“Simply being present is not just productive – it is enough. Remember the value of memory.” – Ifeanyi Awachie
On the 21st October, RCA Visual Communication online lecture series, Fugitive Voices, hosted its first speaker Ifeanyi (ee-FAH-nyee) Awachie (AH-wah-CHYAY), an Atlanta-raised Igbo (EE-boh) writer and curator based between New York and London. Author of Summer in Igboland, a book of vibrant photography and writing which shares a powerful narrative of Nigeria through the eyes of a first-generation descendant. Awachie is also the Founder of Global Contemporary African Arts Festival, Africa Salon – “a social gathering, especially of writers or artists, at the home of a prominent woman, focused on pleasurable and intellectual discourse.” Ifeanyi’s self-taught curatorial and creative work is shaped by her interest in representing interdisciplinary, contemporary and celebratory images of Africa and the diaspora, pleasure politics, Black quiet and interiority, notions of luxury as a diasporic space and everyday Black life.
Her paper for Feminist Review entitled: “Archiving The African Feminist Festival Through Oral Communication and Social Media”, was the main focus of discussion for her talk with the Fugitive Voices students. Due to COVID-19 restrictions for mass gatherings, the talk was hosted in a virtual space which delivered a healthy dose of nuance to Ifeanyi’s key theme of physical presencing. This notion of “presencing” became even more timely and relevant for this year as we proceed during a time of pandemic and Tier 2 lockdown, “finding a line between virtual fear and comfort,” when absence seems to be the new normal. Physically, we are absent due to limitations by social movement restrictions; mentally, we are existing in a liminal space of missing certainty in the present, and absent anchors of a stable and secure future. A question that surfaced for me the most during this talk, was what is the true value of a lived experience?
The promise of presence, from an academic and occupational standpoint, is now being hosted on platforms such as Zoom, which takes away from the improvisation of a physical experience. The fact that her talk itself was recorded by the RCA, challenges Ifeanyi’s position that: “Not recording [a festival] responds to the rejection of knowledge gained through lived experience by offering knowledge that one must gain through experience. [Without being] physically present, you can never fully share in the artistic experiences and interpersonal exchanges that took place there, nor access the [festival’s] atmosphere.” However, if we are limited to screen interaction, are there alternatives to atmosphere creation and authentic conversation? And is the ongoing digital archive a future that we must welcome?
Ifeanyi, a self-taught curator, created “a space to think and talk about the beauty of African creativity — reclaiming joy for African discussions, and sharing knowledge about Africa from outside of the ivory tower.” As part of Ifeanyi’s work for AFRICA SALON, she hosted the event: ourselves + others: african feminist re-CREATIONS at SOAS. “I had in mind two experiences I had at SOAS to which I wanted to respond. The first was academic racism, which I encountered in certain women lecturers. Academic racism believes its knowledge of blackness and Africanness is superior because it is learned within the white, western institution rather than outside it, through lived experience or through alternative, indigenous ways of knowing.”
The narratives we are taught, institutionally and socially, are based on the systematic structures assigned to our social demographics. They rarely, if ever, consider the histories of other cultures unless it shines positively on their own – often othering these stories and dismissing them. “Oral archives are created in classrooms through exchanges about the class material. They are stored in the memories of those present.” Ifeanyi shared an example from her own lived experience as a black student at SOAS, when her “contribution to a class discussion about Nigerian linguistics was dismissed because [she] spoke from [her] lived experience as a Nigerian.” Instead of learning from Ifeanyi, a Nigerian native, her tutor had asked her to support her claim with an academic text. For Ifeanyi, this situation revealed a wider political context: that written knowledge about black culture, “retrieved from an archive largely produced by white men”, was more legitimate than knowledge orally transmitted by a black native.
The hierarchical notion that an orally shared human experience doesn’t qualify as a reference and therefore is not real knowledge, feels intuitively flawed (and as a spoken word artist, is one that I’ve encountered), yet continues to hold authority within the walls of western academia. Furthermore, when observed and heard through Ifeanyi’s notion of “presencing”, this instance reveals an additional layer of oppression hiding in plain sight in classroom dynamics: “One who does not contribute to the classroom archive may well be recorded as absent from that class.” This implies that because Ifeanyi’s contribution could not get past the gatekeeper of the classroom archive (her white tutor in Nigerian linguistics at SOAS), her presence in that classroom was never registered by others. This recurring silencing of black students by western institutions—records of knowledge that echo western power structures—and dismissing oral histories, speaks volumes for how black voices are muted and black bodies are rendered invisible more broadly.
Beyond the “means of speaking into institutional silence”, Ifeanyi outlined how black voices carry through other systems.” In the words of Gail Lewis, “on a structural level, the black woman is rendered absent as a political subject by the racist and sexist construction of gender, state violence, biased statistics and the intersection of these forces.” Social media, despite fronting as an independent, democratic tool for representing all voices, is an example of a racially biased platform that reproduces existing power dynamics. Its automated systems are built by white people for white people, algorithmically omitting black narratives, de-prioritising posts by black people on newsfeeds and therefore silencing black voices. These systems do not share the same racist frameworks by coincidence; shadow banning—“the act of limiting the places that content appears on a platform, without the user realising”—as an example, has been used by Facebook, who also own Instagram and Whatsapp – three prominent activism platforms – which have been used for protest orchestration by organisations such as Black Lives Matter, and the #ENDSARS movement in Nigeria. Giant corporations like Facebook seek to support, maintain and monetise the capitalist narrative that created them, by suppressing, hiding and erasing black voices, memories and recent histories that challenge and resist it. In many ways, shadow banning and institutional silence are contemporary echoes of “white glove archives”— those held by libraries, galleries and museums. For centuries, these have been assembled, stored, classified and recorded, favouring western colonial narratives over African cultural histories—other ways of living and knowing.
Ifeanyi created AFRICA SALON to take ownership back from the limitations of western colonial academic institutions that exclude Black and Indigineous voices, ways of sharing and producing knowledge, by creating a new environment that “detoxifies the effects of colonial discourse” by situating itself outside of the institution. “The African feminist festival taught me that if the institution dismisses our knowledge, we can create a home for it ourselves,” writes Ifeanyi on her motivation behind creating ourselves+others. On further rejecting institutional archiving methods, she adds: “the fact that the festival was not recorded with traditional, western archival tools does not mean it was not archived. ourselves + others was archived in the memories of those who attended the event.” However, Ifeanyi warns that “the binary that associates writing with western culture and oral communication with African cultures is false.” The act of “remembering the value of memory” as opposed to documenting an event, and “utilising different archival strategies, such as word of mouth” and voice notes are an active rebellion against colonial, institutional frameworks.
Many white institutions who consider themselves to be progressive (including the RCA) claim to be engaging in discourse around and implementing decolonisation initiatives. However, this mindset assumes that decolonisation is possible within establishments that are built with colonial tools. AFRICA SALON is a space that not only facilitates and validates orally shared knowledge, but centres black culture away from the white-centric institutions. The festival uses lived experiences of its participants and “documenting in memory” as tools with which to dismantle, not decolonise academic and institutional structures. For Ifeanyi and Fred Moten, freedom is about tearing institutions down completely and creating new ones which have not been conceived by Eurocentric perspectives; it’s about creating spaces which centre Black lives, encourage and celebrate Black creativity. AFRICA SALON rejects, voids and absences institutional “false progressiveness” where words like decolonise are weightless buzzwords, hashtags and performative fallacies. In the words of Audre Lorde, “the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house.”
Lived experience is not a lost art— its power comes from memory, fluidity and a subjective perspective—it is a means of escaping the Master’s clock, his rules and enslaving binaries. Using this fugitive tool highlights that you do not need the Master’s validation to be present; your presence alone is a valid and valuable form of knowledge with which to challenge the status quo. My takeaway from our conversation with Ifeanyi is this: your archive of lived experience is the knowledge and power you hold; remember, practice and share this art with others. As bell hooks shouts: “Education is the practice of freedom.”
A reflection on Ifeanyi Awachie’s lecture by Kelly Macbeth Mackay
Edited by Maya Guileva