Sightlines and African Urbanism

Later this month the Museum for African Art will kick off a five-part lecture series at Columbia University titled Sightlines: New Perspectives on African Architecture and Urbanism. The free lectures are co-sponsored by the Institute of African Studies, the Committee on Global Thought, and the Center for African Education, all organizations at Columbia working on understanding Africa. I had a chance to chat with Erika Gee, the director of education and public programs at the Museum of African Art about what we'll see in Sightlines, which starts up January 26th with a talk by Senegalese artist Viyé Diba discussing his use of African objects in his art-making. Other lectures I'd get to if I were in New York include Rebecca Ginsburg's talk Black Women in White Johannesburg: Domestic Workers' Spatial Strategies under Apartheid on February 16th and Mary Jo Arnoldi's Monuments, Urbanism, and Modernity in Post-Colonial Mali. Here's Gee.
 

Organization of African Unity, Bamako, Mali
Photo courtesy Mary Jo Arnoldi
© Donald Hurlbert
Organization of African Unity, Bamako, Mali Photo courtesy Mary Jo Arnoldi © Donald Hurlbert

Many African cities are urbanizing extremely rapidly. Lagos, Nigeria is now one of the biggest cities on the planet. Are there certain challenges to the way these places are developing that you see across various parts of Africa?
I don't want to generalize about all cities in Africa because of course they're all different, but something we hope to do is to challenge the notion that Africa is stuck in the past. These are world-class cities with all kinds of structures and monuments that are really grappling with urbanism and change. And their architectural fabric reflects that.
The talks range in location from South Africa to quite literally Timbuktu. Tell me about that Timbuktu lecture and what it hopes to say about architectural cross-pollination across the continent.
That lecture looks at West African architecture and how often times academics are quick to treat it as something apart from the rest of Africa and particularly North Africa. But curator Labelle Prussin looks at the Jewish influence in Timbuktu and tries to make connections between West Africa and North Africa. She sees an influence in architecture, art, and commerce, and makes the point that West Africa is really an area with a number of different styles.

Professor Rebecca Ginsburg will talk on February 16th at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs.
Professor Rebecca Ginsburg will talk on February 16th at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs.
Another talk that I'd be very curious to attend is on the spaces carved out by domestic help in Apartheid South Africa. Can you give us a preview?
Rebecca Ginsburg has done a lot of new research based on oral history and I think she'll show that in places of oppression there are a lot of subversive things people do [in their spaces] that don't outright challenge the reigning system, but are more like coping mechanisms. I hope people will also see parallels between black South Africans in domestic work under Apartheid and African Americans under Jim Crow.
Mosque Detail, Djenne, Mali
Photo courtesy Museum for African Art.
© Enid Schildkrout
Mosque Detail, Djenne, Mali Photo courtesy Museum for African Art. © Enid Schildkrout
If you could light upon one goal for Sightlines, what is it? To challenge a prevailing notion? To expand what people understand about architecture?

Ultimately I hope that people come away with a better understanding of how to read their own environments using these African cities and these African faces as a lens. I hope the audience will have a greater appreciation for African architecture and that they can also better understand the spaces they live in by looking at spaces that they may never visit.

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