Jam in the Dark (performance clips), Larry Achiampong, 19 March 2016.

Mohammed Mizanur Rashid

Diaspora Art and Critical Making: Critical Conversations, Collaborative Affordances, and World-building Possibilities


The consequential significance of Diaspora Art has been exponentially rising in the last few decades and it goes without saying that most of it has stemmed from the tension, phenomena and grand narratives surrounding migration and diaspora from all around the world. Artists who produce Diaspora Art may or may not have direct or indirect experiences of events that cause diaspora, such as – political instability, civil war, terrorism, ethnic cleansing etc., but the collective experience of geographic relocation by the diasporic communities shape and counter shape artistic and aesthetic practices in certain ways. In this paper, I will be focusing on Critical Making and Makerspace practices to perceive how these particular practices may be of potential value to Diaspora Artists. Influenced by Matt Ratto’s conceptualization of Critical Making as a situated field in the intersections of critical thinking and goal-based physical work, this paper will not only excavate the potential affordances of Critical Making to formulate and construct meaningful and more affective Diaspora Art, but will also propose certain maker-practices that will presage future possibilities of forming harmonious world communities.

Keywords: Diaspora Art, Critical Making, Makerspace practices, World-building.

Diaspora Art and Critical Making

For decades, Diaspora Art has been functioning as a cultural and creative bridge between artists, the diaspora community, their homeland, their culture, and their dispersed family members along with questioning normative narratives about their identities and lived experiences. Although diasporic events are as old as history itself, Diaspora Art as an institutional convention and movement is relatively recent. From the artworks and writings of Ronald Brooks Kitaj to the sculptures of Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli and the installations of more contemporary diaspora artists like Yinka Shonibare, ideas of alienation, dislocation, journey, memory, alternate histories and liberty continue to find themselves being depicted and gestured towards through creative practices in a world where these ideas remain more important than ever before. The two-pronged argument of this article however, is less about how artworks and artistic expressions through different mediums facilitate an understanding of diasporic experiences of the artist, and more about how the contemporary turn towards ‘Critical Making’ facilitate a whole new dimension for Diaspora Art to thrive off and function in more meaningful ways. After providing a brief understanding of what Critical Making is, and what evaluative edge it may offer conventional diasporic artistic practices, this article elaborately allocates two areas of affordances substantiated by ‘critically making’ Diaspora Art. While the benefit and comfort of diaspora artists incorporating the ‘critical making’ aspect to their work are up for debates, it can be positively argued that the diaspora art itself will receive new possibilities, trajectories and aspects to its already multifaceted layers of interpretations and meaning making. The other part of the bifurcated argument, draws attention to the fact that the practice of ‘critically making’ diaspora art is not only necessary, but is already in practice with magnificent outcomes and effects but can be further stretched through interactive and collaborative enactments. Due to Critical Making’s explicit indulgence towards scholarly research, not only on social and historical issues, but also on its design principles prior to the materialization of any project, each project or installation becomes a critical piece bolstered by unique conceptual understandings and reinforced by constructive material perfection (Ratto 2011, 253). The Diasporic Art, made through critical making practices, therefore becomes more consequential and purposeful. In this regard, looking closely at two different contemporary projects, the article traces Critical Making attributes within the diaspora art piece and analyzes its conceptual validity, material significance and potential for world building. The two projects that are mobilized as examples to better understand this paper’s arguments are - British-Ghanaian artist and sound sculptor Larry Achiampong’s sound-sculpture “Jam in the Dark”, and a collaborative arts installation titled “Words Matter”, organized by Fashioning Circuits, a public humanities project led by Kim Knight, which investigates into wearable media, technologies, its socio-cultural and political reverberations, histories of computational craft, and soft activism.

In his 2011 article titled ‘Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life’, Matt Ratto traces the importance and inception of Critical Making as a mode of knowledge production, acquisition and dissemination. Gesturing towards the disconnect between the conceptual understanding and the material experiences we have with our everyday technological objects, Ratto claims that in order to have a more thorough understanding of our technology, we must indulge ourselves in the process of making them. Providing personal experiences from two different workshops where he and the audience strive towards making technological objects and examining the affordances and limitations that emerge from them, Ratto claims that the goal of these labors is not to achieve a perfect technical product or object at the end of each making experience, but the experience itself and the knowledge, critique and reflection which the experience facilitates, is what should be deemed as more important. Defining Critical Making in the intersections of critical thinking and physical making, Ratto focuses on three stages which are crucial when it comes to the practice of Critical Making – first, the review and compilation of relevant concepts and theories in relation to the project, second, the collaborative production venture of individuals to design and make prototypes, and third, the repetitive process of reconfiguration, conversation, and reflection to analyze alternate possibilities and come up with the most suited outcome (Ratto 2011, 253). As we can see from the systematic process of Critical Making, the importance is clearly on the process of making and the conversations and reflections that stem from it, rather than the object that is being created. This is of course an anti-reductionist way of understanding the value of both technological and/or artistic objects that we produce and tries to build a bridge to reconnect the disengagement between the object and its participants. The topic of engagement readily becomes important for both the Diaspora Artist and the participants or observers of that art. Additionally, Ratto brings up and the idea of ‘individual investment’ as a key component to explain how participants feel a kind of estrangement without it. Although Ratto’s primary ideas revolve around technological objects, scientific practices of knowledge production and our understandings of them in day-to-day life, I argue that certain components of the arguments can be attributed to the critical making of Diaspora Art as well. This compliments the conceptualization of how any piece of artistic production can be taken up and experienced through acts of active engagement rather than passive exploration. Since Diaspora Art is so often depicting affective lived experiences, they must be considered as ‘matters of concern’ rather than ‘matters of fact’ (Latour and Weibel 2005, 19) and therefore the facilitation of the participant’s conceptual and material engagement can open new trajectories of identifications and involvements with any piece of artistic production. Under these impressions, I identify two potential areas of affordances, which will allow Diaspora Artists to not only facilitate a more actively engaging environment for aestheticians and art enthusiasts through their work, but will also allow an empathetic and compassionate response in relation to the subject matter, rather than generating passive sympathy.

The first affordance that I identify is in relation to makerspace practices and community building. One of the major issues related to the concept of Diaspora that directly translates into Diaspora Art through the artist is the idea of alienation. Estrangement is at the very core of Diaspora Art and a very general perspective allows us to see that it has become a universal topic with which Diaspora Artists grapple, through their artistic endeavors. Often times, the contemporary Diaspora Artist faces a crisis while being indulged in the process of art making – to overcome the coupling of diaspora art from historic art or cultural art. Jacqueline Francis, while speaking about African Diaspora Art claims –

For much of the twentieth century, African art and African American Art designated objects to be studies, collected, and displayed, and these headings gained traction in many sectors of the cultural economy, from museums and auction houses to university syllabi and dedicated publications. Yet African diaspora art, and especially the conceptualization of what it is and what it does, has involved a set of operations that are different from those put in motion by African art and African American art, both profitably rooted in chronology, geography, and history. In the present, the distinctiveness of “African diaspora art” lies not only in what it embraces and lays claim to, but also in its “being and becoming” a field, a practice, and a narrative (Francis 2013, 406-407).

This assertion that resonates Stuart Hall’s concept of understanding cultural identity as a matter of ‘becoming’ and not only a limited matter of ‘being’, gestures towards a gradual development of Diaspora Art as a discipline with its own scopes, domains, specializations and institutions. There have been scholarly and institutional attempts to establish Diaspora Art as an art category to some extent in certain places of the globe. Yet, in order to extensively and intimately establish it as a permanent approach of intellectual and cultural mode of practice and knowledge production and dissemination, there is a need to introduce makerspace and public humanities practices within its domains. While collaborative makerspace practices remain as one of the core components of Critical Making, entangling it with Diaspora Art practices will precipitate communities that actively involve themselves not only in Diaspora Art making practices but also in reflecting and critiquing them to various ends. That is to say, the practice of Diaspora Art making through community and makerspace practices not only refers to Diaspora Artists coming together and practicing their trade in a shared space but also gestures towards active participation practices from the different publics of a certain geographic location who do not necessarily belong to or identify themselves as the diaspora community. Additionally, active participation here, following Ratto’s concept of critical making, is defined as acts of engagement that not necessarily ensures the making of an artistic object, but aspire towards facilitating critical conversations and reflections regarding Diaspora Art. As a result, a community will emerge which will not be carrying the burden of disconnect between conceptual understandings of the art and the material making of it, ultimately promoting shared affectual experiences and communal senses of compassion. The collaborative arts installation titled ‘Words Matter’ is a very fruitful example here. The installation is a collection of ten material artworks that deploy a range of domestic technologies, computational craft, and physical computing to address ten different words from the English dictionary, which over time, have developed complex meanings that often need to be grappled with. Impelled by 2017 media reports that the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) prohibited seven words from appearing in budgeting proposals, and later reports that noted these words as possible red flags from reviewers, the collaborative installation strived to foreground the materiality of language through designing particular words in physical form. The reported prohibition of words like diversity, fetus, entitlement, transgender, vulnerable, science-based and evidence-based pointed towards a political censorship, which was widely criticized. Inspired from these events, the ‘Words Matter’ project thrived to provide material shape to particular words and the objective was quite eloquent in the words of Faculty Advisor to Fashioning Circuits and lead collaborator of the project, Dr. Kim Knight –

It is our hope that remediating words, often considered ephemeral, into these material forms will prompt viewers to consider the materialities of language and censorship. We assert through this installation that words are not just important; words matter.[i]

While the entire art-installation was collaborative in nature, three individual artworks could be categorized as Diaspora Art. In the shape of a Tetris game that not only crystallized, but also tackled ‘immigration’ issues around the world, an interactive fabric piece which uses embroidery and LED screens to deconstruct normative understandings of the word ‘oriental’ through the practice of Turkish coffee reading, and recreating an ancient book which searches for alternative histories to the genesis of the word ‘thug’ from the time of colonial south Asia, three artworks were not only given form in a collaborative makerspace, but also embodied characteristics of Diaspora Art in multifaceted ways. With the artists coming from a diverse background, the concepts of home and identity were very much a part of their individual projects. Evoking strong emotions and questioning normative experiences and practices of the diaspora, the artworks were a result of ‘critical making’ in a shared workspace. In this space, the makers benefitted from the collaboration, idea-pitching, in-process reactions from other makers and collaborators of the workspace, providing constructive feedback that shaped the artworks in its own unique way. What these critical conversations and collaborations contribute in the overall growth of both the artwork and the artist is not only important, but also essential in terms of what Diaspora Art wants to achieve. Since these practices emphasize on the continuous collaborative and creative process of making the project rather than the product made, each decision made going into each step of the design process addresses an interwoven web of social customs and ideological power structures to make transparent the inherent and implicit politics of class, gender, color, identity and representation [ii] (Kafai and Peppler 2014, 179). Furthermore, as we will concentrate at a later stage of the paper, the ultimate objective for these conversations and interactions can lead to a potential for shaping a community that is all-inclusive, that shares the same communal empathy, and is integrated by a heightened sensitivity of understanding, tolerance and care.

Situating Diaspora Art within the fringes of Makerspaces has another benefit. Because of the collaborative and playful nature of Makerspaces, the art that is being generated enjoys a sense of imaginative diversity. Rather than being designed by one outlook from start to finish, the art that is made in shared spaces have the advantage of being critiqued by many perspectives and because it is open to the public while in the process of being made, artists know beforehand how their art is being received and interpreted by the public. The interactions promise multiple opportunities for the artists to look through the lens of the public and consecutively adjust or readjust the trajectory of their own artistic vision. Therefore, the protean characteristics of the Makerspace allows for constant reflection and development whereas the more rigid captivity of a piece of art being generated in isolation remains uniform and insipid. Coming back to the example of the Words Matter project, each artist of the collaborative installation worked on their projects not in isolation, but in a shared communal space, that is Fashioning Circuits. During the process of making, the artists asked one another for constructive feedback on a design choice they are about to make, or a material decision, which soon needs to be addressed. Additionally, since the space was not limited to the artists alone, people not responsible for the making of these projects also contributed through remarks, feedbacks, and interpretations. All of these practices assisted in shaping the creativity of these artists in multitudinous ways. Jeremy Boggs write about how Makerspace practices help coalesce traits of creativity, critical thinking and exploration and promote purposeful tinkering –

One goal of the Makerspace is to critique those pre-built systems, but also consciously reflect on how making changes our perspectives. The aim, then, is not tinkering for tinkering’s sake (Boggs et. al. 2018, 324).

While this approach towards ‘messing about’ is reminiscent of Anne Balsamo’s concept of the role of tinkering in knowledge production as she proposes her manifesto on the importance of design and doing things differently to achieve ‘intentional future-making’ and world building (Balsamo 2011, 6) in her book Designing Culture, one cannot but contemplate on the potential affordances these collaborative practices might have in-stored for Diaspora Art. Therefore, my conceptualization of the second affordance of Diaspora Art is about making both the art and its process of making matter, to build a better world community indulged in solidarity.

The second affordance is in regards to the art making process and its potential for social change and community healing. As far as traditional Diaspora Art is concerned, much of the importance is conferred towards the finished product. It is only when the piece of artwork is set on the walls of a museum or an art gallery that people come into contact with it, appreciate, critique and learn from it. For Diaspora Art, this is not enough. Since Diaspora Art has always been about an embodiment of past memories, lived experiences and formidable journeys of either the artist or certain diasporic communities, the processual aspect of the art has a lot more to offer in terms of knowledge production, than we currently understand. Rather than discrete events portrayed through their artwork, Diaspora artists may document the entire process of generating and making the artwork with all of its details and informative evidences. This is particularly important given how contemporary societies prefer and aggrandize digitally mediated artworks and critical makings. The merge between Web 2.0 technologies and social networking sites have opened new possibilities for cooperative art making practices where artists can exhibit their work, share resources, knowledge and skills through online interaction allowing an environment of collaborative growth through constructive criticism and feedback (Orton-Johnson 2014, 141). This technologically fueled communicative turn must be used for the benefit of the artist by getting the best out for their artwork. Since the documentation of the art-making processes are accessible to online publics and counter-publics, there is the prospect of those publics to experience not only the aesthetics of the finished product but also the affective labor that goes into the making of the art. The patient buildup of the artwork from scratch provides the audience a very different experience than just looking or interacting with the finished artwork. The detailed skills that go into the making process beginning from the conceptualization of the work to the final stage of its becoming is indeed an emancipatory experience for not only the artist but also the viewers of the documentation. Coupled with the artist’s interview that explicate the finer details, influences, motivations and affectual conditions that go into a piece of Diaspora Art, the documentation of the entire process of making the artwork adds immense value towards its eventual goal – bringing about positive social change and constructive and collaborative world building. It is here that I would like to understand Diaspora Art practices through the concept of Steve Mann’s ‘Maktivism’ and proclaim what Diaspora Art can potentially achieve. Steve Mann defines –

Maktivism is not just making things that change/preserve/save the world/planet. A Maktivist is a maker who is authentic – not a poseur or someone just following a trend or doing it for money, to get tenure, or to be popular. A maktivist has a high degree of personal involvement and commitment in the existemological (existential epistemology i.e., ‘learning by being’) sense (Mann 2014, 29).

While authentic making and remaking of technology for the greater good of humankind is the main focal point for Steve Mann’s proposition [iii], it can be readily translated into the practice of incorporating technological tools in the making of Diaspora Art. Even if technological tools are not used in the process of making Diaspora Art, the premises still hold true because, although tinkering with technology provides a wide array of possibilities for the Diaspora Artist, the primary objective of Diaspora Art is bringing constructive social change where the artist is motivated not by extrinsic aspects of money, fame etc. but by intrinsic inspirations of establishing identity, equality, eradicating oppression, world building and community healing to name a few. Diaspora Artists are indeed what Steve Mann calls social makers – people who make things for social change and as such, they should conceptualize, create, document, showcase, reflect, revamp, preserve and celebrate not only the art that they have created but the entire process of that creation – there is a lot of value there.

A brief example of what Diaspora Art has to offer when it incorporates the affordances of makerspace practices and process documentations mentioned earlier, can be understood from the sound sculpture created by Larry Achiampong, titled ‘Jam in the Dark’ (Achiampong 2019) [iv]. The artwork is portrayed as a revolt against traditional understandings of class, hierarchy and privilege, ideas that are often grappled by Diaspora Artists. While the entire artwork is an experience of sound and performed in absolute darkness, one cannot but realize the importance of collaborative interaction between the audience and the musicians throughout the entire installation. Along with the performative aspect of the artwork, what becomes even more powerful and meaningful is the documentation of not only the performance but also the build up to it. Surely, while the audience is experiencing the three-hour long sound sculpture, it is a one of a kind interaction in and of itself, but the documentation of it using thermal imaging technology provides more layers of critical scholarship to the work. Additionally, the piece of artwork is a product of collaboration and cooperation between the artist, musicians and audiences who all need to perform at the same time to bring the piece of artwork to life. Documenting not only the performance but also, the process of making these kinds of artworks in collaborative makerspaces allows the public to come into contact with the playful nature and imaginative diversity that goes into the makings of such works, not only in shared physical spaces but also in virtual realms of the internet. As more people are exposed to the process of making the artwork along with the artwork itself, the closer diaspora artists can get to their goal of representing their culture and identity along with establishing alternative narratives based on their lived experiences and appeal to the intellectual and affective domain of the audience. It is particularly productive in this instance, to think through how arts installations such as these not only address the issues diaspora experience, cultural resistance, and representational identity, but also community healing, bonding and growth. Keeping the arguments of Otto Von Busch [v] in mind, that we must not only evaluate our artwork in terms of its aesthetic value alone, but also according to its merits and affordances towards shaping resistances against oppressive forces (Von Busch 2004, 77), I argue, that the public should be allowed to experience the entire process of making such artworks directly as lived experiences rather than through mediated forms of documentation, to further feel the raw essence and identify the inspirations felt by the artists while making the piece of art itself. These direct contacts allow for a much deeper understanding of Diaspora experiences and go a long way towards building a more empathetic social community. I will go as far as to say that if possible, the public audience should be allowed to interact with the art-making process, and not only with the finished artwork, that enables a true synthesis between the diaspora artist, the art which is in the process of creation and the interactors, potential audience who interact with the piece of art in the process of being made. As far as community building and world-making potentials of Diaspora Art is concerned, audience involvement and interaction with the art in the process of becoming, at least in the Deleuzian sense, has endless possibilities.


[i] Dr. Kim Knight, Conversation with the author, January 25, 2019.

[ii] Kafai and Peppler’s theorization of the potential of critical making and collaborative design choices that lead to a transparent understanding of social injustices can serve as a very important point of reference for Diaspora Artists insofar as they are also interested in questioning the politics and traditional assumptions of the relationalities between home, journey, identity, representation, and so on and so forth.

[iii] On the same page with Betsy Greer’s definition of ‘Craftivism’, Steve Mann, in his chapter titled ‘Maktivism: Authentic Making for Technology in the Services of Humanity’, also identifies Maktivism in the intersections of Critical Making and Social Activism. He also defines what the term can potentially mean for practicing and upcoming makers. He defines the term as a movement and culture of not only making things from the perspective of conserving the planet but also work that stems from specific makers – makers whose tendencies or drives do not generate from utilitarian or earthly benefits.

[iv] British-Ghanaian Diaspora Artist Larry Achiampong’s performative sound sculpture ‘Jam in the Dark’ was installed in 2016. In a conversation with representatives from Studio Achiampong, about the practices of diaspora art, the importance of community healing took the spotlight. Community healing is of course, one of the many collaborative possibilities of Critical Making.

[v] Otto Von Busch in ‘Crafting Resistance’ defines resistance as ‘the craft of two hands’, and through foregrounding Mahatma Gandhi’s acts of resistance exemplified through the spinning of ‘khadi’ and the ‘Salt March’, eloquently portrays the importance of craft culture in bringing actual interventions within a nation’s struggle of resistance.


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About the Author

Mohammed Mizanur Rashid is a PhD student of Arts, Technology and Emerging Communication (ATEC) at the University of Texas at Dallas. His research interests are situated at the intersections of Media Literacy, Social Justice and Critical Making. Currently, he is working as a Research Assistant at the Laboratory of Media Psychology (LaMP) within the school of ATEC.

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