Of roots and high achievement

Recently I posted a web link to an internet forum which reported the fact that the much-praised and truly extraordinary building that houses the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington DC (opened by President Barack Obama on September 23,2016) was designed by an architect with Ghanaian ancestry. He is called David Adjaye.

(See https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=david+adjaye&spell=1&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiCwdaE1r7PAhUHJcAKHa42CK0QvwUIGygA&biw=1440&bih=770 )

My surprise was considerable when one member of the forum wrote to complain sarcastically that he was tired of Ghanaians “claiming” people who have made it elsewhere in the world.

I retorted that it was the man’s name that had “claimed” him for Ghana, and that it was only natural that Ghanaians should take notice of names they recognised as originating from their country. It was merely a matter of DNA announcing itself by name. So there!

Funnily enough, even as this argument was going on, a BBC news programme carried an interview with Mr Adjaye on the building he’d designed. And guess what: one of the questions he was asked began: “As a British (sic) architect telling an American story….”

Whether we like it or not, Britain has claimed him –though he was born in Tanzania of Ghanaian parents (his father was a Ghanaian diplomat) and did not settle in the United Kingdom until he was nine years old.

Certainly, the building he has constructed in Washington bears its own testimony; it is of a unique design; definitely African both in its spirit and physical characteristics, and will no doubt grow to be regarded as one of the wonders of modern architecture not only in the US but the world.

The New York Times acknowledges that the museum “carries significant trans-Atlantic references. The triple-tiered silhouette, and a deep flexed-roof porch” (the paper points out) “draw on features in African architecture and sculpture.”

But the paper describes as “off-base” the museum’s “insistence that the building is in the form of a Yoruba crown”. Instead (says the paper) the motif was more likely derived from “figurative veranda posts carved for Yoruba courts.”

In an interview, Mr Adjaye himself told the New York Times that he wanted to see if the silhouette of the building could be made the beginning of the museum’s narrative.

“You’re talking about the three-tier facade of bronzed, canted panels, which become a sort of inverted triple pyramid. It draws on the shape of a Yoruba caryatid, a traditional West African column, with a corona at the top”? (Mr Adjaye was asked.)

ANSWER: “… The corona motif … seemed like a way to start to tell a story that moves from one continent, where people were taken, along with their cultures, and used as labour, then contributed towards making another country and new cultures.

That history then continues in the decorative patterning of those panels.”

Q:”The patterns riff on the ironwork of a former African-American slave from Charleston, South Carolina. Am I right?

A: “People keep thinking that the slave trade was about cotton picking. It was also about bridge building; canals; house making. Labor in all its forms.

So, I suddenly went, ‘Oh my God, well, let’s really talk about architecture and African-American history; let’s go back and look at Georgia and Charleston, you know, all these places, through a different lens.

There, the history is right in front of you — this incredible tradition of metal-smithing by freed slaves. There were no molds. They learned all this by hand. It is part of the history of American architecture.”

Q: You are not American. You’re British-Ghanaian, the son of a diplomat, raised in Britain. How do you relate to this history?

A: In Africa and throughout the black diaspora, we all sort of see the American experience as the modernity of black culture.

Q: “Modernity?”

A: “I’m talking about the emancipation that happened through the civil rights movement, which stirred independence movements elsewhere. We forget that that is a new phenomenon, a modern phenomenon.”

Q: “When you said “modernity” I thought you were talking about contemporary African-American culture?”

A: “Absolutely. That too. I think many people don’t realise how much the popularity of Obama is not just simply because he’s black, but also because he’s part of this modernity.”

The opening of the museum on September 23 was a most moving event.

In his speech, President Barack Obama remarked that among the exhibits in the museum. “on its lowest level, after you walk past remnants of a slave ship, after you reflect on the immortal declaration that all men are created equal, you can see a block of stone.

On top of this stone, sits a historical marker, weathered by the ages, and that marker reads “General Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay spoke from this slave block during the year 1830”.

(Obama went on “I want you to think about this. Consider what this artifact tells us about history, about how it’s told, and about what can be cast aside.

On a stone where day after day, for years, men and women were torn from their spouse or their child, shackled, and bound, and bought, and sold, and bid like cattle, on a stone worn down by the tragedy of over 1,000 bare feet.

For a long time, the only thing we considered important, the singular thing we once chose to commemorate as history, with a plaque, were the unmemorable speeches of two powerful men.

“And that block, I think, explains why this museum is so necessary, because that same object re-framed, put in context, tells us so much more.

As Americans, we rightfully passed on the tales of the giants who built this country, who led armies into battle, who waged seminal debates in the halls of Congress and the corridors of power, but too often we ignored, or forgot, the stories of millions upon millions of others, who built this nation just as surely, whose humble eloquence, whose calloused hands, whose steady drive, helped to create cities, erect industries, build the arsenals of democracy.

”And so this national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are.

It helps us better understand the lives, yes of the president, but also the slave, the industrialist but also the porter, the keeper of the status quo but also the optimist seeking to overthrow that status quo.”

Prominent African-Americans who performed at the opening included Steve Wonder,

Will Smith and Oprah Winfrey. (Ms Winfrey was the museum’s highest private donor, giving a reported $21 million).

The Smithsonian Institute and the US federal Government contributed $540 million. The building is situated on a five-acre space next to the Washington Monument.

The weight of bronze-colored, cast aluminum divided into 3,600 panels that create the signature exterior feature called the Corona was 230 tons. 60 percent of the building’s structure located below ground.

One report says that “this challenging construction feat marks the museum as one of the largest and most complex in the country. 37,000 objects– made possible by donors and institutional support – are currently owned by the museum.

ENDPIECE: According to The Washington Post, the museum’s opening “comes more than 400 years after the first slave ship landed on America’s soil.

It came 229 years after the Founding Fathers decided that black slaves should be counted as only three-fifths of a human being. [And] it came 53 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, also on the [National] Mall [in Washington].

The paper quoted one spectator at the event as demanding to know: “How can you fail to see the links between current events — Charlotte, Tulsa and Black Lives Matter — and the brutal death of Emmett Till all those years ago?

[With] some history, you don’t see the link between that time and your own time.

This history is right in your face. Sometimes people say, that was then, this is now. That’s not true here.

Then and now have come together,” he said.

From  Cameron Duodu


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