De-Generations: Reiminaging Communities


Claudia Brazzale

"Choreographing Afropean Communities: The Economy of African Dance and Drumming in Italy"

Over the past decade so-called 'African' dance and music have become increasingly popular in Italy, growing in tandem with local West African diasporic communities and the national concern over immigration. If on the one hand, the popularity of African dance and music provides West Africans migrants with an important form of self-identification and, in some cases, a ticket into the country and a form of subsistence, on the other hand, it often revolves around problematic discourses of authenticity rooted on the myth and romance with the 'primitive.' At once constructing and capitalizing on representations that exoticize and objectify African bodies, the diffusion and performance of African dance and drumming in Italy mobilize complex economies of desire that rest on an orientalist fascination with the Other. Although re-enacting dominant sexist and racist stereotypes and often engendering patriarchal relationships, these economies enable significant communities of knowledge and interracial encounters. Based on fieldwork conducted among various African dance courses, performances, and festivals across northern Italy, this project will consider how passion, exoticism, desire, and intimacy play a key role in the creation of these communities. Examining the complex ways in which solidarities and agency are built in these communities, I would like to explore whether the economy of West African dance and drumming can engender a more positive engagement with foreignness or if it ends up articulating another expression of wider imperialist discourses. In a context of increasing xenophobia and urban segregation, can West African dance choreograph new 'Afropean' practices and communities that destabilize traditional representations and meanings of belonging and non-belonging?

Jessica Johnson

"Chilungamo?: Women and law in matrilineal Southern Malawi"

My thesis is based on ethnographic research carried out in rural Malawi, January 2009 – September 2010; it focuses on contemporary gendered relationships in a matrilineal area and contributes to current debates within the fields of legal and medical anthropology, gender studies, kinship theory and African studies.

My project is compatible with the theme of the IRW Interdisciplinary Research Seminar 2011-12, “(De)Generations: Reimagining Communities”, in a number of ways. Firstly, my writing on the contemporary situations of HIV-positive women villagers deals with the disruptive effects of the HIV epidemic on the continuity of gendered, generational relations. Secondly, my material on marital dispute resolution offers a nuanced ethnographic perspective on conflicts that are often fuelled by considerations of alliance, descent, inheritance rights, and inclusion/exclusion from social and family groups. Thirdly, my work on female initiation rites looks at the ritualised transmission of gendered knowledge and considers how contemporary adaptations, some imposed, some embraced, serve both to empower and disempower women in the roles of initiate, participant and elder ritual specialist in ways that can be transformative of the crossgenerational relations at the heart of village life. Finally, matrilineality is central to social life in rural Southern Malawi and crucial to my analysis, placing women at the heart of local genealogies, both physically and ideologically.

Throughout my research, I grapple with questions about ‘communities’ – what is gained and what is lost through the use of the term ‘community’? To whom can it be meaningfully applied in the context of this ethnographic study? What roles do intimacy, marriage and reproduction play in the configuration of ‘communities’, and how might they also serve to undermine communality? In what sense do my informants recognize themselves as constituting communities? And, how might one theorise overlapping ‘community’ boundaries and deal appropriately with ethnographic examples of deliberate boundary crossing, reflexive boundary shifting and various attempts to demolish and erect ‘community’ boundaries?