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  • “The Bag Is My Home”Recycling “China Bags” in Contemporary African Art
  • Ying Cheng (bio)

Frequently used as mobile storage containers or baggage by migrants and traders moving across borders, the mesh bag made of red, blue, and white polypropylene fibers has become a prominent element of African visual culture. This light, strong, and affordable woven bag, often referred to as “China bag” or “Chinese tote,”1 features prominently in recent artistic practices by African artists such as Nobukho Nqaba, Dan Halter, and Gerald Machona. In this essay I examine how these artistic interventions using photography, installation, video, and performance, circulating in galleries, museums, and the streets, contribute to sociological discussions about the ways in which emerging trajectories, relationships, and identities are perceived and debated in the context of the global South. I do not view the South here as a settled geopolitical order, but understand it as a concept about mobilities, transitions, and shifting relations.2 More specifically, I suggest that transformation of China bags from everyday objects into art works with sociopolitical agency embodies a sense of transience and transgression that alludes to understandings of the South as a passage without settled destinations.

In these artistic practices that highlight symbolic subtexts in everyday life, the bag is much more than a container for traveling, as it plays a part in processes of individual expression, identity formation, and cultural negotiation. It embodies the ever-present element of movement, which remains an irreducible aspect of life on the African continent. Moreover, as the common name—“China bag”—implies, among the perplexed modes of migration and movement revealed in these artistic projects, one significant trajectory is the continually increasing presence of China on the continent over the past few decades. Engaging with the multiplicity of migration experiences and emerging theorizations on travel and movement, I suggest that the circulation and production of these artistic works around the bag not only provide some nuanced insights into transnational histories and realities of everyday African lives, but also open up new possibilities to rethink familiar and authorized paradigms of mobility in the global South.

The China bag, an “ordinary object” on-the-move, is a fruitful trope to engage with the multiple meanings of mobilities in everyday living spaces in Africa. Recent academic interest in mobility studies, referred to as the “mobility turn” or the “new mobilities paradigm” (Sheller and Urry 2006; Cresswell 2006; Hannam, Sheller, and Urry 2006), has shown that not only where we live, but also how we move, influences our subjectivities, narratives, and ideologies. Cresswell (2006: 1–2) argues that mobility is not only everywhere in the modern world, but also more central to both the world and our understanding of it than ever before: “It plays a central role in discussions of the body and society. It courses through contemporary theorizations of the city.” In our mobile era, dwelling is thought to “involve complex relationships between belongingness and traveling … People can indeed be said to dwell in various mobilities” (Urry 2000: 157). Many people, whether they are physically on the move or not, find themselves “living their daily lives at the increasingly complicated intersection between home and mobility” (Molz 2008: 328). Aside from the acknowledged importance of movement in the modern world (Canzler, Kaufmann, and Kesselring 2008: 3), the dynamic of mobility in the context of the global South remains a neglected topic. Whereas mobility is often considered as a basic principle of modernity (Cresswell 2006: 15) or a prominent feature of globalization in the Western world, the movements of people in the global South are often characterized as constrained (Smith and Katz 1993; Pfaff 2010), passive, and too often associated with traumatic experiences. Contrary to the impression frequently produced by international mainstream media, most global migration is intraregional, occurring within the countries of the former Soviet Union, South Asia, and West Africa (World Bank 2011). Despite the significance of South-South migration and its implications on transnational movement, the debate on mobility has tended to focus primarily on movements in the “developed” world, or from “developing” to “developed” world. [End Page 18]

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Migrant workers going home during the Spring Festival...


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pp. 18-31
Launched on MUSE
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