Translating Race in Eurasia

A conference and film program exploring the construction of race and racialized identities in Eurasia


Fields of Knowledge
  • Pedagogy
  • Philosophy / Theory
  • Public culture

Organizing Institutions

Dept. of Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Pennsylvania

Contributing Institutions

Slought, Penn Humanities Forum


Kevin Platt, Jennifer Wilson


A full schedule is available online here.

Opens to public





4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104

University of Pennsylvania
402 Cohen Hall
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Slought is pleased to announce "Translating Race in Eurasia," a one-day conference and film program on Saturday, September 24, 2016 from 9:30am—5:30pm that brings together artists and scholars working at the forefront of the study of race as it has been articulated by the cultures of Eurasia, including Sarah Lewis and Abderrahmane Sissako.

The territories of the Russian and Soviet empires are often presented by Western media and academics as racially homogenous spaces, or as territories characterized by other categories of identification, such as nationality or ethnicity. However, race has a profound history in Eurasia; racialized identities were produced both by Russian imperial conquest and in the responses of Russian and Soviet imperial culture to the racial categories that emerged from the history of empire across the globe. "Translating Race in Eurasia" will address the constructions of race that have appeared across the region, and the process of translation from global categories and theories of race.

The first portion of the conference will take place from 9:30-1:15pm at 402 Claudia Cohen Hall at the University of Pennsylvania, and is comprised of two panels featuring invited scholars working at the intersection of area studies and critical race theory across a wide range of media, including literature, visual art, and performance. Topics to be discussed include the unique racial categories produced by Russian and Soviet imperialism; the effects of Soviet intervention in the Global South during the Cold War and their consequences for global struggles against white supremacy; the experiences of African-Americans in the Soviet Union; the history of whiteness in Eurasia; and the intersection of sexuality and gender with constructions of race in the region, and more.

The second part of the conference will take place from 2-5:30pm at Slought and will feature a keynote address by Sarah Lewis, who is an Assistant Professor of Art History and African American Studies at Harvard University. Her most recent projects explores the Caucasus mountain range in Russia and how the emerging technology of photography was used to develop myths of Caucasian racial identity (and by extension racial purity) in the nineteenth century. Her keynote address is titled "From Frederick Douglass to Leo Tolstoy: Race and the Thought Pictures of the Caucasus."

Following Lewis' address, a film program featuring two two films by Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako will be screened. Both films, "Oktyabr" (1993) and "Rostov-Luanda" (1998) explore the relationship between the Soviet Union and Africa, as told through the experiences of foreign exchange students. "Oktyabr" is a near-silent black-and-white film that tells the story of Idressa, an African student living in Moscow, and Irina, his Russian girlfriend, chronicling the challenges they face forming a relationship across racial and national lines in the last years of the Soviet Union. "Rostov-Luanda" (1998) is, on the surface, a documentary travelogue that follows Sissako as he searches for a friend he met at film school in the Soviet Union; however, the film is at its heart an exploration of war-torn Angola. In Luanda, Angola's capital, Sissako finds a civilization pulled apart by years of Cold War proxy conflict between Communist forces (which supported the national government) and the Western-backed National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Both "Oktyabr" and "Rostov-Luanda" serve as exemplars of the growing pessimism felt by the global proletariat about the promises of Communism and its imbrication with racialized and neo-colonial conflicts at scales ranging from personal life to the geopolitical.

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Sarah Lewis is Assistant Professor of Art History and African American Studies at Harvard University. She is the author of Black Sea, Black Atlantic: Frederick Douglass, the Circassian Beauties, and American Racial Formation in the Wake of the Civil War, forthcoming from Harvard University Press. In her work, Sarah Lewis writes about the role of photography in the shaping of racial categories in the United States.

Lewis recently curated a widely acclaimed special issue of Aperture magazine titled "Vision & Justice" which explored how the documentation of the black experience through photography had a profound impact on twentieth-century social movements. She is also the author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Lewis has served on President Barack Obama's Arts Policy Committee and has held curatorial positions at The Museum of Modern Art (NYC) and the Tate Modern (London).

The Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, like many young Africans during the Cold War, studied in the Soviet Union in the 1980s on a "Socialist Friendship" scholarship. Sissako, whose 2014 film "Timbuktu" was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, began his career studying cinema at Moscow's Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), the same film school where Sergei Eisenstein taught and where Andrei Tarkovsky studied.

This program has been organized with generous support from the following sponsors:

Penn Humanities Forum on "Translation"; the School of Arts & Sciences (Penn); Cinema Studies (Penn); the Penn Program on Race, Science and Society (PRSS), the Program in Comparative Literature (Penn); the Center for Africana Studies (Penn); the departments of Africana Studies, Art History, English, and History (Penn); the Center for Russia and East European Studies (University of Pittsburgh); the Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies (University of Washington-Seattle); and the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (UC Berkeley).