Nigerian-born author Chris Abani discussed how art has captured sadness and loss throughout the ages during his keynote address for Black History Month on Wednesday.
“There is nothing sadder than a photograph,” said the award-winning author. “It is a reminder of that which we no longer have. It is a thing that is already gone even as we catch it.”
Abani said there is even opportunity to learn from the carvings he has found during his travels throughout the world. From train cars carrying people to concentration camps in Germany, to markings above doors in former slave quarters in the south, Abani said people mark things to create memories.
“In this, I think we can agree,” he said. “To create that memory is to turn away from that moment, to remove oneself from the moment and to turn that into transformation. We know that it is (a) foolish ritual.”
Ritual is important to Abani though. Art is one ritual that he tries to help create because it links people together in ways he can’t explain.
“When we speak of art giving witness,” he said, “we usually mean we are trying to give full address to its ability to express the things that are often inexpressible such as the occasional terror, pain, destruction and eraser.”
The Nigerian author has been writing since he was 16, finding passion early in life. He has even been jailed for his work. Abani said he’s learned a lot about himself and the world around him from the reactions to his work.
“(Being jailed) was actually an accident,” he said. “Just some minor torture. The universe has a way of setting things in your path to make you a more compassionate person.”
Author Jimmy Baldwin helped Abani find his voice with writing.
He has taken on different subjects that others may not want to tackle, including race and class.
“I’m a big man with a small voice,” Abani said Wednesday. “My work never shies away from difficult subjects. The African mindset is like ‘this and that’ instead of ‘this or that’ in the western mindset.”
D’Wayne Jenkins, the assistant director for Multicultural Academic Student Services on campus, said he was grateful Abani could step in at the last minute after the original keynote speaker canceled.
“We do appreciate Dr. Abani for coming on such short notice,” he said. “Lee Daniels had something that came up. He is currently in Japan.”
Jenkins said he enjoyed Abani’s talk because it brings perspective from all over the world to the community.
“I’m always interested in different view-points in the world,” he said. “It allows students to see different challenges in the world. (Abani) is always striving for better in life and never lets set-backs keep him down.”