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Arts of Africa and Global Souths

Arts of Africa and Global Souths is an interdisciplinary research programme that focuses on the ways in which scholarly and artistic production that engages with the cultural, social and political pulse of contemporary societies can reshape structures of knowledge, power and social space as acts of decoloniality. Initiating, formulating and driving knowledge from the African continent and the global South, this research programme works with collaborators to situate the South at the forefront of contemporary scholarship and shift the centre of gravity of the global academy.

The research programme comprises the following: 

  • Publishing and Research of the South: Positioning Africa Mellon programme (from 2017)
  • The Art POWA network (from 2017)
  • Geopolitics and the Arts of Africa National Research Foundation SARChI programme (from 2016)
  • Visual and Performing Arts of Africa research focus area (2011 – 2016)

 The academic home of Arts of Africa and Global Souths is the Fine Art Department at Rhodes University in South Africa. Participants include the Research Chair, Research Associates, Postdoctoral Fellows, Postgraduate Students, Resident Artists, Resident Writers, Visitors and Collaborators. 

  • To produce original, high quality research in the form of publications, exhibitions, performances and interventions
  • To contribute to new modes of knowledge-production that are steered from the South and impact local and global artworlds, cultural sectors and societies
  • To grow research capacity through a co-operative research culture that builds collaborations with scholars predominantly on the African continent and in the global South
  • To foster a culture of academic sharing and cooperation by working on related topics and by developing non-hierarchical forms of ‘sideways learning’ and ways of ‘unlearning’
  • To engage with society by addressing pertinent social, political and economic concerns in South Africa, Africa and the global South

Publishing and Research of the South: Positioning Africa (PROSPA)

Mellon programme founded in 2017

PROSPA (Publishing and Research of the South: Positioning Africa) is a supra-national research programme that is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and focuses on the production and positioning of knowledge in the South. The core goals of PROSPA are to increase and strengthen scholarly activity in the visual and performing arts at African universities and to raise the visibility of Africa-based scholars on local and international platforms. PROSPA includes a postgraduate research programme that aligns with the SARChI Chair research programme, as well as a pan-African publishing network, a residency programme for artists and writers. RAW—Residencies for Artists and Writers—was founded at Rhodes University in 2014 with support from the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund, and now continues annually as part of the PROSPA programme. Art POWA (Producing our words in Africa) brings together scholars in the arts across the African continent as a way of sharing knowledge, strengthening the production of knowledge, raising the profiles of writers, and developing meaningful collaborations that are initiated and driven by African scholars.

Geopolitics and the Arts of Africa 

National Research Foundation SARChI programme founded in 2016

SARChI—the South African Research Chairs Initiative—was founded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in 2006, and aims to attract and retain excellence in research and innovation at South African public universities. Rhodes currently hosts a total of X NRF Chair Programmes, and in September 2015 Rhodes University was awarded four new SARChI Chairs, one of which was Geopolitics and the Arts of Africa based in the Fine Art Department.  The SARChI programme in the arts of Africa offers the opportunity for research-based postgraduate studies at the level of Honours, Masters and PhD, as well as advanced research at the Postdoctoral level. To date, research projects have focused on the arts of South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Nigeria, Uganda, Brazil, China and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

“Geopolitics” in the research of Geopolitics and the Arts of Africa is a study of the entanglement of geographic, political, conceptual, and situational positioning of Africa in relation to knowledge-production, with a particular interest in challenging hierarchical forms of power that privilege the global over the local. (“Knowledge” includes written scholarly knowledge and artistic practice).  Viewing all geographies as situational—that is, deeply embedded and simultaneously contingent, constitutive and process-based—our approach displaces top-down, masculineist frameworks of geopolitics and instead resonates in various ways with critical geopolitics, feminist geopolitics, anti-geopolitics, subaltern geopolitics and alter-geopolitics.

By referring to the “Arts of Africa” instead of “African art” we acknowledgement that the term “African art” is fraught due to the fact that it has been used in essentialising and at times derogatory ways in, for example, the arts, anthropology, historical studies, and heritage and museum studies. The “arts of Africa” registers art that has connections to Africa, but doesn’t need to fit into constructed categories (that is, particular types of art) that often rely on myth, skewed perceptions and stereotypes. Nor does this art have to be produced by particular types of people and moves away from essentialist, reductionistic notions of what an “African artist” might mean or might be expected to mean.

Africa in this research is formulated in multiple ways, and it acknowledges various geopolitical, spatial, conceptual and experiential approaches. While recognising and exploring these tensions and complexities, this research leans towards a locally embedded approach on the African continent as a way of addressing the imbalances of power in the international artworld. 

Visual and Performing Arts of Africa

Mellon Programme, 2011 – 2016

In 2011 Rhodes University awarded research Focus Areas to four departments in the Humanities Faculty, namely Fine Art, Journalism, English and Psychology in order to promote research and to grow research capacity. Seed funding was provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, with the expectation that these research areas would attract further funds and develop into self-sustaining areas of research strength. Professor Ruth Simbao founded the Visual and Performing Arts of Africa (ViPAA) programme in the Fine Art Department in 2011, and in 2017 ViPAA became part of the Arts of Africa and Global Souths research programme.

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Conceptual Frameworks

  • Epistemologies of space and place
  • Problematic dichotomies between space and time
  • Ways of place-making, place-knowing and place-being
  • Space and place in relation to conceptualisations of Africa and the south
  • New site-specificities, art and performance
  • Art and the relationship between global flows and embedded contex

Situating Africa/Writing Africa

  • Situating Africa in the south
  • Writing Africa from the south
  • Writing, positionality and the knowing subject
  • Issues of power in writing and publishing
  • Agency, narratives and counter-narratives
  • Writing and the politics of responsibility

Global Souths

  • South-south connections and strategies
  • The orientation of discourse in the arts
  • Africa in relation to various global souths
  • South Africa’s relationship to the rest of the continent
  • African relationships with China 

Geopolitical shifts in art

  • Myths of geographies and geopolitical issues of power
  • Globalization, geopolitics and art
  • Geo-epistemologies
  • Alternative forms of ground-up geopolitics
  • Cosmopolitanism/Afropolitanism and the arts
  • Rethinking ‘the local’ and parochialism 

Biennialisation & commodification

  • Issues of power, privilege and curating
  • Critiques of “global art” and curating
  • New ways of curating in specific African contexts
  • Biennialisation and the mis-shaping of “contemporary African art”
  • Art fairs that fetishize Africa/the south versus being of Africa/the south 

Knowledge and the construction of discourse

  • Beyond Art History cannons
  • Discourse and power in relation to Africa and various souths
  • The production of knowledge – ways of learning/un-learning
  • Shifting the centre of gravity of the global academy
  • Pedagogy and unlearning