‘Decolonial’ heritage and public memories?

By Prof. Dr. Sophia Labadi

How can a ‘decolonial’ approach to heritage help to confront the urgent questions of our time and contribute to building more sustainable and just futures? How have African countries dealt with, revisited, and addressed Eurocentric public memorial approaches after gaining independence?

These are some of the questions that Prof. Dr. Sophia Labadi seeks to address during her time as a Reimar Lüst Awardee, funded by the Humboldt Foundation and Thyssen Foundation. Her first research area considers the possibility and impacts of transcending the traditional Eurocentric categories of heritage to address issues of climate change, food security and poverty reduction. Conventional categorizations of heritage often draw strict distinctions between tangible and intangible elements, as well as between nature and culture. Professor Labadi’s investigation delves into the feasibility of a more integrated and holistic approach to heritage, using the conclusions and recommendations from her latest book ‘Rethinking Heritage for Sustainable Development’, published by UCL Press in 2022, along with various reports (co)-written for international organisations, including the 2021 ICOMOS policy guidance on ‘Heritage and the Sustainable Development Goals’. To provide a comprehensive understanding, she is carrying out her research at select heritage sites around the world, implementing new approaches to heritage management. She will also consider whether her methodologies can be successfully replicated in other locations around the world.

Prof. Dr. Labadi’s second interdisciplinary research aims to overcome the Eurocentric focus of current historiography by identifying different approaches to public memorial constructions in Africa since independence. Adopting a thematic approach, this research considers what occurred to colonial statues at independence; the memorial structures built thereafter, and how these have changed over time; why neo-colonial statues have been erected in the post colony; and the reasons for monuments to be built as part of redistributive justice processes. This research also pays particular attention to public reactions to these statues, how forms of contestations have changed over time, and how successful they have been and why.

Moving beyond existing research that mainly focuses on single monuments and specific countries, this project adopts a transnational approach, considering the continent of Africa while paying particular attention to the complex and changing connections to former colonial powers in Europe. Such analyses will allow a comprehensive, and nuanced discussion of the similarities and differences of key phenomena over time and in different countries, including dealing with colonial statues; colonial legacies; Pan-Africanism, and authoritarianism.

There is a compelling case to conduct this project now, as public statues are currently highly debated. This research will complexify reflections on colonial legacies and nostalgia, national identity, socio-economic (in)justices, and forms of memorialisation, assessing how these concepts have changed over time and space in post-colonial Africa. The proposed research will transcend disciplines, with relevance in heritage studies, cultural studies; history; international relations; and for researchers in Africa.