On négritudes, agitation, and why we’ve never heard of Abdel Khaliq Mahgoub

African modernity must be considered on the basis of a comparative perspective in which European political modes of though are adapted to an African context, says Salah M. Hassan.

Salah Hassan on ‘The Conceptual Turn and the Postcolonial Moment in Africa- Laboratoire Agit-Art in Context’, October 2012. Photo by OCA/E.Hagestrand.
Salah Hassan on ‘The Conceptual Turn and the Postcolonial Moment in Africa- Laboratoire Agit-Art in Context’, October 2012. Photo by OCA/E.Hagestrand.

Salah M. Hassan is one of the leading scholars within Laboratoire Agit-Art, a Senegalese artist’s group that first arose in Dakar in the 1970s and which is often associated with the Négritude movement of 1930s France. This was also the subject of the talk given by Hassan at the Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA) when he visited Oslo in the autumn of 2012.

Hassan’s talk was the first in a lecture series staged by OCA about political art production in Africa in the post-colonial era, a programme which also features such authorities in the field as Manthia Diawara and Souleymane Bachir Diagn. The latter will speak at OCA on 22 February. Together, these lectures point towards an upcoming exhibition in Oslo featuring one of the founders of Laboratoire Agit-Art, Issa Samb.

Salah M. Hassan was born and raised in Khartoum and is now the director of the Institute for Comparative Modernities at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He has published works such as Darfur and the Crisis of Governance in Sudan (2009) and Diaspora, Memory, Place (2008). He is currently writing a book entitled The Khartoum School: The Making of the Modern Art Movement in Sudan. As a curator his work includes curating a section of Harald Szeemann’s 49th Venice Biennial 2001. Hassan is a co-editor of Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art alongside e.g. Okwui Enwezor. He will also be among the participants in the conference European Attraction Limited held in Oslo on 14 – 15 February.

Kunstkritikk met Salah M. Hassan in Oslo to talk to him about what premises for new, radical thought lie embedded in the layer between colonial and neo-liberal subject formation, but also to know more about how his own personal journey from Khartoum to Ithaca has shaped him as an intellectual, as a curator, and as a writer. The conversation is reproduced here in the original English.

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You’re trained as an art historian and your biography reads Goldwin Smith Professor and Director of the Institute for Comparative Modernities, Professor of African and African Diaspora Art History and Visual Culture in the Department of History of Art and Visual Studies, and Africana Studies and Research Center, both at Cornell University. What is the difference between Black Studies (African Studies) and Africana Studies and what do you consider to be your main field of interest?

Issa Samb and Koyo Kouoh in a discussion at the Munch Studio. Photo: OCA / Anne Marte Tørresen Sørås.
Issa Samb and Koyo Kouoh in a discussion at the Munch Studio.
Photo: OCA / Anne Marte Tørresen Sørås.

I’m an art historian by training and I am also involved in curating, but I have always had an interest in cultural and political issues. A few years ago, I did a book on the Darfur crises and I am now working on a book on the recent partition of Sudan. So I always find myself shifting between the two areas of interest and sometimes they converge. For an art historian specializing in the European renaissance, the library and the archive are already there. For us in the field of contemporary African art, the work is not only about studying, canonizing or theorizing, because the archival material from which to start is not there and one has to create it in the first place. The lives of artists and art movements need to be documented before they can be archived. The job for an Africanist art historian is a double one: you need to create the very raw material from which you can write and canonize art movements, and make them enter into the discourse of art history – create a library, an archive and from that develop a theoretical and art historical discourse. Like other non-Western art, African art has been relatively excluded from the larger narrative of art history, especially when it comes to modernity and contemporaneity. Even those African artists who have lived in the West continue to face a legacy of exclusion.

When it comes to African and African Diaspora Studies, African Studies started as part of area studies, mostly tied to the colonial legacy and the idea of studying non-Western people to be able to control them, a particular idea of the role of knowledge and power. In the 1960s, the movement of Black/Africana Studies, now called Africana or African Diaspora Studies, started with a liberatory agenda about de-colonizing knowledge. In the United States, black students revolted in many universities and fought for the creation of African-American Studies, Black Studies, or Africana Studies. From the beginning Black/Africana Studies was led first by African-American and African diaspora scholars while African Studies was dominated, still is, by mostly white scholars, especially in the US, UK and other European countries. At Cornell, the term Africana was historically suggested to try to bring the two together – African and African-American studies in one place – which means thinking about Africa in a global way.

The Cry of Jazz (1959), in which the filmmaker Ed Bland makes the argument that the black living experience in the United States shares a structural identity to jazz music.
The Cry of Jazz (1959), in which the filmmaker Ed Bland makes the argument that the black living experience in the United States shares a structural identity to jazz music.

When you look at models for studying the African-American experience, it is no longer possible to think of the isolation of African Studies, especially due to slavery, which led to the migration of African people. Just try to imagine the United States without black people. Many aspects of American culture won’t be available to us, from political discourses of social justice, to all forms and genres of American arts and culture, such as jazz and blues – you simply would not have the vibrant culture we know today. I say this to point out that the link between the Euro-American and African cultures has been crucial in the making of American culture. We have to look at the African-American experience as a global historical presence.

What keeps me engaged is to really rethink modernity from a comparative perspective. This is why you find me at the intersection of politics and art, aesthetics and art history. In that sense, the idea of coevalness of African modernity becomes something real, not just a slogan. My investigations into black Marxism come from that perspective of looking at modern European political thought as appropriated in the context of Africa. How can we articulate what we call non-Western modernity? I edited one special issue of the journal South Atlantic Quarterly on African modernism specifically to investigate such issues. The concept of African modernity is often being used, but very few scholars really tried to make an effort to theorize it.

How do you see the continuous presence of the many national European cultural foundations, such as Goethe-Institut, Alliance française and La Francophonie, British Council and the Commonwealth, Instituto Camões and the Lusophonie, in African countries today?

Okay, here is my position: shortly after independence, being euphoric with the celebration of independence and nationalism, in most African countries there was an interest in national institution building and culture became very important. In nations such as Egypt, Ghana or Senegal, having charismatic and intellectual presidents like Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah, or Léopold Sédar Senghor, there was a lot of interest in building cultural institutions and providing state patronage for the arts. But soon after these initiatives failed because these countries were governed by one-party systems that became prone to corruption. The new ruling class itself, as Frantz Fanon has analyzed it, was weak and did not have the equivalent resources that Western capitalist classes had, and they eventually became prone to dependency.

First World Festival Of Black Arts, Dakar, Senegal, 1966.
First World Festival Of Black Arts, Dakar, Senegal, 1966.

In the time of economic and political crises, culture was not important for the state and this became the peak migration period of most of the educated elites and highly-skilled laborers, including artists and writers, to Western countries or other places of wealth such as the Gulf States. The crisis was compounded further by the structural adjustment programs imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in many African states, which led to the privatization of the public sector, including culture and education. The question is: who filled this gap in terms of cultural patronage? The gap then started to be filled by Western governmental or non-governmental institutions with ties to former colonizers: the Goethe-Institut, the Alliance Française, the American Cultural Centers, etc. Despite all the problematics of dependency, these institutions are still filling a gap and providing some form of patronage for the local artists and art institutions. It is problematic, but in the absence of any other institutions, what is left? Only total dependency on Western NGOs.

You’ve spent considerable time in Khartoum, Pennsylvania and now Ithaca, New York, and have had links to the Middle East. In what way does your own personal trajectory inform you as an intellectual, curator and writer?

Many writers involved in the arts of west African descent are migrants like me. I represent that generation I talked about, who left their homes for economic and political reasons. I left the country in the mid-1980s to pursue a doctorate degree in the United States with dreams of going back home to help rebuild and help in research and training of a new generation of scholars. The military coup happened in Sudan in 1989 while I was abroad. Later there was no way to give anything back to your own people or country because they are being ruled by an Islamist dictatorial government that is bent on its own ideological program of Islamization of public life, applying its own narrow vision in a country blessed with the most amazing cultural and ethnic diversity. I still imagine the possibility of a partial return without a complete relocation, but how do you do that when the country is governed by a dictator who is killing his own people, has lost half of his country, and is involved in four wars: with the south, the east, in Darfur and the Blue Nile region. This makes it very difficult intellectually, economically and politically to survive or to do anything useful there. What do you do when faced with such choices? You try to contribute as much as you can, through your own work and developing your own professional life. We started (with other colleagues) a magazine on contemporary art, the Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art which has been very useful as a platform for developing a discourse on contemporary African art, placing African artists on the map and being on the cutting edge of African art scholarship.

Issa Samb, La balance déséquilibrée (Out of balance), 2012. Installation around a tree and performance. Courtesy Issa Samb; Jems Robert Kokobi, Abdou S. Diatta, Magaye Niang, Wasis Diop, Abdoulaye Ba and Alpha Mamadou Balde, Commissioned and produced by der dOCUMENTA (13) with the support of Raw Material Company. Photo: Nils Klinger.
Issa Samb, La balance déséquilibrée (Out of balance), 2012. Installation around a tree and performance. Courtesy Issa Samb; Jems Robert Kokobi, Abdou S. Diatta, Magaye Niang, Wasis Diop, Abdoulaye Ba and Alpha Mamadou Balde, Commissioned and produced by der dOCUMENTA (13) with the support of Raw Material Company. Photo: Nils Klinger.

In 2001, together with with Iftikhar Dadi, you curated the show Unpacking Europe in which a group of artists were invited to present work commenting on the meaning of Europe at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. The accompanying catalogue contained, among other things, a short version of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena and Susan Buck-Morss’ “Hegel and Haiti”. What makes these particular essays represent excluded knowledge or how do they challenge a privileged historiography?

In the 20th century, certain texts have been influential in transforming knowledge and paradigms of knowledge production about the non-West in general, the role it plays in the making of global history, the making of modernity, and in reshaping the west itself: for example Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) and Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987). Bernal provided the most interesting and impressive critique of the Classics tradition as a Eurocentric field, which looked at the West as a kind of pure place for the origins of civilization, where everything has been traced back to the classic Greek civilization. Said was influential in a similar vein in criticizing Orientalism and the link between power and knowledge production in the imperial West. Samir Amin took this further with his Eurocentrism (1988), providing a very good critique by exposing this paradigm based on universalist ideology and that intellectual construct which is Europe. He pointed to differences between cultures prior to the Enlightenment, in other places, calling them “tributaries” and addressing the rise of capitalism as a major factor in the rise of Eurocentrism.

Like Bernal, Amin is showing that Eurocentrism is actually tied to modern racism and capitalism. This product of the mid-19th century was necessitated by the rise of colonialism and of slavery before that. In order to enslave people, you have to have an ideological justification for making them exploitable, disposable, projecting them as less human, less intelligent, and as people without civilization. After Bernal’s Black Athena, the Classics, as a field of study and as a discipline, has never been the same.

In 2009, Manthia Diawara, with his camera, followed Édouard Glissant, on the Queen Mary II, in a cross-Atlantic journey from Southampton (UK) to Brooklyn (New York).
In 2009, Manthia Diawara, with his camera, followed Édouard Glissant, on the Queen Mary II, in a cross-Atlantic journey from Southampton (UK) to Brooklyn (New York).

Susan Buck-Morss developed her essay “Hegel and Haiti” into the book Hegel, Haiti and Universal History. The Haitian revolution was the biggest challenge to the idea of European modernity. What is interesting about the Haitian revolution is that it was not just a slave rebellion against European slave owners, but the fact that these were people who understood Western modernity; they were well-read in French culture, which they combined with their own African systems of thought to challenge the European notion of human rights and the “universal rights of man”. What she is pointing out is that Hegel’s dialectic of master/slave was impossible to develop without the Haitian revolution. Buck-Morss writes about the texts of Jean-Jacques Dessalines and other Haitian revolutionaries, trying to say that Western philosophy as a system of thought and epistemology is indebted to the contributions of Africans. The Haitian revolution was indeed one of the most important events in the history of the western hemisphere.

In his book The Black Atlantic, the scholar Paul Gilroy addresses the importance of completing the circle: you cannot study the African experience without the larger dimensions of the diaspora, and he discuss the triangle of Africa, Europe and the United States, and the importance of the Trans-Atlantic and the Middle Passage in the formation of African intellectual movements. His repositioning of the nature of the black intellectual tradition as transnational is a great contribution to the understanding of the nature of what he called the Black Atlantic as a counter-current to modernity. This becomes clear when you consider the intellectual legacy and contribution of Pan African intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul L. Robeson, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Édouard Glissant, among others.

How do you contextualize the formation of Laboratoire Agit-Art?

If we talk about the Laboratoire Agit-Art and Négritude, then definitely as a conceptual movement growing out of the rise of the post-colonial critique in Africa in the second and third decades after independence. It had to do with the failures of the postcolonial nation state and the ruling classes, economic and social crises, the collapse of the public sector, structural adjustment policies and subsidies lifted from education, all of which impacted people’s quality of life and made them start questioning.

Tapestry by Papa Ibra Tall.
Tapestry by Papa Ibra Tall.

It is true that, according to some interpretations, the Laboratoire Agit-Art group came into being as a form of rebellion against the instrumentalized Senghorian Négritude in Senegal and the Négritude-inspired pedagogy of the École de Dakar, but these views are simplified. We have to understand that the challenges for the early modernists were different, especially in the visual arts. Their task was to excel in the style of the West and they had to prove their modernism. Another aspect of the Laboratoire Agit-Art, is the neglected role of dramatists and filmmakers who were also of great importance in shaping the group’s work. For example, avant garde filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty worked closely with founders such as Issa Samb. Looking at all this within a complex and nuanced approach is important. Of course, Fela Kuti was a very important figure in shaping ideas within the group. There is evidence of contact between them and of admiration by the group of his pioneering critique of corruption and politics in Nigeria.

In your contribution How to Liberate Marx from His Eurocentrism: Notes on African/Black Marxism, part of the Documenta 13 notebook series (2012), you include a defense speech given before a military court written by the Secretary General of the Sudanese Communist Party Abdel Khaliq Mahgoub and a letter of resignation from the French Communist Party written by the Martinican philosopher/poet, Aimé Césaire. You bring about African/Black Marxism by applying a comparative stance between proletarian and anti-colonial discourses. Is this how comparative methodology typically applies in your practice as scholar and teacher?

I have always been troubled by the issue of representation, especially of conflicts of ideas between the West and the rest. My interest in comparativism led me to work with a group of colleagues at Cornell to establish the Institute of Comparative Modernities. This is the only way you can shed light on threads of modernities and not reduce them to being derivative of the Western modern. Going back to the issue of exclusion, there are so many narratives that have been excluded. The way globalization is normally understood is the expansion of Western knowledge and Western commodities and so on, without thinking that everything is two-way traffic.

In terms of my interest in the war in Darfur, which led to the book and conference on the crisis in Darfur and its re-articulation as part of a larger crisis of governance in Sudan, I was also troubled by the absence of the Sudanese voice in the debate at the time, and that certainly led to a misunderstanding, for several reasons. My objective was to insert the Sudanese voice into the narrative of the crisis, which allows the world to know about the very highly developed history of civil society in which you find articulations of the crisis in Darfur within the larger spectrum of the crises of the nation state in Sudan, Africa and the Arab world.

Abdel Khaliq Mahgoub; By virtue of Marxism (1959) detail from Salah Hassan: How to Liberate Marx from His Eurocentrism Notes on African/Black Marxism. Of the series: dOCUMENTA (13): 100 Notizen - 100 Gedanken No. 091/ hatje-cantz 2013.
Abdel Khaliq Mahgoub; By virtue of Marxism (1959) detail from Salah Hassan: How to Liberate Marx from His Eurocentrism Notes on African/Black Marxism. Of the series: dOCUMENTA (13): 100 Notizen – 100 Gedanken No. 091/ hatje-cantz 2013.

Abdel Khaliq Mahgoub and Aimé Césaire are two people from different places, but something is shared between them. They both came to similar conclusions and enriched the debate on black Marxism. Césaire rejected that form of universalism in his critique of Euro-Marxism in which he emphasized the importance of decolonization, especially in the context of the Algerian war, expressing his dissatisfaction with the official policies of the French Communist Party vis-à-vis nationalism and decolonization. In Sudan, Abdel Khaliq Mahgoub adopted Marxism in a very creative way, in which the issue of culture became very important in thinking of Marxism as a methodology of analyzing colonialism, and having a theory for decolonizing the Sudanese state and transforming society. For Mahgoub, Marxism presented the theoretical approach to colonialism, which in his view is very crucial to any serious project of liberation and decolonization. In this context, Marxism ironically (as a philosophy of European origins) became one of the most influential theories in the context of decolonization and the liberation movements in Africa and other parts of the Third World.

I see the strength of Marxism is in how the non-West has appropriated, reshaped and used it in the context of decolonization. In that sense, the non-Western contributions to Marxism prove to be very useful today. Very few people had heard about Abdel Khaliq Mahgoub in the English-speaking world. People only know that there was a very strong communist party in Sudan, but they don’t know why. I felt that this particular text will give the reader an idea about the Sudanese communist movement, which continues to be a force to reckon with in Sudan. Just recently, when the leader of the Sudanese Communist Party, Muhammad Ibrahim Nugud, died, thousands of people showed up to the funeral and many among them were young people, and many young women too.

In Norway today we are currently facing a debate on sponsorship, philanthropy and ethical considerations relating to the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo. The museum announced recently their new agreement with Lundin Petroleum – a company currently under investigation for complicity in genocide in Sudan. This has spurred a debate around the sponsorship of museums. Based on your background and knowledge from Sudan, how relevant is this discussion? Where should we draw the line?

Knowing capitalism by nature, the system is all about profit making, so in general there are no ethics involved when you deal with capital and market economy – and especially vis-à-vis exploiting resources from Third World countries. However, to be truthful and honest, I am not really familiar enough with this particular company or the debate in Norway to comment on the case of the Astrup Fearnley Museum. I know that the Chinese, Malaysian and Swedish governments were involved in extracting oil in Sudan, and in war zones. I am not sure where this particular company operates, but I assume it is within the context of the borders between the north and the south. I cannot comment on this without knowing the facts.

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