SOAS University of London


Promoting intercultural understanding through arts

The research of many scholars across different disciplines at SOAS, University of London, brings to a global audience art forms which might otherwise remain little-known outside their own communities.

The scholars’ work not only promotes cultural links and understanding worldwide, it also changes the lives of artists whose work is appreciated beyond their own borders.

Malian music, African film, Somali poetry, the pictorial art of central Nigeria and Osaka prints are among arts which have benefited from far wider exposure through SOAS research.  Work has been showcased through internationally respected forums such as BBC Radio 3, the Film Africa festival, the Poetry Translation Centre, the Museum of African Art in New York and the British Museum, among others.

The Segu Blue album cover

Dr Lucy Duran (Music Department) has studied the traditional musical forms, cultural practices and instruments of Mali since the late 1980s. In her multiple roles as researcher, music producer and broadcaster she has examined how music encapsulates and communicates the core values of southern Malian identities.  Her work has not only raised global awareness of the ‘ngoni’, which, dating from the 12th century or earlier, is the oldest of the West African lutes, but has also brought unknown musicians to world fame. Working with Bassekou Kouyate, a respected Bamana musician, Duran recorded an experimental acoustic album that showcased the distinctive features of traditional Bamana ngoni music. As a producer, Duran strongly encouraged Kouyate to remain true to his musical traditions. The result was the 2007 album ‘Segu Blue’, which reached number three in the World Music Charts in 2007 and was awarded two BBC Radio 3 Music Awards. A second album, ‘I Speak Fula’ also received popular and critical acclaim and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional World Music Album of 2010. Duran’s championship and sensitive production of this artist and traditional music from a remote swathe of the Niger introduced to global audiences a new type and sound of Malian music. Furthermore, she has contributed to changing the fortunes of Kouyate, his family and the local community in his native Segou and beyond. The success of the albums she produced has reinvigorated interest in the ngoni in Mali. Kouyate has used the proceeds of his success to found a music school in Bamako and is exporting ngoni internationally to satisfy newly-found global demand.


FiSahara film festival in Sahrawi refugee camp
Lindiwe Dovey (far right) at the closing ceremony of the FiSahara film festival in the Sahrawi refugee camp of Dakhla in southern Algeria, October 2013

Through extensive research into African film, Dr Lindiwe Dovey (Department of Languages and Cultures of Africa) has developed a keen appreciation of the difficulties faced by African filmmakers in the international film market. Dr Dovey’s academic and non-academic work is preoccupied with addressing this imbalance and how African filmmakers might be helped to reach wider audiences.  Dr Dovey has met these concerns primarily through co-founding, directing and curating two of the UK’s leading African film festivals: the Cambridge African film festival (founded in 2002) and Film Africa in London (founded 2011), which has grown to be the UK’s largest annual celebration of African cinema and culture. Through her contacts in the film industry, Dovey secured high-profile London venues for the festival, such as the BFI Southbank and the Ritzy in Brixton. Box office figures reveal that audience numbers increased by 90%, from 2000 people in 2011 to 3800 in 2012.  The festival has had extremely positive impacts on African filmmakers, affording them significant international publicity and enabling them to broker deals for mainstream distribution. For instance, the winner of the festival’s 2011 Silver Baobab Award for Best Short Film believes that the press attention attracted by the award led to her BAFTA nomination, while the £2,000 prize money allowed her to work on her next script. Film Africa has also assisted two African films – the Ethiopian film The Athlete and the South African film Otelo Burning – by securing a mainstream UK release through raising funding of £20,000 towards publicity costs. Dovey believes in bringing theory and practice together in her work and she is thus drawing on her decade of practical experience with African film festivals, as well as her scholarly research over many years at other film festivals that focus on films by Africans, in her new book, African Film in the Age of Festivalization (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2015).


Young camels run freely in Somalia
Young camels ranging freely in Somalia; camels feature heavily in Somali poetry, the subject of Martin Orwin's research

By pioneering analysis and sensitive translation into English of classical and contemporary Somali poems, Dr Martin Orwin (Department of the Languages and Cultures of Africa) has contributed to a more positive understanding of Somali culture and its place in world literature. He has brought Somali poetry to the attention of Anglophone audiences through the Poetry Translation Centre and by participating in web-accessible poetry projects and prominent events such as ‘Sonnet Sunday’ and ‘Poetry Parnassus’. His research on Somali poetry has sought to reveal how it is crafted as an aesthetic object. Close collaboration with Somalis has been crucial in producing translations that convey the concerns represented in Somali poetry. For example, aspects of nomadic, pastoral existence are often eulogised in Somali poetry and metaphors drawn from the intricacies of camel husbandry appear with notable frequency. To this end, Dr Orwin apprenticed himself to the celebrated Somali poet Mohamed Hashi Dhama 'Gaarriye'  and became privy to many of Gaarriye’s own insights into the metrical patterns of Somali poetry; together they co-authored ‘Virtual Geminates in the Metre of Somali Poetry’. In all these activities, Orwin has endeavoured to communicate and promote the positive elements of Somali culture — a culture cleaved and crushed by war, famine and displacement on a massive scale — whose refugee populations are often marginalised and even maligned in their new host countries. It is in these endeavours, all too unique, that he has made a difference to how Somalis are perceived by the wider world, and encouraged Somalis, and particularly those too often disaffected in the global diaspora, to cherish their contributions to world literature.


Artefacts on display in the exhibition
Richard Fardon was one of the main authors of a 600 page catalogue accompanying the international exhibition, ‘Central Nigeria Unmasked’

Professor Richard Fardon (Department of Anthropology and Sociology) has been instrumental in bringing the world’s attention to the art of central Nigeria. One of the main authors of a 600 page catalogue accompanying the international exhibition entitled ‘Central Nigeria Unmasked’, Fardon has produced the first comprehensive overview of the hitherto poorly understood arts of central Nigeria.  The reasons for the obscurity of the art of central Nigeria, despite its importance to European modernism, are many: central Nigeria is a patchwork of ethnic groups difficult to explain succinctly; the objects themselves are scattered between numerous international museum and private collections; documenting objects is particularly challenging as many objects lack attribution and known provenance; broader historical reconstruction is thwarted by the absence of archaeological research, the disruptions of Atlantic and Saharan slave trades, the religious wars of the 19th century, and the exodus of artefacts during the Nigerian civil war. Given this background, art objects, and the understanding of them, are invaluable in offering one of the few resources to reconstruct the history of such a neglected region. Enid Schildkrout, Chief Curator at the Museum of African Art in New York, praised Professor Fardon’s ‘sound scholarship’ and said the exhibition and catalogue provided a significant contribution to scholarship and to the general public’s understanding of African art and culture. For more information about the exhibition, visit the website of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.


Kabuki Heroes Book Cover
The research of a leading scholar in the English-speaking world on Japanese traditional drama, Professor C. Andrew Gerstle (Departments of the Languages and Cultures of Japan and Korea and the Languages and Cultures of China and Inner Asia), has proved a catalyst in radically reinvigorating interest in the visual culture of the Japanese city of Osaka in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Kabuki, the popular urban theatre of Japan, excited fanatical devotion in fans, who collected prints and other colourful memorabilia produced in celebration of their favourite actors. The exhibition Kabuki Heroes (2005) and the accompanying detailed catalogue focused on the famous rivalry between two great actors, - Rikan and Shikan – and brought together a collection of prints and photographs illustrating acting styles, make-up, costumes and dance of the period. The exhibition was conceived and arranged over five years by Gerstle, and was shown at the British Museum and then at the Osaka Museum of History and the Waseda University Theatre Museum in Tokyo. Containing input from fifteen scholars from a wide range of disciplines from Britain and Japan, the catalogue has significantly enhanced the international market for Osaka prints featuring these actors. It has prompted further exhibitions on the subject and now constitutes a primary source for museum curators. The exhibition garnered the interest and enthusiasm of new audiences – even in Osaka itself – who had been unaware of the city’s distinctive printmaking history. In bringing this undervalued art form to the fore, Kabuki Heroes has imbued Osaka prints with a new commercial legitimacy as well as benefitting major museums, such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which has since hosted exhibitions of Osaka prints and lent its Osaka prints to other museums internationally.