After the Fire: Loss, Archive and African Studies

Symposium at the University of Cape Town (In-person with virtual affordances)

A collaboration of the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative, the Centre for Curating the Archive and HUMA, the Institute for Humanities in Africa

18-19 April 2022

This symposium marks the first anniversary of the fire that destroyed the Jagger Reading Room, and much of the African Studies collections at the University of Cape Town. This was not the only African archive or institution to burn in 2021. We take these moments of destruction as a starting point for reconsidering African Studies and the nature of archive today. These fires underscore how, rather than simply being sites of accumulation, classification and retrieval, archives are shaped by loss. First marked by absences--by losses that precede and coincide with their establishment--archives are spaces of struggle against inevitable deterioration and decay that demand ever more complex and costly practices of conservation. They are also spaces often at risk of, or fragmented by, deliberate ruination. Following this, we ask what it means to treat loss as a fundamental condition of the archive, and draw on that assumption as a new entry point into a consideration of the relationship between archives and African Studies. What does it mean to think about an archive deemed African Studies as a space always already marked, and made possible, by loss? And what new genealogies of and for African Studies does loss enable us to think?

Towards this end we invite abstracts (250 words) for paper submissions to be presented at a commemorative symposium between 18 and 19 April 2022. This symposium will take place in person at the University of Cape Town. Affordances will be made for virtual participation, and the symposium will be recorded and live-streamed. Submissions towards this symposium will form the basis of an edited volume to be submitted for publication in late 2022. We are open to submissions from any disciplinary approach that reckon with loss as a way of understanding archives in and of Africa, African Studies, and the relationship between the two. We especially invite submissions that attend to how specific materials and collections in African, and ‘African Studies’, archives offer means to think with:

  • how loss and destruction shape the existence and use of archives, and what we come to learn from them;
  • absence, ruination and debris in the archives
  • grief, joy, and the politics of archival feeling
  • the politics of loss in the archive and/for African Studies;
  • the problematics and ethics of archival care, preservation and conservation
  • the problematics of digitization, material holdings and salvage
  • the relationship between ‘African Studies’ repositories and other collections on the continent not bearing that name;
  • how African Studies is constituted, as a ‘field’, as ‘archive’, and how the relationship between these two sets the terms of possibility for archival and African Studies projects alike.

Deadline: Monday 17 January 2022


Duane Jethro and Alirio Karina