EVANSTON, Ill. USA— A gathering of artists, critics and scholars from the Caribbean, South Africa, Germany, England and the United States convened at Northwestern University for the third Black Arts Initiative Biennial Conference.
Among the programs offered during the conference was a reading and conversation with award-winning author and playwright Caryl Phillips, professor of English at Yale University. Phillips read from his forthcoming novel, “A View of the Empire at Sunset,” which is being published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The novel explores the lives of people marooned on the shores of the British Empire after the world wars by imagining the life and circumstances of Welsh writer Jean Rhys, who was born in the Caribbean island of Dominica to a seventh-generation Creole family. Appearing white but speaking with a heavy West Indian accent, she experienced a social struggle that plagued her whole life.
The assembly was the final of three initial conferences planned by the Black Arts Initiative committee to celebrate the unique contributions of people of African descent to the visual, literary and performing arts. The first conference focused on Chicago, the second on the United States and the final on the black diaspora around the world.
“No less true 400 years ago than four hours ago, it is through expressive culture that blacks in the diaspora have survived the most pernicious forms of oppression. This conference in many ways speaks to that history but also to how we might forge a path forward,” said E. Patrick Johnson, Black Arts Initiative founder and professor of performance studies and chair of the department of African American studies at Northwestern University, as the third biennial BAI Conference got underway.
Northwestern Provost Jonathan Holloway welcomed attendees. “I salute all of you for being here for this important work. … Let’s look at the world with all of its complexity and through a lens that’s expansive and not limited. I’m a historian by training, but I’ve learned that being a historian is not enough. We have to ask questions that an artist would ask, that a sociologist would ask, that a film critic would ask … teaching in new ways for a new future. That’s the hope I have for this gathering. It’s a signpost for possibility.”
The conference keynote was delivered by Homi Bhahba, professor of humanities at Harvard University and one of the world’s foremost scholars on postcolonial theory, cultural change and power. Bhahba set the stage for the conference theme, “Temporalities and Territories.”