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Decolonizing Sites of Culture in Africa and Beyond

UM-WiSER Mellon Workshop
November 20-21-22, 2017 // University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA

Available to download: Conference Poster and Program and Speakers Bios

Decolonization – a complex and contested term meaning many things, but essentially stressing the imperative of confronting and addressing the harmful impact of colonization in Africa and elsewhere – is not new. Recent protests calling for institutional decolonization, such as those organized on the campuses of several universities in South Africa, have posed radical questions about the sites of knowledge production, the ownership of knowledge, and why some kinds of knowledge have been granted greater status than others. Challenges for decolonization therefore remain acute and compel us to ask: How do we discern, unravel and dismantle damaging categories inherited from the past? How do we hear a greater range of perspectives, particularly voices that have been dulled or muted?

This workshop, bringing together scholars, theorists, practitioners, artists and cultural producers, aims to take stock of some of the strategies of decolonization that have been attempted so far in institutions of public culture – museums, galleries and heritage sites (including archaeological sites). What has worked? What has not? Where are we in the discussion and in the practical implementation of suggested strategies? The workshop is organized around four panels, each consisting of one keynote lecture and three respondents. The text of each lecture will be circulated in advance to registered workshop participants. A final session will provide opportunities for participants to discuss the workshop’s salient issues.

Monday, November 20

9:10-10:45 am » Exhibiting the Post-Colony

ANNIE COOMBES, University of London, “Exhibiting the Post-Colony: Africa in the World and the World in

Focusing on the representation of material culture from the African continent in the British Museum, Tate Britain and the Kenyan Community Peace Museum, this paper explores the contradictions at play when countries such as the US, the UK, Sweden, and Australia shoring up borders, excluding refugees and limiting benefits to immigrants at the same time as the museums they sponsor are celebrating ‘world art.’

Convener: RAYMOND SILVERMAN, University of Michigan; Discussants: SIPOKAZI MADIDA and STEVEN SACK, University of the Witwatersrand; AMANDA KRUGLIAK, University of Michigan

11:10 am-12:45 pm » Museums Without Walls

MORAG KERSEL, DePaul University, “Beyond ‘West Knows Best’: Decolonizing Archaeological Site Protection in the Middle East”

This paper discusses how the Follow the Pots project, centered around the lives and itineraries of Early Bronze Age (ca. 3600–2000 BCE) ceramic vessels from mortuary sites on the east bank of the Dead Sea in Jordan, has morphed into an attempt to understand the multiple and contested values of archaeological sites and objects to varied constituents

Convener: GEOFF EMBERLING, University of Michigan; Discussants: KODZO GAVUA, University of Ghana; BRIAN STEWART, University of Michigan; JUSTINE WINTJES, University of the Witwatersrand

3-5 pm » Museum Tour at Detroit Institute of Arts, Africa Gallery (followed by discussion with museum staff)

SWARUPA ANILA, Detroit Institute of Arts
Departure from Rackham building at 2 pm. Free; limited participation. Registration required at

Tuesday, November 21

9:10-10:45 am » Art Interventions

UGOCHUKWU-SMOOTH C. NZEWI, The Cleveland Museum of Art, “Artistic Interventions in the Museum: Détournement or is it a Case of Eshu Conundrum?”

This paper discusses the Mash-up the Archive, a multi-disciplinary research project, festivals, exhibition, and roundtable conversations, which involved nine artists, organized at the Iwalewahaus, University of Bayreuth, from 2013 -2015. It discusses the merits and perhaps demerits of a burgeoning form of artists’ institutional critique variously described as “decolonizing the museum” or “decolonial practice” in the European, African, and South American contexts.

Convener: LAURA DE BECKER, University of Michigan; Discussants: JIM COGSWELL, University of Michigan; KHOLEKA SHANGE, University of the Witwatersrand; FELICIA MINGS, Art Insitute of Chicago

2-4 pm » Museum Tour at Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Lifeways and Culture (followed by discussion with museum staff)

SHANNON MARTIN, Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Lifeways and Culture
Departure from Rackham building at 11:30 am. Free; limited participation. Registration required at

Wednesday, November 22

9:10-10:45 am » Disempowering the Colonial Legacies of Representation

MBONGISENI BUTHELEZI, Public Affairs Research Institute, South Africa, “Decolonizing Museums and Commemoration in South Africa: Three Ruminations”

This paper examines two public institutions—Freedom Park and the Zeitz Museum—alongside a popularly used commemorative form, the praise poetic form of izithakazelo, to ask, Might a further path to decolonizing African representation lie in popular forms that are used in daily life by the majority of people?

Convenor: CYNTHIA KROS, University of the Witwatersrand; Discussants: HLONIPHA MOKOENA, University of the Witwatersrand; DEREK PETERSON and RAYMOND SILVERMAN, University of Michigan

11:10 am-12:45 pm » Exhibitionary Futures: Roundtable Discussion (joined by all keynote speakers and discussants)

University of Michigan: LAURA DE BECKER, GEOFF EMBERLING, PEGGY MCCRACKEN, RAYMOND SILVERMAN; University of the Witwatersrand: CYNTHIA KROS; Human Rights Watch: GRAEME REID