In this ninth post for the Mini-series “Curriculum as a site for Social Justice and Anti-Discrimination”, Tolulope Onabolu, Teaching Fellow in Architecture at the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, thematises the problem of aesthetic representation in the context of black Africans and their territorial occupation in West Africa. It is work in progress developing from his studio teaching and independent research.
The world is increasingly unthinkable – a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction. In spite of our daily concerns, wants, and desires, it is increasingly difficult to comprehend the world in which we live and of which we are part. To confront this idea is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to adequately understand the world at all – an idea that has been central to the horror genre for some time (Thacker, p.1).
At the start of the Sixteenth Century, the Portuguese explorer Duarte Pacheco Perreira made an account of his voyages around the world in a manuscript titled Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis. During his travels in West Africa, one of his many remarks on encountering Mandinka people was that they had faces, teeth, and tails like dogs. This would not be so remarkable if in the explanations and footnotes by Malyn Newitt (translator) hadn’t given justification to this form of writing as consistent with storytelling since antiquity, and in particular, when confronted with phenomena the authors could otherwise not comprehend. Newitt gives further justification of dog headedness in relation to the Histories of Herodotus.
In ‘The Travels of Ibn Battutah’ over a century earlier, again reporting on his experience in Mandinka territory, Ibn Battutah infers that, on one occasion, a slave girl given by a sultan to emissaries of a certain emir for entertainment was eaten by the emissaries who then presented themselves to the sultan with her blood smeared over their faces, thanking him for his hospitality. In addition, he reports that amongst other savage practices, the blacks have the practice of eating carrion. It is as if crossing the Maghreb into the Bilad As-Sudan (land of the blacks), one enters into a Lovecraftian universe, where black people are flesh eating demons.
Stories like these are consistent with the medieval period and form the substance of period dramas and fantasies like The Vikings, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, etc. In the case of the Vikings, the savagery is seen as part of a glorious past, but in the reporting of Africans south of the Sahel it is somewhat subhuman. What is it that creates a sense of the grotesque in the apprehension of black bodies and the spaces they occupy?
I grew up believing alongside many others of my generation and of the generations before mine, that black Africans had lived a more or less ‘animal existence’ before the arrival of Europeans. It turns out that this is false. Literacy is recorded as early as the thirteenth Century, in the establishment of the Sankore Madrassa in Mali (which held up to 700,000 manuscripts at its apex), from inscriptions on burial stones, and in the reporting of the strictness of Qur’anic teaching to children by the same Ibn Battutah. In addition, a Fulani script (Ajami) had evolved from Arabic orthography as early as the seventeenth century, over a century before Hegel.
When Hegel does finally arrive on the literary scene, he proclaims that, apart from the Europeans and Asians in the Maghreb, there is no civilization in Africa. One must ask, what really was the cause of the anxiety? Is it that despite our perceived difference, we are actually the same, and thus the cause of horror? Part of the answer is contained in the medieval myths circulating at the time between the traders in the Maghreb, the Spanish, and the Portuguese, that the ocean on the West Coast of Africa was unnavigable and if one ventured into it, “the water boiled”, “the air was poisonous”, “people were turned black”, and “ships caught fire”. Basically, from a Medieval world view, black Africa was the physical incarnation of Hell, and its inhabitants – demons.
The Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun of the fourteenth century goes a long way in dismissing the randomness of Medieval thought at the time, and devotes a significant amount of attention to discussing peoples and settlements, including black Africans between Ethiopia and Guinea. He then takes a critical position and offers a philosophy on the Bedouin life and what it means to live in the world. For Ibn Khaldun, Arabs, Berbers and black Africans, amongst others, live a quintessentially nomadic existence, without much care for luxuries. He explains further that the fascination with luxuries comes with the establishment of dynasties, the capitalist mode of production, the formation of settlements (towns and cities), and sedentary life – itself only possible due to favourable geography, geology, and climate, but a cause of corruption and a symptom of the demise of the dynasty.
Contemporary discourse on space and territory hasn’t evolved significantly from its medieval past, in the sense that we still associate and propagate the notion of territories occupied by black people as inferior, and to a greater extent actively ghettoize those spaces. We create distinctions between first world and third world based on the aesthetics of their urban environments, the robustness of their infrastructure and the strength of their armies. Nomadic spaces simply do not have these needs and all attempts at sedentary formations succumb to the nature of the ecosystems and biospheres which are part of the nomad’s territory. Is it perhaps time to accept that the aesthetic agenda à la Hegel and the West simply does not hold true for many parts of the world except in its classification of the grotesque?
My studio teaching in architecture for close to a decade has encouraged students to engage with themes such as incarceration, post-human ecologies, etc., and their potential for architectural representation. The purpose has been twofold. First, to challenge the hegemony of the neoliberal adoption of Heideggerian phenomenology. Second, to announce the agency of the foreigner/alien/other as constructor of spatial narratives. The relevant domains for these explorations included xenomorphic and alternative landscapes in science fiction, vampiric and murderous spaces in horror and psychological thrillers, etc. My current work continues along the same trajectory in a post-Hegelian dialectic following Zizek and attempts a reading of West African spatial practice in view of its Islamic heritage and Animist ecology contra the hegemony of its recent Christian Colonial history.
- Crone, G.R. The Voyages of Cadamosto and Other Documents on West Africa in the Second Half of the Fifteenth Century. Routledge, 2016
- Lupke, F. and Bao-Diop, S. Beneath the Surface? Contemporary Ajami Writing in West Africa, Exemplified through Wolofal, 2014.
- Mackintosh-Smith, T. (ed.). The Travels of Ibn Battutah. Picador, 2002.
- Newitt, M. (ed.). The Portuguese in West Africa, 1415-1670: A Documentary History, Cambridge University Press, 2012
- Rosenthal, F. (trans.), et al. Ibn Khaldun: The Muqaddimah, An Introduction to History. Princeton Classics, 2015
- Souag, L. Ajami in West Africa, 2010.
- Thacker, E. In the Dust of This Planet [Horror of Philosophy Vol.1]. Zero Books, 2010
Dr. Tolulope Onabolu is a Teaching Fellow in Architecture. He is interested in the relationship between subjectivity and sovereignty, and in the dangers of the aesthetic agenda within the sphere of politics. In his research and lived experience, reinforced by the work of Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Michel Foucault, and Georges Bataille, he has queried the logics of belonging, inclusion, exclusion, and consumption as spatio-political practices. In his studio teaching, he finds direct correlation in horror fiction and speculative realism on the issues of foreignness and alterity and uses their narrative forms to lay bare the explicitly political structure of spatial practices in architecture and the built environment.