New York University, USA
Prita Meier (PhD, Harvard University) is Assistant Professor of African art and architectural history at the University of Illinois and will be moving to NYU Fall 2017. Her research focuses on the visual cultures and built environment of east African port cities and histories of transcontinental exchange and conflict. She is the author of Swahili Port Cities: The Architecture of Elsewhere (Indiana University Press, 2016) and has publications in The Art Bulletin, Art History, African Arts, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Artforum, and Arab Studies Journal, as well as contributions in several exhibition catalogs and edited books. Currently she is working on a new book about the social and aesthetic history of photography in Zanzibar and Mombasa and is co-organizing an exhibition and edited volume titled World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean (which received a 2016-17 NEH Humanities Projects grant). She will be a Senior Fellow at CASVA at the National Gallery of Art (2017-2018) and has held fellowships at the Clark Art Institute (2014-2015), Cornell University’s Society for the Humanities (2009-2010), and the Johns Hopkins University (2007-2009).
Littorals and archipelagos are in many ways itinerant, overlapping territories—whose affiliations to empires, states, or sectarian entities are multifocal, contested, and constantly shifting. The Swahili coast of eastern Africa exemplifies this phenomenon: its port cities and towns have long functioned as global contact zones, where diverse societies meet and exchange ideas, commodities, and cultural traditions. This paper will focus on the architectures of these oceanic cities, showing how they are simultaneously chronotopes of modernity and memorials to ancient histories of transcultural reciprocity and competition, overturning the prevailing notion that we can easily divide the study of African cities into before and after colonization. From the vantage point of the Swahili coast, the current fascination with transnationalism is simply the newest iteration of a complex struggle to control the crossings of people, ideas, and things in a fluid world.
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