A Retrospective

On 3 and 4 May, the mdw a hosted the symposium Decolonising of Knowledges. Over 120 students, scholars, and other participants from throughout the world met to discuss the multiple dimensions of knowledge production and power relations within academia. The main focus was an exchange of theoretical and practical contributions on the subject of universities’ decolonisation in the interest of positioning social inclusion and alternative epistemologies as urgent priorities in the academic world. The symposium’s two-day programme was divided into two main topics—the decolonisation of academia and the decolonisation of world music—and included keynote speeches, plenary discussion panels, a film presentation, a musical workshop, and artistic contributions.

Keynote presenter José Jorge de Carvalho introduced approaches to the integral pluri-epistemological inclusion of indigenous and black minorities in both student bodies and faculties in Brazilian higher education. In his project The Meeting of Knowledges, Carvalho anchors indigenous knowledges in traditional university curricula by bringing in non-academics and indigenous masters to teach university courses and programmes as fully fledged professors, peers, and mentors. In terms of a theoretical approach, Carvalho proposes that the image of meaning be moved or destroyed, with the creation of a new signifier. In this way, he contests hegemonic structures and provides spaces for syncretism and non-Western cultures of learning within the walls of universities in Brazil.

María do Mar Castro Varela’s keynote speech posed a core question: is it possible to decolonise the university? Using a metaphor of sorts, she began by questioning the academic habit of electronic presentation in conferences. She recalled a statement by one of her teachers, Chantal Mouffe: “You do your PowerPoint, I will make a point.” To which she added: “Today, I’m going to try to make a point, which is that the decolonisation of universities in Europe is a thematic problem.” Castro Varela went on to assert that change is feasible if we understand that universities are spaces where hegemony and resistance have been produced simultaneously. She argued that “to transform the academic space, we all have to live in it.” In her view, universities are powerful places—for which reason change requires a long-term commitment. Nevertheless, changing academia also requires us to actively demand that curricula be questioned while also searching for other methods and methodologies.

Michael Birenbaum Quintero’s contribution problematised the term “world music” from an ethnomusicological perspective, explaining that the commodification of field recordings posed an ethical problem for researchers. In his words, the introduction of the term “world music” during the 1980s “marked the end of ethnomusicology’s innocence and ushered in some of our most important questions about technology, intellectual property, schizophonia, capitalism, difference, appropriation, the politics of representation, the movement of peoples, migration and hybridity, and the crisis of authenticity and the raw workings of power”. Based on his research on the study of Columbian champeta music, his talk analysed “world music” by understanding musical circulation as a being woven into national informal economic systems.

In the final keynote presentation, Gabriele Klein proposed that translation be understood as a way in which to carry cultural meaning from one place to another. Klein has studied how translation in the global contemporary African dance market sets differences of identity in motion by empowering artists to independently shift their own representations of their artistic work within the international dance scene. Klein’s contribution here focused in an ethnographic manner on the portrayal of cultural and social difference in the work of dancer and choreographer Germaine Acogny, thereby analysing dance practices as labour in which the body acts to translate the social and cultural experience within the global market of contemporary dance.

As a follow-up to the mdw lecture series Transkulturalität (2014–18), this symposium contributed to a deeper understanding of the challenges that lie ahead in creating sustainable transcultural universities. It represents just one element of the mdw Diversity Strategy, which facilitates discussion among students, faculty, and staff members of just what it means to be a diverse university and to provide an holistic and diverse learning environment. The next Transculturality symposium will be embedded within the curriculum of the mdw’s new Master’s Degree Program in Ethnomusicology and will take place on 7 and 8 May 2021.

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