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Harvard Scholar Opens Black Arts Initiative Conference

The third biennial Black Arts Initiative conference began Monday, October 9 with a keynote address from renowned Harvard University scholar Homi Bhabha at Cahn Auditorium.

The conference, this year titled Black Arts International: Temporalities and Territories, was created and organized by E. Patrick Johnson, Carlos Montezuma Professor of Performance Studies and African American Studies, as a means of bringing together scholarship, performance, and expression of black artists and academics.

“I’m thrilled that this conference is happening, and that it is happening here,” said Northwestern University Provost Jonathan Holloway before the keynote address. “I salute all of you for being here for this important work… Let’s look at the world with all of its complexity, and through a lens that’s expansive and not limited. I’m a historian by training but I’ve learned that being a historian is not enough. We have to ask questions that an artist would ask, that a sociologist would ask, that a film critic would ask…. Teaching in new ways for a new future. That’s the hope I have for this gathering. It’s a signpost for possibility.”

The conference, which boasted artists, critics, and scholars from South Africa, Germany, England, the Caribbean, as well as the United States, offered events across the Northwestern campus and Evanston. Johnson said the discussions sparked in panels and classrooms during the conference have never been more important.

“Given our current political climate, it is my belief that art is still a viable means through which we might speak truth to power,” Johnson said. “No less true four hundred years ago than four hours ago, it is through expressive culture that blacks in the diaspora have survived the most pernicious forms of oppression. This conference in many ways speaks to that history, but also to how we might forge a path forward.”

Johnson introduced keynote speaker, Bhabha, the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and Director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University, as one scholar he greatly admired.

“His work has been so influential that scholars, including myself, have been transformed by his work,” said Johnson, who also spoke about his beloved and dog-eared copy of Bhabha’s The Location of Culture.

Bhabha discussed a wide range of topics in his address, rooted in his analysis of South African artist William Kentridge’s “More Sweetly Play the Dance”— a film installation that encircles the viewer in a multiscreen caravan procession as figures walk across a charcoal-outlined background, as a brass band plays. Bhabha showed clips of the art installation and then touched on a number of different issues from the Black Lives Matter movement to the ongoing surge of refugees from Syria and other war torn lands.

“Freedom of movement is one of the oldest and most elemental kinds of freedom… and movement is at the crux of the refugee convention,” he said. “The refugee must be outside his country of origin, and the fact of having crossing an international boundary is an intrinsic quality of being a refugee, but fleeing across an international boundary is only half the refugee story.”

Refugees, Bhabha said, seek political asylum by convincing others that they’re in mortal danger in their homelands, based on what they know of their past, thus being expected to occupy both the past and the future at once. He talked about how the artwork looks at this dichotomy, and how it also represents other conflicting realities, like both life and death, existing side-by-side. 

He also discussed the imbalance and anxiety that can exist between those holding power and those without. “The gaze can shift,” he said. The ruling class “may have power but may fear they don’t have authority.”

Bhabha also took a moment at the start of the talk to encourage the audience to be aware of the dangers of the current political climate.  

“The notion of Making America Great Again is profoundly steeped in violence. … Making America Great Again has everything to do with threatening DACA students. It has everything to do with shaming LGBT. Making America Great Again is a violent creed, not a patriotic creed…I  want to say the issue is not to Make America Great Again. The issue is to make America safe again, to make America of all colors and all classes and all generations aware that surveillance is not security. Surveillance is not safety. Those of you who remember James Baldwin’s words, this was something he was very serious about. He said, the Great Cold War was not to make us safer, but to make us scared.”

Sangodare Wallace, an independent filmmaker, a founder of the Black Feminist Film School, and a visiting artist at the University of Minnesota, flew from North Carolina to attend the conference.

“I enjoyed the speech and he touched on many of the things I’ve been speaking and writing about,” she said. “I’m also looking forward to the rest of the conference, and especially the film panel.”

Jillana Enteen, an associate professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, said she admired Bhabha. “He’s been so influential for me and my work,” she said. “It was wonderful to hear him speak.”

The weeklong conference also included a screening of Sankofa followed by a panel discussion; an undergraduate poetry slam; the opening-night performance of Tarell McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water at the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts; a conversation with McCraney the following day; as well as panels scholars, performances, readings, and more.

Black Arts International: Temporalities and Territories is sponsored by the Lambert Family Conference Gift, funded by the generous donation of Bill and Sheila Lambert.

– Cara Lockwood