Spring 2021 Bios & Abstacts

Lectures, Conferences & Events» Past Lectures & Events

Surveying Modern Architecture: The Case of Cairo
Mohamed Elshahed
Independent Curator and author of Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide
Architectural history continues to be governed by European thought and the approaches of art history that emerged from European and American institutions in the past two centuries. Despite recent efforts to expand the geographic scope of architectural history to encompass a more global view, such histories continue to be linear and focusing on the architect as artist. Historians tend to be preoccupied with questions of style, influence and genealogy. Cairo, like many cities across the world, particularly the ‘Global South’, presents challenges to such approaches as architects often operate anonymously as part of state institutions in autocratic regimes, styles are the exception not the norm, and where architectural history is best read as a networked set or relations rather than a linear progression. This lecture will present the book Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide as an effort to engage with these issues and to produce a widely accessible and non-hierarchical history of architecture. This history is particularly urgent as the city grapples with waves of destruction and demolitions.
Mohamed Elshahed is a curator and architectural historian focusing on modernism in Egypt and the Arab World. He is the author of Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide (AUC Press, 2020), the first substantive survey of modern architecture in Egypt’s capital spanning 226 sites. He holds a Masters from MIT’s Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture and a PhD from NYU’s Department of Middle Eastern Studies. His work spans architecture, design and material culture. He is the curator of the British Museum’s Modern Egypt Project and Egypt’s winning pavilion, Modernist Indignation, at the 2018 London Design Biennale. In 2019 Apollo Magazine named him among the 40 under 40 influential thinkers and artists in the Middle East. In 2011 he founded Cairobserver to stimulate public debates around issues of architecture, heritage and urbanism in the region. In Spring 2020 he was the Practitioner-in-Residence at the NYU Kevorkian Center in New York.

Lived Heritage and the Sacred Topography of Harar Jugol, Ethiopia
Michelle Moore Apotsos
Department of Art
Williams College
Nasser Rabbat notes that the role of architecture is not only to contain and support human activity but to function as a “branch of human creativity that is relied upon to frame, embody, and preserve memories” (Rabbat 2002, 56). And indeed, architecture as a medium of memory maintains multiple modes of transmitting historical narratives, recollections, and remembrances through spatial means, pointing to the fact that history itself has never been a medium of the past; it exists completely in the present as a lens through which individuals not only interpret historical events but also view present realities as they relate to these events. Such is the conversation informing the built landscape of Harar Jugol, Ethiopia, the fourth holiest city in Islam and a UNESCO world heritage site since 2006. As a site whose spiritual and cultural histories have shaped the contours of the lived environment, Harar Jugol’s architectural character is often interpreted as a reflection of the ongoing relationships between history and memory and their role in negotiating a range of identities and realities in the present. Yet this condition exists uneasily in the context of heritage projects and processes that would stabilize Harar Jugol’s narratives through the imposition of commemorative molds or templates that embed its landscapes, materials, and built forms within a fossil record of history. Thus, the two questions will be addressed in the space of this paper with regards to the challenges that Harar Jugol faces moving forward as a religio-cultural space, an architectural environment, and a heritage space. First, for whom is heritage intended to work in Harar Jugol and for whom SHOULD it work? And second, do all discussants in this conversation have equal voice or are certain voices privileged over others? 

Michelle Apotsos is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art at Williams College. She is the author of Architecture, Islam, and Identity in West Africa: Lessons from Larabanga (Routledge, 2016) and The Masjid in Contemporary Islamic Africa (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). She has also published in African ArtsThe International Journal of Islamic ArchitectureMaterial Culture Review, and the Journal of Architectural Education. Apotsos’s research is focused on contemporary Afro-Islamic architectural practice and visual culture, as well as sustainable architectural practices and heritage landscapes in South Africa.

The Place of Africa, in Theory
Shaden M. Tageldin
Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature
University of Minnesota
Among the questions that haunt studies of Islamicate culture in Africa is the place of Africa itself: its bifurcation into parts “North” and “sub-Saharan”; its complex relationships to Arabness and Blackness; and its articulation within shifting borders that define Arabic and Islam as, by turns, indigenous or exogenous linguistic and religiocultural formations.  From twentieth-century pan-Africanist theories of decolonization that interrogated the Arab/Black fault line and reasserted the place of Africa in transcontinental terms, this lecture will turn to long-nineteenth-century Arab-Islamic framings of Africa to ask whether, and to what extent, the binary that bedevils the study of Islam in Africa today is a modern problem born of European colonial epistemology.  My focus will be on the writings of the Ottoman-Palestinian intellectual Muhammad Ruhi al-Khalidi, who served as consul general of the Ottoman Empire in Bordeaux from 1898–1908 and penned a pioneering study of French and Arabic comparative literatures.  For al-Khalidi, France becomes a point of departure for virtual travel to and through the times and spaces that might reconstitute Africa as a vital part of Islamic historical memory, contemporaneity, and futurity.  Marshaling narratives, maps, and expositions of architecture and built environments to restate the place of Africa in Islam and thus in theory, al-Khalidi calls on readers to peel away modern European colonial maps of Africa and to unearth the Arab-Islamic place names and African/Islamic empires those maps efface.  I argue that the decolonizing impulses of his revisionist history, however, are cross-cut by the imperial competition for Africa between the European and Ottoman empires of his day—and his no less imperial fantasy that the soft powers of Arabic and Islam in Africa might intercept both.
Shaden M. Tageldin is Associate Professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota.  From 2014–2018, she was also founding director of the University’s African Studies Initiative, a Title VI African Studies National Resource Center funded by the U.S. Department of Education.  Tageldin’s research engages empire and postcolonial studies, critical translation theory, and the politics of language and literature in trans-African/Asian/European perspective.  Her book, Disarming Words: Empire and the Seductions of Translation in Egypt (University of California Press), was awarded the Honorable Mention for the 2013 Harry Levin Prize of the American Comparative Literature Association.  Her articles have appeared in Comparative Literature, Comparative Literature StudiesInternational Journal of Middle East StudiesJournal of Arabic Literature, Journal of Historical SociologyPhilological EncountersPMLA, and other journals and edited volumes.  Tageldin is currently completing a new book, provisionally titled Toward a Transcontinental Theory of Modern Comparative Literature, and launching a third, provisionally titled The Place of Africa, in Theory: Of Continents and Their Discontents.