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Reframing African Identities

Assistant Professor of Architecture Emanuel Admassu researches how evolving notions of global art and design play out across the African diaspora.

Reframing African Identities

Assistant Professor of Architecture Emanuel Admassu talks about his ongoing research of urban marketplaces in two African cities.

Assistant Professor of Architecture Emanuel Admassu is conducting pioneering research exploring how evolving notions of global art and design play out in Africa and across the African diaspora. As the inaugural recipient of the department’s Design Research Seed Fund, he is working with fellow architect Jen Wood—his partner at AD-WO—and a group of RISD Architecture students to examine the constructed spatial and sociopolitical identities of urban marketplaces in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he was born.

“We hope to expand the understanding of [African] marketplaces beyond what is possible via Western architectural discourse....”assistant professor emanuel admassu

“Contemporary architectural discourse on the African continent tends to either celebrate mid-century European interventions or exoticize notions of ‘informality’ within the rapidly changing urban context,” Admassu noted during a presentation of the Two Markets project in early April. “We hope to expand the understanding of these marketplaces beyond what is possible via Western architectural discourse and analyze buildings and urban formations in their own mutable terms.”

Thanks to the generosity of the Cannon Foundation, Admassu and his research team are studying how marketplaces have served not only as sites of local economic trade, but as materializations of conflicting ambitions related to nation-building, colonial control, Cold War politics and neoliberalism. The project, they note, represents “an attempt to understand these sites as reflexive spaces that simultaneously recreate their histories and pre-possess their futures.”

In sharing their research, the Two Markets team created an exhibition (on view through April 28 in the BEB Gallery) that presents unique renderings of these markets highlighting the theoretical framework they envision instead of the typical “helicopter view, which flattens perspective and fosters the colonial gaze,” as Wood puts it.

And rather than present their research in a typical lecture format, the team invited viewers to crowd into the gallery in an attempt to simulate the press and intensity of an African market. They then made their way through the crowd discussing the drawings they’ve suspended from the ceiling.

Admassu and Wood presented their research in the gallery rather than via a typical lecture format.
“The Seed Fund program creates a rich design culture that invites student participation and models new forms of critical exchange.”department head amy kulper

Impressed not only by the forward-thinking research, Architecture Department Head Amy Kulper commented on the way their renderings speak to nontraditional and carefully considered modes of representation. “What I find so exciting about [the Seed Fund] program,” she says, “is that it creates a rich design culture that invites student participation and models new forms of critical exchange.”

This year Admassu is also promoting critical exchange as the third recipient of RISD’s Global Faculty Fellowship (GFF), a program designed to support international research and collaboration. Just days after presenting the Two Markets project, he cohosted the panel discussion Where Is Africa? at the RISD Museum along with Curatorial Fellow Anita Bateman.

From Two Markets

In introducing the research, RISD Global Executive Director Gwen Farrelly explained how the two-year global fellowship allows faculty members to advance RISD’s values by “developing a reciprocal exchange of ideas and practices across cultures that broadens perspectives, decenters experiences and reframes assumptions.”

Bateman and Admassu have been working to expand understanding of African identity and image making by interviewing a range of practitioners across the African continent and diaspora. For the thought-provoking panel discussion, they invited three women—independent curator Niama Safia Sandy, experiential artist Salome Asega and filmmaker and multidisciplinary artist Adama Delphine Fawundu—to share their views on maintaining African identity, diasporic belonging and cultural affiliations while creating work that speaks to their lived experiences as residents of Brooklyn, NY.

The panelists agree that in the US black artists are often forced to present a unified front in struggling against systemic racism and oppression, but that this unity can lead to a regrettable homogenization of African cultures. Each of them attempts to avoid this trap by ensuring that her work is culturally specific.

Where Is Africa? panelists held a lively discussion about maintaining African identity while growing up and living in Brooklyn.

Asega encourages artists of color to use the unique language they’ve developed as artists. “It’s up to viewers to understand it,” she asserts. “If they don’t get it, they need to do the work.”

Fawundu describes the circumstances of the contemporary black artist as “a balancing act. It’s hard for black people to tell their own story without getting exploited,” she explains.

And speaking directly to the challenge of creative practice that addresses the diaspora, Sandy asks: “How have cultures collided to create current conditions? And how can we make work that reflects our personal histories?”

Simone Solondz / photos by Riley McClenaghan 20 FAV

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