The exhibition’s title, coined by Paul Gilroy along with historians Fatima El-Tayeb and Tina Campt, is aligned with Gilroy’s concept of the “Black Atlantic” (1993). (1) The latter sees the Atlantic ocean as a negative continent that enables a mapping of the African diaspora culture, embodying systems and networks of social, historical and cultural connections between the Americas, Africa and western Europe. Being one of the first interdisciplinary projects of its kind, Der Black Atlantic questioned the dominant western concepts of culture originally based on racial discourses and nation building politics. In doing so, the project underscored how sonic, visual, performative artistic productions, as well as theoretical works from the modern African diaspora to global pop culture, radically reviewed the notions of arts found in Eurocentric historiography.
Stepping into the exhibition space, the viewer was led to experience artistic forms and languages emerging from the history of slavery and racism, thus entering within a critical dialogue of such traumas. Central to these mnemonic encounters was the potential of music as a leading art of the Black diaspora, which has been previously addressed by Paul Gilroy as a trans-ethnic form of social memory. For the occasion, guitarist and producer Jean Paul Bourelly – curator of the music program Congo Square – invited the audience on a journey from Free funk, Blues, and Hip Hop to Dancehall, looking back on the paramount emancipatory influence of jazz in the history of the “Black Atlantic.” (2) Putting sound experiences at the center of the “Black Atlantic” agenda was without doubt one of the visionary ideas of this project, opening the curatorial landscape to a broader understanding of sounds as potential dissident realities and rethinking ways to voice silenced histories.
Echoing the image of the shift in Gilroy’s analytical approach, visual art was neither displayed in a traditional single exhibition, nor materialized by single unit of art pieces, but rather spread in motion by large multi-media installations. With their artworks, Isaac Julien, Keith Piper, Lisl Ponger and Tim Sharp took up the entire structure of the building, co-tracing Edouard Glissant’s ‘“poetics of relation” (3) as being part of that common rhizomatic cultural web of the African diaspora.