Newly appointed ASC Associate Director Naomi André recently co-edited a forthcoming book to be published in the University of Michigan Press’ African Perspective series. Working with Yolanda Covington-Ward (University of Pittsburgh) and Jendele Hungbo (Bowen University, Nigeria), André and her collaborators have produced an important scholarly collection of essays titled African Performance Arts and Political Acts. The collection presents a diverse array of perspectives assessing how African arts and performance form, challenge, and create accounts of history, politics, and culture.
African Performance Arts and Political Acts looks at a wide range of performance and art forms from different countries in Africa. Ranging from theater to opera, radio broadcasts to protest music, and religious healing to hip hop, the collection embraces the diversity of African cultures and arts in its analysis of their impact on politics and history. The various essays in the collection are based on work in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, Cameroon, Tanzania, and Nigeria. Because of its wide breadth and depth of analysis, André and her collaborators draw on African heterogeneity in the arts to make broader arguments that are relevant to scholars who study African performance and arts, but also to those whose continental focus and experience lie elsewhere.
The essays in the volume express different continental and diasporic experiences, ranging from storytelling in a village or a political speech on television. All these types and forms of performance and art deal with expectations about language, culture, and influence on the person engaging with them. The collection stretches ideas around studies of performance and its meaning, which is something André said is “great to do on the African continent.” While many of the essays are located in specific spaces, they tell stories of colonialism, post-socialism, and post-apartheid. From this, André and her collaborators seek to assess what is “similar and different, and why.” Performance study on the African continent is undertheorized, and André told ASC that it is essential to bring these studies to a broader, global audience.
The introduction of the collection speaks to how such heterogeneity may appeal to a broader audience on both a theoretical and empirical level.
Performances in Sub-Saharan Africa are rarely cloistered events that occur in isolation, separated from social, political, and broader cultural contexts. In fact, one of the defining elements of performances across African countries is that they are steeped in meaning, drawing on historical legacies, cultural identities, and references to daily life. Interwoven between historical scholarship, contemporary reviews, live performance, and lived experience, performances, whether staged or in daily life, present articulations of changing times. The consciously constructed “work” of performance regularly interfaces with other performed cultural acts, including frequently—and importantly—political action. During (and enduring) politicalupheaval and oppression, performances provide an opportunity for dialogue, resistance, andpolitical action. In contrapuntal voices, the arts of performance also express continuing andevolving formations of social and national identity and relationships.
Speaking to ASC, André stated, that the collection speaks to “the vibrancy and importance of seeing Africa and Africans as “fully human and on an equal footing” in terms of cultural production across the world. Through focusing on the arts and performance, André spoke of the importance of understanding the vast continent through human interactions and life that “don’t need fixing.” This approach aims to bring “Africa into a broader human conversation” and look at larger global concepts that may speak to all people through the lens of African performance and cultural production. André commented that “it is really important to dig into the specificity of difference and then analyze and understand what is relatable to any group. The book is written in a way so that someone who is not an African Studies specialist can relate to what we are saying. Similar to the performance itself, everyone can get something out of the book by engaging with it.”