The week before fall break saw (Ir)reverence: A Multimedia Conference celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Chinua Achebe’s influential novel “Arrow of God,” hosted by the entire Tri-Co, aimed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the release of the novel “Arrow of God” by incendiary Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. It put Achebe’s works in dialogue with works of many different media, focusing on the rise of digital media and the young artists who use it as a tool for activism.
The name of the conference arose from Achebe’s “focus on irreverence as playfulness, irony, and critique,” said Professor of French and Francophone Studies Carina Yervasi, and the works featured throughout the week all echoed these themes in unique ways.
The organizing committee agreed upon a promotional text for the event that mentions some of these.
“While Achebe’s work is playful and humorous, it simultaneously offers profound reflections on spirituality, choice, and possible futures. His eye for emotional and social detail is shaped by a critique of racism, gendered inequality, and colonial domination,” it said via email.
The committee further provided insight into his writing style, and the way his narrative voice expresses insight and critique.
“Achebe’s reinvention of the novel through the use of proverbial speech is an organizing principle showing his penchant for double voicing; simultaneously saying something and its opposite, poking fun in sincere tones, chastising with a humorous twinkle in his eye,” it said.
The evening of Thursday, October 9, saw students and faculty gathered in Bond Hall for the last event of (Ir)reverence Conference. Over plentiful snacks and apple cider, Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s 1992 film “Guelwaar” was screened after an illuminating presentation by the students of French 15 (The Contemporary French World), introduced by their professor Yervasi, who was a primary organizer of (Ir)reverence.
Before the screening, the students in Yervasi’s class gave insights into the ways in which Sembene’s film can be put into dialogue with Achebe’s “Arrow of God.” They focused specifically on how each work features differing religious and national identities co-existing within a region and how they can conflict with one another when under considerable political and economic pressure.
“Chinua Achebe in Nigeria and Ousmane Sembene in Senegal were contemporaries, chronicling the ways in which the African continent experienced change and renewal in its relationship to the colonial forces of Europe,” said Yervasi.
She went on to describe what Achebe and Sembene both, within their respective media, try to depict.
“[They] take on the complexity of power dynamics and human relations found in their respective cultures as they underwent profound change,” she said. “Both “Arrow of God” and “Guelwaar” focus on the importance of and ironic expression of spirituality and sacred rituals against the backdrop of flawed colonial systems, local politics, and intimate family dynamics.”
The conference kicked off at Haverford College with a lecture by Ato Quayson, professor and director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto, on the notion of tragedy within “Arrow of God.” The final event was the screening of “Guelwaar.” Thanks to the breadth of events, (Ir)reverence provided students and faculty with the opportunity to appreciate Achebe’s monumental work and to place it within the context of new media.
One of the central questions the conference wrestled with was how new forms of media production can empower young activists to produce work which critiques the social, political and economic state they find themselves in. The events that focused most on the relationship between activism and the advent of digital media involved the FOKN Bois, a Ghanaian hip hop and filmmaking duo. M3nsa and Wanlov the Kubolor, the two halves of FOKN Bois, presented their two-part hip hop musical film “Coz Ov Moni” (part one at Haverford on October 7 and part two at Swarthmore on October 8). They also engaged in a round-table discussion with students and faculty regarding the ways in which they have felt Achebe’s influence on their work and how new media formats have affected their ability to make politically divisive films and music.
They told stories about the difficulties of making a film that illuminated several grievances of Ghanaian people in a serious way while simultaneously imbuing the work with playful irreverence and often juvenile humor. They also discussed issues they ran into with the police and military forces of the region, who were less than helpful in the process of filming “Coz Ov Moni.” However, due to increasing access to amateur production practices such as digital video and music production methods, the FOKN Bois were able to craft a highly personal and irreverent work because they were willing to put in an excruciating amount of effort and were daring enough to do a bit of guerilla film-making.
Complementing the films that were shown and discussed, (Ir)reverence abounded with writing workshops, lectures, and panel discussions with leading scholars on African diasporas and literature. With such variety in events and topics, this conference truly had something to offer anyone interested in Achebe’s legacy and how we still feel the echoes of his unique style of irreverence towards the ideologies and rituals that inform political and social power. “Arrow of God,” through playful irony and social critique, changed the way the world thinks about how post-colonial power dynamics affect local culture and tradition, and young artists are taking a page from Achebe’s book as they adapt his influence to their ever-changing media landscape.