Nearly 500 years since the first traders forced Africans into bondage, slavery’s violent, disorienting consequences continue, not least in the tension between Africa and the West. What was once called “the white man’s burden,” an attempt to civilize backward people, is now considered imperialism, colonialism, racism and cultural misappropriation.
Africa Atlanta, a year-long series of art exhibits, lectures, performances and conferences, strives to reshape the relationship between Africa, Europe and the Americas by connecting like-minded innovators and celebrating African cultures.
The program is the brainchild of Jacqueline Royster, dean of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at Georgia Tech. It is modeled after France Atlanta — an annual three-week event mounted by the French consulate that encompasses science, technology, business and art — which is intended to improve business relations with, and the public perception of, France.
Although Africa Atlanta shares these aims and programmatic themes, its fundamental mission is more radical. “The goal is for Africa and for the West to stop looking at each other through unchanged eyes that still see the relationship as being marred by the transatlantic slave trade,” says Royster.
“We want to highlight the cultural bond between Africa, Europe and the Americas, and to reinvent those bonds in a way that views everyone as equal partners,” says DeShawn Jenkins, Africa Atlanta’s managing director.
The idea grew out of an offer from the consulate general of Belgium in Atlanta to bring an art exhibition from Belgium’s Royal Museum of Central Africa (RMCA) while its building was under renovation. KONGO across the WATERS, opening in May at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum, juxtaposes art and artifacts from Central Africa from the RMCA and contemporary African American art from the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art in Florida.
“These cultures crossed the water during the transatlantic slave trade, and when people moved they brought talent and history with them,” Royster says.
It became the anchor event for Royster’s vision of a larger, multidisciplinary project.
“We have such a richly defined African diaspora in Atlanta, not just remnants from the slave trade,” Royster says. “We have people from the Caribbean, Latin America and Europe. Atlanta is a truly international city. What better place to think about reinventing the transatlantic relationship than here?”
Organizations with whom she discussed the concept shared this sentiment, and were eager to participate. Africa Atlanta is the umbrella organization for a wide array of events at colleges, museums and other institutions across metro Atlanta, such as Rialto Center at Georgia State University, which will host the Soweto Gospel Choir next month.
“[It]’s made up of singers from churches all around Soweto,” says Rialto director Leslie Gordon, who heads Africa Atlanta’s performing arts task force. “They’re so exuberant. It’s going to be contagious when they’re on stage.”
Although Africa Atlanta launched in October, the formal kickoff is February 28, with the opening of Mapping Place: Africa Beyond Paper, an exhibit at Georgia Tech’s Robert C. Williams Paper Museum. A central element will be a digital, interactive map of Africa that is modeled after Lukasa, memory boards devised by the Luba people of the Congo to keep historical records of political systems, lineage of ruling families, significant events and the geographical/territorial boundaries.
The kickoff includes a performance by the women of Atlanta-based Giwayen Mata and a panel discussion about the exhibit with Royster, Paper Museum director Teri Williams and Constantine Petridis, the curator of African art at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Africa Atlanta encompasses many art exhibitions throughout metro Atlanta. Most recently, Arms Race to Embrace: James Pate’s KKK Series (Kin Killing Kin), which addresses violence within black communities, opened Sunday at Clark Atlanta University Galleries. For details and information on cultural events such as those that follow and its many other programs, see Africa Atlanta’s calendar.
Film: The Triptych, a documentary about Sanford Biggers, Georgia Tech’s artist-in-residence, Barron Claiborne and Wangechi Mutu.
Shuffle, Shake and Shatter, a multimedia performance including Biggers’ film suite and music by Moon Medicine.
Fashion: AfricaForecast: The New Fashion Order, an exhibit about contemporary African fashion design.
Architecture: A panel discussion and architectural exhibition about Nigeria’s failed effort to relocate its capital, Lagos, to Abuja, Nigeria, where indigenous home owners abandoned their newly provided modern homes to move into familiar earth-and-thatch-roof dwellings they rebuilt for themselves in their backyards.