This panel focusses on African cities before 1900, examining through an interdisciplinary approach how political power is materially embodied and symbolically staged in the urban space through a variety of architectural interventions, visual representations, discourses and cultural practices.
Well before the emergence of contemporary capitals and metropolitan areas, Africa experienced a vast array of urban forms. City-States as well as capitals and other major centres of empires and kingdoms constitute promising fields of inquiry to examine the relations between urban spaces and the exercise of power in earlier periods. Political powers perform regulative functions with regard to social interactions, economic transactions as well as to cultural and religious life. Hence, they contribute to shape cities in both material and symbolic terms. At the same time, political elites tend to use urban spaces to stage themselves and to assert their legitimacy, deploying architectural interventions, visual representations, discourses and ritual/ceremonial practices. Our panel will focus on cities in continental and insular Africa prior to 1900 in order to explore scenographies of political power. By investigating written, oral, archaeological, visual and artistic sources and discussing both interregional and intercontinental exchanges, it will examine the embodiment of political power in places such as royal courts, religious buildings, public squares, markets, etc. Thereby, the panel will tackle the strategies enacted to represent - or to contest - the legitimacy and continuity of social order in urban contexts which are structurally characterized by economic and migratory dynamics fuelling (potentially destabilizing) processes of social change. In this sense, it aims at analysing the stratified semantics of urban landscapes as results of conflicts and negotiations between a multiplicity of social groups and institutional actors.