Continental Drift: A Forum in Motion
A reflection by curator Dr.Omar Kholeif
Our world leaders are in the middle of a public meeting: A Town Hall.
Who will attend in-person?
Does it matter?
We are stuck in the crevices of—
Situations that do not reveal themselves
Enduring subjects, here for—
An exchange, a single-transaction.
Lingering, delaying, hankering for—
An immunity booster?
Unsettled; looming expectancy.
Our Forum is an Instagram Post—
‘A Story’, or an emoji in the comments section of a YouTube video?
What happened to the enclosed space of a dialectical message board?
We crave for meeting as medium—
A public square in virtual form.
The shape of a visible structure in formation—
A circular loop?
A gathering, a constellation of bodies, efflorescing in High-Definition!
Is that you, or me, or someone else we know?
I write from Sharjah—in what feels like the hottest autumn I have known since I began visiting in 2011. I choose not to check the news—avoiding records—the inevitable foreclosure of memory. The sand-laced wind tickles the nose behind my mask; I can still breathe. The moist air is leaden. Would a cool soak liberate, or disarm? Post my immersion in 1-54 Forum, I reflect on the words ‘African’—on and of my Blackness, as well as the beguiling drab pallid features of my exterior. Is this flesh the result of ‘whitening’ through inter-marriage? Is it Vitiligo? Or is it simply who I have come to be?
The place I live in Sharjah reminds me of ‘international’ high-school. The mishmash of cultural forms and norms overlaid atop each other in one gloopy soup, familiar; I am comforted by the interplay and exchange of tongues that diverge from Tagalog to English, Russian to Arabic; the sound of Hindi and Urdu. The Arabic here is weighty—accented with the contours of the myriad cultures that occupy this place. For a young country, the chronicle of history sits pervasively within the public cloisters—amidst heritage houses, squares and new-born cafes that peer over the corniche. Ships or rather, boats of varied detail, stand as markers of movement—the free-flow of time.
The Forum at the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in 2021, which I entitled, Continental Drift began from this concept—from within the ‘unsettled’ sediments of time, is movement. The ‘continental drift’ in geological terms could be interpreted as relating to Pangea—environmental time where tectonic plates were found oscillating. The shifting continents moving across the Earth’s surfaces—its waters.
Our cherished and often troubled African continent has been the subject of much slinging—suspended across the Earth’s crust, bounded by the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Are the African plates slipping? Northwest; towards the West? Or fractured, a chasm forming, for a new ocean to be born? The ‘African Rift’—the most concise example of this is believed to be a 6,000-mile crack that runs from Lebanon to Mozambique, taking primacy in Kenya, where the crust of nature can be found split and splintered.
The metaphor of the ‘drift’, for me, is contrarily, a romantic one. It is attendant with and to the flowing concept that I often refer to as ‘endless endlessness’—an instant in lived experience, when the confines of structure and hierarchy evaporate. It is fluid sensory experience. The African continent—a place of 54 nations and counting, is a site of evolving and contested mythology—found in homegrown television to Hollywood cinema; travelogue and novel, intertwining to narrate the perfect embodiment of the colonial cliché.
Taking cues from this context, I decided to begin 1-54 Forum with the howl, echo and murmur of Shadia’s voice, as well as Billie Holliday and Nina Simone. My own voice re-arranges and interleaves herein—in a performative act of translation entitled, Overture: Recuperating the Echoes, the Ghosts, the Songs. This was the beginning of 1-54 Forum conceived as an ‘opera in fragments’. Here, I summon the haunting memory of the fabled, Blake Karim Mitchell, before entering into a dialogue with kin, in this case, the curator Koyo Kouoh. Subsequently, we ventured into The Virtual Salon with musicians and artists, Tinie Tempah and Osinachi in a discursive dialogue chaired by Princess Alia Al Senussi, PhD with Sumayya Vally and Gemma Rolls-Bentley.
Hope Masike offered an interlude, an intermission, an education. Her pointed vocals accompanied by a Mbira, performed from her living room in Zimbabwe. The echo resounded in an enthusiastic chorus led by Hoor Al Qasimi, with Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker and Godfried Donker, who were accompanied by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. Celebrating the life of the late Nigerian curator, Okwui Enwezor, who left this Earth too soon at the ripe young age of 55—the resonances of experience sung here, ascended above the shroud of melancholy, enlivening expositions beyond the pages of textbook history.
Saturday morning was a moment for a trans-Atlantic Poetry Salon, entitled On Fragile Ground—inspired by the words of Otobong Nkanga, whose participation began the session with a lilting exploration of the female voice. Lubaina Himid summoned the whispers of those far gone; Anaïs Duplan engendered gender, deconstructing and reconstructing the body from within, while isaiah a. hines took nature as a prompt—proffering a tale of volatility. From here, we walked towards the future with Michael Armitage, Bill Kouélany and Otobong Nkanga, in multiple languages (Listen in English or French), envisaging propositional structures of support for art, artists and their collective imagination on the continent.
As the page turned towards a close, we travelled to the city of my birth—Cairo, a place akin to a bitter orange—citrus that burns before its sweet taste is even imbibed. In a reunion, three friends: myself, the actor Khalid Abdalla, and the filmmaker, Tamer El Said, discussed the blurring of life and art and the fanciful potential of the imaginary. Whose imaginary is this, I ask? Whose Africa is it we speak of? Who dictates the coordinates? Is it a border? A border czar with keys? A military apparatus, or the sun-kissed glow of a body on an efflorescing screen? Our exploration of ‘the drift’ has only begun. We shall re-convene. In-person and online. In Marrakech and New York and back to London again. In the meantime, I offer you this gift. This living archive of the movements—the tessellating forms, which give context to the moving pieces—sculpting the future of an African art, seeded at home, but accessible in multiplicities and in innumerable fashions.