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Africa Embracing Obama

Exhibit of Obama souvenirs, art, music and publications shows history in the making

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November 16, 2010 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- David Easterbrook began gathering the Obama-related souvenirs, crafts and products he saw popping up in the marketplaces of sub-Saharan Africa in 2007 -- long before most Americans thought Obama had a shot at the presidency. Starting Nov. 15, a Northwestern University exhibition drawn from a collection of 500 items from 31 countries documents the enthusiasm, pride and hope with which Africa has embraced Obama.

“From its commemorative cloths and comic books to its musical tributes and magical masks, the ‘Africa Embracing Obama’ exhibit illustrates the extraordinary cultural output and grassroots creativity that Obama has inspired,” says Easterbrook, curator of Northwestern's world-renowned Herskovits Library of African Studies.

Visiting Africa in the summer of 2007, Easterbrook noticed a distinct change when he told cabdrivers that he lived in Chicago. “No longer did they bring up Michael Jordan,” Easterbrook says. “Everybody, everywhere was talking about Barack Obama.”

“You couldn’t miss the Obama industry that was proliferating across the continent,” says Easterbrook, who envisioned an important and unusual historical collection. “The use of the Obama image on products there isn’t just about making money. It’s also about a message of hope that Obama’s life story bestows on many Africans.”

As curator of the world’s largest collection for the study of Africa, Easterbrook put out the word to scholars and others in or visiting Africa to send him posters, artwork, music, books and objects inspired by Obama. Materials poured into the Herskovits Library. “Never before had so many people so eagerly collected for the library,” Easterbrook says.

“Africa Embracing Obama” includes the best, most interesting and “quirkiest” of this profusion of items. Among recent arrivals are Obama bubblegum and lollipops from Kenya and Obama cookies from Ghana. A part of the exhibit focuses on publications and objects that highlight the historical connections between Obama’s ties to Africa and Northwestern’s Program of African Studies.

The exhibit on Northwestern’s Evanston campus showcases publications, beadwork, jewelry, textiles, lapel pins, key rings, fans, greeting cards, hats, T-shirts, posters and even a line of beer. CDs and DVDs of music, dances and performances created in tribute to the president, widely viewed as Africa’s native son, also are featured.

A Luo-language book written by Obama’s Kenyan father and acquired by the Herskovits Library 50 years ago “demonstrates a continuity of community activism between the elder Obama and his son,” Easterbrook says. The rare book by the senior Obama promoted literacy and good farming practices. It is believed to be one of only two remaining copies in the world.

Collecting more than text has been a mission of the Herkovits Library from its inception in 1954. Posters, textiles, artworks, pamphlets and the like help contextualize African society, says Easterbrook. As a result, scholars in the Program of African Studies understand that when they go to Africa, they also collect for the library.

“Africa Embracing Obama” will be displayed on the first floor of Northwestern University Library, 1970 Campus Drive, and (in the same building) in the Herskovits Library on the fifth floor of Northwestern University Library’s East Tower. The free and public exhibition will be open during regular library hours and run through March 24.

For further information, call (847) 467-5918.