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Annie Coombes

Today, it is my great honour to welcome Annie Coombes to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

Annie Elena Stuart Coombes has been central to our Birkbeck community for 34 years as a distinguished member of the Department of History of Art and the founding Director of the Peltz Gallery. It was at Birkbeck that she forged a powerful reputation for her scholarship in the fields of visual and material culture, museum studies, public memory, heritage, conflict resolution, colonialism, and decolonisation. Given that Coombes' chief geographical expertise focusses on Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and so-called 'settler' societies, it is not surprising to note that, from her first week at Birkbeck, she set about revolutionising its curriculum. Today, all British universities have recognised the urgent need to decolonise the curriculum but, in 1988, this was a truly radical proposition and one that Coombes threw herself into with intellectual rigour, emotional ardour, and pedagogic foresight. We owe her a huge debt of gratitude for her contributions to this ongoing mission.

Who is Annie Coombes? She was born in Munster (Germany) to a father from Gibraltar of mixed English/Spanish descent and a mother from Glasgow, of Irish Catholic, Mediterranean, and Scottish descent. Her father's army postings meant that she spent much of her childhood in the U.S. and Europe although her main home as an adult has been London. Her parents had a passion for art – particularly the art of East Asia and non-European regions. They also instilled in Coombes a curiosity for other cultures. She spent time travelling around Israel and, in 1981, volunteered for a job teaching in the Shendi and Kassala Secondary Schools for Girls in the Sudan. Even today, the Sudan has one of the highest rates of out-of-school children in the entire Middle East and North African regions. It has a female literacy rate of only 39 per cent. Coombes arrived on the eve of the 1983 civil war, which exposed the devastating tensions created as a result of colonialism. This civil war was one of the longest on record, with a civilian death toll that is widely believed to be one of the highest in any war since 1945. Teaching young girls in such unstable and precarious contexts was a formative experience. Prior to this period, Coombes had planned a rather conventional art historical career, but her time in the Sudan (and elsewhere) provided her with new ways of thinking about the world around her.

This was reflected in her chosen field of advanced study. She completed a PhD in 1987 at the University of East Anglia, with a thesis entitled 'The Representation of Africa and the African in England 1890-1913'. This led to a job at Portsmouth University, where she set up a feminist performance group called 'The Rubber Glove Collective'. The Collective included Greyson Perry (the artist known for his ceramic vases and tapestries) who took her module in Performance Art, and John Akomfrah, founding member of 1982 Black Audio Film Collective. Posts at the University of Leicester, Middlesex University, and University College London followed. But it was at Birkbeck that she found her true home. In 1988, she was employed as a lecturer and quickly rose through the ranks to become a full Professor of Material and Visual Culture by 2004.

Diversity in intellectual thought and practice characterise Coombs' career. She communicates her ideas in substantive monographs, edited collections (I counted seven), chapters in edited books (22), articles in refereed journals (14), television and radio programmes, podcasts, and exhibitions.
Honours and awards have rained down upon her. Her monograph Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (published in 1994) was awarded an Honourable Mention in the Arnold Rubin Outstanding Publications Award of the Art Council of the African Studies Association in the U.S. It remains an indispensable study of British constructions of Africa, exposing (in the words of one reviewer) the 'cultural pathologies of colonial power'. Another one of her monographs, entitled History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa, was launched by none other than Neville Alexander, anti-apartheid revolutionary who spent ten years on Robben Island as a prisoner alongside Nelson Mandela. The book was awarded the 2004 Book Award from the National Council on Public History. As one reviewer noted, Coombes is 'one of those gifted intellectuals who combine authority and analytical precision with obvious pleasure and excitement about the subject'. Or, as another said, it is 'exquisitely detailed, ethically engaged, theoretically consequential', ensuring that it 'will delight readers'.

Coombes has spilled much ink analyzing the role of museums in forwarding a popular ideology of imperialism, criticizing what she calls the 'museological process of othering', and lamenting the way Black women have been largely written out of the anti-apartheid struggle. She has reflected on the need to remember brutal and painful histories without rekindling the very divisions which led to this state of affairs. Along with Avtar Brah (another distinguished Birkbeck Professor), she writes of the need to recognize hybridity as a 'key concept in cultural criticism, in post-colonial studies, in debates about cultural contestation and appropriation, and in relation to the concept of the border and the ideal of cosmopolitanism.'

Museums are one of Coombes' passions. Since early childhood, they have exerted an irresistible force on her. It is an 'enduring obsession' she shares with her parents and partner, Nicholas Thomas, Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Collaborative and advisory roles in museums internationally have been a major part of Coombes' life. These include, amongst many others, work in Kenya with grassroots Community Peace Museums exploring their role in conflict resolution after periods of violence, as well as work with the British Museum, the Wellcome Trust, Pompidou Centre, Barbican Art Gallery, Tate Modern, the V&A, and the Edo Museum of West African Art. She has collaborated in helping to develop new museums in Senegal, Togo, and Nigeria.

2013 was a very important year for Birkbeck. This was the year Coombes founded the Peltz Gallery at 43 Gordon Square. Her dogged commitment can be illustrated by noting that she has overseen over 47 exhibitions at the Peltz Gallery despite the fact that English Heritage don't allow the gallery to put screws in the walls! The Gallery has not only fostered productive exchanges between artists and academics but, just as importantly, has encouraged visitors to reflect on some of the most important issues of our time, including genocide, exile, asylum, and the epistemic violence of colonialism. As all this suggests, Coombes has an activist sensibility and conscience, as well as a formidable intellect. She believes in the power of art and visual languages to confront power – for example, former President Thabo Mbeki's HIV/AIDS denialism – and she calls on all of us to develop an 'ethical viewing position' in relation to violent, traumatic pasts in places as different as South Africa and Chile.

Coombes is also a 'good citizen', a trait surprisingly uncommon amongst academics. From 2005 to 2008, she was Head of the School of Art, Film, and Visual Media. She has supervised nine PhD candidates (many from minoritized communities) to completion, some have gone on to have distinguished careers. She is known as a person who (I have been told) 'invests a huge amount of time, care, and enabling support' to her PhD students. She is a prolific reviewer, editor, referee, and PhD examiner. She has successfully bid for numerous funding grants. And she has given papers all over the world, including the UK, US, Canada, South Africa, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Finland, Spain, Belgium, France, Ireland, and Chile. These are only a small number of her achievements.

So: what about 'the person'? Speaking to colleagues, I have been told that she is 'stylish', 'impressive', 'warm and welcoming', 'as sharp as a tack', 'vibrant', 'kind', an 'extraordinary and inspiring teacher', 'loyal', 'compassionate', and 'welcoming of difference'. She has 'intellectual breadth and generosity', an 'infectious laughter', and a 'phobia of technology'. She is passionate about choir singing, including being a member of the Fortismere Community Choir in north London. She is a warm and generous host in their second home in Corbières in southern France, which she shares with her partner Nicholas Thomas (whom she met at a workshop on material culture in Santa Fei in 1996) and their nineteen-year-old son (who shares his parents' passion for art and is studying photography at Falmouth University in Cornwall, the top Arts university in the UK).

But today, we celebrate the innumerable scholarly, artistic, and political gifts that she has bestowed upon our Birkbeck community and other communities worldwide. Annie Coombes has been an inspiration to us and, by making her a Fellow, we can be confident that she will continue to be part of an intellectually robust, inclusive, and socially-aware Birkbeck.