THESIS ABSTRACT 2004
Retrieving the Soul:
Creating an Art Program Model for the Appreciation of African Culture
“One thing is at least clear—identity only becomes an issue when it is in crisis, when something assumed to be fixed, coherent and stable is displaced by the experience of doubt and uncertainty. ”
—Welcome to the Jungle by Kobena Mercer
Can an art exhibition and cultural exchange help youths sharing African ancestry on three different continents feel connected and empowered to articulate their ideas and concerns? Can the voices of young individuals be employed to frame greater public discourse on relevant issues in their community?
In an era where globalization and Euro-centric education affect even the most remote African Diasporic communities, it is important to note its negative impact on their youth. Some societies have experienced gifts from globalization, such as an increased economy and exchange of intellectual ideas; others have suffered the homogenizing effects of globalization on their cultural identity. This new threat is added to existing conditions of economic impoverishment that are the legacy of Africa’s colonialist past and continuing imperialist present. The youths in these communities, including those in the African Diaspora, are losing sight of their rich cultural heritage. They are, instead, submersing into a growing, popular, youth sub-culture via American and European television, videos, films, music, and popular literature. My thesis project aims to re-connect these children’s future with their disappearing past by bridging the gap between the popular global culture they are most attracted to and their own historical cultural heritage.
The project targets young people in Kigali, Rwanda; Salvador, Bahia; and Chicago, Illinois. Using a series of workshops guided by artistic mentors, the youths will embark upon a mission of self-discovery that will begin with a historical re-examination of their cultural background through the process of art making. My thesis aspires to provide the participants with the tools to begin connecting their past heritage and their present youth sub-culture by showing the importance of both and demonstrating how the former has influenced the latter. In the workshops, the mentors will lead the youths in extracting the similarities in how the kids choose to represent themselves and how their African ancestors represented themselves. An example of workshop material is connecting the rhythms of the African drum to that of some hip hop samples or exploring the influence of oral tradition on the growing trend of spoken word.
The project culminates with an exhibition of photography, drawings, and poetic writings produced by the participants documenting what they see in their lives both as part of the present youth culture in their community and as indicative of their historic African heritage. The workshops will begin in the Chicago area and serve as a pilot, at a later date, the project will be applied in Kigali and Salvador, creating a cultural exchange as the participants view each other’s work. The project presupposes that in communities that are suffering from similar social and political disenfranchisement, not only is art making and self-representation important, but a possible key to community and cultural identity development, as well as a catalyst for building stronger societies. In this environment, the journey of self-examination and self-representation through creative forms of expression can perhaps bridge the gap between today’s popular youth culture and their own cultural heritage of yesteryear.
Duhirwe Rushemeza is a native of Rwanda. She received her BA from Spelman College, spending a semester at Syracuse University Campus in Florence, Italy and Harvard University Graduate School of Design. She recently held a position at The Field Museum, Center for Understanding and Change, and is currently working at the school’s Office of Multicultural Affairs.
Thesis Advisors: Gregory Sholette Assistant Professor, Arts Administration; Nicholas Lowe Visiting Artist, Arts Administration
Thesis Reader: Kymberly N. Pinder Associate Professor and Graduate Director, Art History, Theory, and Criticism
Second Reader: Alaka Wali, Ph.D. Director, Center for Cultural Understanding and Change, The Field Museum