Elke aus dem Moore

Urbanisation and the Negotiation of Space: Future Memories

The idea here is not the designation of certain versions as erroneous and the upholding of others as more factual and correct, but rather to appreciate that memory work can never be total or complete. According to [Joyce] Nyairo memory, like a broken mirror from which we glean only partial images, fragments or shards, must be read as only being capable of constructing in parts. Because memory is partial, it brings with it error which sometimes comes because memory is also necessarily about forgetting. […] The key function of memory, then we realize, is the establishment of shared memories, the insistence on shared experiences in the past, which works to bind communities to the present.

Peter Wafula Wekesa

The conference FUTURE MEMORIES––An International Conference on Art, Public Space, and the Culture of Memory––was conceived of and organised by ifa [Institut für Auslandbeziehungen], the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations in cooperation with the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design of Addis Ababa University in order to create a public forum in which to debate issues related to public space, memory culture and of how art and the public sphere interlink as viewed from African perspectives.

The world is experiencing a shift towards urbanisation. Our cities are nowadays marked by enormous architectural, social and urban policy processes of change. The conference focussed on the potential for artistic and critical discourses in light of these widespread developments. Using various formats, participants illustrated the societal relevance of the visual arts in terms of the production of knowledge and the shaping of dynamic transformation processes in urban areas.

Addis Ababa, too, figures amongst those cities in the throes of fast-paced transformation, growing and gaining economic strength. The city’s promise has engendered massive cross-border migratory movements, while Ethiopia’s internal migration steadily increases. Hitherto flourishing settlements must now give way to projects undertaken for the benefit of overseas investors. This phenomenon has not just triggered devastating changes in the housing supply-chain but also in urban population’s lifestyle, and, consequently, has raised a host of questions. Who responds to these changes? What role do the city’s residents, with their diverse needs, play? What does, and can, art accomplish in this context? How do art and the public sphere interact? What occurs if and when artists seize the initiative to respond to these processes and to develop ideas? What concrete forms do they assume, and is it possible for municipal governments to use them to their advantage?

Worldwide we are confronted with a situation in which public space has become highly contested; confronted with this challenge, civic society has given expression to its discontent in many cities: Hamburg, Istanbul, Cairo, Sao Paulo to name but some, and Addis Ababa is no exception. The populations’ criticisms are pitted against a form of urban planning that scarcely allows for social participation in the decision-making processes, and one that has clearly prioritised the interests of the economic sector. In drafting their counter-proposals to these normative urban planning measures that utterly disregard established social structures, artists, architects and representatives of the civic society are stipulating a form of urban planning that provides for the preservation of publics spaces as places conducive to social interaction and exchange, of collective story-telling and remembrance, ––an urban planning that factors in the inherent dissimilarities amongst the city’s heterogeneous residents, and one that moreover envisages public spaces that are not subject to mandatory use.

As economic and representative criteria play a much more decisive role than the urban population's quality of life, the traditional importance of public spaces that has evolved over time is also increasingly under threat of being side-lined. In line with theoretical frameworks for public space formulated by Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault or also Arjun Appadurai, we can conceive of space as a “constant negotiation of a relational (con)figuration of bodies, who are perpetually in motion and whose configuration is constantly changing”.1 Spaces, in the words of Christiane Reichart-Burikukiye, grow out of various social praxis, and, moreover, are showplaces where history unfolds, while constantly subject to certain dynamics and representation of specific interest groups. They do not constitute an immutable backdrop for historical agents and events; rather, they are designed by those who produce their own image of the world. Public space is flexible, modulable, controversial and embattled; it is negotiated, appropriated and its configuration is re-interpreted over and again. They are places of collective identity. They bespeak of a society's self-understanding, of relationships amongst its individual members and with/to other societies, and to their relationship with their past. They are also places of the imagination; sites upon which to scrutinise governmental assertions, to formulate alternative proposals and to design viable visions of the future. Therefore, these places are imbued with a deeply symbolic value.2 Collective identity, according to Reichart-Burikukiye, manifests itself primarily with reference to a particular space, to a place that epitomises collective memory. Cities, edifices and even individual objects––artworks, monuments, memorials or landscaped elements––become symbols of shared experiences and/or of the collective imagination. In this way places are disentangled from their nondescript profanity and endowed with the power of a symbolic cipher. The process of consolidating collective memory through the erection of monuments and/or memorials, as well as the display of artworks in public spaces, is subject to various social and political dynamics. The ensuing transformation of the cityscape following political upheavals demonstrates to what extent forms of social memory can change over time. In the aftermath, for instance, of a change of government or of the prevailing system, it is common practice for the newcomers to occupy those places embodying collective memory, often, albeit, with a destructive momentum.

Collective memory in a transnational context represents all the more a crucial challenge when it clearly designates past conflicts––of which there are an overabundance in European history––processed in civil forms, and tackles contemporary issues. In a European context themes for collective memory notably include the Holocaust and the crimes committed by the communist regimes, yet they also embrace the commemoration of crimes perpetuated by the European colonial powers and the remembrance and reflection on the major migrations to and within Europe to date. While numerous efforts have been made, we in Germany still feel the need to remember a substantial part of our history.For the crimes committed under colonialism are still not visible in Germany in the form of fitting memorials and memorial sites, and hence do not figure sufficiently in the collective memory.

The broad question of how colonialism is remembered in Europe, particularly in Germany, inevitably leads to the specific question as to which events are commemorated publicly in reference to Africa, and to the role art plays in public space in an urban setting. Set against this background, Achille Mbembe compellingly envisaged creating a vision for sites for a Pan-African utopia and for critical remembrance in which colonialism will be laid to rest.4

What I suggest is that we painstakingly collect all colonial statues and monuments from every African country. We will then place all we’ve gathered in a single park, which will serve as a museum for future generations. This Pan-African Museum Park will constitute the symbolic gravesite of colonialism on our continent. Once we have completed this interment, let us promise ourselves to never ever allow anyone erect a statue again. In their place, we want to build libraries, theatres, cultural centres, everywhere––all of which are things that will henceforth nourish our future creative growth.

Achille Mbembe

At the FUTURE MEMORIES conference, the issue of public memory spaces was presented with the African context in mind, while the function of art in the concept and design of these spaces was also analysed from a similar perspective. ifa, as one of the conference’s organising partners, has set itself the task of throwing light on current social issues as perceived from various international perspectives. The conference particularly zoomed in on art and international artistic exchange in the form of exhibitions, conferences, incentive and exchange programmes. Urbanisation and evaluations of urban space were the key themes repeatedly brought into focus by ifa. "The World is turning into a City" is the title of one of the exhibitions dealing with the on-going processes of urbanisation and sprawling mega-cities such as Johannesburg, Lagos, Istanbul, Mexico City and Sao Paulo. “Post-Oil City”, an exhibition produced by ifa and currently touring the world, raises questions about how urban planning will evolve after the depletion of renewable energies. In Addis Ababa it was presented in co-operation with the Goethe-Institut at the Museum of Modern Art/Gebre Kristos Desta Centre and in Bahir Dar. These and other exhibitions, workshops and conferences constitute an essential part of this on-going discourse about widespread urbanisation and represent an attempt to formulate questions which respond to the social changes brought about by the processes of urbanisation all round the planet, and how we can best confront the increasingly frequent sense of exclusion it engenders.

The conference FUTURE MEMORIES was held in Addis Ababa, host city to the African Union (AU). In 2015, the Federal Republic of Germany made a donation of the Peace and Security Building to the organisation. This occasion also gave rise to the creation of an artwork conveying the founding spirit of the AU established in 1963. In virtue of ifa’s extensive network and its participation in multiple projects in the African art scene, it was entrusted by the German Foreign Office with the task of supervising the art project for the new AU building. In this context we both conceived of and implemented the conference FUTURE MEMORIES in conjunction with Addis Ababa’s Alle School of Art, while the German Foreign Office provided funding. After the conference, the jury meeting took place at which the Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh was elected. The jury’s decision sent a decisive signal in relation to discussions about art in public space. Ogboh’s artistic practice formulated a clear rejection of the monumental approach––namely, commemoration invariably being linked to erecting monuments. Hence the jury's ultimate decision was informed by the outstanding discussions at the conference, and represents a continuation of this ever-evolving trans-African discourse by other means.

FUTURE MEMORIES Conference, Addis Ababa, 16 September 2014.

Translated from German by John Barrett.


1 Martina LÖW: Raumsoziologie (2001), 131.
2 Cf. Christiane REICHART-BURIKUKIYE: “Erinnerungsräume und Wissenstransfer” (2008), 17.
3 Cf. The German Federal Cultural Foundation [Kulturstiftung des Bundes] funded a comprehensive research and exhibition project, Projekt Migration; a museum in Hamburg looks back at intra-continental and intercontinental migration patterns and their societal impact; the remembrance culture of the crimes of the Nazi regime in Germany is widely known and discussed publicly: hence the erection of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin provoked great public debates.
4 Cf. Achille MBEMBE cit. in: Dominique Malaquais: “Monumental Failures”. In: Chimurenga Chronic, 2012, 22.

Works cited

Die Welt wird Stadt. Stadtbilder aus Asien, Afrika und Lateinamerika [Aust.-Kat.]. Berlin 2005.
LÖW, Martina: Raumsoziologie. Berlin 2001.
MALAQUAIS, Dominique: “Monumentalversagen”. In: Chimurenga Chronic [German Edition] 2014, 46-48.
REICHART-BURIKUKIYE, Christiane: „Erinnerungsräume und Wissenstransfer“. In: SPEITKAMP, Winfried (Hg.): Erinnerungsräume und Wissenstransfer. Beiträge zur afrikanischen Geschichte. Göttingen 2008, 11-34.
WAFULA WEKESA, Peter: “Negotiating ‚Kenyanness”: The ‚“Debates”.  In: Wa-MŨNGAI, Mbũgua and Georges GONA (Hg.): (Re)membering Kenya: Identity, Culture and Freedom. Nairobi 2010, 50-71.
Post-Oil-City. Die Stadt von morgen [Exhibition.Catalogue]. Berlin 2011.
(The History of the City’s Future, 2011).
Elke aus dem Moore, head of the Visual Arts Department at ifa – Institute for International Cultural Relations – since 2008. She is responsible for international exhibitions and funding programmes. Prior to her current post, she was artistic director at the Künstlerhaus Stuttgart and curator at the Shedhalle in Zurich. She established prêt-à-partager an artistic platform concerned with art, fashion and art in public space in several African cities. She is also the initiator and publisher of contemporary and [C&], an online-magazine and virtual art-space on contemporary art seen from African perspectives as well as publisher of the online-magazine Nafas for contemporary art in the Islamic world.

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