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Sankofa: African Routes, Canadian Roots

“Sankofa” has emerged as a strong thread linking countless organizations and projects, whether these may be a grassroots museum in the neighbourhood of Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro; a journal on the history of Africa and the African diaspora from the University of São Paulo; a scholars’ program at the California State University; a Black-owned bookstore in Washington, DC; a project to share Black history and experience based on the network of National Museums in Liverpool, UK; a conversation series on structural racism at the University of Massachusetts; a grant offered by the French Embassy in Ghana in partnership with UNESCO; two different dance companies in Quebec and Colombia; or here in Vancouver, the African Friendship Society’s week-long Sankofa camp for Black children. All chose Sankofa as their symbol. So, what is this powerful idea?

ere ibeji (figures), maker unrecorded (Yoruba), before 1965. MOA Collection Af497, Af498. Photos by Jessica Bushey.

Sankofa today stands for the global recognition of African and Black experiences in the present, and it serves as a reminder of their many legacies. We can trace the term to its historical Akan root in west Africa, where Sankofa is represented by a bird that moves forward while turning its head back to grasp in its beak an egg: a seed of the future brought from the past. It may also be depicted by the Adinkra symbol of a stylized heart.  Both symbols represent an Akan precept that literally translates as “go back and get it.” Sankofa embodies the idea that heritage is a tool with which to build the future—and that we often need to go back to “get it” in order to understand where we’re at now and how to move forward.

Importantly, Sankofa prompts acknowledgement of the deliberate and sustained erasure of African and Black presence, voice and leadership. It expresses the potential of overcoming of continued violence by laying the ground for alternatives to a singular, exclusionary, White narrative. Sankofa re-centres, recognizes, includes, inscribes, and builds on memory to move forward. As the idea of Sankofa situates the past and the future in relation to each other, we are invited to “Sankofa-tize” the way we do things and to begin a process of reclamation and revival.

Sankofa: African Routes, Canadian Roots, which runs from November 4, 2021 until March 27, 2022, was co-curated by Nya Lewis (BlackArt Gastown), Titilope Salami (PhD candidate, Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory, UBC) and myself, with an installation curated by Sayo Olowo-Ake (MA candidate, Critical Curatorial Studies, Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory, UBC). The exhibition deliberately builds on the rich diversity with which ideas of Africanness and of being Black are expressed today. It intentionally challenges monolithic and simplistic perspectives in favour of the multi-vocal approach that can arise from listening to specific and situated voices. It offers a conversation that is also an inquiry into the multiple forms of engagement that connect us here, in this moment.  And it manifests a shared belief that initiatives towards recognition, remembrance and reconnection—even reparation, restoration, restitution and reconstruction—may all be approached from a curatorial perspective informed by social justice.

As one of the contemporary works featured in Sankofa, Chantal Gibson’s multimedia installation Souvenir (2017), which premiered in the exhibition Here We Are Here in Nova Scotia in 2019, confronts us with the intrinsic violence of “painting everyone with the same brush” while performing an exercise of inscribing—against intentional erasure—the continued agency of Black Canadians in our communities and in the history of the country.

Ibeji Project, by Stephen Tayo (Nigera).

In a related vein, Peju Layiwola’s panel series Dialoguing Sarah (2018), while also offering a tribute and a memorial to the enslaved and objectified Khoikhoi woman Sarah Baartman (1789–1815), is an effective de-centering and re-centering of narrative by exposing senseless colonial erasures and celebrating their failure through the resilience and triumph of African women today.

Sankofa Figure. Maker unrecorded (Asante.)

Guest curator Sayo Olowo-Ake highlights Stephen Tayo’s photographic portrait project on twins in Nigeria, Ibeji (2019), addressing the museum as a colonial agent by opposing Tayo’s contemporary portraits with Ibeji figures from MOA’s collections—a deity representing a pair of twins in the Yoruba religion. This juxtaposition of the contemporary and historical reminds us that such material entities are not simply “museum objects,” and invites us to engage in critical un-learning: a process that Olowo-Ake, herself a twin, leads with personal experience.

African routes toward Sankofa are shown in this exhibition to be ancient, complex, extremely rich, creative and real. They pose specific, difficult challenges when activated as heritage, as much as they also invite taking past routes into new directions—through creative inspiration, historical re-learning and reparation. Canadian roots and, in particular, Black Canadian roots in Vancouver offer a timely opportunity to intervene in city planning by pointing to some significant facts: that a significant proportion of Black Canadians are not recent arrivals but at least third-generation Canadians; that Vancouver has a long history of excluding and criminalizing Black people, as the deliberate destruction via “urban development” of Vancouver’s Black neighbourhood in the 1960s attests; and that today, Black Vancouverites leading in every walk of life are able and willing to share their experience and wisdom with the larger community.  Let’s Sankofa-tize that!