Highfield Course Journeying to Cape Town

“Dialogue Across the Diaspora,” a course taught by Jonathan Highfield (Professor, Literary Arts + Studies), centers around the idea of dialogue between Haiti and South Africa. The course will literally enact a dialogue between students at Rhode Island School of Design and students at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, running in conjunction with a course at the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town, and culminating in travel to Cape Town to participate in the mounting of an exhibition.

Through the semester, students from both courses will collaborate on research in support of the exhibition, “Ships of Bondage” at the Slave Lodge Museum in Cape Town, South Africa. The exhibition, “Ships of Bondage,” examines the global networks involved in the African slave trade, looking at the connections between Rhode Island, Haiti, and South Africa. “Ships of Bondage” tells the story of slave insurrections during the slave trade, exploring the struggle of the enslaved to resist captivity, gain freedom, and return to their homelands.


Students are looking at narratives and art emerging from Haiti and South Africa, enacting a dialogue between the two countries. What insights can be gained into the histories of the two cultures by looking at them side by side? How do their divergent colonial histories speak to each other? Are there ways the narratives born out of the struggles of people in these two places open up differently if thought about in a comparative context?

Haitian Art is a seminal production of visual culture of the African Diaspora. Recognized as one of the most vibrant and multi-layered artistic creations of the African world drawing upon AfroCaribbean religious practices, historical and everyday events of the Haitian society, an art form has been created which while distinctive, in many instances reorders conventional notions of form and color.

South Africa is home to some of the oldest art on the planet, the San cave art paintings found in the Drakensberg Mountains, and recently researchers from the University of Witwatersrand discovered what they believe to be a 100,000 year old paint factory in Blombos Cave on the Southern Cape Coast. Early European artists in the region often produced landscapes devoid of humans, consciously or unconsciously supporting the colonial myth of an empty landscape. South African art has long engaged the histories of the region, from the trauma of the Xhosa cattle killing to the inhumanity of apartheid, from documenting urban poverty in paintings to creating a unique interiority in sculptures. South African art today continues to actively engage history.

The course has a substantial virtual classroom component. Groups are collaborating together across the three schools, regularly communicating over the internet. Students at RISD are working closely with students in South Africa, sharing information and collaborating on assignments. This week the students began uploading to the website information they discovered on their research in libraries and special collections around the state. They have located interesting material on Market House, on the slave trade in Newport, on the black neighborhoods Hardscrabble and Snowtown in Providence, as well as ship’s records and a lecture connecting the slave trade to the naval history of Rhode Island and the United States.

The class’s Indiegogo site is up and running for anyone interested in supporting the travel of students with limited resources.

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Department of Literary Arts and Studies, Haiti, Jonathan Highfield, News, Slave Lodge Museum, Slavery, South Africa, University of Cape Town

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