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Climate, Migration and Racism – the 9th BIGSAS Literature Festival focuses on main topics of crises


On the first weekend of July the BIGSAS Literature Festival of African and African-Diasporic Literatures celebrated its ninth edition discussing topics such as climate change and war as global causes of crises, also scrutinizing the European narrative about the so called “refugee crisis”. Visitors were invited to a diverse and entertaining program including readings, workshops, and art performances. The festival comprised three days, three venues and even a demonstration.

„The BIGSAS Festival of African and African-Diasporic Literatures is an indispensable component of Bayreuth’s cultural landscape“– with these words the city’s mayor Dr. Beate Kuhn officially opened the 9th edition of the Literature Festival in the afternoon of Friday 5th July 2019. Almost all the seats at Iwalewa’s auditorium – Bayreuth’s number one address for displaying and experiencing African Art – were taken when the mayor pointed out the importance of the festival that is held annually and organized by the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS) and supported by the newly founded Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence.

“Friday for Future” demonstration opens the festival

Prior to the mayor’s speech the participants had already experienced a festival opening of a very special kind. The event’s organizers had invited people to take part in a “Fridays for Future+” demonstration marching all the way from the campus of the University of Bayreuth via the Refugee House to the city’s center. The “Fridays for Future” movement currently motivating millions of international pupils and students to take to the streets since March 2019 creating awareness for the global climate crisis also resonates in the underlying topic of this year’s festival: “Crises and Responsibilities. kNOWledges in Academia, Arts and Activism”. Susan Arndt – the festival’s spokeswoman – explains: “’Fridays for Future’ has reminded all of us to face the planetary crisis and the responsibilities it entails; and we are very happy to have opened the festival in cooperation with this resistance movement”.

In this context climate change and the crises it thus causes was the major theme of the festival’s first day. After settling in Iwalewa House and listening to the opening speeches of Prof. Dr. Susan Arndt, mayor Dr. Beate Kuhn and the spokesperson for the newly founded Cluster of Excellence “Africa Multiple”, Prof. Dr. Rüdiger Seesemann, the audience was first shown the Afrofuturist Kenyan short movie “Pumzi” by Wanuri Kahiu. The movie’s topic – water shortage and its implications – was later discussed by Prof. Dr. Alice Pinheiro Walla and Dr. Oliver Nyambi both in their separate keynotes as well as in the podium discussion that followed. Next up was a reading of the works by Dikko Muhammad (Nigeria) and African American writer Mai’a Williams.

Later that day the festival’s venue moved to its second location – the distinguished Old Castle of Bayreuth – where the audience was invited to take part in an intergenerational workshop discussing the “Thunberg Effect” and developing a method to experience the power of solidarity in the face of the climate crisis. Furthermore, the exhibition “Imaginatorium Resistance” was officially opened to the public. The day concluded back at Iwalewa Hause where the mesmerizing Spoken Word Night featuring Musa Okwonga (BBXO), BLESZ, Faten El Dabbaz and Kolade Igbasan invited listeners to reflect on topics such as solidarity and colonialism.

Special performances to the topic of “Migration”

The major theme of the festival’s second day was “Migration” and a scrutiny of the term “refugee crisis”. It started off with two keynote speeches by Prof. Dr. Encarnación Rodriguez and Prof. Dr. Riem Spielhaus who explored the question of how crises generally are treated in academia. In the discussion, Susan Arndt suggested that at its gist of the matter the term “refugee crisis” is more about an “identity crisis” questioning the widespread claim that white Christians were rightfully entitled to own their European privileges, resources and futures . Later, back at the Old Castle, a multilingual discussion and reading in English, Arabic and German was held. Subsequently, three books were presented in cooperation with the Universitätsverein of the University of Bayreuth: “HAYMATLOS“, “Das Herz verlässt keinen Ort, an dem es hängt“ (by Lina Atfah & Rabab Haidar) and “Das Aufbrechen“ (by dilop). While the audience was attentively listening to the readings, the Syrian artist Ahmad Karno captured his interpretation of migration and flight on canvas as part of a live art performance – addressing the bombing of Idlib, Syria, that took place at this very moment. After a podium discussion on war in the MENA region and the experiences of migrants in Germany chaired by Susan Arndt and a children’s workshop “Kids write for kids”, Anabela Rodriguez invited the audience to take part in a multigenerational workshop developing a method to experience the power of solidarity. A HipHop concert concluded the festival’s second day on Saturday evening: In their performances the artists Musa Okwonga, BLESZ as well as the duo Lina Sur & Ucy talked and rapped about racism among other topics and celebrated music as their vision of new futures.

Shadows and music highlight the festivals agenda

On Sunday morning two keynotes were the first items on the agenda of the festival’s last day. In her keynote Susan Arndt pointed out the connection between the history of racism and the migration crisis before the influencer and entertainer Tarik Tesfu talked about racism and sexism engaging his audience with his satire. Also, Rabab Haidar talked about the need for more solidarity and empathy for people dying in Idlib and elsewhere in the MENA region and all over Africa. Amongst others, Tarik Tesfu also took part in the discussion when the Bayreuth network of Gender, Queer, Intersectionality and Diversity Studies (GeQuInDi) invited the audience to listen to their opinions on the topics resistance, empathy and responsibility. The first reading of the day was held by the Malawian writer and activist Shadreck Chikoti, who gave the audience insights in this work of art by reciting from his afrofuturistic novel “Azotus the Kingdom“ and later discussed the art of writing and publishing in Malawi with a panel held in cooperation with the Bayreuth Graduate School. Another highlight of the day was undoubtedly the captivating shadow performance of the Iranian fairytale “The little black fish” by the Sepidar Theatre Group leaving the audience moved and entertained at the same time. Following the play, the audience was presented with three more books, two of them being BIGSAS doctoral theses: “Täuschung des weißen Blicks” (by Julia Dittmann), “Fictioning Namibia” (by Renzo Baas) and “Life-Writing from the Margins in Zimbabwe” (by Oliver Nyambi). Music concluded the festival: First, the queer feminist duo A Lazy Cat & Pi reflected on this year festival with a griotage before the official ending of the 9th BIGSAS literature festival was rung in by sounds of the Saba Duet. The musicians Alireza Mehdizadeh und Jawad Salkhordeh enchanted the audience with classical Persian music already sparking anticipation for next year’s event. (sg)

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