The idea of tropicalism was to use cultural analysis to uncover what we and our places have in common with each other – the values of the tropics if you like. Through building linkages across the tropics, we can learn what works and adapt it to our places.
The idea of the ‘tropics” was created by Europeans. A German named Humboldt, exploring South America, created what we might call infographics showing how there were common natural features across the tropics. In my writing, I argue that all Western writing sees the tropics either as a paradise of empowerment (Bali Ha’i from James Mitchener’s South Sea Tales) or as a hell of personal destruction (Heart of Darkness, after Joseph Conrad) and I explore how these two images play out in colonial literature, such as here and here.
As indigenous writers, artists and architects have emerged in tropical countries post-independence, they have sought to create an independent art movement, often tied up with nationalism, most developed in Brazil with tropicalia, but seen all over the tropics. This peaked in the 1960s and 70s – the golden era of tropical culture, before the subsequent collapse of many developing world economies. I try and explore how these people bring together traditional knowledge, colonial trauma, and modern ideas to create new identities and expressions, such as Sapeurs in the Congo or Phantom shields in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.
Within these movements, too, horizonal exchange has occurred and does occur, such as Cuba’s influence on the creation of mbalax music in Senegal and the Gambia, and vodou religion in Haiti originating from Benin. In the Pacific, cultural exchange has a much longer history, from the Indonesian origins of Malagasy culture to the Hindu religion in Bali . If anything horizontal cultural exchange is less frequent than before and we still largely look to temperate cultures for meaning, even to understand ourselves.
Do you have examples of horizontal cultural exchange within the tropics that you are interested in sharing? What does “the tropics? mean to you? If this is of interest, please get in touch.