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Organized in partnership with the University of Aix-Marseille (France), the international virtual conference ‘Showcasing’ Empires: The Legacy of Colonialism on Post-Imperial Societies took place between 18 and 19 February 2021, exploring the legacy and impact of colonialism and empire.

Opening slide of conference showing conference title

This virtual conference organised by two PhD researchers from the Department of Modern Languages (Sara Mechkarini and Dega Sian Rutherford), under the guidance of Dr Berny Sèbe, was timely, set against the backdrop of a critical global moment that is beginning to acknowledge the impact, reality, and legacy of imperial history for understanding current politics, the significance of colonial monuments and street names and the toxic legacies of discriminatory legislation and colonial administration. Ca. 200 people attended the conference from about twenty different countries in the UK & Europe, North America, Africa and Asia.

The keynote speeches by Professor Charles Forsdick (University of Liverpool) and Professor Gilles Teulié (Aix-Marseille Université) offered a strong conceptual and empirical framework to the discussions, conveying thought-provoking questions about concepts, definitions and practices. Drawing upon the findings of his recently published book Postcolonial Realms of Memory: Sites and Symbols in Modern France (Liverpool University Press, 2020), Professor Forsdick interrogated the ways in which the afterlives of empire often cannot be understood in terms of stable, linear, homogenizing concepts such as ‘legacy’. He provided an overview of some of the alternative figures adopted to describe what comes after colonialism in post-imperial societies, including the concepts of spectrality, ruination and ‘memory-traces’. In contrast to Professor Forsdick, who focused more on images of ruins and colonial relics, Prof. Teulié used colonial-time imagery, such as cartoons, caricatures, and picture postcards, to examine how visual production was not only a form of social expression but also a tool of propaganda. Focusing on picture postcards, he demonstrated how these constituted part and parcel of the European imperial project and argued that the ideologies it represented could be innocently sent to friends and relatives without the sender even being aware of participating in that project.

During its first day, the conference examined how imperial legacies were showcased in urban space, writing and artistic display. Panel 1 questioned the impact and meaning of architecture in the imperial landscape, the importance of cartography when it comes to the occupation of indigenous space and the ways in which naval architecture was used to facilitate the expansion of the British Empire abroad. Speakers on panel 2 explored how the empire was visualised in writing and imagery using a range of historical sources, such as: missionary publications, photographs, letters of the British in India, artwork, and non-fiction writing. The discussion following each panel centred around the contemporary legacy of empire and its visual relics.  

The second day considered the fictional, political, and economic representations of empire. Presenters on the first panel analysed coloniality, hybridity, and subalternity in post-colonial literature, while the second panel focused on the legacies of empire when it comes to independence, neo-colonialism, and citizenship law. It also shed light on how imperial nostalgia has shaped and influenced today’s political and social landscapes in many countries.

The conference explored the historiographical opportunities offered by the performance and representation of various empires throughout history, and the impact they have had on the cultural and political practices of ex-colonies and ex-metropoles. It promoted academic exchange on questions relating to a variety of imperial powers in an interdisciplinary context, and the interplay between the colonial past, the ‘post-colonial’ present, and its mediated nature, sat at the heart of this event.

The conference concluded with an Early Career Researcher (ECR) Roundtable featuring Dr Antonia Wimbush (Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, The University of Liverpool), Dr Maria Roca Lizarazu (Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, The University of Birmingham), Dr Hany Rashwan (Postdoctoral Researcher, The University of Birmingham), and Dr Adom Philogene Heron (Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London). In this roundtable discussion, the four scholars spoke about what they did following their PhD and helped to illuminate some of the next steps following PhD study such as publishing a monograph, applying for a postdoctoral fellowship, and the potential obstacles PhD graduates may face in academia.

Funded by the University of Birmingham’s College of Arts and Law Postgraduate PGR Development Fund, the Graduate School for Europe (GCFE) and Midlands4Cities, this conference will give rise to a Special Issue of the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History examining the legacy of imperialism on colonial and post-colonial societies.