Just weeks after arriving in Chicago, Yesomi Umolu, now exhibitions curator at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, stumbled across the African Festival of the Arts in Washington Park.
Surrounded by music, arts and crafts celebrating the traditions of the continent, Umolu’s wheels began to turn. “I thought, What is this thing, and why is it here?” said Umolu. “There must be a history to it.”
Embedded within the South Side’s annual festival is the long and somewhat fraught history of Pan-Africanism—the transnational socio-political movement considering forms of solidarity across the African diaspora and exploring shared cultural touchstones, particularly as a means of uniting against oppressive forces. It’s a narrative with plenty of chapters on Chicago’s South Side, where social, political and artistic movements, including local collectives like AfriCOBRA, promoted Pan-Africanist ideals and aesthetics in their work.
Today Umolu recognizes a rekindling of interest—not to mention a certain urgency—around the “rediscovery” of notions of Africanness, not only on the continent but in Chicago, too. Her latest project will investigate these interests. Tentatively titled, The Ties That Bind: Waves of Pan-Africanism in Contemporary Art and Society, and presented by Logan Center Exhibitions at the University of Chicago, it will address Pan-Africanism’s relationship to artistic production on the South Side and connect this to global contemporary art.
This spring Umolu, who is also a lecturer in the Division of the Humanities, was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts to begin archival research and travel for the project. In addition to institutions in the U.S. and Europe, Umolu will visit sites in Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana to mine national archives and study the congresses that took place on the continent. The Warhol Foundation fellowship is providing her with the time and funding to flesh out what is still just a loose knot of theory and thought.
“The idea needs to be parsed out and explored through research and conversation,” she said. “It’s probably 70 percent what I’m looking to discover and 30 percent things I think I already know. It’s very exploratory, which is what’s exciting about it, actually.”
Her two-year research project is guided by three questions, which will direct each of the three public congresses Umolu plans to convene in Chicago. The first congress will focus on what she dubs “the return,” or the theory that people of African descent, after being influenced by the West, will inevitably be drawn back to the continent as a site of rediscovery and engagement. “It addresses the question of, why would someone like me be interested in returning to Pan-Africanism as something we need to think about today?” said Umolu, who is Nigerian-British and has lived in the United States for the last five years.
The second question surrounds non-alignment, looking at moments of schism when people began to resist Pan-Africanism as a notion in their life and work. “Pan-Africanism has historically been a divisive term, with many finding it too reductive or too aspirational—this idea that just because the African diaspora can trace its origins to the continent, which happens to be a massive geographical territory with huge social, economic and cultural diversity, that we will have anything in common,” Umolu said.
The third and final congress will look at horizons, asking when, where and why the diaspora will meet again. It will consider a contemporary world where artistic innovation is flourishing on the continent, where global blackness is so often read as being synonymous with American culture, and most importantly, where tensions around race, migration and neo-colonial enterprise remain matters of urgency.
Like the earlier transnational gatherings of an international cohort of Pan-African scholars, thinkers and artists throughout the 20th century, the congresses will serve as an opportunity to share experiences, present work and engage in conversation around present forms of solidarity across the diaspora. “The accent on the project is on the congresses,” Umolu said. “It’s on bringing people together once more.”
The final product of Umolu’s research, due in 2018, also remains to be determined. She’s working toward a final exhibition that would span various sites across the South Side. But it could also result in a book or an interactive website. What’s important, Umolu said, is that it’s a conversation.
“Hopefully, this project is a way to think about how this really interesting cultural makeup of the South Side of Chicago can mobilize together around a set of questions,” she said. “It’s not just about the Logan Center bringing audiences to us; it’s about us going to them, and engaging in collaboration with other South Side cultural organizations.”
The Warhol Foundation’s commitment to Umolu’s research also represents a key moment for Logan Center Exhibitions. She sees this as an opportunity to distinguish the program as a home for this kind of long-term, embedded research project.
“We would be the locus for taking on an artistic or curatorial research question from its conception,” Umolu said. “We would find the form to make sure it’s being explored and connect it to curricula and the public. And we would work with it through to its final fruition. That’s something I really hope the Logan Center Exhibitions program can do more of in the future.”