SPARCK was initially conceptualized as a triennial project centred around three-year thematic foci. With this in mind, in 2007, a working document was produced that set out key themes that would be addressed in SPARCK’s first three years of activity. Authored by urban cultures scholars Dominique Malaquais and AbdouMaliq Simone and choreographer Faustin Linyekula, and refined in 2008 by SPARCK co-directors Kadiatou Diallo and Dominique Malaquais, this document appears below.
Critical reflections on Africa today are peeling away the veneer of bad news and bad faith that has long characterized discourse about the continent, in order to highlight domains of vitality and efficacy. While they undoubtedly draw on historical antecedents and past imaginations, reflections of this kind are intensely contemporary. How, they ask, do actors across Africa today relate to, articulate and seek to remake the larger worlds in which they operate and how do they draw attention to these processes? Two areas of focus stand out: (1) the uses to which cities are put by various actors as mechanisms for constructing and renovating economies, cultures and selves; (2) the prolific insinuation of Africans into the global world through the intersection of migration, commerce and related diasporic practices.
Urbanisation and trans-national commerce have historically constituted the key infrastructure for social and economic development across the world, and so it comes as little surprise that similar conduits are at work in Africa today. Yet there is something striking about ways in which processes of urbanisation and structures of trans-national commerce operate in contemporary Africa. Despite the persistent efforts of states, multilateral organisations and a wide range of specialist institutions, all intent on bringing “order” to these processes and structures, the nature of urban change, the elaboration of cross-border and cross-continental exchange, and the structures of migratory movement to which these give rise follow neither consistent nor predictable economic formulas, rationalities or governance arrangements. Such an adamant “similar but different” trajectory does not reflect deep-seated African cultural peculiarities; it is driven by practices whose roots lie in combinations of poverty, political complexity and the existence, in close proximity to one another, of aspirations that often do not sit well with one another.
What exactly, then, is at work? What enables cities in Africa to act as dynamic machines in the midst of infrastructural collapse? While attention in the media is placed on the desperate efforts made by migrants to reach Europe on leaky boats, groups of traders from small provincial markets across the continent buy into apparel factories in China. As Melilla and Ceuta dominate the news, Nollywood booms, Mouride import-export businesses make inroads across the globe and Congolese sapeurs turn heads in cities from Tokyo to New York and Mumbai, engaging complex networks of production and exchange with economies planet-wide. How do these realities coexist? The challenge is that there are no unequivocally clear answers to this question. Some approaches, however hold promise…
The Art of the Deal
A thorough understanding of how things work, when they do indeed work, must consider how hundreds of deals, small and large, are made on a daily basis. In a region of the world where it is not clear what the most well thought-out policies, development programmes, and business plans actually accomplish – and where assigning clear roles and responsibilities to specific actors and institutions is often neither possible nor a luxury individuals or communities can afford – deals may be the only things that people have.
In the realm of the deal, objects, people, and places that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with each other come together, at least momentarily, to produce new opportunities and resources. Nations, in the classical sense of the term, cannot be built in this context – in this realm where things get done because, fleetingly, the time and the place is right for a particular collaboration and in which there is no telling whether what is possible today will be so tomorrow. Yet deals often work. Money is made, people are fed and go places and create rich and engaging lives for themselves. In the process, multiple, entangled, nations are born – nations that often prove significantly more flexible, and as a result better adapted to the everyday existence of the continent than those born of colonisation’s violent cutting apart of Africa.
Given the importance of these considerations and taking advantage of the fact that they are on the minds of many people and organisations at the moment, deals, diasporas and the cities that birth them constitute the thematic focus for SPARCK’s first three-year programme. Entitled NET/WORKS: Trans-Local Cultures in the Making of African Worlds, this programme focuses on the cultural dynamics at work in a core group of cities on the African continent and in its diasporas. In Africa, the principal focus is on three countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Senegal. Beyond the continent, SPARCK’s attention is drawn less to Europe and North America (where the gaze commonly turns when talk of the diaspora begins) than to the East and South: to Asia (China and the Indian subcontinent) and to Central and South America. Sometimes, at the request or suggestion of partners, projects range further afield, bringing into play still other parts of the world.
By mobilising various facets of artistic and media production, as well as academic deliberation, workshops exploring highly charged social issues, and outreach initiatives of various kinds, SPARCK’s first three-year programme attempts to highlight how the manoeuvres, tactics and performances of deal-making actually work in cities of different sizes and scales. Focusing, as broadly and originally as they wish, on concepts and practices of deal-making, on lives lived in the diaspora and on urban environments born of such concepts, practices and lived experiences, creators in many fields – photography, film and video, installation and performance art, choreography, theatre, web and new media art, poetry, prose and non-fiction writing – generate works that highlight and bring to life for multiple audiences a wide range of issues facing the African world today. Audiences seeking scholarly or practical approaches to these issues find them addressed in a host of other SPARCK endeavours – conferences, roundtables, readings and hands-on workshops.
Mid-Sized Cities and their Megasisters
Contrary to what one might perhaps expect, the urban centres on which NET/WORKS concentrates are not all megacities. A balance is struck between such behemoths as Lagos, Kinshasa and Dakar on the continent or Guangzhou, Karachi and São Paulo in the diaspora and medium-sized cities known for their roles as a centres of highly effective deal-making in areas of trade, cross-border commerce, and migration. Three such smaller enclaves are a focus of particular attention in the context of NET/WORKS: Lubumbashi (DRC), Aba (Nigeria) and Touba (Senegal). How they relate to the region’s giants is a key question for the programme, driving numerous projects and reflections.
Why medium-sized cities when the region possesses real urban giants? There are several reasons. The giants, or primary urban areas (Dakar, Lagos, Kinshasa) – with swelling populations, overwhelming demands of resources and space, overcrowded informal sectors and weak industrialisation – have become increasingly dependent upon provisional accommodations and compensations, to the detriment of working out new production systems. Medium-sized cities often prove to be more viable spaces for generating innovation. Intense political contestations present in the primary cities, and the frequently arbitrary and repressive modes of decision-making and regulation that are brought to bear on these cities and their inhabitants, commonly prove paralyzing. In contrast, secondary cities often assume an important role as loci for deepening particular specialisations and incubating experiments that bring together different sectoral and territorial actors, prompting new forms of work and modes of action. These, in turn, may in time provide models for the larger cities. Additionally, the primary urban systems are increasingly disjoined from the national territories of which they are a part, and so medium-sized cities come to play an important role as mediators between various production systems, cultural orientations and shifting national affinities.
Also, it can be easier to engage the shadows of urban systems and spaces in smaller cities than in large ones, systems and spaces of deal-making that depend upon and bring into being complicated relationships between visibility and invisibility. Again – though perhaps in more readily identifiable ways here than in megacities – actors, places, materials and actions that, on the surface, would appear to have little to do with each other, actually connect, and in deploying these connections point to an architecture of migratory, trade, and resource flows that remains largely unexamined in classical studies of African urbanism. At hand, in this setting, are urban realities that in large measure resist summation and synthesis. Serious engagement with the deal-making processes that underpin and drive them requires a toolbox that fosters different ways of looking at and representing things. Key among the tools available in such investigations are artistic practices and innovations – practices and innovations that intersect, at times in explosive fashion, with scholarly investigations born of the social sciences.
The foregoing is not meant to suggest that megacities the likes of Lagos, Dakar and Kinshasa should be bypassed – or that they do not play a critical role in the articulation of SPARCK, for indeed they do, drawing the attention of a significant number of NET/WORKS projects, from residencies to publications, workshops and conferences. The point, rather, is to underscore the fact that such cities are not the “only game in town” and that (contrary to what the literature on African cities and the increasing number of exhibitions on urbanism on the continent tend to suggest) their existence is a function of other, smaller urban enclaves with which they are in constant conversation. These conversations – exchanges involving goods, people, ideas, imaginaries and a broad palette of languages – are the lifeblood of networks that crisscross the continent and its diasporas, producing a complex and fluctuating weave of social, political and symbolic economies. Such economies belie notions of “centre” and “periphery”, “formal” and “informal”, underscoring the reductive and artificial nature, and ultimately the uselessness, of such dichotomies as means of structuring knowledge about the African world.
Theme into Structure – Words by Way of Envoi
SPARCK, then, actively rejects notions of centre and periphery. With this in mind, one of its primary goals is to work with cultural practitioners by going to them rather than asking that they come to SPARCK. Residencies and related projects take place across the continent and beyond, in a radically de-centered approach to collaboration and production. Live-feed Internet connections, outdoor public film projections and social networking set-ups of various kinds (from Facebook to blogs and trans-continental artworks that travel in taxis) are intended to allow wide-ranging participation by heterogeneous and far-flung publics and to foster horizontal networks of exchange and engagement. As people, institutions and places, projects, art works, performances and texts come together over the course of the first three-year programme, novel ideas and undertakings emerge, increasing the richness and complexity of a groundbreaking experiment in Pan-African exchange.