Following the release of their book, the architect-professor co-editors talk about their research process, Afrofuturism, and subverting expectations of Blackness

For the editors Anita N. Bateman and Emanuel Admassu, Where is Africa? isn’t a question, but rather an ontological statement. It represents the search, resolution, and continuous cycle of grappling with questions and ideologies about Africa’s representation at large. The statement exists to critically probe the poetic socialities of African and African-diasporic identities. The pair take up this question-statement in their recent book Where is Africa?, published by the Center for Art, Research and Alliances (CARA). Across 346 vibrant pages, Bateman and Admassu arrange interviews, photo essays, gatefolds with detailed artistic manifestos, and more. The book transforms concepts into objects, as the word “Africa” flows across the book, representing Admassu and Bateman’s trans-Atlantic arts conversation.

Engaging thoughtfully with contemporary artists, architects, curators, designers, and academics, their recently released book radically explores the zones where Blackness operates across geographical locations, planes of thought, and time periods. Where is Africa? is an expansive vessel for unpacking imperialist representations of Africa in a post-colonial 21st-century context. Their research is also fundamentally rooted in the concept of positioning—the unified state of an artist’s geographic location linked to their mode of artistic practice or form of expression—when speaking about Black identity, both materially and abstractly. The book searches for the links between African and African diasporic perspectives, even within systematically colonialist structures that aim to separate Blackness from Africa.

For Black History Month, Bateman and Admassu invite guests and fellow artists to take part in a series of panels, discussions, workshops, book readings, and more to celebrate the book’s launch, organized by CARA’s annual publication release program, Publishing Expanded. Ahead of their gathering, Document sits down with the editor duo to speak about their research framework, delineating Blackness on and off the continent of Africa, and the experience of speaking to artists.

Olisa Tasie-Amadi Jr: Starting somewhere slightly more introspective, I’d like to first establish a sense of your mindset through the process of editing Where is Africa? How has your relationship to your research evolved? Have there been any new feelings, new touch points, or new ideas birthed?

Emanuel Admassu: For me, the editing process was transformational because I was struggling with architectural discourse. Conversations with artists are always enlightening because they’re really about the search. They seem much more personal and much more honest. So as a way to think about and frame my work, it was inspiring.

Anita N. Bateman: I was also toeing the line because at that point I was always embroiled in these stoic academic conversations, as I was writing a dissertation and thinking more heavily about diaspora from an 18th to a 20th-century lens, and not so much speaking in depth with contemporary artists. I was in a different mind space, more so thinking about the historical contexts in specific regions of the diaspora. On meeting Emanuel that sort of broke open, because we were coming from two different disciplines, but also working with artists who were interested in these larger questions. We were speaking to early career and lesser known artists, which created more transparent and freeform interactions about the problems of our respective disciplines.

Olisa: Emanuel, you speak about frustrations prior to the creation of Where is Africa?, plaguing your practice at the time. Would you say this book, and any artists or contributions in particular, offered you the space to come to terms with some of those, or even find a resolution?

Emanuel: Where is Africa? is almost seven years of our lives, and a lot happened across that time period. At the time, I was teaching at RISD; teaching at an art school was already shaping my practice because I was getting students in my architecture studios who were trained as fine artists. And I think near the end of the period at RISD, we reframed our practice to be between art and architecture. Before that, it was very much an architectural practice. The conversations in this book really fueled that move away from being anchored in the discipline.

Olisa: And Anita, you talk about your work before this being centered in the past. Aside from the fact that the book features encounters with living artists, do you think there was a difference in your lens when engaging with your contemporary research compared to when engaging with that past?

Anita: Yes and no. I think as an art historian, you’re trained to think methodologically through the past versus the present. Where is Africa?—in relating to people of the African diaspora—highlights that there is no clear past and there is no clear present. As Christina Sharpe says, the afterlives of slavery have created this spectrum where there is an ever-evolving past and then an ever-evolving present, so those strict striations don’t exist. Before, I was thinking about that entanglement in terms of troubling chronology and how that relates to how contemporary artists take some of those thematic conceits and respond to them in their work. So I won’t say that my practice has done a 180, but there have been some other responses to this lumping of modern and contemporary art that I think this book challenges.

Olisa: Are there any clear structures in place that serve to potentially prevent that conflation between past and present?

Emanuel: When you read through the book, you begin to understand the set of ideas that each one of the artists and participants is engaging with. They’re all exploring different time periods, and sometimes they might be centering their focus on specific forms of art production, but other times, it might be a difference in political formations that they are working against or through. Trying to understand that duality and how all of these folks are in some ways looking in different directions, but have some ambitions that overlap; that’s where the image of contemporary African or African diasporic art begins to emerge. In that multiplicity, there’s an interaction with the difficulty of being Black in these spaces, and not only being Black in the diaspora but also for Africans that are based on the continent, and how these transnational forces encroach on their art practice.

Anita: Part of what Emanuel has just reiterated is that there are now emerging questions that then make a different chorus. What we were doing was trying to ask better questions of ourselves and the discipline, not to get towards solutions, but to think more strategically about why it is that these varying factors of diaspora make the present conditions for artists. And so part of the unanswerable question of Where is Africa? is baked into that ever-continuous inquiry where we’re getting closer to understanding different political affiliations and ideologies and these seismic shifts that are happening both on the continent and in the diaspora.

“There’s always a kind of pressure to separate Blackness from Africa, and for the most part, we’re trying to find links that resist or refuse that separation.”

Olisa: I want to center as well on your relationship with those featured in the book. For myself, particularly when engaging with another person of Nigerian ethnicity, or even African-American descent, I find that there’s a heightened level of emotional awareness and strengthened understanding between us. Not rooted in shared experiences per se, but more so a metaphysical bond through our shared reality of our Blackness. Can you talk about your approach to each of these interviews?

Anita: I think we would be remiss to say that this didn’t start as a text. Part of the research framework was geared towards bringing these interlocutors to the continent, specifically to Dar es Salam, to discuss all of this stuff amongst each other. Part of the reasoning for that is that we were heavily influenced by the former president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere: we were thinking about pan-Africanism; we were thinking about questions related to gatekeeping Blackness, and if that’s productive or not. We wanted people who were doing great work and who were speaking to certain frustrations that we were also having within our institutions. There was a lot of thinking about what 20th-century decolonial aesthetics looked like, but also how people were speaking to each other, both in convenings on the continent and off-continent, and how that was then translating to diasporic Black folks speaking back again to the continent.

Emanuel: In line with what Anita is saying, the commonality between both of our practices is that we have been making work that moves back and forth from both sides of the Atlantic. Anita through her dissertation and curatorial work, and for me, through my research. We’re always trying to find ways to connect the diaspora to the continent or vice versa. A lot of the folks that we were speaking to also approach practice from that standpoint. Even subtle things like the design of the book by Nontsi were about finding ways to think about the multidirectionality of Blackness. These types of sensibilities are brought forth because we want to resist the tendency of cultural institutions to define Blackness, and instead, produce work that really complicates the idea of it.

Olisa: Do you feel as though there was any point—both in your research for this book and concerning your respective practices—that a duality between the self on the continent of Africa, and the diasporic self emerged when trying to interact with these artists?

Emanuel: There’s always a kind of pressure to separate Blackness from Africa, and for the most part, we’re trying to find links that resist or refuse that separation. It’s very difficult to achieve when you’re interacting with different people, but the ethos of the project is to think about those links.

Anita: We also resist the idea of how colonialism has made borders almost impenetrable. So we’re thinking about fluidity in a more holistic sense. The local becomes regional, and that then becomes diasporic. We weren’t going in with the approach to ask someone who identifies as first-generation African the same questions as someone who’s been in the American South for three or four generations, or someone who is affected by the history of the great migration, for instance. We wanted to have an arsenal of questions to ask people that was very much tailored to their practice, while still facilitating more generalized conversations so that people could come in with different registers of knowledge and still have something to learn from each conversation.

Olisa: On the nature of Afrofuturism and the development of Black speculative vessels, speaking directly to Olalekan Jeyifous’s Pan-African Multiport, I was drawn back to the music of Sun Ra and his metaphorical exploration of forced migration from home to earth. His work and life actively sought to come to terms and revisit those traumas. However, sometimes coming to terms might not be enough when attempting to create art for the future. What messages or reflections do you think Jeyifous’s work can offer to the past and future of African economic existence beyond reconciliation for the dissolution caused by colonial infrastructures?

Anita: I think you make a good point that Afrofuturism isn’t necessarily directed at this question of reconciliation. First of all, we know some things can never be reconciled. Part of that is this temporal destruction that Afrofuturism engages because we know the past is potentially never recuperative. And so there’s this other temporal and spatial zone that is now the Afrofuture. That then is sponsoring this type of theoretical exchange between past, present, and future because Afrofuturism isn’t in the future. And as artist Lauren Halsey says, we can get to the Afrofuture now. It’s also always a series of asking questions, getting to the next place, and then bringing people along with you. Who then can have this discourse about what the imaginative space of this next place is? So speaking about Where is Africa?, we intentionally have not made it a question necessarily. It’s a statement. And similarly, the Afrofuture is not a question either. The Afrofuture is now—it is here.

Emanuel: Listening to what Anita is saying makes me think of a quote in the book from Salome Asega talking about the moment you’re a Black person in front of a computer, you’re an Afrofuturist. The participatory work she was doing was engaging with youth who are somehow dealing with the carceral state. They were always producing work that was about the present, even though it was operating within this framework of the future. Olalekan’s intervention in the book was the first iteration of the work that he ended up showing in the 2023 Venice Biennale Architettura curated by Lesley Lokko, and in some ways, it was an articulation of the world that he was building through those images. It was this incredibly powerful moment of the African diaspora gathering in Venice and imagining what the future of architecture might be. So I think this kind of nonlinear approach to these temporal, spatial, and aesthetic practices is what keeps us going, and hopefully, that will keep producing other iterations of this project.

“I think as the entanglements continue to intensify and we deal with newer forms of coloniality, people become much more explicit in their refusal of contemporary forms of Western imperialism.”

Olisa: Continuing on the topic of positioning and reclamation, Uche Okeke’s ideology on natural synthesis, when recounting the development of modernist art in Nigeria sought to create art that was rooted in indigenous artistic traditions. More importantly, to my question, their art was portrayed through Eurocentric symbolism that could position itself in a global context of the Black and African experience. Is there any sense that a similar system could function in the production of works today, in the context of the African rhetoric that is beneficial to the diaspora—acknowledging the difference in context and spatial zones to which it previously operated?

Anita: I think it was a different space and time because when you think about the Zaria Group, as you know, it was very much responding to a Nigeria on the precipice of being independent. The group itself was really interested in the hybridization of form. And so there was this indigeneity that was then responding to European modernism. I don’t know if scholars now think of creolization as a methodological approach that has a bearing on the present, as it was something [from] two generations ago. While it’s necessary to think about hybridity in those sociological terms, I don’t know anybody who would then be thinking about creolization in this way as a strategy, to be honest. And that’s a testament to how decolonial practices have moved the conversation forward so we’re able to see what worked 20 years ago and what doesn’t work now.

Emanuel: I agree, because creolization is kind of an assimilationist position. And I think because of the way the world is structured today, there’s much more room for various forms of refusal. There’s a recent text by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung where he introduces a concept that he calls pidginization, which in some ways is like learning and building on creolization, but also a form of refusal. I think it’s interesting to revisit some of these concepts because they had a lot of generative potential for particular moments in history, and they opened up imaginations to various forms of liberation. But I think as the entanglements continue to intensify and we deal with newer forms of coloniality, people become much more explicit in their refusal of contemporary forms of Western imperialism.

Olisa: In recent years, we’ve witnessed catalytic growth in the monetary value of African art across fairs and galleries. However, it’s an abstraction of the social reality between the artists and art that is actually being sold. Their connection to the social reality and living practices of the artists creating the work, and the community to which they are rooted, has been severed by the global fixation on its token value. What actions or artistic practices do you envision could serve as a way to combat this disconnect?

Emanuel: We’re asking that question throughout the book. Because, of course, the art market wants a few exceptional African or Black artists to be at the forefront and somehow represent vast populations of people. These artists also liberate these empires from having to pay reparations or actually build the infrastructure that makes art education accessible, or artistic discourse legible. The separation between the reflex to tokenize, and the creation of nurturing environments that cultivate growth and transformation in the arts, both on the continent and in the diaspora, is the question we keep going back to, both in the book’s conversations with Robel Temesegen and also Rebecca Corey. I think it’s always a question of What kind of relationship do you have with the art school? Is the art school being supported by the state? But also, the few artists that were able to gain recognition elsewhere, how are they staying connected to the community of students that are on the continent? This is precisely the work we have to keep doing.

Anita: There’s also the literal question of Who needs validation from the West? This is answered in Valerie Amani’s interview, specifically in the realm of wanting to engage fashion that comes from different places in Africa, and then having that migrate out to centers of commerce like Paris or London. There is the circuitous structure that is embroiled in tokenization, in the sense that people are creating very practical things that have another dimension to them, and then it’s circulated back to [the people] as something completely unrecognizable. I think that also happens in the commercial art market, where people are doing things that have a functional purpose initially, as well as an aesthetic resonance. and then that gets recycled over and over again. So this is not a surprising narrative. We see the art world do this all the time, where there are a few people who make it to the top, who then become the new stanchion of what art and culture means.

Olisa: You mentioned earlier in the interview about this concept of gatekeeping Blackness from the world and communities outside our own—do you think a situation like this is where that comes into play?

Anita: Just saying that you want a seat at a table that is yours is polemical, and we all sort of know it, but we can’t necessarily say why that is unless we draw attention to some very real facets of neoliberal function and of racist function. And all of that is to say that it relates to Blackness. It relates to Black people and an autonomy of how narratives and identities are structured, or how resources are then withheld. Viewing Blackness as a material condition becomes a way to negate the people it’s supposed to describe, then that becomes the issue. So gatekeeping itself is a potential way to circumvent that, but that also comes with prescriptions, right? And, if we don’t own it, what is it? How do we categorize it? And if it should be categorized, then that means it has a particular way that it needs to be addressed. There has to be an owner of it. So we get into some matrix of power and sovereignty in the opposite direction which I think makes the conversation worthwhile.

“…we have to be aware of the fact that we’ve been trained within these value systems that are very much tied up with colonialism. The work that we are all doing through art is trying to unlearn those value systems but also imagining alternatives.”

Olisa: Do you have any fear that the language perpetuated through the continuous tokenization of African art and its value in the global art market has begun to birth a deterministic model dictating what artists make, as opposed to, artists making what is true to them?

Emanuel: Speaking for myself, I moved to the US for high school, and that part of my education all through college has been here in the West. But also, even when I was on the continent, I was going to a school where, for the most part, the pedagogy was framed around the British curriculum. So we have to be aware of the fact that we’ve been trained within these value systems that are very much tied up with colonialism. The work that we are all doing through art is trying to unlearn those value systems but also imagining alternatives. A lot of it is subconscious. You might be intuitively responding to something, but that intuitive response has been shaped by a lived experience and an educational experience. It is a constant struggle, and hopefully, it’s clear in the book that we’re not trying to separate ourselves from that. We’re very much in it, and so are the artists that we’re having conversations with, and the institutions that we’re engaging with.