Project Africanisms exemplifies a global shift in museum culture

Hosted by SFU, this event shares AfroGreek stories with a larger audience

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Illustration of a row of busts, ranging in colour and each depicting an element of Greek culture, such as architecture or a deity
Discover Greece from a new, multicultural perspective. Image courtesy of SNF Centre for Hellenic Studies

By: Sara Wong, Arts & Culture Editor

When you think of Greek society, what comes to mind? Blackness may not be not part of the picture. That is what Project Africanisms hopes to change. Organized by the Benaki Museum in Athens, this project aims to amplify AfroGreek voices through close collaboration with AfroGreek community members. A virtual launch event, hosted by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies (SNF Centre) at SFU, showcased the project’s work to date and outlined what’s to come.

First to present was Dr. Sophia Handaka, the Benaki Museum’s curator of world cultures. Handaka explained the museum’s vision was to familiarize their audience with Greece’s cultural diversity by promoting international art collections. According to the curator, most Greek art institutions currently do not have a multicultural lens. The Benaki Museum, however, houses works from European, Islamic, Chinese, Pre-Columbian, Southeast Asian, and African cultures. 

It was the latter collection that served as the catalyst for Project Africanisms. Donated by the widow of Greek geologist John Phillipson, the catalogue of over 100 Nigerian and Cameroonian artefacts are the findings of Phillipson’s work from the early 1960s. 

“When I received the collection at the museum, I thought of using the artefacts not merely as a presentation of African culture and identity, but rather as a starting point [ . . . ] to engage meaningfully and long-term with the African community in Athens,” Handaka said.

This open dialogue is being approached in a number of ways. Leading up to the Phillipson collection’s exhibition in 2024, members of the AfroGreek public are being invited to help research and interpret the artefacts. The project also features a documentary, made by a non-governmental organization called “døcumatism,” which will highlight contemporary AfroGreek experiences. 

What impressed me the most, however, was the Benaki Museum’s commitment to train interested community members to become a part of their curatorial team. It was refreshing to see an institution so willing to advance practices of equity, diversity, and inclusion. 

As the need for museums to examine their relationships to colonialism increases, Handaka expects Project Africanisms will “be a timely and meaningful contribution” to the centring of diaspora stories.

Enter Grace Nwoke, an anthropologist exploring her lived experiences as a second generation AfroGreek. 

The more Nwoke shared, the more I found myself being able to empathize. In a conversation about microaggressions, the dreaded question “where are you really from?” became a primary example. Nwoke detailed having this exchange with a stranger while travelling in Germany. “He was in so much shock he actually said, ‘excuse me, where is Greece? Is it in Africa?’” she said

Nwoke added, “The idea of having a Black person speaking Greek and being from Greece” is still seen as a cultural outlier in her home country. She noted AfroGreek history dates back to the Ottoman Empire, but that was never recognized when she was in school. 

Although AfroGreek is a fairly new term, stemming from mentions on social media and references to famous athletes and musicians, it provides a sense of belonging to a group that continues to be overlooked. That is why Project Africanisms is so important — it provides a larger platform for the AfroGreek community to be recognized and celebrated.

Preliminary research for the Benaki Museum’s exhibit has begun. Handaka revealed several emerging themes — trade, authenticity, migration, and milieu (an individual’s social environment) — which will influence the exhibit’s design. In addition, the museum hopes to conduct a study trip to the University of Oxford in 2022. There, they can meet with Dr. Zoe Cormack, a fellow at the university’s African Studies Centre, to further shape the project’s narrative.

While Project Africanisms is first and foremost a representation of AfroGreeks, it also connects to universal themes like identity formation and social justice. Because of this, I felt invested in the project, despite it taking place over 5,000 miles away in Greece. 

A recording of the event will be made available on the SNF Centre’s YouTube channel.