On the “Archival Sliver” and Audio-Visual Africa, Part 2

Last week, we summarized South African archivist Verne Harris’s notion of the “archival sliver”, the belief that archives are only capable of capturing “a sliver of a sliver of a sliver” of the past (65). Harris developed his argument with reference to the apartheid regime in South Africa, citing instances in which government institutions expunged marginalized social and ethnic groups from the archival record. For a more detailed introduction to Harris’s argument, please refer to On the ‘Archival Sliver’ and Audio-Visual Africa, Part 1.

It is unrealistic to expect that the Audio-Visual Africa project will create archives encapsulating more than a sliver of African history and culture. The project rests on the assumption, however, that the sliver we archive will, in Harris’s words, “giv[e] voice to the voiceless” on a number of different levels (74).

How then does the Audio-Visual Africa project relate to Harris’s thesis?

Professor Frieda Ekotto seeks to give voice to the voiceless by archiving the work of African women filmmakers in a largely male-dominated profession. While many of her initial contacts are established within the field, Ekotto plans to engage with young female filmmakers who lack the financial resources necessary to archive, preserve, and share their films with others. By collecting and archiving their work, Ekotto will ensure that these women and their artistic contributions are recognized within the international film community.

Much of the world adheres to the traditional conceptualization of the archive as western and text-centered. Institutions often overlook African materials due to implicit biases in favor of western society within academia and the archival profession. This bodes poorly for African audio-visual collections, which are often stored for long periods of time in conditions detrimental to long-term preservation. The Audio-Visual Africa project seeks to ensure that additional portions of African culture and history are preserved in spite of these unfortunate realities.

In addition to preserving African culture, the Audio-Visual Africa project incorporates the voices of Africans into ethical custodianship of cultural heritage materials. We want African artists, musicians, and stakeholders to determine how and to what extent their cultural heritage should be made accessible to the public. Under this philosophy, the Asante King in Ghana should decide which videos and photographs from the Manhyia Palace are suitable for digitization and inclusion in an access system. Similarly, we believe that the musicians featured within the Sarkisian archive have the right to decide whether or not their music can be streamed online. 

In accordance with Harris and his argument, therefore, the Audio-Visual Africa project attempts to expand preexisting archival slivers of African culture and history to include content generated–and controlled by–Africans themselves.