How do you conceive of diaspora, and what does “Africa” mean to you? How do you engage its contours?
LÉNABLOU: “I do not conceive the diaspora as a theoretical or intellectual concept, but as one of self-existence. I’m the epitome of an uprooted body who had to adjust to a new land. I am a “diasporic reinvention.” I am a spark of Africa that tells an alternative story about life, death, love, and birth. This light has been transmitted into the body, despite the tear from the original source. I have retained most of Africa due to the presence of drums, the permanence of the initiation circle, and the symbiotic relationship between the body and rhythms in the Gwo-ka dance. What seems essential and vital to me is to restore the link between Africa and the Caribbean. This can be accomplished as a dual objective:
- Caribbeans as the diasporic confetti must continue to explore their history (slavery, colonization, assimilation, neo-colonization)
- And the African people must also discover and receive this history. The Caribbean must feed this memory, its African roots. From then on, Africa must be in dialogue with this rhizomatic culture that has grown here and there in the Americas. Therein lies the significance of increasing and multiplying exchanges via creations, theoretical concepts, performance, skills, and past and current knowledge.
RUJEKO DUMBUTSHENA: “Whether by force or chosen migration, African people find themselves scattered all over the world. I define diaspora as those places that Africans find themselves outside of their continent. Their introduction and flourishing in various cultures and countries has always seemed to me remarkable and inspirational. I have observed and learned about this from many of my fellow African artists living in the US. Their experiences ebb and flow over unfamiliar terrain like water. Africans living in America are part of the diasporic community with which I interact the most. In this community I have observed the varied manners in which the artists navigate their being, sacrificing the familiar, holding on to traditions and customs that are most dear, and letting go of those that no longer retain relevance. They are traversing barriers of language, culture and race with power and grace. Observing them facing these challenges makes me realize how transforming the various migrations of African people, both willing and unwilling, have always been. Shackled and taken, or fearfully fleeing, I could not conceive of ever surviving.
“African people, culture and customs were transported across the globe and have morphed due to the forced and self-imposed suppression of customs, transforming and adapting to their new and often oppressive circumstances. The repression or absence of one’s culture cultivates appreciation for and creates a desire to hold on to that culture. Africans are consistently finding new forms of expression, some of which have had a global influence on contemporary music and dance. These new art forms are often incorporated into mainstream culture, a testament to the resilience of cultural traditions in African people living in the diaspora and evidence of their ability to circumvent oppression. This talent is seen in the fact that many music and dance forms in the diaspora (Afro Cuban, Afro Peruvian, Afro Colombian, Haitian and African American, to name a few) have clear roots that can be traced back to their African ancestry.
“Although the connection that American music and dance has to African is tangible, I quickly learned that my innocent assumptions of camaraderie among black people living in the diaspora based on our shared race were limited. I remain alert to opportunities that would create a working artistic pan-Africanism. I learned that our connection lies within our shared stories and migration. To pursue the knowledge that freed me of naivete by educating myself in our common history and circumstances is the tool that helps me build community. It is with this foundational experience that I struggle for, and value the potential power of working together as diasporic Africans.
“Africa’s contours are both political and personal. The contours are infinitely expansive, formed by issues of Blackness, justice, Otherness, juxtaposed with a strong sense of belonging, resilience and community. On a personal level, I know I will never fully understand the depths of Africa’s gravid waters. I crave its ambience to fill me when I am empty. It stirs me up, unexpectedly lighting a spark in me, reminding me of my rich Africanness. Politically, Africa’s vastness makes it universal. It is full of irony, tainted and innocent, true in its purity yet highly corruptible. It is subjected to being robbed of its resources and left to starve as is reflected in its art. Africa is easily forgotten, often under-rated, yet it is a reflection of its enduring resilience, rearing itself into the current popular culture via sly appropriation. To me African art is so powerful in its’ specificity and meaning, that even while skimming its’ surface, I gain a wealth of information.
“Africa is what I need it to be when I need it. Its contours shift relative to my mood. Africa is personal, it moves me and holds me. It is the essence of my being, yet it often leaves me feeling empty. I love it. I miss it and long for it. Tiring of my constant desire, I forget it. This is invariably and quickly followed by a return to nostalgia. It is my all, yet leaves me empty.
“My past, its people and places, become idealized by their absence. Sensing the distance more profoundly creates a chasm that pulls me from my birthplace. I tend to move back and forth, between here and my homeland. Yet I often chose my first home rather than my comfort here. This leads to feelings of homelessness that are quite often assuaged by the sense of community created by those who dance together. Studying, teaching, and organizing African artists and the various communities that support the workshops and performances, has significantly shaped my American experience. They are giving me a home away from home. It is evident that even for American patrons and participants of African dance, it fills a need and facilitates a “coming home”. Their sense of longing, a thirst that is fulfilled through the carefully developed ancient rhythms and movements of Africa, reflect my own.”
YANIQUE HUME: “Diaspora is a condition, a state of being in motion, in process of becoming, a generative place of in-betweenity that gives rise to incredible creative potentialities. Diaspora is not an end but a process that holds together the two poles of roots and routes – the places from whence we came and the varying trajectories of our journey as individuals, communities and as cultures. Diaspora has a particular temporality, as it is not fixed but instead brings together different genealogies of time and space. I am a product of several accumulative diasporas – a coming together of multiple narratives and identities. I am most identified with my African roots as they have helped to define the contours of my consciousness and being but I am also a product of Asian and European legacies and also the Caribbean diaspora dwelling in different locales across the region and also in North America.
“In thinking through the meaning of Africa and this notion of diaspora the Atlantic Ocean comes to mind. This majestic body of water untamed and expansive stands for many as a symbol of rupture from our past, an underwater graveyard for millions who perished during the Crossing. But as M. Jacqui Alexander reminds us, not all Crossings happened at the same time, neither are they once and for all (1997). The Atlantic thus becomes also a source of continuities and connectivities, a reflective prism through which we all traverse to be reborn a new at the time of our passing. The Atlantic is the container of many hopes and aspirations and a uniting force that ties together the many cultures of the Americas with that of Africa.
“Africa is the homeland of humankind thus a site of origin for all people. However, it is not a space that has stood still frozen in time and it is not a space of singularity. My Africa is a potpourri of experiences, traditions, histories, and possibilities. At times a troubled place, a product, in part due to its turbulent history of cultural contact with the West, but notwithstanding the setbacks it’s a place of incredible creativity, innovation and dynamism. Africa announces itself through its sonic reverberations, its layered polyphonic rhythms that combine different hues of motion from the most dynamic to the most subtle. It’s unpredictability, which can be a source of worry or instability adds to its creative dynamism and hybridity.
“Fluidity is at the heart of mapping the contours of diaspora and Africa. Like the Atlantic that unites Africa with its diaspora, syncopated movement creates the pulsation, the ebb and flow, tidalectics that allows me to evoke Africa’s sensibilities. Beyond being a specific geographical locale, a continent of diverse cultures, Africa represents to me a particular sensibility – a feeling that manifests in and through motion. It produces its own structure of feeling that stresses non-linearity, improvisation, coolness, and incredible rhythm. Playing with these ideas through movement and sound become instrumental in creating choreographies that are able to bring Africa into tangible presence.”
JESSI KNIGHT: “The Diaspora, in addition to its existence as a result of the flow of blackness out of Africa into the world, serves as a resonance of how black people survive/carve their way through the world, how they find footholds to keep themselves tethered to one another, to their pasts (ancestors) and looking forward to an imagined future of what could be. Engaging in its contours feels like honoring those diasporic influences in my work. I am constantly pulling back layers of social conditioning wherein white standards and aesthetics are considered the bar to which everything else is measured, while blackness and most things Afrocentric somehow less than.
“I honor my roots, using what I know (hip hop, jazz, undulation, poly rhythm, etc.) and what I’ve experienced is how I have found some semblance of truth worthy of being shared. While I consider engaging with the diaspora critical to my work, essential to my sense of self as a human and as an artist, I am continually being reminded of my own privilege, my own relationship with whiteness and the muddled and imposed binary that says I cannot be more than one of these things at once.”