This January, members and associates of the Postcolonial Print Cultures Network met at the campus of New York University Abu Dhabi to critically engage with the themes of print, orality and readerships. What transpired was two days of forceful and vibrant academic discussion surrounding these issues. As is detailed below, a host of further concerns also arose, from climate change to pedagogy.

The Louvre, Abu Dhabi

Day One

Panel One: Art and Ephemera

We began with the paper ‘The Artist’s Notebook and Sites of Existential Reckoning’ in which Toral Gajarawala (NYU-Abu Dhabi) discussed the various uses of assessing the diaries of artists in order to understand better their artistic productions. The talk centred around the Indian Modernist Nasreen Mohamedi and the Hindi poet Agyeya. Mohamedi was one of the first artists in the Gulf to focus on the region as a site of modernity, paying consistent attention to the architecture, and especially straight finite lines. The diary reflects, Gajarawala tells us, on her method, as her ‘lines speak of troubled destinies’. Agyeya was highly politicised in his thinking and in his work as he organised against fascism. His diary includes intimate reflections that informed his work. Through this text, it become possible to track the poet’s move from leftist activist towards social realism. In both cases, the notebook offers a way to work through certain theoretical problems that concerned these artists; they pull out different ways of thinking about the works.

The second paper of the panel, ‘Breaking Out of Print Culture: Art Cinema in India’, given by Rochona Majumdar (Chicago), and based on the introduction of her forthcoming book, provided a nuanced cultural history of Indian art cinema. As opposed to Bollywood, Indian art cinema catered to a smaller, more discerning audience; it is avowedly non-mainstream and altogether more high-brow. The discussion revolved around the pedagogical nature of these films as they were initially produced in the wake of Indian independence and involved subtle messages on how to be a ‘good citizen’, and how Indian society might ‘progress’. However, over time, Indian cinema grew more uncertain in its ethical imperatives. The political objectives of film-makers, and broader arthouse film culture, became more heterogenous and spoke more of heterotelic futures: there is a breakdown of teleology, as there are many different and competing senses of time operating within the same film.

Panel Two: Recording Arab Commitments

In her paper, ‘Committed and Commissioned: Narratives of the Arab Cultured Citizen’, Maya Issam Kesrouany (NYU-Abu Dhabi) opened the second panel by asking ‘what is art supposed to do in times of crisis?’  To explore this question, her paper placed the boom of cultural production that appeared in the wake of the Arab Spring in conversation with a longer trajectory of art criticism in the region. Such an approach, Kesrouany reminds us, allows for a nuanced appreciation of how ideas travel, translate and are redeployed in the Arab World. The New Review, which first appeared in Egypt in 1929, became the mouthpiece of the surrealists in the 1940s, and emphasised a new role for the artist as organic intellectual, who could aid in the creation of the ‘cultured citizen’. Out of this, and with the onset of the Cold War, intellectuals such as Ramsis Yunan advocated surrealism as a means through which to reach an enlightened socialism. The complex interplay between socialist realism and abstraction is reworked the 1990s visual artists. 

Hana Morgenstern (Cambridge) followed with her presentation, ‘The Literary Journal as a Record: Acts of Recording in Palestinian Periodicals’, which provided an in-depth examination of Communist, anti-Zionist magazines in Palestine in the 1940s-60’s. Following the dispersal of Palestinians with the expansion of Israel, these magazines sought to re-create a unified intellectual culture of political and literary resistance. Along with illegal poetry festivals, these magazines provided a focal point through which to galvanise resistance against Zionism. Being small-scale and mobile, these publications worked to draw together fragmented communities. Morgenstern reads the stories and poems in the magazines as providing a social commentary and narratives that mobilized new communities and strengthenedtheir relations within a rapidly changing and dangerous political landscape.

The magazine al-Jadid, Haifa, Israel/Palestine 1956

Panel Three: Local Imprints and Worldly Imagining

Our third session of the first day considered the multifaceted connections between locality and the global in postcolonial media. In ‘Black Neighbourhoods: A Cultural History of Windrush Settlements in Britain, 1955-1985’, Jack Webb (Newcastle) talked through a research application concerned with recovering and analysing small, local, publications across Caribbean communities in Britain. These magazines, newsletters, and pamphlets, Webb argued, point towards a rich intellectual culture. They allow us to build a complicated understanding of grassroots political movements, and organic intellectualism, beyond much-researched canonical figures. These small-scale-works also gesture towards a particular relationship with international intellectual currents and political climates as they both reviewed the literature of international scholars, and disseminated works to locales across the Atlantic World.

The second paper in the panel, presented by Kay Dickinson (Concordia), was ‘The Film Club and the Manifesto: Egypt’s Ephemera of Revolutionary Reappraisal’. Through a study of Egyptian cinema, Dickinson provided a history of role of popular culture in Egypt since independence. The Cineclub of the 1950s, for instance, displayed international arthouse films, often considered otherwise as too risqué for a general audience. Such films were largely consumed by a select group of cultured enthusiasts. As free education was then rolled out from primary to university levels, the Government launched the Higher Cinema Institute. It recruited thirty students per year and funded aspiring film-makers as part of a broader effort of social engagement. The cinema market was thus never open in Egypt, until the 1980s when the state advocated a more open economy, with neo-colonial repercussions, and heralding the wide-spread popularity of international films, such as those by the Italian Michelangelo Antonioni.

Roundtable 1

The speakers and interlocutors from day one then engaged in a round-table event. Toral Gajarawala opened by reflecting on some key themes of the day: the histories of production behind the various genres under discussion; the state of the archive for postcolonial archive; what is the value of art, and when is that value recognised? In response, Maya Issam Kesrouany reflected on a tendency to take on narratives of ‘backwards’ in relation to Arab art and film culture. Kay Dickinson, saying that such a narrative is evident in Egypt after several decades of independence. And yet, both scholars highlighted, we have to be mindful about productions in which such narratives do not appear; and about the fluctuating reactions of viewers, listeners and readers in relation to them.

Rochona Majumdar elaborated that when discourses of art enter into cinema, it was part of an effort to confer something on that film, to make it more than popular entertainment. The paratext, Abhijit Gupta went on to say, is key to the transmission and reception of the film’s message. We should ask, then, to what extent the state plays a role in providing such paratext, and also in censorship. The invisible hand of the state, Gupta explained, is part of what we consume. Dickinson agreed, highlighting that Hollywood is heavily censored in one respect and yet permits misogyny, tacit racism and homophobia. Isabel Hofmeyr interjected by asking whether there is an assumption behind censorship that the citizen-viewer is somehow vulnerable. Out of this discussion, and in order to begin answering these questions, Venkatachalapathy pointed to the huge amount of texts, from posters to songbooks, produced along with films. Such an archive could help us to better understand the production behind these films.

This discussion concluded with Gajarawala and Hofmeyr both presenting a useful set of questions to guide future inquiry: How do we create a reading methodology out of the archive of film-related text? How do we create permanence out of this ephemerality? How are people taught to become critics? How do people learn to see certain things in this way?

Network Meeting

Before the conference broke for the evening, a meeting took place between members of the Postcolonial Print Cultures Network. It was publicised that the next conference being organised by network members was at Newcastle University in June 10-12, 2020, with the title “Colonial and Print Mobilities: Black Periodicals and Local Publications, 1880-present” (see details here).  For 2021, it was suggested that Jadavpur University, Kolkata, may be able to host the following event, pending funding. A potential theme for this would be the relationship between image and text. Further ahead, it was proposed that the University of Johannesburg may also be able to host an event. Network members then considered possible ways forward for the publishing the papers of this, and past conferences, and the potential to produce a reader on postcolonial print cultures.

Day Two

Panel Four: Reading Copyright, Reading Customs

Our second day picked up where the first had ended, with an outstanding paper by Isabel Hofmeyr (NYU/Witwatersrand), entitled ‘Hydrocolonial Print Cultures: Coast, Custom House and Dockside Reading’. Based on Hofmeyr’s forthcoming book, this paper interrogated the role of the customs houses of the dockside of South Africa’s port towns in censoring imported books and their copyright. The customs house was responsible for all manner of things passing into the territory, from books to goods, animals and people. Thinking through this broader administrative process is crucial, Hofmeyr maintains, to understanding processes relating to the copyright of books. Such a practice informed the mode of reading of customs officials. This was a culture of nomenclature and contest as officials sought to define objects and subjects, including the contents of books.

Swathes of fabric from the Customs House

Venkatachalapathy (Madras Institute of Development Studies) maintained the interrogation of copyright in his paper, ‘Copyright, Public Domain and the Post-Colonial State: The Curious Case of ‘Nationalization’ of Copyright in Contemporary Tamilnadu’. This paper critically examined the Indian state of Tamil Nadu’s selective purchasing of the copyright of certain works, which were then made freely available to the public. Initially used to honour a great poet, the acclaimed philosophy behind this was that ‘the wealth of knowledge is for the people at large’. For the state of Tamil Nadu this was a democratising of the publication system versus the monopoly of private copyright which was seen as selfish and greedy. Yet, as Chalapathy told the audience in his focus on the region of Tamilnadu, this process was highly politicised. Over the last two decades , politicians and cultural activists and families of writers begin agitating for the copyright of other writers, , to be nationalised. Acting as patron, police, and benefactor, the State thus deployed its power arbitrarily in influencing the cultural landscape.

Panel Five: Radio Fictions

The paper presented by James Procter (Newcastle), ‘The Radiophonic Voice: West African and West Indian Writers at the BBC’, moved the conference to consider the multidirectional relationship between print and the spoken word through radio. On the airwaves of the BBC, West Indian writers were freed from the restrictions of text. Authorial voices were blurred with one another, as the speaker often quoted others from around the world; and they were blurred with sound effects. This meant that there was a deal of ambiguity around questions of authority, authenticity and plagiarism. The show Caribbean Voices was hugely important for engendering nation-language and Caribbean culture. Here, the rhythms of English are broken up for African and Caribbean knowledges. Here, the authoritative voice of the BBC, as the voice of Empire, was disrupted. Radio, Procter argued, loosened the tongues of Black Atlantic authors at the BBC, allowing new forms of genre and expression to open up. Moreover, the voice did not just liberate West African literature from the printed page: it was both a decolonizing and imperializing device. Caribbean writers shaped and were shaped by the technologies of radio in the 20th century.

This paper was followed by Abhijit Gupta (Jadavpur) on ‘Aliens in Calcutta, 1966, 2019: the many avatars of Bengali Science Fiction’. Gupta tracked the history of science fiction in Calcutta through its various media: film, print and radio. These stories usually appeared first as books before being turned into other forms. But in other cases, magazines emerged out of films, being produced by film clubs. In some cases, science fictions were turned from print into radio productions, such as with ‘The Little Green Man’, a production which shocked many members of its audience. Through these three genres, science fiction was spread across India, only for its popularity to fade out again. In recent years, Bengali SF has made a comeback largely owing to the efforts of the Kalpabiswa collective, whose webzine of the same name has begun to break new ground in the field.

Photo of Abhijit Gupta’s slideshow for ‘Aliens in Calcutta’

Panel Six: Listening and the Artscape

Our final panel opened with the presentation ‘The Metaphysics of Postcolonial Being’ by Awam Ampka (NYU). This rich and complex paper questioned the meanings of modernity in the African context. As texts are translated and made anew, they appeal to new publics, and point to new and varied modernities. Indeed, as a place that is multi-cultural, Ampka argued, Africa necessarily has a multiplicity of modernities and with that ranging conceptions of time and space. This is a polyglot environment in which one modernity is not enough to encapsulate the enormity of the continent. If anything, it is migration and fluidity that defines Africa. Literature in Africa is postcolonial when it puts forward this multifacetedness, as it rejects the singularity of colonial modernity. It is not, then, just about replacing the European empire with African nations, but about refusing to freeze Africa into an anthropological definition, and recognising competing ideas about time and place. To conclude this paper, and to provide an example of this theory into practice, Ampka reflected on the recent exhibition that he curated, ‘Wole Soyinka: Antiquities Across Time and Place’. This display reminds us that no one art form speaks exclusively of African time or space; that they are social productions, which are in conversation with one another.

Neelam Srivastava (Newcastle) prised open further the themes of migration and cultural production in her paper, ‘Aural Aesthetics: Listening to Zarina Bhimji’s Diasporic Landscapes’. The British artist Zarina Bhimji is of South Asian descent, whose family had resided in Uganda as part of the large South Asian community there (its presence dates back to when Indian coolie labour was brought in by the British in the 19th century to construct the East African Railway). As a child, she was, along with the entire South Asian community, forced to leave Uganda for Britain during the Ugandan government’s policy of ‘Africanisation’. Her works, which reckon with this personal history, have been referred to as ‘poetic documentaries’, or ‘anti-documentaries’. As Srivastava argues, these films disrupt romantic travel narratives of Africa. They include titles that are poetic, but not instructive, and soundtracks that are not intuitive; provoking the viewer to be inquisitive. The viewer is forced to ‘listen’ to the haunto-sonics of the image. The image and the soundscape thereby present multiple points of conflict and confusion which speak to the artist’s personal journey and its relation to broader (post)colonial contexts of statelessness and migration.

Roundtable 2

The conference came to a close with a reflection by all delegates on the themes of the second day. Gajarawala summed these up as copyright, dissemination, nostalgia, wreckage and migration. Rochona Majumdar responded by asking in what specific ways the term ‘postcolonial’ was useful in understanding these themes. Srivastava and Gajarawala explained that the power of the term is its mutability; facilitating an interdisciplinary method; and retaining a political edge, aspects that terms such as ‘world literature’ did not have. Such flexibility is essential when considering the range of archival material consulted, in this conference and more widely.

Gupta took this point further to explain that postcolonialism involved a certain method, a certain way of making archives, or sources, out of otherwise neglected material. On this note, it was imperative to continue archival work. On this note, Hofmeyr asked if it was possible for us to map out the secondary sources on postcolonial print cultures that already exist; there is a substantial amount of work being done on this, especially in the African context. What would it take to do this? Srivastava replied that our delegates at the conference had covered four continents of the globe, and that we could bring this work together to build a map of postcolonial print cultures scholarship, one that facilitates the comparative method.

The last word of the conference went to Hofmeyr who, before we departed, wanted to ask where postcolonial print cultures was in relation to climate change: Could we estimate the carbon footprint of a book? In what atmospheres (mediums) do we find them in? Could we brainstorm on methods for working through this? What is the relationship between empires and fossil fuels?