Adjoa Osei is a PhD Researcher of Brazilian Studies at the University of Liverpool, funded by the AHRC and the Duncan Norman Scholarship. She was a fellow at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, resident from October 2018 until April 2019. She completed an MPhil in Portuguese Studies at the University of Oxford, funded by the Ertegun Scholarship in the Humanities, achieving a Distinction. Prior to this, she completed a BA in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at King’s College London, University of London achieving a First-Class Honours.
The twentieth century was an exciting moment of avant-garde artistic and intellectual innovation. While the likes of Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Mario de Andrade, Miles Davis and John Coltrane were thinking about new ways of representing sound, artists such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Emiliano de Cavalcanti were thinking about new ways of representing the figure. Within this moment of avant-garde change, few recognised black women artists and intellectuals that were also driving cultural innovation and that were agents of moulding and shaping their own identities. These women were thinking about how to reconceptualise and represent black womanhood with a modern aesthetic. Through their letters and staged performances, they proposed a new sense of self. Women such as Katherine Dunham, Josephine Baker, Nina Mae McKinney, Elsie Houston and Adrienne Fidelin were thinking about new ways of representing and performing black, female modernity.
Performing Black Womanhood was a two-day pop-up exhibit, research orientation and symposium held on 1st to 2nd March 2019. The event explored the political, artistic and intellectual lives of women across the black Atlantic, focusing on the twentieth century. Hosted by the Hispanic Division, this event was organised as part of my six month fellowship at the John W. Kluge Centre, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The pop-up exhibit featured materials including film, sound recordings, photographs, books, maps, and documents, curated from the General and Special Collections. These materials celebrated modern black women in the arts, highlighting diasporic connections between women across the Americas.
During the symposium, I was joined by two other speakers: Dr Camara Dia Holloway and Sala Patterson. My presentation examined the black baiana archetype as a transnational symbol of the modern, Brazilian nation during the 1920s to 1940s; Dr Holloway explored the lives and careers of black women performers for whom London, besides Harlem, was the key point of anchor, during the interwar period; and Patterson brought attention to Adrienne ‘Ady’ Fidelin (1915-2004), a Guadeloupean dancer and model who lived in Paris from the 1930s, and was the first black model to appear in a major American fashion magazine.
During my fellowship, I have been conducting archival research towards my PhD in Brazilian Studies. My doctoral research reconceptualizes the place of Afro-Brazilian women in society, honing in on their role as vectors of transnational artistic and intellectual exchanges from the 1920s to the 1940s. In particular, I focus on the soprano and folklorist Elsie Houston who gained success in Brazil, France and the United States. My study proposes new ways of thinking about modernity and the black diaspora by taking an interdisciplinary and multilingual approach.
Academic interest in the social, political and cultural histories of African diasporas has been consistent since the 1980s. Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic – Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) is a seminal text that has become a classic; it redefined how the African diaspora, hybridity and Afro-diasporic expressive culture is conceived. A serious weakness with current research on black transnationality is that it has tended to focus on the Anglo-African Atlantic; African-American identities are often taken as the essence of ‘blackness’. North America is positioned as the essential site of black modernity: an aspect of standard Anglonormativity. This limited geographical and linguistic approach compelled me to interrogate the black Atlantic model, deploying and critiquing it in order to bring new perspectives to black identities in different geographical contexts. My thesis positions Brazil as an alternative site of black modernity, considering transatlantic and inter-American circuits of modernist aesthetics, while also opening a space for other South American territories to be included in this discourse.
A further issue with current studies is that they generally marginalise female diaspora experiences and perspectives. In order to address this, my research takes a gendered approach, examining and building on literature that emphasizes women in the African diaspora. My study focuses on an almost entirely neglected area of research: the participation of black Brazilian women in transnational, modern artistic and intellectual networks. In Brazil, black women are marginalized in all aspects of society relative to their white counterparts. My research is significant and original since it uncovers a little-known trajectory for Afro-Brazilian women – one that is internationalist and intellectual.
During the research process, I have critiqued my own identity as a scholar, contemplating ways in which my personal and academic background has impacted my approach. My academic identity, having moved through the UK education system via King’s College London, University of Oxford, and University of Liverpool, inevitably impacts my critical approach; for instance, I have had to contend with the systematic and institutional marginalization of black histories and black people in academia. The issue of race, and the problem of being a black woman in the West is not, for me, purely theoretical. Unlike many working in universities today, I do not perceive the issue of blackness as simply an interesting topic for a conference or a new book, or a profitable pathway for an academic career. I have witnessed both the hypocrisy and apathy of those that choose to variously disengage from and ignore the problem of racism and the manifold ways that it manifests itself in real-life day to day encounters. I live and breathe the issue of blackness in a very personal way every day.
My thesis is informed by research conducted in my hometown, London; Liverpool; Rio de Janeiro; Sao Paulo; and Washington DC. These cities proved to be ideal sites in which to explore and interrogate intersections between transnationality, class, notions of blackness, and collective notions of national identity. I have had the opportunity to discuss key ideas with other scholars from around the world who are conducting doctoral research in the Cultural Studies field, looking at diaspora identities, ranging from: Afro-Ecuadorian, Afro-Colombian, Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Mexican, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Congolese, to name a few. Such intercultural conversations have forced me to continually revise my conclusions. My ability to consult texts in English, Portuguese, and French permits a more complex and flexible understanding of the transnational phenomena under investigation. As a Londoner, fluent in various languages, and the daughter to Ghanaian parents (Ashanti father and Ewe mother), my daily existence is inevitably multilingual – both literally and figuratively. My closest girlfriends of colour and I, despite our different mother tongues or potential cultural misunderstandings, view one another as part of a collective, based not only on our identifications as female, but also on the fact that we share an elusive otherness in the UK. My methodology and epistemological conclusions have been informed by my own identity and experiences.
Performing Black Womanhood offered the opportunity to rethink our own identities, and also our understanding of transnationality, by following the movements across and within black diasporas, traversing through ideological, cultural, and geographical sites. The event brought together scholars, artists, activists and other creatives, providing a space that encouraged dynamic dialogue, collaboration and debate. We hope that this event opened a space within the Library that continues to advance discussions about the marginalized histories of black women.
Below, I have included images that enable an electronic exploration of the display.