The Africa Hall hosted a conference on the work of the black British painter, Frank Bowling, after a week of sold-out performances from towering African musicians, but many have been left wondering: what exactly is the Africa Institute, and how is it different from the Africa Hall? I sat down with Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, who will be its president, and Salah Hassan, an eminent scholar of African and African diaspora studies, who will be a lead advisor, to find out.
A degree-granting postgraduate institution
Sharjah’s Africa Hall, which dates from the 1970s, has just opened after being rebuilt. At the same time, Al Qasimi is launching the Africa Institute, a think tank for African studies, which will eventually have its own building adjacent to the Africa Hall.
The Africa Institute will confer postgraduate degrees (MAs and PhDs) in the field of African and African diasporic studies, as well as post-doctoral fellowships and scholarships. Notably, it will work with academic institutions not just in the West but across Africa, with potential partnerships in Khartoum, Nairobi and Accra. These will enable the Sharjah-based institution to support educational establishments in Africa and to evade modes of thought and research developed in the west and applied to the south.
Though Al Qasimi is best known for her work setting up the Sharjah Art Foundation, visual culture will be only one part of the Africa Institute’s remit; it will also look at questions such as water rights, civic studies, and migration.
“The Institute is conceived as a global institute for African studies,” says Hassan. “It will include Afro-Arab relations, and more than that. Africa is not just a geographic entity, but a global presence, because of global migration and slavery and colonisation and movement of people. And it’s not just about the past and its history, but African people as they move today.”
A library on-site and archive resources will also allow the Institute to conserve primary documents and images that are currently at risk of being lost or dispersed.
A new/old cultural centre for Sharjah
Sharjah is home to a sizable African diaspora – that’s one of the reasons that the Africa Hall was built in the first place, in 1976. Al Qasimi notes that the long-time cultural advisor to her father, Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, is a Sudanese intellectual, Yousif Aydabi, and that the cultural policies of the 1970s and 1980s reflected the strong links between Africans and Khaleejis.
“The ruler has always had an interest in Afro-Arab relations,” echoes Hassan, who is based at Cornell University in upstate New York but who is Sudanese by birth. “The first president of the University of Sharjah was a Sudanese historian called Yusuf Fadl Hassan, and Sheikh Sultan also collaborated with the Institute for Afro-Asian studies at the University of Khartoum. And of course, right at the height of the gas crisis in 1976, he called for a Afro-Arab conference.”
In December 1976, Sheikh Sultan Al Qasimi invited a group of African intellectuals to the Africa Hall: around 45 figures such as Fadl Hassan; Mohammed Omer Bashir, a professor at the University of Khartoum; Mansour Khalid, a writer and former Sudanese Minister of Foreign Affairs; E C Chibwe, the Zambian ambassador to West Germany; and Hisham Sarabi, a professor at Georgetown University and the editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies.
The attendees discussed African and Arab liberation movements, African state economies, and the African populations in Brazil and the US. (They also took a group tour to Khor Fakkan.)
They disbanded with recommendations to meet yearly and to set up an Afro-Arab Centre for Documentation in Sharjah. These were never met, though other initiatives did follow. In the 1980s, Sheikh Sultan endowed a Sharjah Hall at the University of Khartoum, and, more recently, the Sharjah Art Museum and Sharjah Art Foundation have conducted research into the works of a number of African artists, such as Ibrahim El-Salahi and Salah Elmur.
The Africa Institute will revive this spirit of collaboration while also serving as a public space for the African diaspora and others in Sharjah.
"It's going to be a social space," says Hoor Al Qasimi. "There will be a restaurant and cafe, and language courses open to the public." A gallery will host exhibitions, and the hall will put on theatre and music productions, performances, talks and conferences.
When will all this happen?
The physical Africa Institute is still in the works: the British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye will build it in the now vacant lot adjacent to the Africa Hall. Adjaye’s building won’t be up until 2021, but Al Qasimi is currently putting together a team and will programme events in the Africa Hall before the bespoke site of the Institute opens.
"The momentum is there for a project, and it's a shame to lose it," Al Qasimi says. "We're looking to programme something here alongside the Sharjah Art Foundation Film Platform, in December, to do a conference in March, and to do a theatre project in March, which is Sharjah Theatre Days."
The Hall already has august neighbours. The team of the forthcoming Sharjah Architecture Triennial, which will have its first exhibition in 2019, is moving in next door.
Sheikh Sultan made the decision to rebuild Africa Hall, while Sheikha Hoor had the idea, with Salah Hassan, to develop academic programming in Africa studies at the University of Sharjah.
“My father said, ‘Why don’t you do it as a separate institute? There’s land next to the hall’,” she tells me. “And I said, ‘Does that mean I have full control over the programming?’ And he said yes.”