed, but also in what could not be displayed (for instance, some African art objects have been so popular amongst collectors that they were subject to extensive theft or shady business - and as a result very little is left). 

Musical connectivity
What the collection shows is how global encounters on African soil have led to war and exploitation, but also to cultural exchange, craft  and  innovation. The exhibition  ‘From Mali to Memphis and back again’ is a case in point: it shows how music travelled with African slaves to the Americas, travelled back in the early 20th century, influencing musicians in West-Africa, and from there, influenced music in the Americas again. Africa evidently is a centre of global musical connectivity, with travelling musicians and music styles to and from the continent - a movement in which Africa repeatedly re-occurs both as a source and a destination (one only has to think of reggae and the Rastafari movement, and more recently, of the work of pop artists like Beyoncé).

Business gift to King William I
The Africa collection also shows the ways in which people in Africa received and viewed those who came to them, for instance in the images of missionaries and officials made by artists in the Congo, and a very beautiful iron statue of a Portuguese soldier made in the specific style of Benin. It can also be read from the precious golden tobacco pipe that was offered as a business gift by the Asante king in Ghana to the Dutch King William I.

Tin Dogon masks
And it illustrates how Africans have seized business opportunities by starting to make objects for newly arrived clients, such as the beautiful wooden service perfectly copied from bone China services popular in Western Europe in the 17th century. Among more recent examples are the Dogon masks made from tins, produced for the many tourists coming from Europe and North America, and increasingly also from Asia. These are just a few examples of how ‘Destination Africa’ and Africa’s global connections come to the fore in the Museum if one starts looking for it.

Old and new partners
During the two day conference we discussed similar and other economic, political, social and cultural encounters and related questions. The presentations focused on a wide variety of actors (Chinese businesses, East and West German expatriate staff, Rastafari) and fields of encounter (dance, enterprises, student homes). We talked about old actors and new actors engaging with Africa, but it became clear that the distinctions are not that clear-cut: is post-soviet bloc Hungary a new or an old partner in Africa? Are Indian educators recruited by commercial firms ‘new’ or do they belong to the ‘old’? The papers suggested that other categories than nations and nationalities are more appropriate to capture the dynamics of what/who is new, and what/who is old, for instance: neoliberal business models in education, young diasporic professionals returning to Africa.

Africans no victim of a rush
All papers nuanced the common view that Africa and Africans are victims of a rush towards Africa, by underlining African agency in many ways, and by pointing to layered and sometimes inverted power asymmetries. Particular striking examples were provided by Guive Mohammad Khan and Miriam Ocadiz. The first talked about Chinese motor firms in Benin that are rather vulnerable in the local market because of their limited knowledge of the local situation and the strong competition they are in. Ocadiz in her paper showed how new forms of transnational solidarity develop, this time Mozambican students who support struggles against racism in Brazil, departing from the idea that African parties are always the focus of solidarity, the subordinate ones in need of help.

For those who want to learn more: keep an eye on the ASCL website for announcements on the edited volume ‘Destinaton Africa: Contemporary Africa as a Global Meeting Point’ currently in preparation!

[1] It should be noted that in this set-up, Europe is the fascinating black hole, invisible yet omni-present…

Top photo: Places des Nations Unies, Ouagadougou. Foto: Wikimedia Commons/Helge Fahrnberger
Photo right: Photo marking the exhibition 'Van Mali naar Memphis, en terug' Museum Volkenkunde
Photo left: Golden tobacco pipe William I. Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen. RV-360-5211
This post has been written for the ASCL Africanist Blog. Would you like to stay updated on new blog posts? Subscribe here! Would you like to comment? Please do! The ASCL reserves the right to edit, shorten or reject submitted comments.



Museum Volkenkunde
cultural exchange
Africa's global connections

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