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AfAA Updates from San José
American Anthropological Association Meetings
November 2006, San José, CA

By Jennifer E. Coffman (James Madison Univeristy)

2007 Copyright © American Anthropology Association

The AfAA board and many of the section’s members met together at the AAA annual meetings in San Jose, CA, in November 2006 to celebrate a good year for the section. As is now custom, AfAA’s healthy budget allows for tasty snacks and an open bar during our social held in conjunction with the Distinguished Lecture. Our business meeting closed out the evening.

An internationally renowned expert in Congolese folk art, as well as the historical contexts of such art, Bogumil Jewsiewicki (Université Laval) delivered this year’s Distinguished Lecture. AfAA president Bennetta Jules-Rosette honored Jewsiewicki’s exceptional scholarship over the years with the very first AfAA award for Distinguished Scholarship in Africanist Anthropology.

Jewsiewicki’s Distinguished Lecture was entitled “Postscriptural Communication, Postphotographic Images, Performance as Heritage Preservation: Invention as Tradition in Africa.” Based on his extensive research in Democratic Republic of Congo and its predecessor Zaire, Jewsiewicki showed and discussed Congolese popular paintings from the past half century as ways in which people cope with economic and political uncertainties. The paintings reflect not only some of the ways in which people have dealt with various traumas under colonial and dictatorial regimes, but also how they come to terms with those histories and memories and link them to their present and future possibilities. Jewsiewicki described heritage as the relationship between what is portrayed in public and how it can be compared to the past while negotiating the present. Heritage may be preserved, as well as transformed, as it is performed through popular paintings. Certain objects or events may be evoked publicly as symbols of the past and thus fashioned into cultural memories, “traditional” practices. The very act of hanging popular paintings in parlors – rooms within Western-style homes, rooms dominated by men – is itself a recent tradition. For example, Mobutu’s penchant for destroying political enemies inspired numerous paintings of Mami Wata as a seductress mermaid who promised great wealth but claimed the souls of men. Later paintings focused more explicitly on the topic of critique, such as scenes from Gecamines (copper industry) rendered to demonstrate rampant “illegitimate inequalities.” Throughout, the paintings appeared as parts of stories, and men could share those stories, along with their personal experiences and the illusion of their own authority, in a culturally unified space of the parlors.

Jewsiewicki repeatedly mentioned three elements interacting together to promote “heritage”: oral, in the sense of postscriptural, as people recognize scriptures to belong to the state; visual, but post-photographic, as photos have been used in Zaire/DRC to present a world as it should be – “the world of white men”; and musical, but postmodern in terms of how music, present in everyday life, has been reimagined and claimed in some locales to privilege youth over elders – a present tied to but different from its past. These themes must be repeated to be acknowledged and perpetuated as important.

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