9 September 2021

Thinking With | Souleymane Bachir Diagne | African Art as Philosophy

CONVERSATION | 9 Sept 2021 | 16.00-17.45 CET | Zoom online

As part of our Thinking With series, we invite Souleymane Bachir Diagne to discuss his work in conversation with Aude Christel Mgba and Ryan Skinner. In African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson and the Idea of Negritude (2011), Diagne writes of Léopold Sédar Senghor’s lifelong project to think through “affirmation of the self [as] a natural reaction to colonial domination” (188): “Beyond affirming the aesthetic virtues revealed in pieces of art created by Africans, Senghor wished to stress the metaphysics they offered for reflection: along with the art through which it had been written, he wished to rescue a worldview, a feeling and a thinking that were also contributions to the humanism of tomorrow by African-being-in-the-world” (7-8).

In our efforts at the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen to better honor and listen to the lives the ‘objects’ in our museums have led and wish to lead, we hope to better think more reciprocally in relationship to these objects and the communities invested in their being. We are compelled by Diagne’s work to think more deeply about the histories, afterlives, and temporalities in which our objects exist. How might we allow the objects to speak better from themselves, for themselves, while all the while honoring the complex positionalities of those who are enjoined to engage these objects? We understand those persons who are called upon to better honor the objects to be: those living in the places where the objects were obtained (gifted, seized, stolen); those who relate to African art from diasporic sensibilities; and those who are implicated by a colonial past as perpetrator and/or who benefit from systems of privilege, as per Michael Rothberg.  Together, in Relation, and even thanks to the tensions implied by Glissantian Opacity, we hope to better be responsible to our work and engagement as professionals and visitors to our ethnographic museums.

  • How are these ‘objects’ connected to the lives of those who created, use, and honor the art?
  • And, within these deliberations, the problem of the 'we' arises. Are we assuming already that the objects are truly communal, and belong to a 'universal' heritage? What are the implications of such an assumption? (With special thanks to Aude Mgba for this question).
  • How do we consider them as philosophical texts?
  • How might these philosophies allow us to better consider the complex process and ethics of restitution? 
  • How might coming into contact with “African art as philosophy” from the perspective of Europe allow us to better appreciate each other’s memories, histories, and aspirations for the future?
  • Given the historical baggage that the ethnographic method carries, particularly vis-à-vis objects and archives that bear histories of colonial violence, how might we engage a critical practice of ethnography that is diachronic and dialogical, which can itself create openings to philosophy, not foreclose them? (With special thanks to Ryan Skinner for this question).
  • In terms of curatorial concerns, how might we think through exhibiting the philosophical?


Bio | Souleymane Bachir Diagne

Souleymane Bachir Diagne is a professor in the departments of French and of Philosophy and the Director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University. His areas of research and publication include History of Philosophy, History of Logic and Mathematics, Islamic Philosophy, African Philosophy and Literature.

His latest publications in English include: Islam and the open society: fidelity and movement in Muhammad Iqbal’s thought, Dakar, Codesria, 2010; African art as philosophy. Senghor, Bergson, and the idea of Negritude, Seagull Books, 2011; The Ink of the Scholars. Reflections on Philosophy in Africa, Dakar, Codesria, 2016 ; Open to Reason. Muslim philosophers in conversation with Western tradition, New York, Columbia University Press, 2018 ;  Postcolonial Bergson, Fordham University Press, New York, 2019 ; In Search of Africa(s). Universalism and Decolonial Thought, (Dialogue with Jean-Loup Amselle), Polity Press, 2020.


Bio | Aude Christel Mgba

Aude Christel Mgba is an independent curator and art historian based between the Netherlands and Cameroon. She was a participant of the De Appel 2018/19 Curatorial Program.

She is co-curator of sonsbeek20->24 exhibition, an international exhibition in the city of Arnhem under the Artistic direction of Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, working with Amal Alhaag from the Research Center of Material Culture. Aude was a nominee of the fifth edition 2020-2021 of Forecast-Mentorships for Audacious Minds in Berlin, mentored by Koyo Kouoh. She has been invited curator of ARTEZ Studium Generale Studies on the Future of Art School from September 2020 until February 2021.

Her curatorial practice is built around thinking space, especially focusing on the concept of “in limbo” by researching different ways and forms of knowing that expand the notion of writing through "objects", myths, cosmogony, songs, symbols.


Bio | Ryan Skinner

Ryan Skinner is a musical anthropologist who studies the expressive cultures and social worlds of contemporary Africa and its European diaspora, with extensive fieldwork conducted in Mali and Sweden. Specializing in the analytic methods of cultural anthropology and ethnomusicology, Skinner’s research focuses on issues of popular culture, ethics and aesthetics, public piety, cultural policy, intellectual property, racial identity and politics, and new social movements in the African world. Skinner’s scholarship has appeared in such journals as Scandinavian StudiesAfrican and Black DiasporaAfrica TodayResearch in African LiteraturesAnthropological QuarterlyAfricaIASPM@JournalPopular Music, and Mande Studies. He is the author of Bamako Sounds: The Afropolitan Ethics of Malian Music (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), an ethnographic study of the popular music, postcolonial history and public culture of Bamako, Mali.   Skinner's new book, Yellow, Blue and Black: Remembering and Renaissance in Afro-Sweden, is set for publication in the Spring of 2022 (University of Minnesota Press). The book examines the social history and public culture of Sweden's diverse and growing African and Black community. Rooted in contemporary Sweden and routed throughout Africa and its diaspora, Afro-Swedes (afrosvenskar) are part of a growing Afro-diasporic presence in contemporary Europe. Through ethnographic inquiry, textual analysis, and historical study, Yellow, Blue and Black explores understandings and expressions of Afro-Swedish identity in the public sphere, with a particular emphasis on the performing and visual arts. The research for this book has been generously supported by grants from The Ohio State University College of Arts and Sciences, the American Swedish Institute, and the American Scandinavian Association, as well as an ACLS Charles A. Ryskamp Fellowship.

Skinner is also the author and illustrator of the award-winning children's book, Sidikiba's Kora Lesson (Beaver's Pond Press, 2008) and is an accomplished kora (21-stringed West African harp) player.


How to join

We will host this event on two platforms.

You can either join on ZOOM WEBINAR. Or you can join us on our Facebook page.

To join via ZOOM WEBINAR, please register in advance for this webinar.

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

Please note that we will only open the Q&A on Zoom. If you have a question you would like to ask any of our speakers, please log in to Zoom. Based on time, we cannot promise to address all of the questions, but we shall do our best.