The Afro-Modernist: Identity, Architecture & Sexuality (Part Three)

The Afro-Modernist: Identity, Architecture & Sexuality (Part Three)

I’m taking off from my last two articles, especially the latter, which expatiates on our understanding of what ‘African Identity’ is and acknowledges the volume of knowledge that has potentially been lost regarding what happened to us as a continent; first with slavery, then colonisation, independence and what has led us to where we are today.

Let’s return to the first article, where I examined the idea of identity through the physical form of a building. I was fortunate enough to visit the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington to deepen my understanding of how slavery (not necessarily colonisation) has influenced or affected our culture. It was quite a trek to get there; I had flown from lagos to London originally. I then arrived in New York from London, and then boarded a plane to Washington. There’s a big hoo-hah around the building because it’s new. You are advised to log on to the website from 6:30am to book for the day-pass free tickets, as you cannot pay to enter the museum. However, as the building is so popular, tickets are very difficult to get a hold of.

On the day I went, I had not booked before leaving New York. On getting to Washington at 9:30, tickets were no longer available on the website. I began to panic, considering the physical strain of my long journey travelling from Lagos to London, London to New York, and then New York to Washington, just to see this building! I prayed hard that this would not be my reality. Luckily for me, they allow casual walk-ins from 1:00 pm though there are only a limited amount of tickets. Because I knew how important this was and that I had only 2 days in Washington, I joined the already long queue at 12 noon and stood there praying to get in. Luckily, I was one of those selected to go in, and at last, I saw the amazing building by David Adjaye.

There were many interesting things about it, but you could tell the focus was on instilling African iconography through the iconic colour palette of West African red Laterite soil and materials like bronze and copper. The museum building is quite significant and is a beautiful space. Architecture-wise, it stands out in that area of Washington. Indeed, the, as all the others tend to be quite traditional in form. I prefer though, to focus on its actual content.

I started by going about the exhibition the wrong way. Being a rebel, I thought I would begin at the top then work my way down but I should have read through the manual, which states the meaty stuff is actually in the basement. By the time I got there, it was late afternoon and the museum closes at 5:00pm. Interestingly enough, there was much emphasis on physically taking you back through time, to understand African history. This was symbolised in a 30-person passenger lift that takes you down to the basement. It’s dim with the effect of flickering yellow candlelight. As you descend through the building, dates on the wall take you all the way back to about 1840. Not only is one time travelling but also descending into the earth. Then you alight unto this exhibition space that offers insight into the beginnings of slavery then takes you through the struggles of segregation to the present day.

It was so powerful to see items I have read about but never physically seen, while examining a particular period of slavery, the complexities that existed, and how that part of our culture has been lost. For example, I’ve only seen Ife bronzes in books but was proud to see for myself the intricate details and outstanding level of craftsmanship available in the 12th century. I felt like I was staring at somebody in a market in Lagos; it could have been the face of a present-day Yoruba person. It almost rubbishes the theory of evolution. I know that evolution occurred over millions of years, but I could tell it was a Yoruba person who could have been from Ekiti or Ondo state. It was so beautiful that I sat there for a while just staring.

Astounding was the means of exchange and sheer delusion of Africans at the time, who traded with the slavers. I’ve also read about the glass beads and actually saw a stack on a pedestal. They were excavated from Goree in Senegal. The label indicated that the Europeans did not have any value for these beads, but manufactured them for the African market because the indigenous Africans who sold the slaves reveled in them. They considered the beads shiny and pretty enough to be considered valuable. It’s indeed ironical that the beads were so precious that someone buried them in the earth to protect them at the expense of the millions of people sold as human cattle.

There is much emphasis on the infrastructure that went into transporting people, as well as on the different ships and quantity of cargo. To be honest, it was refreshing to see the amount of existing information we don’t have in Nigeria and Africa, and how much can be drawn from it. Another element that struck me was how institutionalised the whole process was. For example, the British government paid a sum of roughly one billion dollars in today’s money to slavers as compensation for the abolishment of slave trade. It was seen as a standardised business, even church-sanctioned interpretations of the Bible. In reality, the state had to compensate them as they had done ‘nothing’ wrong. The frustration and struggle that arose from people being considered less than human is quite disturbing. I would say that as a country or a people who have been through such a herculean struggle, it’s quite commendable they have been able to, at least preserve some of their history. This is not the same in our part of the world. African-Americans went through such a terrible ordeal that it is important and justified to preserve their history. Many of the elements in the exhibition are items that have been saved by families and passed down, as revealed by captions like “donated by Oprah Winfrey.” They even reassembled a slaving cabin, which I presume had been flat-packed for a while; it was intriguing.

There were also other sections of the exhibition depicting the movement of people during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade from West Africa to parts of Brazil and America. They also have a study of migration to present day, with Nigeria as the largest population of immigrating people from the continent. It’s ironic and quite fascinating that the people of what would have been the coastal lines of West Africa, which are predominantly around Bonny and Lagos, still form the majority of those who move across today. The exhibition in general proved to me that culture can transcend mortality and even acknowledge information passed down from person-to-person. There were also examples of early slaving drums used for ceremonial dances and celebrations, showing what they would have been like on the plantations. The originals were lost over 2 or 3 generations but these replications were as close as possible. There were images of patterns from different ethnic groups in Africa. I think the reason why they were not able to consciously preserve any particular culture is that so many people were put in the same place, resulting in language barriers between people. They put together a mismatch of different cultures—small villages and settlements. The essence of being African, however, comes across in terms of mannerisms, and as you sift through the exhibition from the basement to the upper floors which show more popular, everyday culture, you can see how the manner of an African, for example through headdresses, fashion, and hip-hop culture, have evolved from this root. I find myself with questions such as, were they more conscious of their being because they knew they had been obviously removed? In comparison, we don’t seem to acknowledge or want to celebrate as much of that culture.

There’s so much information that to be honest, it’s impossible to properly go through everything in one day. However, the institutionalized oppression stood out and was the most disturbing.

Recently, I was at Alibaba’s show, where Yibo Koko was talking about the Seki dance from eastern Nigeria, where Ideh-seeds are tied as rattles to their legs during performances. He was attesting to the fact that the culture of tap-dancing has its origins from the Ijaw people. He demonstrated how this was done, and how similar to tap-dancing rhythm is created, replacing the need for a drum or supporting music. Ironically, he mentioned how the West ‘stole’ our culture, and I thought to myself, nobody did, we just haven’t acknowledged, celebrated or preserved it. The people who have unfortunately been forced to or displaced are those that evolved the culture (which is now theirs, not really ours). Moving forward, what are we doing on our side to ensure that we keep it? I don’t know how I’m going to end this article, but think it should respect the fact I had to cross many oceans to learn about my culture, when there is so much here we don’t see. It’s like we don’t care. It is frustrating and sad that I had to go so far to learn in this space. I’m not American and don’t have the luxury to travel there every other weekend. Children will visit the museum at least once a year, and each time their development is different, as they will read different meanings into it. What a 4-year-old takes from this experience will differ strongly from what a 15 or 21-year-old absorbs. However, they will all have a better understanding of who they are and where they come from and ironically, better than the people who are actually still at the base of the culture.

I loved very much what was written on the wall when I first got to the museum:

“There is no African American without the Trans-Atlantic trade, a new culture emerged out of the trauma of that history and through traditions made and remade on new shores. The self-creation of everywhere in the day-to-day life of African Americans is in the food eaten, language spoken, the art created and many other forms of culture and expression. Here within our past history, families and communities, African American culture reflects beliefs, informs behaviour, fosters creativity and most of all sustains the spirit during times of overwhelming adversity”.

What is important here is that the overwhelming adversity has made them who they are. It was no easy feat for them to get this building and collate information. For a people who were oppressed, it is highly commendable and they deserve all the respect in the world. I think in our case we were stripped and brainwashed. We are here, but sadly don’t seem to uphold our culture as highly as they do. It happens in pockets, but not at the level it should be celebrated. So much has been imposed and removed that we don’t even realise it.

There is another museum, the National Museum of African Art but I was unable to visit because I didn’t have enough time. I’ve been told it also holds an immense wealth of culture.

So this again begs questions, who are we? What is our identity? How important is this identity to us today and in moving forward? The last is a very poignant question. I’ve learnt along this journey and think I’ve evolved. I’ve become more conscious of self, even in terms of my appearance including my hairstyle—being proud of my natural hair and not wanting to straighten it. The common misconception African women have about their hair is that “It’s so difficult”. No, it’s not, maybe you don’t appreciate it because you’ve been brainwashed to think your hair is difficult. If you don’t try to straighten it and pack it flat; then it won’t disturb you, as Black hair is not meant to be shiny and flat, that’s not the nature of what God gave us.

Maybe we should spend more time adapting to our reality instead of taking to what is defined beautiful by Western culture. The more we acknowledge our importance in the society and promote our own values, the more the world would sit up and listen. I think we are in very poignant times, obviously, there has been excellent publicity with the movie Black Panther. It’s good that there is something in the mass media making people proud to be Black, but it needs to go past this— to become permanent. It is a good time to celebrate us, but we need to ensure we keep reminding the world of our importance and that we are not substandard in any capacity.

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Tosin Oshinowo holds a Master’s degree in Urban Design from the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. She also studied architecture at the Architecture Association London. Since 2012, Oshinowo has been lead architect at the Lagos-based cmDesign Atelier (cmD+A). Prior to setting-up cmD+A, she worked in leading international practices like Skidmore Owing & Merril’s LLP London and the Office of Metropolitan Architecture Rotterdam, where she was part of the team that designed a proposal for the 4th Mainland Bridge in 2008. Upon returning to Lagos, she practiced at James Cubitt Architects and was team-lead on projects such as the master plan and corporate head office building for Nigeria LNG in Port Harcourt.

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