The Carter G. Woodson Institute, U.Va.

The Carter G. Woodson Institute

for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia

African Colloquium Series: Elyan Hill (Southern Methodist University)

Wednesday, November 10, 2021 3:30 PM
Virtual (registration required)

November 10: Elyan Hill (Department of Art History, Southern Methodist University) will deliver a talk titled “Altars in Motion: Embodied Visualities in Togolese Sacred Arts,” which explores how contemporary Ewe altars and dance in Togo honor enslaved ancestors, and reenact histories of trade and forced migration.


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Title: Altars in Motion: Embodied Visualities in Togolese Sacred Arts



Elyan Jeanine Hill is an Assistant Professor of African and African Diaspora Art History at Southern Methodist University. She earned her Ph. D. in World Arts and Cultures/Dance from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). As an interdisciplinary scholar of African arts, her research interests include festival arts, religious materiality, Black feminisms, and embodied renderings of the domestic and transatlantic slave trades in Ghana, Togo, Benin, Liberia, and their diasporas. She has received fellowships and grants from UCLA’s International Institute, the Fowler Museum, the West African Research Association (WARA), the Africana Research Center at Penn State, The Arts Council for the African Studies Association (ACASA), and The Wolf Humanities Center at the University of Pennsylvania. With written work featured in Conversations Across the Field of Dance Studies and in the edited volume Embodying Black Religions in Africa and Its Diasporas published by Duke University Press, she also maintains a curatorial practice that embraces experimental ethnography and Black feminist ethics.




Through layered visual displays, Ewe people in Togo map histories of cultural exchange with Indian merchants and African Muslims onto contemporary social relations. Some communities perform memories of trade with Indian merchants through festival arts that embody Hindu chromolithograph images as depictions of local water spirits. Practitioners also produce living histories of domestic slavery during vivid rituals honoring a family of slave spirits called Mama Tchamba. Since they remember their enslaved ancestors as practicing Muslims captured in northern Togo, practitioners exaggerate Muslim aesthetics as they dance adorned with fez hats and sequined scarves imported from “the North.” Festooned with meaning-clad layers of beads and bracelets, dancers march across open-air home courtyards and festival grounds to connect themselves to histories of trade and forced migration. Bringing dance studies into conversation with African and African Diaspora art history, this research frames the “body as altar,” a living archive of accumulated objects and adornments. These lavish embodiments illustrate the interplay of the performers’ identities with the lives of sacred objects and the images through which Togolese communities fashion transoceanic and interethnic dialogues.