Building inclusive cultural institutions

A conversation between Uzodinma Iweala, CEO of the Africa Center in New York, and Adama Sanneh, Moleskine Foundation CEO.

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This episode was recorded in November 2020.

[Adama Sanneh]Thanks a lot for your time, and I’m really excited about this conversation.

[Uzodinma Iweala] Thanks for having me and for inviting me on to join you guys. It is quite the day to have a conversation with you. You guys are going into lockdown. We are. I don’t know what we’re doing, but whatever is happening is not quite clear at this point in time. So a lot of uncertainty in the world.

[AS] But actually, you know, tell me, how is it? How’s it going, because I know about your life before the pandemic, you obviously, you know, you’re running an important institution. You were traveling probably 50% of your time, if not more. And moving is part of your identity, is part of who you are. So so how does this new situation impacted you?

[UI] Yeah, I mean, it’s a good question. And, you know, I’m always careful about speaking about how the lockdown has impacted me because I happen to be somebody who is in a very privileged position. If, like the first thing is that in the United States where I live now, close to two hundred and fifty thousand people have lost their lives on what is some utter nonsense in the way that the United States of America has approached handling the pandemic. And I think saying that it’s utter nonsense is not like being necessarily political about it. It’s just like the truth. Like we have the highest number of infections and also the highest number of deaths around the world. And that’s a problem for a country that is basically the wealthiest country in the world. So that’s just a start in terms of my own personal life I happen to be in a country that is growing more and more unequal by the day. I’m one of the folks who are in a very privileged position, I have a job, I have health insurance, I have a house to live in that I don’t have to worry about whether or not my rent or mortgage is going to be paid. And so all of those things for me make this a time that I feel safe. And I think that’s something that a good chunk of people around the world, whether especially in the Western world at this point in time, where everybody is looking at financial collapse because of the mismanagement of this virus or, you know, on the continent where the opportunity of Africa, that is where opportunities have been severely curtailed by this pandemic and the shutdown it has put in place in terms of travel, trade, etc. I feel very, very lucky to feel safe, at least for now. We can talk about the political situation, the United States later where I don’t necessarily feel safe. But in terms of the pandemic, I feel safe. I had covid very early on in the pandemic and again, because I have really good health care, know, I had doctors that I could see it because I come from a family where literally everybody is a doctor. I was able to I could get the best care. People can’t see that. And that’s a big problem. This is like that status side. And I think you can answer the question of how are you without acknowledging that first when it comes to personally what’s going on? You know, I think I feel a lot of the things that a lot of people feel as well, even regardless of the privilege and the economic circumstances. Right. That is when your life has changed dramatically. You mentioned it, half of my life was basically on the continent of Africa. My partner lives in Germany. I mean, what can you do if a lot of your life is about moving around the world, especially the continent of Africa, experiencing what it means to be African in different ways, connecting with people, trying to think about how the African story is constructed and reinterpreted wherever it is in the world. If you’re like me and you’re a writer and so much of my writing comes out of this, this idea of being of multiple places, then to not be able to access those multiple places is in a way devastating. But also it is. Quite enriching in the sense that having to stay in one place means that you have to look internally for those sources of creativity and for passing out who you are and how you are and how you’re transforming at this moment. And I haven’t had a situation where before where I have had to be in the same place for over two months. And that’s happened now. And that, I think has been really good and has allowed for a lot of interesting, both on the personal side reflection and also on the professional creative side, ability to really think through what it is, who I am, and what I’m trying to do in the world.

[AS] So this is interesting because it really talks about the new opportunity and animation that this lockdown has created. Obviously, I couldn’t agree more. And I thank you for making that initial premise that it was extremely important for this idea of an internal journey and introspection. And there is something also interesting, because can you explore that or about this idea of between creativity, knowledge, and introspection because you are a writer. And so you were putting these things together. And I thought it was interesting because on one side, you have this need are you were talking about these need as a writer to be in the world very much in the world. But at the same time, there is now this new dimension of being on having the chance to be within yourself. And it brings, I guess, a new aspect of your cultural production, I guess.

[UI] Yeah. That’s a hard one to answer for me, and it touches a lot on things that I think make me very uncomfortable as a person in general.

I don’t know if you thought he was going to do therapy today, but let’s just do some therapy.

For me, there has always been a tension like a very dramatic tension on two fronts. One is being of two worlds that is being born and raised in the United States but being very much a Nigerian in my upbringing and in my connection to the continent. And then there’s the other, which is being someone who fancies himself a creative person, but at the same time has always thought or had examples that are perhaps more for want of a better word, more practical.

And I don’t like that distinction. And we can come back to it, the practical versus the creative. But there are more that are more in the realm of the word I’m looking for is but that they tend to be more perceived as practical or professional. Let me put it that way. And that tension is something that has haunted me since the very beginning when I realized that I could pick up a pen and write and tell stories and at the same time had this idea that, well, the way that you really make changes, that you have a hard edge to you, which is that you are a doctor or you are an economist or you are some kind of banker who makes a gazillion dollars and can buy everybody, that kind of thing. And it’s hard it’s a hard tension to have to really sit and deal with, especially at a moment like this, where you have to wonder whether at a point where the economics globally are changing, whether really focusing on creativity as a means for change is in a sense of frivolity versus the very basic needs that people have that will become more pronounced. And that’s the need to eat the need for health care, just the simple act of trying to be alive. Again we can come back to this because I have thoughts on that. And with this idea of creativity and knowledge and introspection, this moment, in this time, there’s a lot of time to consider that and the idea of doing versus taking a moment to step back and understand. And I think on a personal level, in the job that I have at the Africa Center, also just in some of the reaction to the way the world has changed dramatically since twenty sixteen. There has been a real do do do do mentality, which is we have to figure out how to stand up, we have to figure out how we show ourselves, we have to figure out how we push again some of the institutionalized forms of hate or the forms of hate that are becoming more and more popularized or normalized in our discourse.

There’s a lot of that.

But at the same time, this particular moment gives me a chance personally to step back and say, how are you doing that? I’ve always thought that the best way to do that was through some combination of creativity and the harder-edged escapades say, being in public health, which was what I was doing before running the museum or even the act of institution building, putting together the “Africa Center” as an institution.

I don’t know anymore and I don’t know that I’m going to have a great answer for you. I think the thing is I can tell you that in my creative work, what I’m working on now has a lot to do with this internal search and understanding about exactly this, really more focused on this idea of vulnerability. And how do you process your vulnerability and creativity essential to processing vulnerability? Step one. Step two is how is vulnerability a political tool or a political factor? And how do we look at think about the process, analyze, construct, vulnerability and who uses it? That’s a lot of the work in reading and doing because to be creative is to be vulnerable. It’s to say that whether you’re saying I don’t know everything and I or to say that like I’m and I have to really think about this and then render something or to say that I want to construct something that hasn’t existed yet. What are people going to think? Is this really going to touch people? It is, in a sense, stepping very deep into a part of yourself that acknowledges that you could be that you are that are you are not inviolable and presenting that to the world and saying, this is what I have to do with it, as you may do with me, is that is a really difficult thing to do. And I think it’s an even more difficult thing to do when you’re you’re adding to that tension or trying to suss out and really determine for yourself what the political power of creativity actually is and whether that political power of creativity is the right power or the right force to be focused on at this particular moment.

[AS]When you were talking about the tension that you had all your lives, I was smiling for a moment because I and I think that I understand part of it.

And it reminds me, I just watch an old stand-up comedy of a Nigerian comedian at the Apollo.

And at some point she said, in Nigeria, you can do only three jobs for your family: a doctor, an engineer, a disgrace for the family.

[UI] All right. I mean, it’s so true. And I’m sure that you have a similar thing. Right. But for me, I kind of hedged my familial disgrace with being a doctor, and I’m hoping that it works out. At least let’s flatline, you know.

[AS] Yeah, but before because I’m very interested in exploring more this idea of creativity as a political tool and their ability as a fundamental element to do political and social discourse. I wanted to kind of go back a little bit more also on the self in a sense that independently, even if you are still uncomfortable in this duality of the various professions and the various hats that somehow you have. At the same time, you have experienced it. I think in a very unique way because on one side you have the complexity of the self and dealing with expectation and especially also personal sensitivity. But also you had the chance to do it at a very high level with what society would consider as successful projects and experiences.

How did this experience inform your idea of this duality? Like what is the information that you managed to harness from your experiences? The skills of creativity, the sensitivities that you managed to. How does that can somehow, you know, fertilize the deed to your other self?

[UI] Sure.

On a big picture level personally.

The most important thing for me with creativity is never a feeling one hundred percent sure. I think the second that you feel one hundred percent sure about something, you lack the ability to be creative around it.

If you are from multiple places, whether that’s in your nationality or your racial composition or your professional composition, whatever you want to talk about.

Once you’re pulling these polls, you will never be comfortable. Therefore, you will always be curious. In a way, you’ll have a deep internal curiosity, even if that curiosity is pushed by this idea of a longing for stability in your understanding of self. And that will then impact and inform the creative work. And it can be frustrating because sometimes it feels like you’re doing a lot of navel-gazing or you’re constantly thinking like, who am I? At the same time, I think I never want that question to go away, even if sometimes I want to be better about how I process it in my life. That’s one. Two: being able to step outside of one world and into another and feel like you’re integrated into another allows you to see the world you’ve stepped out of in an interesting light that allows you to see things about that world that you wouldn’t or you can’t see where you’re in the day to day existence of that world.

So if I’m here now in the United States and I can see what’s going on in Nigeria with the protests or just even daily life, it gives me a way to process and understand and interpret data from Nigeria that is reflected or refracted, whatever the word is, through the American lens that I see it through. And that gives me a particular take that will invariably find its way into my writing. It gives a tension there that will invariably act as a driving force in my writing or in the film work that I’m doing, or even in the kind of institution that we’re trying to go to the “African Center.” If I step out, I’m in Nigeria. My American existence is also then viewed through a different lens that I’m able to take in information differently. I’m able to process you. What does American patriotism mean? What does American nationalism mean? What does it mean to be black in America through the lens of being a black African or a Nigerian where race isn’t necessarily front and center? How do I look at these things? And how does that then inform my creative stance, which informs my political stance, or my political stance, which informs my creative sense? All those things work with each other from a professional perspective.

I can tell you this, that that being in a field like medicine for a little bit, at least, there’s a certain discipline around how you conduct yourself. You can’t just kind of be super creative with people’s lives. It doesn’t usually work out for you or them, but that you have to take into account. And I think that’s really good for creativity. I think being able to create structures for yourself allows you room to maneuver.

But also at the end of the day, if you have to write a book, you have to write a book and there’s a deadline there. And you can’t just can, but you can’t just really keep pushing deadlines. And I think being in a field where there are certain conventions around discipline and delivery, really for me, it does help me think about my practice of creativity, my practice of writing generation, and then exhibition to the rest of the world. So I am you know, there’s also the connections that you make within each of these spaces, having a broad network of people across the sciences or in in the policy space, as from my previous career, really is helpful. And I’m thinking about some of the things I write about, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, that perspective understanding and that that deep well of knowledge that comes from those associations is so important.

And I think when you have people creating or generating in silos and the flow is both ways. Right. Let’s just put that out there. But when you have people generating or creating in silos, you get a lot of the foolishness that we see happening right now. You get people putting together systems of communication that don’t take into account what happens when people are presented with this information. You get policy prescriptions that are completely lacking in their creativity because they can’t imagine the future of the continent, and Africa suffers from this a lot. You know, the joke about you can be three things the doctor, an engineer, or a failure to your family. It has particular resonance on a continent where if those are your only things and those things are or are constructed for you by a system of education, that is not necessarily I’m not going to say not indigenous, but that has not been thought through in terms of its relevance to who you are and how you are and the geographical account in which to operate, then you’re not going to create the world that you need to thrive and survive will be forever trying to copy. Or you’ll be able you’ll be trying to suppress your own imagination as something bad or distorted or whatever, instead of harnessing that information to create the political reality that you really need to survive or thrive.

I think that’s really, really important to think about and to process and to consider in this discussion we’re having. But in terms of the understanding of of of why and how these things interact with each other, why it’s important that you don’t have a government that’s only made up of people with engineering degrees or why in a hospital situation, it’s not just doctors that should be out there running the show. People who have a particular professional training, tend to think as a group, and tend to have and maintain certain assumptions. Somebody comes in with what if you did it this way? And all of a sudden there’s innovation and there’s creativity and there’s a new way of seeing red moving through the world that’s really, really important. That’s why that tension is important. But whether you’re here in the United States or you’re on the continents in any one of our countries, people have a hard time processing that. That tension is really necessary. And we try to, in as many ways as possible, eliminate that tension and that that manifests in various forms.

[AS] I’m wondering if now you go back in. You are becoming like the dean of your former physician and getting into medical school.

[UI] Adama, how do you get into dangerous territory then? They never going have me back over there, I’m telling you. But let’s go with your premise.

[AS] You can change. You can change your curricula, your students. What would you add?

[UI] Sure. Let me start this by saying I was so bad at medical school, so bad that these people anyway, let me just put it this way. If I could change something at the school I went to, I think it’s this I think once there’s so many things because I think medical education is just is not what it is.

I think first and foremost, this focus on like you have to memorize, memorize, memorize. Yeah. You need to know a lot of stuff for sure. And you need to have this stuff on hand for sure. I’m not doubting that.

But the truth is, the best doctors I have seen are doctors who understand fundamentally people.

There’s a reason why I think if you want the best care and I’m just going to say it and I kind of practice this in my own life when I see doctors, the best doctors to see are black women. Why?

Because there’s an understanding, there’s a willingness to listen that I think a lot of other people in the profession don’t have, and there’s there is an ability to suss out and to handle and hold a lot of the tensions that come from positions of precarity, from when somebody is really feeling vulnerable.

This is generalizing, but I think it’s borne out and it’s borne out in the way that I saw this. I was taught medicine where there’s always there is a standard patient. No one ever sat down to interrogate. Why that standard patient generally seemed to always be a white person, a white man where drugs were tested or developed or made for that purpose. Treatments were made for that person. No one ever really stops to. It’s recently that people are like, OK, well, we really think about the social dynamics involved in the patient-provider relationship. When your patient is of a certain socioeconomic class or caste status and your provider doesn’t even recognize that they themselves are also from a specific identity group, what does that mean for care? And I can tell you the number of times I’ve been in a room with a white male doctor, for example, and I don’t I say anything. I don’t say that I have a medical education because I’m always just interested to see how does this person approach me. And there’s night and day. And I think a lot of it has to do with a lack of curiosity around interrogating that particular relationship and the importance of that relationship.

Now, I’ll take you to a specific example. When I was in school, I remember one of the most amazing rotations that I did was on the service in New York. This was now getting close to 10 years ago. And the doctors on that service were fabulous because they had been dealing with HIV, at least in the urban context, in the United States since it arrived, since it became a thing that people knew about. So they had 30 years' worth of experience, basically from the eighties up until the time that I was in school. And they could tell you all this stuff. And that was really the patient population that you were dealing with, for example, was one that came in with so many, so many issues that were were intersected with each other because, in New York City, you can get treatment for HIV free if you have it basically.

The others, there shouldn’t be anybody who presents with AIDS, right? That is like the complications of HIV, and yet you would still find people presenting with that. And invariably there are all these intersex issues, whether it was issued around that person’s economic situation or around their mental health. And that’s just to set the stage. What convinced me that, like, I was maybe a little bit in the wrong place was when we were doing the rotation, I did two HIV rotations. On the second one, I was paired with the doctor who hated me and I really didn’t like her. But that’s OK. And one of the things that she made me do. Was giving me flashbacks, but basically, we would be in our morning rounds and you’re the med student, so I kind of the most junior person on the team and I’m thinking when they’re asking, they’re going through and rattling off, know what was this person’s temperature, what was what are the vitals of the sort of stuff.

And then we get to a patient where they’re talking about, oh, this person has refused their medication. So we need to make sure that they start taking their medication again. And I was the person who raised my hand up and asked what this person was, was born with HIV. You know, he got it in the process of when he went during the birthing process. So this person was twenty-three years old at the time, has only known taking these medications. And as we all know, these medications over time, like at least they are the early ones, like they do have side effects, like and even now they still have side effects over time.

And this has been this person’s life for all of that, that this entire day. And this person is telling you that they’re tired, like, should we if this person has said that they’re tired, should we not spend more time trying to understand why they are tired and not just from a, oh, you’re abnormal. Let’s bring in the psych team to fix you so that you take your medications. But like, what’s this person’s real story?

And why are we at this point in the book is why is this why are you wasting our time, basically?

And that’s and then the result is, hey, why don’t you go find this patient and handwrite all of their temperature readings for the last month in a notebook so that you can understand what it means to take the temperature for some time? Like, are you serious? But that’s what I’m saying, this is what I mean about the the the the just the very you get a bunch of really smart people in the room, and I’m not the first person to say this, but if you get a bunch of really smart people in the room who are trained in a particular way and in particular have their own, their own language, their own idiom, and then you set them loose in an environment that is tightly controlled and you see what happens. The care providers were overwhelmingly white. The patient we were talking about in this case was black. I’m a black person who is not that much older than him. My perspective on it is very different, but the group doesn’t allow for that perspective. I don’t know how you fix that in medical education where you have so much volume of information to cover and imbibe. But that’s really not what makes you a good doctor. It’s just not I don’t care what anybody says, like knowing that knowing somebody is like, you know, some obscure diagnosis that makes you a great diagnostician, but it doesn’t make you a good healer. And for me, medicine is about healing. Whether you’re talking about the patient level or the macro public health, societal level, it’s about understanding the narratives of the people you’re dealing with, again, on an individual or group basis. And I don’t think medicine it’s only now that you’re getting the things like narrative medicine and people are paying more attention to some of these issues about the role of race and class and all these things and care. But if you look at the medical establishment, for the most part, you look at what they look like and who they are. This is not something that they really, truly, I believe, want to deal with. And if you look at the schools, I went to Columbia and I have a lot of issues with the school, which we can talk about off-camera.

I don’t believe you’ve got a set of people who truly understand what kind of work they need to do to remedy some of the conditions or the starting points for the kind of care and the lack of creativity that is involved in teaching people how to care. I’ve said my piece, I graduated. They can’t take the degree back so it’s all good.

[AS] No, I mean, thanks for sharing this.

This is because these are almost like what I hear, almost like a dichotomy between the amount of knowledge and then at some point you consume and you will be able to terrorize and the way society gives you a specific role.

And that kind of becomes also almost a justification to move away from your most basic human traits that in this case, we’re talking about creative traits.

You were talking about empathy. We’re talking about curiosity.

We’re talking about anything that shouldn’t be necessarily also like skills and an element that stays only within the art world but should be within any human being.

[UI] People are trying to hide their true emotional intention behind the policy they’re putting together in all kinds of technical language. And that cuts both ways. Like you can do that when you’re trying to do something really positive or you can do that, as we see here in the United States when you’re really just trying to disenfranchise people. And what’s at the root of it? The root is your emotional fear, but it doesn’t work. You lose status. I mean, most people lose status unless your name is Donald Trump. If you get up and you and you’re just wrong about your emotional fear. But this is why we’re talking about the situation today. This is why Trump appeals to people because he’s cut out all that stuff and he’s at the root of his policies, like, look, man, at the root of what I’m saying, you guys can talk all of your technical stuff. You can talk about all of your rules and regulations. I’m trying to tell you something. I’m scared. I know you’re scared. Let’s be scared together and kill anybody who or not say kill, but let’s be scared together and eliminate however we can anyone who makes us scared. That’s one point. The other point is and that’s an emotional argument. That’s that man let’s just call it what it is. I hate to say it, but Donald Trump is a very creative person in a very specific way. The other argument is, I know you want money.

I want money. We all want money. I’m about this money.

That is the thing. Let’s be creative. I think creatively about how I get this money. You can be creative to all these this rule, regulation, tax, this tax. That ain’t nobody around here that I’m trying to get this money like that, that ability to be hone in on these. We’re all emotional aspects of things. So many people in the pursuit of status. You get your law degree from Yale, you get your medical degree from Columbia, you get your what? We lose all that and you lose that ability to communicate this sort of like the raw emotionality, that’s what creativity is necessary for. And we don’t have people who can do that in a fashion that is it’s positive anymore. And that’s a problem.

[AS] And when you were talking, I was actually thinking about this in a sense that the reason, the importance of tapping into raw emotions, but there are also emotions that are that can be uplifting, like empathy, for example, that even earlier. But there are also emotions that are the opposite of being uplifting, like fears. And it seems to me that the examples, for example, that you just gave about Donald Trump or many others, there is this element of tapping into the fear of people.

And I think is interesting to put it in the same realm of creativity, because it is and the also probably the always we always tend to have like only a positive connection to creativity. But since this is the idea of this also this conversation, this Podcast is under this idea of Creativity for Social Change.

If we need to get what you telling us about the importance of tapping into the emotional aspect of people. The importance of understanding and getting into a more human level, then how can we choose this recipe? How could we use this recipe for good? How can we become a force for good?

[UI] Right. We talked about the three words and I think we had said political, empathetic, and power conscious. And it goes back to those three words for me. So how can you use this as a force for good? I think it’s the first thing when I say power-conscious, I think about it in most ways. It’s recognizing that.

That this creativity can be used for both good and bad.

Everybody kind of thinks that creatives are not that is like really understanding and recognizing the full spectrum of power, of creativity. And everybody always thinks everyone always pairs creativity and progressiveness. Like that’s just kind of an automatic conclusion that, oh, if you’re a creative person, you must be politically progressive in some way or you must be. And that’s just not true. And it’s just never been true. And creativity can be used in the service of very negative power. As we have said, even if you are a good person you can still very much use fear as part of your creative process.

And that produces a particular outcome. You can use empathy as part of your creative process. I think the people who are the most effective in what they do on a creative level are ones who understand the mixes of like elements of power that go into their creativity and the valences of that. So it’s like somebody, again, to use the example of someone like Trump really has only one vector, and that is essentially fear or self-interest. But the creativity is then channeled within those those those vectors. Right. Watching a Trump speech is entertaining. That is that to be able to do that, there’s a reason why he’s on television all the time. He’s entertaining. That’s creativity. That’s an understanding of how to harness power and creativity. And I won’t harp on it too much. But just remember that. Fox News here in the United States, for example, as as a news channel, they’ve perfected this. They’re extremely creative in the way. And all those guys, those pundits or whoever the anchors who get on there and just spin fictions, they know what they’re doing. These people know what they are about. They’re very clear about it. And the way that things are set up, that’s the use of that stuff in the service of fear and for particular political and power oriented aim. How do we do that on the side of generating more empathy? And how do you use that empathy to create and construct worlds that we are interested in? First of all, I think we have to have a discussion of what are the political worlds that we want to exist. And that, again, goes back to creativity that goes to can we bring starting from this point, the power is, can you assemble people together to think about a more open or a more empathetic or more honorable way of existing? And how do you assemble the political language and thought to bring people along that that is another use of creativity, moving people towards that, telling stories or putting together artwork or cultural expression, exhibitions, etc. that move people in that direction?

And that’s again, being very conscious about the power you have in your creativity and moving people in that way. That’s being very conscious about empathy as a tool and not just as the desired end. I mean, empathy. Yes, we all want to be empathetic, but empathy is also a tool and it’s being conscious of how you use that and how you use it to people in a particular direction or whether or not you feel in doing that. All I’m saying is, is that I think we have been frivolous with creativity, at least in the Western world, because for a while now, because people have forgotten or have decoupled it from the political in a way that I don’t think makes very much sense. And I think now that we’re in this situation, people are not just saying but are doubling down and going back to this understanding of the connections between the creative, the political ends, and power.

But I don’t know where that goes and I don’t know how that ends up.

I don’t know how people get super, super serious about it in a way that, say, James Baldwin was serious about it and understood really and truly like what it means to be a writer in a time of great political upheaval and change. I don’t know that I shouldn’t say “I don’t know”. I mean, I think I should say that people are experimenting with what that means and how that’s expressed in our particular moment, which is very different from the moment that Baldwin came up in or that Langston Hughes came up in, or that Zora Neale Hurston came up in or the Achebe’s and the best hands of the world came up. And so I think there’s a movement back towards that, which is and using creativity, understanding the connection of creativity and power.

That was maybe pushed to the side or interrupted by the massive commercialization of creativity. That’s what I’m saying. I don’t know if that is clear, but I think that’s kind of what I’m trying to get to in terms of power, creativity and its and its use.

[AS] And what do you think is. Obviously, this question is supposed to be more specific, but you are the head of the Africa Center, so what is the role that Africa as a concept, you know, sometimes Africa almost as a metaphor for the world, what is the role that Africa can have in this quest? Actually, because we were talking about the Western world now. What do you think is the element that can bring to the table?

[UI] Yeah, well, to be blunt, this world, the wider world would be nothing without Africa. That’s both in a physical sense and also in terms of its understanding of itself.

If we are considered, there is the way in which Africa is is absolutely necessarily constructed as it is as an imaginary concept, because the rest of the world cannot conceive of itself without the negative foil that you can’t.

And I just I think everything about. Get my own personal experience or experience and opinion, but everything about the United States cannot be constructed without blackness as a foil. Whiteness can exist. They have no ability to conceptualize themselves without. Again, this goes back to that Hegelian dynamic, right, without being able to express or dominate, without an expression of dominance on the other people. I think the world has taken Africa like that. So the world owes Africa a lot. These people’s conception of self is non-existent without us in that role. And that is why you see everyone fighting tooth and nail to keep Africa in that role because you take its kind of like coronavirus. You put everybody on pause. Where’s that going? Oh, shoot. We actually have to look at ourselves. Not only really want to do that, you know, but I’d also rather just sit in my house and drink wine, I’m saying. And so if you now have an Africa that is arguing for a very different creative understanding of itself and that’s the presentation of itself narratively, the rest of the world would necessarily like not how we went about that, because that means the rest of the world has to actually sit down and think about what it is outside of it. It’s negative or the positive reflection of itself against a negative African. I’m hell-bent on making sure that the world has to take a look at that and examine that like that, I think is one of the missions whether or not we like it and whether or not it just isn’t inherently it’s central, even if it’s not central. And I don’t know how to explain that, but it is part and parcel of the work that we have to do. I believe as an African creative person, and I’m OK with that, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything you’re doing is speaking to the outside or to the white person or whatever. It just means that you’re a fool if you don’t recognize that your work exists within this context. And I think this is where I again, go back to sort of this idea of the political and the powerful countries. There’s nothing wrong with getting up and saying, as I said, yeah, I was trying to make sure that I broke your understanding and completely reoriented your approach. And that’s why I wrote “Things Fall Apart” because I read Conrade and I was like, this is some bullshit. I’m going to show you how it’s really done. That’s OK. That that is a profoundly incredible and important creative expression. It’s a powerful, creative expression and it’s a creative expression that understands the power of creativity. You know, I have no problems with that.

In fact, I just have zero problems with that. I don’t know how else to explain it, and I have zero problems with it because again if you look at the way that when people talk about some of the political projects of African creativity, I’ll go back to an example I had from high school where I did an independent study on an African post-colonial African land. And one of the instructors, a professor, said something to me that I will never forget, which was that African literature can never really be high literature because it’s too political. And I’m just like. You know, it goes back to the thing, and that’s part of that’s part and parcel of the hustle here, right? What the hell is Shakespeare? What is what are any of these plays that this man was writing in the fifteen hundreds like that were performed, the histories where you’re looking at King Henry and whatnot like the like a play like Macbeth, a play like King Lear about power, political power, the power of kings. I mean, come on. Right. What is half of these Bozak? What are you talking about? I’m saying like you’re talking about commentary on an economic situation. You read Charles Dickens, you don’t like these books are all political commentaries. So as an African person, somehow, someway you’re supposed to exist in a creative space that is totally apolitical. That’s utter nonsense. And if the political space that you exist in is in part governed by the struggle between a force outside, that is hell-bent on making sure you do not recognize your worth and the forces of empathy, of connectivity, of of of you know, let’s use those two words that are hell-bent on moving you to a different vibrational space. Right. That is hell-bent on saying, look, we exist as humans. I have no problems with letting that that be a part of the political struggle. And it’s not necessary that you’re speaking to that, even if you are. That’s not what preoccupies me fully. But it is something that I’m aware of because it’s the context in which I operate. That’s fine. That’s not just fine. That’s necessary. In fact, if you’re not doing that in some way, then we have a problem.

[AS] I’m wondering, there is a question and I always battle with myself and it relates with my actual role and what I do for a living.

And because a lot of this thing that you said resonates a lot and a lot of it will resonate with you as you know, as a personal experience and resonate. And it makes sense to me at the individual level. I can talk to people about this or I can share this with people individually.

But so you also running an institution, so to speak, about creativity. And we bring a basic that is this concept of institutional creativity. How can we contribute to building creativity and the institutional level? Because that’s probably a different process.

[UI] Yeah, it is, and it isn’t a.

Again, with the institutions, the same thing I mentioned about the medical example is true of a lot of these institutions. It’s a whole bunch of people who have very similar training, usually very similar socioeconomic status, usually very similar world views coming together and then wringing their hands about why they can’t do it differently.

I mean, it’s like if you are and I’m just going to pick on an institution because it can be picked on if you’re the MET here in New York City.

Look, let’s just even be real, let’s be the Guggenheim, and you are putting it out in The New York Times, that you are ecstatic because, in your one hundred year history, you have hired your first full-time black curator.

I mean.

You know, I hate to break it to you, homey, but like, why are you celebrating like this? It’s like, why? Why do I need to know that in a newspaper announcement? And why is The New York Times writing about this? This is a disgrace. It’s a disgrace. And why does that happen? It’s because everybody in that room thinks the same thing. It’s a disgrace. Let’s call it what it is. So institutionally, if you want a different kind of institution, it starts from actually having different people and different viewpoints and perspectives building the institution. It’s something that we talk about a lot when it comes to the Africa Center because we can go a very particular way in terms of how we build the institution, which is essentially saying, oh, there’s an example of how the Met did it or how the Guggenheim did it, and we’re just going to create black MoMA uptown. It’s going to be great like you can do that. Is that really interesting? Is that really creative? No, I don’t think so, maybe that’s not to say that it doesn’t require a lot of hard work and resources. And I think let’s remember that these two things are not necessarily the same. You can pour in all the hard work and the resources, all the money, and whatnot and still build something that is fundamentally not creative because you are not interrogating, again, those tensions. What does it mean to be an institution that has to represent all fifty, four hundred fifty-five countries on the continent? And how do those dynamics, those tensions, those similarities play with each other? What does it mean to be? An institution that is supported in an environment that requires it to take money from very, very wealthy individuals and in a situation where the vast majority of people are struggling to figure out how to pay their rent.

How does that tension factor into what it is you’re doing? How does the tension of being an institution that represents Africa and that to people represent an elite version of Africa in this particular situation in Harlem? Like all those tensions are part. And if we are not, we’re going through a process now where we’re really trying to understand how all of those tensions can be brought to create an institution that is fundamentally different from, say, the massive white walls and big pillars of something further down the street from us.

That’s that is, in my mind, how you start creating new institutions that privilege a new kind of creativity that thinks about these questions of power, consciousness, empathy, and ultimately the impact on the political space. That’s what we’re trying to do. How successful we will be at doing that depends on whether or not we’re able to articulate the vision of the story of what that could do for the world that we live in. It also depends a lot on whether or not we can convince people that the old world is gone, the old world where you’ve got this massive edifice that has all kinds of crazy curiosities that you stole from people, that world is gone. The world in which people are willing to tolerate that kind of thing, whether or not you have the backlash of white supremacy here, that kind of tamped down on the Black Lives Matter movement, all that sort of stuff, that world is fundamentally crumbling. That’s why people respond and reacting and trying to prop up these old styles of comfortable, familiar, noncreative ways of expressing themselves in institutions against may be more dynamic and. I should say, I don’t want to say radical, because that has a particular connotation, and I don’t think that what we’re trying to do is radical, but just more dynamic and inclusive, I think is a better word. And if being in prison inclusive is radical, then that’s a problem. But understandings of what it means to build an institution and to have people participate in the life of the institution. For me as a CEO and director of this place, it means I have to think a lot about what it means to be in this hierarchical role.

If we’re trying to build something that is more inclusive, like what does it mean to be a white person in this particular scene and how can I make sure that I’m thinking about that over and over and over again with each task or challenge or project that comes our way. And that’s that is a fundamentally uncomfortable position to be in, I think. But maybe that’s good and it’s good until maybe I get too comfortable. And then hopefully somebody will put me out to pasture and bring in somebody else who has a different set of discomforts that will drive how this institution can grow and develop.

[AS] So basically, I feel in one of your words that you choose power-conscious is really this element he was just describing, really keep asking ourselves the same questions like who is missing in the discussion? Who is central? Who has the power, both formal and informal in this system?

All of these elements that probably it’s it seems to me that questioning is even more important at times at this level.

To the answer that you give to the question, I guess, is there a process, it is a process to start for keep asking really about who is benefiting from this system, who does not, and really reimagine it. Possible a possible future, a possible new dynamic and.

This sounds like a great opportunity, but it also sounds like a great challenge, so I guess my last question is, are you an optimist or not about the outcome of this struggle that we’re living now.

[UI] I don’t know, I. I don’t know, I just don’t know.

I mean, we’re on November 4th, and yesterday America decided to, you know, affirm that it really just enjoys white supremacy.

So I don’t know anything. Am I optimistic?

I have to be and I think as a black person in the world, as an African, you are ours.

Just you have some almost, I would say, like a genetic predisposition to be essentialist about it towards optimism, given everything that has been thrown at us and our ancestors and those of us who are alive now for however long, you can’t get up and move in this world, even if you hate the world to get up the next day.

If you’re one of the people in Lagos who’s just seen and witnessed the kind of violence that the state has pushed against them, and you get up the next day and you say, you know what, I’m still going to do this. There’s a fundamental optimism there. If you’re a black person here in the United States and every single day somebody is trying to kill you just because they don’t like your face, like. Then you’re optimistic and more than that, you’re optimistic if you are saying even if you try to do this to me, I’m still going to look at you and say, you know what, we can figure out a way to make this happen. Right. And I’m not saying we can hang like we’re going to be buddies, but we can hang in that. I respect your right to exist in this world, even if you don’t respect mine. That’s a very optimistic way of looking at human relations and life in general. Do I necessarily feel that way all the time? Hell, no. But do I think it’s an example of a wave of optimism and how you move the discussion from, you know, again, that sort of like Hegelian I’m human because I can kill you? I’m human because I can see you. Like, I think it’s important. I think it’s really important. And so I am optimistic in that sense. I just think there’s going to be so much pain in between the where we are now and a vision of the future that is imperfect and yet somehow better for everybody because people don’t want to be don’t want to leave what they know and getting there requires for all of us, especially of those of us in positions of privilege, to step away from what we know.

And I find it very hard to do like I’d be lying if I told you that I wasn’t scared about losing some of the things that are I have just imbued with meaning for reasons I don’t understand, but that’s where I get scared. But am I optimistic that I can make that journey? I mean, I have to hope so. Optimistic that people in the world can make that journey. I also have to hope so. Otherwise, I should just go and shrivel up and die, you know, like just the clothes. I mean, there’s something that my dad said to me, you know, my dad is in his 70s now. He’s surprised, surprise a Nigerian doctor. And he grew up in Nigeria, obviously was born before independence, came of age during independence, and then lived through as a sort of young adults, the Nigerian civil war. And we were talking about all the stuff that’s been going on in the world right now. And this is a period of time. I was just super depressed.

And he looked at me and said to me, it’s like, you know, this is a man who has seen who’s lost his leg, his whole family house. He’s seen people die. There are all these crazy things he said. So what are you going to shrivel up and die? Did Martin Luther King shrivel up and die because there was some kind of political hardship? Did Malcolm X shrivel up and die? Did we shrivel up and die? He’s like, the world is a tough place. You have to be optimistic if you want to make it work. So that’s where I get that strength from.

[AS] Uzo thank you so much. That was great. Thank you.

[UI] Thank you so much. It was great.

Uzodinma Iweala is an award-winning writer, filmmaker, and medical doctor. As the CEO of The Africa Center, he is dedicated to promoting a new narrative about Africa and is Diaspora.

Uzodinma was the CEO, Editor-In-Chief, and co-Founder of Ventures Africa Magazine, a publication that covers the evolving business, policy, culture, and innovation spaces in Africa. His books include Beasts of No Nation, a novel released in 2005 to critical acclaim and adapted into a major motion picture; Our Kind of People, a non-fiction account of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria released in 2012; and Speak No Evil (2018), a novel about a queer first-generation Nigerian-American teen living in Washington, D.C. His short stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications like The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair and The Paris Review among others.

Uzodinma was also the founding CEO of the Private Sector Health Alliance of Nigeria, an organization that promotes private sector investment in health services and health innovation in Nigeria. He sits on the boards of the Sundance Institute, The International Rescue Committee and the African Development Bank’s Presidential Youth Advisory Group. A graduate of Harvard University and the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and a Fellow of The Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.

This conversation was recorded as one of the Episodes of “Creativity Pioneers”, a podcast by the Moleskine Foundation.

As the Moleskine Foundation’s vision is to inspire a new generation of creative thinkers and doers, this podcast aims to equip all of us with new perspectives and unconventional ideas to amplify our creativity, critical gaze, and imagination.
We engage in conversations with unique creative minds from all over the world, to explore and expand our understanding of creativity and its transformative power.
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