Berhanu Ashagrie Deribew

Artistic Practice and Memorial Representation:
Future Memories

City spaces and places have evolved over different historical periods; it is the memories and memorials themselves that should be carefully negotiated through the changing activities in urban space. With many African cities currently undergoing massive transformations, it has become a matter of constant urgency to discuss issues around art, public space and memory, and memorial culture. The principal intention of the international conference FUTURE MEMORIES––and it was successful in its endeavour––was to establish a critical platform to discuss these relevant societal issues. Such a platform not only contributes in galvanising an active, engaged, creative and professional citizenry who do count when it comes to responsible social projects involving modernisation activities, but also paves productive ways to both negotiate with and influence city planners, developers and policy makers.

City revitalisation, however, can be perceived somewhat differently by city dwellers. While understandable that changes in urban space are deeply important in many social and economic aspects, the rapid changes in urban landscapes in many African cities have also been overwhelming in numerous societal dimensions. Caught up in their daily life struggles, many residents have become indifferent towards the various transformations that have encroached upon their lives. Hence the question: which modernisation? The notion of an elusive form of modernisation has thus emerged.

The process of creating a modernised metropolis is intimately linked to the production of new memories and memorial cultures. The production of such new memories, however, clearly needs to take into consideration those past memories that will pave the way for our future memories. Public spaces are vital in the construction of collective memories, because ultimately they are sites for the performativity of collective memories across the page of time; past, present and future. These should be spaces that might be more interactive and engaging, with a strong presence of creative and representational products. But artistic contributions and practices seem to have been compromised in the revitalisation process of many African urban spaces. We can only imagine developing a unique and functional city space when history, culture and collective memories are appropriately negotiated, constructed and maintained. This could be carried out all-the-more successfully if the creative and critical imagination is encouraged and incorporated into the process so as to produce coherent and all-encompassing representational forms.

As with history books, monuments, landmarks and edifices are living chronicles, through which the past can be better understood and preserved, the present negotiated and constructed and the future imagined and shaped. Making better sense of these realities invariably requires the active involvement of local residents, and, moreover, professionals must actively engage in the translation and implementation of modernising activities; not only to fit-in to open and offered possibilities, but also to critically engage themselves and push the limits even in exclusive and difficult situations.

Considering the urgency of these on-going realities in numerous African city spaces and places, the three days conference FUTURE MEMORIES generated a critical platform in which issues related to art, public space, memory culture and memorial representation were shared and discussed. This, in turn, generated alternative possibilities to reflect over, interact and respond, beyond the everyday, towards existing and past social realities interrupted by the rapidly changing urban landscape. During the conference researchers, artists, architects, curators, writers, critics and historians were engaged to respond to crucial challenges and elaborate productive forms of artistic practices in public space that could revitalise, maintain, interpret, construct and negotiate the culture of memories and memorial representations. The conference also tried to re-affirm and redefine forms of societal engagements in public space, using art as the critical medium to question what is needed, what is offered and what is delivered through the cultural, political, social and economic terrain, shaping and re-shaping our individual and collective past, present and future memories.

The FUTURE MEMORIES conference was also a productive platform to challenge our understanding and experience on how memorials and monuments should be developed, negotiated and formed as a representational form of collective memories. It has also generated a layered possibility to re-think and refine our perception towards monumentality; this, in turn, productively influenced the evaluation process and the decision by the jury members in regard to the project proposals submitted to develop a monument in the compound of the newly-built African Union, Peace and Security building in Addis Ababa.

We do not only consider the FUTURE MEMORIES international conference as a once-off event, in which to discuss such crucial societal issues, but also of a productive on-going process to develop strategies with which we can continually engage towards generating a better understanding and to nurture our relationships with possible future collaborators concerning various realities on the continent. This expectation has been validated by the keen response and interest shown by the international contributors and participants and their remarkable efforts to solidify a common ground, for which we will work together in similar future events. We are certain that the traces of the FUTURE MEMORIES international conference will remain intact and increasingly generate future possibilities to discuss critical issues in various contexts.

On a final note, I would kindly like to thank the German Institute of International Cultural Foundation (ifa), for initiating our institutional partnership to jointly organise the conference. My gratitude also goes to the German Federal Foreign Office for their generous financial support throughout the process of making the conference a reality. I would also like to thank all the local and international participants for their remarkable and valuable contributions. It is also important to show appreciation for the continual remarkable efforts by the organizing team members on both sides.

Future Memories Conference, Addis Ababa, 16 September 2014.

Berhanu Ashagrie Deribew, visual artist, head of the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design, under the Skunder Boghossian College of Performing and Visual Arts, Addis Ababa University. Through his institutional engagement, he has mainly been focused on generating critical and multidisciplinary possibilities to offer time-based art education in the school. As an artist, he has also been highly engaged on process-based creative practices in city spaces and places that have continuously been redefined through the rapidly changing environment in urban landscapes.

Go back