Professor Françoise Lionnet (Photo by Rebecca Kendall)
New African Studies Center director seeks to dispel stereotypes
As the newest director of UCLA’s James S. Coleman African Studies Center, and the first woman to hold the position in the center’s 52 year history, Professor Françoise Lionnet is eager to build upon the center’s successes and expand in new directions.
When Americans hear the word “Africa,” what often comes to mind are images of famine, war and abject poverty — the picture that mainstream media have long painted of Africa as a desolate continent. But Professor Françoise Lionnet wants to balance this with depictions of the region’s rich history and culture, diverse populations, abundant natural resources and technological advances.
“The whole continent is changing very quickly, and I think it’s hard sometimes for people in America to wrap their heads around that,” said Lionnet. A professor of comparative literature and women’s studies, Lionnet was recently named new director of UCLA’s James S. Coleman African Studies Center
— the first woman to hold the position in the center’s 52-year history.
The African Studies Center is one of the oldest and most distinguished research, teaching and outreach centers in the United States. It brings together faculty in the sciences, social sciences and humanities with expertise encompassing North Africa, the Sahara, Senegal, Nigeria, Cameroon, the Congo, Kenya, South Africa and the Southwestern Indian Ocean.
Lionnet’s interests in African culture began during her childhood growing up in Mauritius, a small island nation of some 1.2 million people in the Mascarene region of the Southwestern Indian Ocean. The country has a long history of occupation by a succession of Arab, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British settlers, along with the descendants of African slaves, Indian workers and Chinese traders. Lionnet attended school with children from a wide range of ethnic cultural and religious backgrounds. She recalled reading, in French translation, “Light in August,” — William Faulkner’s novel about racial conflict in America’s Antebellum South — with a sense of revelation.
“It was the very first representation of colonial plantation culture and its complicated heritage that I had ever read,” she said. Mauritus, she noted, had its own blight of bringing African slaves to the island under French rule. While slavery was abolished in 1835, the large plantation owners brought Indian migrants to the island to work the land as indentured servants. “But none of the French-language authors we were studying in school covered such topics,” she recalled.
Lionnet completed her undergraduate work in American studies and philosophy at the University of Aix-en-Provence, the second oldest university in France and home to the French colonial archives. She earned a master’s degree in English and a Ph.D. in comparative literature — including African-American literature — at the University of Michigan. Lionnet joined UCLA in 1998 as chair of the French Department, which she helped transform into the Department of French and Francophone Studies. She also served as interim associate dean of the UCLA International Institute
and director of its Global Fellows
program, as well as co-director of the UCLA Mellon Postdoctoral Program
Cultures in Transnational Perspective.
In her new post as African Studies Center director, Lionnet is eager to build upon the center’s successes — which include the respected journal African Arts
and the Marcus Garvey Papers
— and expand in new directions. Among her goals: to develop programs on African cinema and enable students, through instruction in African languages, to work with the UCLA Library’s extraordinary collection of ancient manuscripts from the Ethiopian and Eritrean regions. She also wants to create collaborative initiatives that will help prepare the next generation of women leaders in Africa.
Raising visibility for the cultures of the African diaspora and promoting a better understanding of the continent’s literature, culture and the visual arts have been at the heart of Lionnet’s career.
“I’ve always been involved in African studies wherever I’ve taught,” she said. “In my writing and teaching, I navigate the global contours of colonialism — looking at historical dynamics from Africa to India and Europe.
“It’s fascinating to see how ideas travel, how people who have either been forced to travel or freely chosen to do so have been able to influence — if at times surreptitiously — the cultures within which they have found themselves,” she said. “African culture, broadly understood, survives all over the world today.”
Published: Tuesday, November 08, 2011