by Huiying Ng
The Southeast Asia NeighbourhoodNetwork (SEANNET) and Humanities across Borders (HaB) research groupsco-organised a full day of panels at the 2nd Africa-Asia Conference, held in Dar es Salaam from 20-22 September 2018.
Paul Rabé, SEANNET, International Institute for Asian Studies, the Netherlands
Rita Padawangi, SEANNET, IIAS, the Netherlands/Singapore University of the Social Sciences, Singapore
Aarti Kawlra, HaB, International Institute for Asian Studies, the Netherlands
Focusing on neighbourhoods, the panel brought together local and international Principal Investigators, or “academic activists”, around discussions of key sites. These sites were picked for their significance ecologically, historically, as places that mark new ways of looking at how people think arise. The panel aimed to stimulate thinking about place as a dynamic concept across knowledges spanning Africa-Asia.
Rationale: Why neighbourhoods?
A neighbourhood focus enables a transdisciplinary disruption of area studies paradigms—of Africa, Asia, Europe as mutually incompatible for study—and disrupts the centrality of the nation-state, from the microcosm of the neighbourhood. By making the teacup, vendor’s cup and street or seat as a legitimate place for knowledge production, a new frame of reference becomes possible: a new “we” that are all in it together, from Asia to Africa and beyond. It further disrupts questions of heritage: heritage for whom and from whom? Rather, with a tea cup as vantage point, “heritage” becomes visible as a dominant epistemological framework that is created and inserted into communities. Urban development, too, becomes visible as state and democratic concepts that obscure the rural setting, and its role in producing and reproducing the urban.
Kojo Opoku Aidoo of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Ghana, spoke about the Hilla Kodji Neighborhood on the Togo-Benin Border, as a place to study grassroots pan-Africanism. Peopled by different nationalities, the site reflects the development of “coping mechanisms” and survival strategies in everyday life. Kojo presents an argument for Pan-Africanism from below, suggesting it is best articulated as a flexible, inclusive, dynamic form of aspiration; and that Pan-Africanism from above does not.
Komson Teeraparbwong of Chiang Mai University, Thailand, spoke about Wua Lai Neighborhood, in Chiang Mai province, Thailand, as a site to study inhabitants’ self-organisation culture, economy, and livelihood in the context of disappearing crafts culture due to new planning priorities for tourism. Komson reflected on the way sensitivities about local dynamics, religion, and economic regeneration are brought into architectural site studies and teaching through workshops with craft skills-sharing, studies of typologies of materials of houses through sketches and exhibition, and four-way collaborative work with other tertiary institutions.
Boonanan Natakun, Thammasat University, Thailand, spoke about Nang Loeng Neighborhood in Bangkok, Thailand. As a walking street, part of the entertainment district/centre of Bangkok, and located in the middle of a few palaces of King Rama 5th, it is a site where the filtering of knowledge and wisdom of the royal family across generations may be studied in the visible architecture and dynamics of multi-ethnic groups in the area.
Adrian Perkasa of Universitas Airlangga, Indonesia, presented the latest phase of a long-term research inquiry of Kampung Peneleh, a small settlement in Surabaya, Indonesia where the first President of Indonesia, Sukarno, and a number of other public figures in Indonesia’s political history spent their formative years.
These ongoing research efforts, initiated by a early map-making activity and later, the consideration of the Preparatory Committee of the UN Habitat, has led the city council to keep the house for conservation and replace the old maps with new.
Jama Musse Jama of the Redsea Cultural Foundation, Somaliland presented the work of the Redsea Cultural Foundation in Hargeysa, Somaliland. To create a sustainable neighbourhood capable of dealing with cultural and religious changes, a priority on culture over basic security is also necessary, he argues. Speaking about access to art as a defence against the fragility of society, and the need to cultivate mindsets amongst the youth in Africa, he reiterated the unique locality of culture and the need for collaboration across Asia and Africa to work through its problems of security and governance together.
Finally, Abdourahmane Seck of the University Gaston Berger, Senegal spoke about building the Street School in Senegal – or Two People’s Academies in the Banc Jaaxle and the Grand-Place, and Tharaphi Than of Northern Illinois University, United States spoke about working from an example of food to elicit representational contrasts of the same dish. Manifested as written text of a ceremonial food dish, and as a street food dish sold by migrants for other workers, students considered the influences of working, alien bodies on the cultural reformulation of this dish.
Questions and Answers
Questions ranged across the attachment of culture to space, the interaction of discourses of the global war on terrorism on fragile states such as Somaliland, and the emerging problem of coping strategies that enable forgetting to pass daily life. Forms of patronage were discussed in the reproduction of counter-strategies to instability: speakers emaphsised the need for the focus of art in public spaces and neighbourhoods to allow local communities to take charge of its direction, and expand their capacities for local self-organization. Finally, the importance of vital and dynamic local activities was emphasized by speakers: in their diverse forms, forms of research and art become a means of gathering and building the ability for local communities to strengthen their practices and ideas, and the same activity may do the work of two by acting on the level of local and global organizations, to enable new forms of collaboration, and on the level of local culture, displacing the vacuum of art and culture with imaginations of acceptability and diversity.
As the panel aimed to draw out, by focusing on neighbourhoods as a lens into wider dynamics of societal and cultural change, the neighbourhood provides a way to reclaim the centrality of everyday living, combining social ecology, subaltern histories, urban studies and social anthropology.