The Nordic Africa Institute


Cultural Images in and of Africa

Started • 01 January 1995
Ended • 01 December 2010

Project co-ordinator: Mai Palmberg

The project was established in 1995 and ended in 2010

Cultural Images in and of Africa was the overarching project within the Culture Cluster. It had three sub-projects: The Nordic Colonial Mind; The State of the Arts in Zimbabwe; and Cultural Constructions of Zimbabwe. The project studied Western and Nordic images of Africa.

The programme’s two – images of and images in Africa – do not use the concept of ’culture’ in one and the same way. ”Cultural images of” is about representation. Its primary research material was school books in Nordic countries. Ethnocentrism and racism were studied, and the relationship of these ideologies to ideas and practices of solidarity. Research on cultural images of Africa could in most cases fit into the discipline of history of ideas; they could also be part of mass media and communication studies, and the discipline of education, in the cases of research on school books. In actual fact, researchers came from many disciplines.

The other part of the programme, “cultural images in Africa”, translates here as contemporary culture in Africa, with ‘cultural expressions’, ‘cultural production’ and 'cultural creativity’ as synonyms. The two parts of the programme met, as discussion and research on African representations of Africa were encouraged, and in the way that imagined communities are constructed and represented on lines of gender, ethnicity, religion, generation, urban/rural contrasts and connections.

With identities at the centre, the concerned research were represented in a number of aesthetic disciplines, from literature to music, cinema, pictorial arts, drama, dance, communication studies, political science and anthropology.

The Nordic Colonial Mind (2006-2008)

There is a narrative about the Nordic countries in relation to Africa that we had no colonies, and therefore are not tainted with colonial ideology. Paternalism of the early missionary activities contrasts to the solidarity of the postwar Nordic policies. But how was the view of the Other influenced by the inter-war years of eugenics which aimed at ensuring the purity and health of the race? A workshop was organised in 2006 to start a network encouraging studies on the background to the claims of this Nordic exceptionalism.

During the past few years it has been brought home in books, exhibitions and scholarly discourse that the Nordic countries indeed do have a colonial past. Or at least two of them. Sweden and Denmark were the original builders of slave forts, the Cape Coast castle and Christiansborg in today’s Ghana. The Nordic countries did not take part in the 19th century scramble for Africa, but it seems as if all Nordic countries shared in the colonialist eurocentric ideas of hierarchical pattern of development, and a concomitant hierarchical evolution of ‘races’. The Nordic countries identified with the colonial project and in the inter-war years were in the forefront of eugenics, at the same time as the welfare state was built, with its emphasis on equality.

The State of the Arts in Zimbabwe (2002-2004)

This project contained interviews dealing with what the crisis in Zimbabwe does to the arts, and what the arts do about the crisis. Zimbabwe is an interesting country in its breadth and depth of arts development in literature, sculpture, painting, music, dance and film. In addition, artistic handicraft has developed into a field of its own.

Interviews were made with artists from different genres, and a few people working with the arts (as publishers, critics or scholars). One of the main reasons for the fieldwork was a need to mitigate the paucity of artists' voices in the scholarly discourse on the arts.The artists' voices were presented not so much in the context of the overall developments in and study of the arts, but rather as topical testimonies of their reflections and experiences in what the new director of the National Gallery in Harare, Doreen Sibanda, at a seminar in April 2004 called "these hard times".

In the interviews the issue of identity was partly dealt with on an individual basis, revolving around the background story of how the interviewee came to be an artist. Zimbabwe was a highly polarised society; on the political scene as well as on the scene of ideas, debate and culture, with the effect that it often seemed more important to define which side you were on, than what you thought. This of course affected the creation and reception of art. One performing poet found it hard to choose his repertoire freely and others found that poems they had written some time ago and in another context were now taken to be a comment on the present political actors.

For some artists it was natural to see their work as a witness to the crisis. Others found themselves caught up in the polarisation, while wanting to give space to more than one side. Yet there is another side to the story of contents, creativity and crisis. Crisis can also sharpen and challenge the creative mind, and a society in political crisis can also be, within limits, a stimulating society.

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Cultural Constructions of Zimbabwe (2007-2008)

The project started in 2007 with a workshop in Harare. The thought behind this effort was to launch the project in Zimbabwe, and make it possible for Zimbabwean scholars to take part. It was followed by a workshop in Oxford in June 2008, arranged to dovetail with the Zimbabwe research day, organised by the Britain-Zimbabwe Society with professor Terence Ranger as primus motor.

Nations are constructed, not born. The construction of the nation is both a political, economic and cultural process. An 'imagined community' as Benedict Anderson put it, must be forged. Immediate post-independence stressed nation-building, unity, traditions and development ideology.

In the past two decades these assumptions have been revisited not only by largely Western post-colonialist scholars pursuing deconstruction of public discourse, but also by a number of artists and intellectuals in Africa, who in various ways critique the nationalist cultural agenda, and suggests new and pluralist perspectives and visions. A new dialogue and discourse on the construction of the nation emerges. This interplay between political rulers and artists inspired this project on the cultural construction of Zimbabwe.

The vision was to discuss with many different cases and genres how cultural construction of the nation has taken place, with its contradictions. This should contribute to an understanding of Zimbabwean cultural and political history, but also to the theoretical study of power and resistance, and the role of creativity in forming consciousness. By looking at other arenas than the party political scene, a more multi-faceted history is sought of Zimbabwe and of “being Zimbabwean”.

Mai Palmberg is a Finnish political scientist. She was a researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute between 1984 and 2010. She has written on socialist orientation in Africa, Africa images in school books, the liberation struggle of Southern Africa, AIDS in Africa, humanism and racism, the Afrikaners as a national minority, new South Africa and the ANC.