On a recent visit to the United Arab Emirates, I was able to catch an inspirational exhibit of photos called Africa Uploaded, as well as the second installation of the four part series As it is! hosted at Dubai’s Mojo Gallery. The series of art exhibits and workshops curated by Annabelle Nwankwo-Mu’azu, focuses on the works of 21 contemporary artists from Africa and its Diaspora. With a world class series of art and culture events such as Art Dubai, and the Dubai Film Festival, Dubai is staking its claim as important emerging center for the international creative community. By hosting As it is! The Mojo Gallery is making a push to add African voices into the mix. The current exhibit, Statement’s of Intent: A Generation Provoked, looks at how today’s generation of African artists deal with issues of identity, migration, displacement, and marginalization in today’s version of a globally interconnected world. The main event which takes place in March will coincide with Art Dubai.
To be honest, Dubai wasn’t the first place I thought would be a center for African artistic expression. But after spending some time in Dubai, I can see the importance of recognizing and emphasizing the voices of the African diaspora on the Arabian peninsula. Wole Soyinka, the patron of As it is! puts this idea into historical perspective and challenges the impulse to connect Africa with former colonial powers in Europe. According to him, Leopold Sedar Senghor was one of the few leaders who recognized a need to redirect those ties:
He was the earliest to recognize and articulate the need for a black African linkage to that cultural repository that he named Arabite, and he matched his words by deeds in creating opportunities, as head of state, for the mutual cultural interrogation between both sides through expositions and Festivals.
This idea reminds me of the Arabic calligrapher that I met in Pikine, Senegal, whose work has been at Islamic art institutes around the world. The religious dimension alone should be enough to forge a strong connection between Arabs and sub-Saharan Africans, but as Professor Soyinka recognizes there is still work to be done:
Despite a historic foothold in the African continent, the Arab world still exists in as profound ignorance of the African world, its history and creative vitality, as the African world also does of the Arab.
And what better time than now for “black Africa” and Arab countries to forge a relationship of solidarity? When it was clear that Tunisia was headed for a revolution, still disillusioned by the situation in the Ivory Coast, I became hopeful at the possibility for similar waves to spread across the continent. I heard many journalists predict as to where the revolutionary spirit would and wouldn’t spread in the Arab world, but rarely in those early stages did I hear mention of the rest of Africa. The language that we use to suggest that Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and the rest of the Maghreb are not a part of Africa points to a very real and predominant psychological separation between the lands divided by the Sahara.
Since I’m always interested in the state of affairs of the diaspora, I was on the lookout for signs of the experience of Africans on the Arabian Peninsula during my trip. In Dubai, there is a substantial and visible population of both Arab and non-Arab, Muslim and non-Muslim Africans from all over the continent. South Africans, Kenyans, Nigerians, Ethiopians, Egyptians and Sudanese seem like the largest contingents. And while the existence of these communities could work to bridge any divide over time, I’d guess that right now at least, the majority of these folks aren’t trying to put down roots.
The relationship between Africa and the Arabian peninsula isn’t new, and recent arrivals, from around the African Diaspora are just adding on another layer to a long history. Ever since seeing the Saudi Football team in some World Cup, I’ve been intrigued by Arabs of African descent, but until recently their history was unclear to me. Historic pictures around Dubai, of pearl divers and fisherman, depict groups of men who have clear African roots. Former Arab empires stretched across the Indian Ocean, with places like Oman and Yemen at the crossroads between Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. The Arab world enslaved and transported Africans long before Europeans, with trade routes passing through Timbuktu, reaching as far as the West African coast in Sierra Leone, and the South Eastern Coast in Mozambique. Communities of mixed African-Arab lineage formed from Basra to Mombasa, retaining cultural elements from both worlds.
There is plenty to be proud of in this historic connection. In the history of Islam, “black Africans” take a central role. Bilal, the first slave to convert to Islam, was a black man. The Christian Abyssinian king, who protected Malik and the other early followers of The Prophet from persecution in Mecca, was just across the Red Sea in a kingdom that encompasses modern day Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. But this is not the Black Atlantic. While I saw plenty of Afro-Arabs, I had trouble identifying, in public at least, any sense of the pan-African identity or connection with a diaspora that so characterizes that other ocean. The unifying feature amongst these communities remains religion, language, and a firmly Arab oriented identity. From my Atlantic perspective, I’m bewildered that the connection and shared lineage between Africa and the Arabian peninsula isn’t acknowledged or even openly celebrated.
I expected, perhaps naively, that there would be a more enlightened view towards sub-Saharan Africa from the Arab world. Beyond proximity and a shared history, I thought that a solidarity would form amongst two groups who are both formerly colonized, currently living under despotic regimes, and misrepresented by the West. But, in the UAE African culture still inhabits a marginal place. I talked with Shannon, one of the gallery’s managers and an African-American ex-pat, for a long time about the similarities and differences between the US and the UAE in the struggle to fight negative perceptions of non-Muslim black people and Africans in general. She seemed to agree that the same negative depictions of Africa exist, and any attempts to represent African culture, such as in Dubailand’s “Global Village,” generally dwells in lowest common denominator stereotypes.
The As it is! exhibition is a necessary step in the right direction to fight those stereotypes. The UAE is a place of economic opportunity, and with its diverse mix of inhabitants it has endless potential for cultural mixing and exchange. Art exhibitions and cultural events that address the diversity of its international population are necessary to make it attractive as a welcoming place, to not only make money, but to settle. At the same time, the democratic spirit that is sweeping over the region has me optimistic that the pluralism of the Arab world will emerge as the voices of the many minority communities will gain a foothold. Perhaps the voice of the Afro-Arab community will be one of those. I believe that an acceptance of diversity strengthens our feelings of a solidarity in which we start to see that in the fight for representation and self-determination, one group’s struggle is the struggle of us all.