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Issue 006 Fall/Winter 2023 Essays

Maps of Attachment

On re-orienting our language(s) for African art and culture.

By Ifeanyi Awachie

October 2, 2023

From Where is Africa edited by Emanuel Admassu and Anita N. Bateman, Center for Art, Research and Alliances (CARA), 2023, courtesy Distributed Art Publishers.

“For the first time ever, the spotlight has fallen on Africa and the African Diaspora. . . . What do we wish to say?” asks Lesley Lokko, Ghanaian Scottish architect and academic and the first curator of African descent of the Biennale Architettura in Venice.

Though Lokko speaks specifically about the domain of architecture, the idea that African and diasporic voices are being given a spotlight “for the first time” raises questions about the association of Africa with “firstness,” with “emergence.” This framing draws attention to a broader issue that a new book rebuts. Where Is Africa (2023), co-edited by Ethiopian architect and professor Emanuel Admassu and American curator and art historian Anita N. Bateman, was launched at the Biennale Architettura and begins with a foreword by American architect, designer, and scholar Mabel O. Wilson in which she discusses the “projection of Europe’s colonial imagination” on Africa. She writes of the continent: “Africa became for Europeans a space into which they poured centuries of desire as well as scorn. They scribed empty white pages with black lines composing maps, diaries, ledgers, engravings, and stories of Africa—some practical, others historical, and a few phantasmagorical.” Here, Wilson describes the colonial impulse to treat Africa as a clean slate on which to impose ethnocentric fantasies, obscuring the lives, cultures, and visions that Africans had before the arrival of the West. With this introduction, Where Is Africa critiques this mindset, which treats Western “discovery” as the beginning of Africa’s significance in a particular area. Throughout, the book questions whose knowledge of Africa we choose to center.

The book consists largely of interviews with gallery directors, curators, artists, researchers, and architects. Through this dialogic form that centers practitioners with both theoretical and lived knowledge of Africa and the diaspora, the book seeks to “confront epistemologies of dominance and exclusion.” Where Is Africa shines a light on the ways that Africans on the continent—for example, Rakeb Sile and Mesai Haileleul, Ethiopian co-founders of Addis Fine Art gallery—are working to give others from their region a platform. Addis Fine Art’s art historical approach to their gallery program speaks to the long-established practices of Ethiopian artists. For example, the gallery was passionate about showing the work of Tadesse Mesfin, an artist whose impact can be felt across decades of Ethiopian art. As Sile explains, Mesfin has “influenced every [Ethiopian] artist below the age of forty-five.”1 Sile’s and Haileleul’s work speaks back to art histories that might characterize Ethiopian art as a phenomenon emerging now for the first time. An Ethiopian modernist, Mesfin points to the history of this artistic movement in the country, which dates back to the beginning of the early twentieth century.

From Where is Africa edited by Emanuel Admassu and Anita N. Bateman, Center for Art, Research and Alliances (CARA), 2023, courtesy Distributed Art Publishers.

Through the interviews, Where Is Africa aims to expand our conception of the continent beyond the notion of a monolithic region fixed in place, presenting instead a rich collection of local and transnational creative practices. Countering abstract views that paint the continent with broad strokes, Zimbabwean curator and editor Tau Tavengwa speaks of the sheer diversity of cities in South Africa alone—“the difference between Cape Town and Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, Durban and Pietermaritzburg—just that alone is insane”—naming local urban contexts that bring into relief the broad projections often conjured when one thinks of “Africa.” Through an array of conversations, Where Is Africa rethinks commonly held ideas about the continent as a place. Not stopping at simply questioning these ideas, the book documents a range of African and diasporic experiences, showing how these inspire art, research, and design.

In her piece, “How Black Is Africa?” American artist Amanda Williams seems at first to reproduce too-broad notions of the continent. In fact, Williams grapples with her previously held views of the continent, eventually arriving at a more concrete way of articulating Africa. Poetically recounting her travels to Ethiopia, Williams ruminates on the location of Africa in the Black American collective consciousness. She writes, “As someone who had romanticized and mythologized Africa as a place that is at once present and timeless, in that nine-hundred-hour ride [to Harar], I found myself dislocated, disoriented, and trying to get my bearings, literally and figuratively.” Williams experienced the pitfalls of such abstract views on a bodily level when her perceptions collided with local realities. She discovered that the monolithic idea of Africa that she had been taught could not be reconciled with its local specificity and the many cultural references that bespoke its transnationalism: “Even when I was in Africa, I was not in Africa. It was much further away than I could ever travel.” Mapping the coordinates of her specific experience, the artist models a process of rethinking that, if followed by others, could generate more of the localized, specific, concrete language needed in discussions of Africa.

Sile evokes another meaningful way of locating the continent when she notes the attachments of first-generation Ethiopian artists to the country, which act as a generative force driving their artistic practices, articulating a diasporic vision of Ethiopia that expands the country beyond its borders. This way of mapping Africa is regional and specific yet transnational, and makes Sile’s concept of the continent richer for its acknowledgment of the intangible bonds anchoring Africans elsewhere to Africa.

With regard to the field of architecture, Where Is Africa demonstrates that African scholars have been highlighting Africa locally and internationally for decades. Admassu interviews South African architecture educator, researcher, and curator Mpho Matsipa, who looks at how apartheid logic has persisted in the built environments of Johannesburg, sharing her scholarly understanding of how colonial histories haunt urban architectures on the continent. She also names Africans who have shone a spotlight on African architecture through art and research, including Jean-Charles Tall, founder of the Architecture College in Dakar. Matsipa herself curated the South Africa Pavilion at the 11th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2008 and participated in the exhibition in 2021.

From Where is Africa edited by Emanuel Admassu and Anita N. Bateman, Center for Art, Research and Alliances (CARA), 2023, courtesy Distributed Art Publishers.

Yet, while Where Is Africa documents African arts and culture on the continent and in diaspora, discourse both within and beyond the book centers Western validation of Africa. It is confusing to see external perspectives on African artistic and cultural production foregrounded in the framing of a book that focuses on Africans’ own reflections on their creativity. In Lokko’s view, “The ‘story’ of architecture is . . . incomplete” because the “dominant voice” has excluded Africa and the diaspora. Though there is truth to this statement, it begs the question: rather than emphasize inclusion, why not direct more cultural attention to the longstanding presence of African and diasporic voices? Why must the language of “firsts” persist when African architects, academics, writers, and artists have been building, researching, speaking, and creating all along? As Tanzanian fashion designer Valerie Amani says, “We need to start respecting ourselves, respecting our own platforms.” Attesting to the long history of African and diasporic arts and culture is a strategy that decenters the position of Western institutions in favor of giving value to the ways that Africans and diasporans recognize our own creativity.

The language of firsts only reinforces a Hegelian view of the continent, erasing the threads connecting periods of African arts and culture across history and obscuring the genealogy that links African practitioners and projects to one another.2 When this historical context is removed, we lend credence to Western-centric views of African achievement as isolated, exceptional, spontaneous—bursting into being without precedent. In reality, African arts and culture are rich and relentless. African cultural outpourings are illuminated, are seen, are recognized among Africans and the African diaspora. The question is, when will we as Africans and diasporans more commonly privilege our own gazes upon our culture over the moments when it is celebrated by others? As Tavengwa asks, “Who are we doing this dance for? Are we dancing for ourselves . . . or are we . . . performing?”

From Where is Africa edited by Emanuel Admassu and Anita N. Bateman, Center for Art, Research and Alliances (CARA), 2023, courtesy Distributed Art Publishers.

The year 2013 provides a prime example of how far such notions of emergence can reverberate. In response to the globalization of African music, film, fashion, and art, there was a groundswell of interest in African creativity from outside the continent. This was arguably the moment when afrobeats3—including then-ubiquitous singles such as Davido’s “Gobe” and WizKid’s “Jaiye Jaiye”—began to break into the global pop music industry. In Western media reporting, the period was often marked by the phrase “Africa (is) rising,” which echoes the diction of “emerging” and initially referred to economic growth on the continent. The “Africa rising” narrative suggested that contemporary African arts and culture were becoming relevant for the first time, which begs the question: to whom? Afrobeats was already dominating the radio in cities such as Enugu and circulating in Nigeria and among the diaspora. The “Africa rising” narrative rendered invisible Africans’ and African diasporans’ own consumption and validation of their pop culture. Ten years later, why hasn’t the narrative changed?

As Admassu explains, “Part of why we named this whole project Where Is Africa is because we really need to understand where the funding is coming from.”15 While he raises an important question about the origins of the financial resources that stimulate projects in Africa and, implicitly, the agendas that drive them, it’s worth noting that the question itself—where is Africa?— also risks diffusing Africa into an abstraction. At what point can we shift from acknowledging the unwieldiness of speaking about the continent to naming its manifold realities? At what point do we acknowledge that we know where the money is coming from and lead from that position of (insider) knowledge? At what point will an informed, multifaceted way of speaking about Africa become the norm?

Through artworks, essays, and interviews, Where Is Africa offers fertile language for marking the local and transnational spaces where Africans live, work, and imagine as its center. Were such a vocabulary to permeate all levels of our discourse on the continent and the diaspora, “Where is Africa?” might become instead “Africa is here and here and here.”

From Where is Africa edited by Emanuel Admassu and Anita N. Bateman, Center for Art, Research and Alliances (CARA), 2023, courtesy Distributed Art Publishers.


1. Elizabeth W. Giorgis, Modernist Art in Ethiopia (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2019), 36.

2. German philosopher Georg Hegel famously claimed that Africa has no history. Omotade Adegbindin, “Critical notes on Hegel’s treatment of Africa,” OGIRISI: A New Journal of African Studies, 11, no. 1 (September 4, 2015): 19–38.

3. Not to be taken as interchangeable, as it often is, with capital-A “Afrobeat,” the genre originated by late musician Fela Kuti. Reggie Ugwu, “How Afrobeats Became Pop Music’s Next Big Thing.” BuzzFeed News, September 9, 2016,