Essays, Featured, Post-Colonial Discourse
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Exploring a Void – “The Middle Ground”

A Study of Things (Kettle and Stool for observing Wudu), Exploring a Void, Ferkessedougou, 2014

A Study of Things (Kettle and Stool for observing Wudu), Exploring a Void, Ferkessedougou, 2014

In my previous writing, A Border Philosophy, I discussed the nature of a border, as something porous but concurrently has the tendency to be a vacuum as a result of the various positionings of what it tends to separate. In taking that argument further, I propose to discuss this vacuum as a space that is no longer a space of nothingness but an In-between or an “Interstitial” space (Bhabha, 1994) – within which the negotiations of many intersecting factors give form to the nature and potency of a given border condition.

Often times when we make references to a border, it is in relation to an outward physical quality that imposes one form of limitation or the other – be it in our everyday lives or in the more institutionalized context of borders between nations. A visual rendition of a border might lead us to conjure a thick mass of matter the size of one’s imagination obscuring further vision or the possibility of a more distant horizon. It could also come to us in form of a menace to our sense of freedom and therefore something that we must overpower. Usually it is everything but the self, and is treated as an antigen to an antibody.

The peripheries of nations are reinforced by the rigid regulations of its borders. A toddler becomes uneasy and frustrated at the slightest confrontation of boundaries. All these forms by which this rigidity manifests have, to a greater extent, sculpted our imagination of borders into that which separates – that which something stops.

About half a decade ago, I began to explore these questions in relation to Africa and its complications of movement, exchange and therefore progress amongst the 54 countries of the continent. Such explorations came off the heels of already laudable arguments such as Kwame Nkrumah’s Pan Africanism and Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness (Biko, 2004) which, one way or the other, emphasized the urgent need to transcend mental limitations, extending its application to languages, tribes and countries. The term we evoked to articulate this exploration was Trans-Africanism which in turn was a metaphor borrowed from the history and implications of the Trans-African highway.

The Trans-African highway was a project first instituted by the various colonial powers that reigned in the continent at the time. However, it was a highway put in place not to link the continent together, but to accumulate territories in favor of respective colonial empires. Rather than reinforces movement and exchange within the continent, it did just the opposite, alienating tribes and people along colonial lines. Today the project has been appropriated by Africa Union and The Africa Development Bank whose aim is to extend the network of roads to the four corners of the continent – so far the network as planned reaches all continental African nations except 8 countries.

In appropriating this term to an art discourse we hoped to reclaim and repurpose it, uprooting it from where it stood as a whitewashed edifice of colonial legacy and placing it in service of a more critical and vibrant approach to exchange. The Prefix Trans suggest a “going beyond” (Okereke, 2011), but also calls to mind a constant state of flux. When attached to Africa, we are immediately faced with a word combination that animates a vivid imagination of entities in constant motion, and whose perpetuity displaces any notion of ossification. Trans-Africanism is therefore not a definition but a function of something not readily definable. It is situated at the core of the processes of knowledge creation whose potency is hinged on the hybridity of differences however it presents itself within the complex network of its operative context. I have intentionally avoided attributing this solely to the art sector for as a mindset, and an attitude, it permeates everything. It is this very attribute which facilitates hybridity across sectors, such that our society is emboldened by the best of its complexities.

It also carries with it all the contradictions embedded in the frictions of differences (it is important to note that the greatest opponents of Kwame Nkrumah were his fellow African statesmen who nevertheless were in agreement of the idea that was Pan-Africanism but very divided in its application (Biney, 2011). In retrospect it won’t be an uninformed assessment to conclude that it was all a function of an idea whose core aim was to articulate and harness the dividends of differences). It should therefore be taken to heart that Trans-Africanism allows these contradictions to play itself out –  the road to harmony and coherence is often fraught with thistles of inconsistencies. If anything good will come out of a place like Africa (or anywhere else for that matter), people must be allowed the luxury of the contradictions in their differences.

However, for us to have a clearer picture of what Trans-Africanism is we must investigate further into the mechanism at play. This might need us to plunge further in and perhaps arrive at that point where the concept begins to flutter as if a disintegration is about to occur. At this stage, we are approaching what we could call the nucleus of a concept. It is a space. A space like that which Chinua Achebe in his collection of essays, Education of a British-Protected Child (2009), likened to the Igbo concept of The Middle Ground”. It is neither the foreground nor the background, it is where everything is allowed to play a role in coexistence, and whatever cannot survive this space is expunged by the same process by which they became a part of it. It is the process by which foreground and background comes into being; it is the core of social formation.

Furthermore it is a space that “lacks luster; it is undramatic, unspectacular” and its “workplace is not a neat tabletop but a messy workshop”, (Achebe, 2009) neither does it always facilitate a gathering of kumbaya – a very unusual picture for a space of conviviality but one which, as an afterthought is not unlike that which we carry within when we let ourselves be abandoned to a strange experience for the first time.

Chinua Achebe writes: “The middle ground is neither the origin of things nor the last things; it is aware of a future to head to (emphasis is mine) and a past to fall back on; it is the home of doubt and indecision, of suspension of disbelief, of make-believe, of playfulness, of the unpredictable, of irony”.

It is the space in which we are obliged to abandon all approach of binary reading of dissimilarities and enter with a sense of adventure that allows for a brush with differences. There will be collisions, frictions, synergies, fluctuations in temperatures and temperaments; the attributes of linearity will be disrupted – all of which is the working of the grinding mill propagating new discourses, cultures, and knowledges that accounts for and indeed inscribes values to our individual differences because we placed those differences at the service of a relationship beyond the Self. By so doing, the lines as well as the makings of the Self/Other dichotomy are remarkably agitated, resulting in an irreversible experience of displacement. It is in the rigorous process of this experiencing that the human acquires the quality of empathy necessary for forging a harmonious outcome in the context of dissimilitude.

It is not a partitioning of one’s mindset into chambers that opens and closes at will in relation to others, but a total reconditioning of the mindset to divorce the illusion of peculiarity in the unfamiliar. This also means that one must adopt a mindset which considers her/his specific identity applicable to a universal condition (I have intentionally refrained from the phrase “multicultural conditions” because multi-culture is, in essence, the inherent function of the universal).  In this reflection we are able to make that connection which as Chinua Achebe expressed becomes the conduit to “a future to head to” while anchoring to (and could, at the same time disrupt) the past.

Trans-Africanism is therefore an encasement of the middle ground, an in-between space, a space of conviviality but also of chaos and a messy workshop in which we become first social managers before legal craftsmen (Achebe, 2009); where we approach conflict by the restitution of harmony than the display of power and correctness; where we view differences as permutations of a universal form.

It operates at the core of negotiations of diversity, complexness and differences, and is in no way restricted to its derivative context which in this case is Africa. It serves to elucidate, demystify, and propose horizontality where binary readings of differences serve to classify and demarcate. It is potent in Africa as it is in the Serbian narrative of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the disparity between North and South Korea as well as in the invisible border between Amsterdam and the immigrant settlement of Bijlmer just South-East of Amsterdam. The forms by which it manifest will always be unique to the context in question, but its core is of a universal quality imbued with a force that seeks to snap all interactions back to the balancing essence of being.

I will end this reflection with what, for me, has becoming one of Martin Heidegger’s most equivocal and yet precise quotes:

 “A boundary is not that which something stops but as the greeks recognized, the boundary is
that from which something begins its presencing”

What I find particularly powerful and indeed a cause for a shred of optimism is the continuous term of the word “presencing”. There is no end to presence. What else can one say of the future?


Emeka Okereke (2014). A Border Philosophy – Diary of A Border-Being (Available online)

Homi K. Bhabha (1994). The Location of Cultures, 2nd Edition, London and New York: Routledge Classics

Steve Biko (2004). I write What I Like: A selection of his writings: Picador Africa

Trans-African Network. Overall Features of the Network: Wikipedia

Emeka Okereke (2011). Transcending Africa. Savvy Art Journal. Berlin, 3rd Edition: Savvy Art Space. Also available online

Ama Biney (2011). The Political and Social Thought of Kwame Nkrumah, New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Chinua Achebe (2009). Education of a British-Protected Child (Collection of Essays). p21 – 23, Penguin Classics

Homi K. Bhabha (1994). The Location of Cultures. Introduction – Border Lives: The Art of the Present. 2nd Edition, London and New York: Routledge Classics

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