The London Olympics starts tonight and certain streets of the city are swollen with purple-shirted volunteers, track-suited athletes and tourists. In Hyde Park, the continent of Africa has been reincarnated as ‘Africa Village’ and ‘Africa Land'; the emphasis is on colour and diversity, mass acceptance of bland positivisms, but the whole event feels mainly about corporate sponsorship. The views are familiar from world fairs in Europe’s colonial capitals, but a different kind of colonizing force is dilligently at work. The ‘renovation’ of London’s east end in advance of the Olympics has been accused of the destruction of historic buildings and common land, the displacement of working-class neighbourhoods in the inscrutable advance of gentrification. Locals have been wondering whether libraries and sports fields lost under our Conservative government might have been a better waste of funds than stadiums which will never again be filled. The media has been arrested by the failure of the security contractors G4S (‘Securing Your World’) to provide the agreed number of security guards, and the armed forces have flooded into London to replace them. This is notable only for the fact that the three G4S ‘escorts’ – in whose unpleasant company Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan refugee being deported from the UK suffered a mysterious death – have recently been told they will not face a criminal trial for ‘insufficient evidence’. Despite any possible concern, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony promises to make the effacement of local community by global capitalism an unavoidable spectacle.
Nowhere is this more visible than at the Southbank, the perpetual carnival which happens along the river between Westminster and London Bridge. In tune with this summer’s sporting events the cultural institutions of the Southbank, mindful of their regulators and paymasters on the facing bank of the river, have scheduled “The Festival of the World with Mastercard”, to celebrate the nations competing in the games. Great Britain is no longer the superpower it once was, and in order to maintain its unfeasibly high position at the dining tables of international diplomacy, London is constantly rebranding itself as a ‘world city’, full of global culture, in which the world’s financial elite can live, puffing away at the property market bubble. The British Library, another offender, currently sells itself as a bank of ‘the world’s knowledge’. The attempt to remake the world in England’s image is familiar throughout the history of the British Empire – The Globe Theatre opened on the Southbank in 1599, when English colonialism was first being plotted by the nation’s mapmakers. We wrote about the little boat which overlooks the river from its perch on the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and from the public walkways you can occasionally see lucky individuals standing on the little deck, bemusedly trying to enjoy the experience, like accidental extras in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
A subdivision of “The Festival of the World with Mastercard” is “Africa Utopia”, which has been taking place at the Southbank Centre and Queen Elizabeth Hall over the last month. Contrived by the Southbank Centre to capitalise on the coincidence of (Sub Saharan) African performers in their summer programme, and led in spirit by Baaba Maal, the festival aimed to prove that arts can show the way for social change. The music programme seems packed with acts. One highlight was Saturday night’s Afrobeat evening, and this performance by Nigerian club favourite Brymo.
Mindful of making predictable exclusions, and very conscious of the need to diversify their usual demographic of white British middle-classes, the Southbank organisers devised a youth delegate scheme to invite 10 youths from Africa and 20 from the UK and invite them to discuss art and social change in Africa. I took up, with some awkwardness, an invitation to speak to the delegates as a representative of AIAC. I used the opportunity to rehearse some predictable suspicions about a “Festival of the World with Mastercard”, wondering how the whole world is available to us in London. I attempted, as Evelyn Owen did on this blog (here) to consider the odd premise of Africa Utopia: why use a concept ushered into a troublesome existence in Western political thought by Thomas More’s speculative Latin fiction 500 years ago to think about the histories and contemporary realities of the African continent and diasapora? The youth delegates are a fascinating group of individuals whose various projects are too numerous to mention here. They are aiming to produce a publication as the culmination of their programme (more on that soon, hopefully).
Africa Utopia organiser Hannah Pool gathered some noteable speakers in the ‘Front Room’ of the Queen Elizabeth Hall – swathed in African fabrics – to discuss film, art, politics and development. AIAC’s own Basia Lewandowska Cummings convened a panel on Nollywood and financial models for film industries. Granta Magazine organised a ‘literary salon’ with three novelists, including Numbi organiser and writer Diriye Osman, who gave a brave and exuberant reading. There was a discussion of the We Face Forward exhibition of African art in Manchester (a post on that soon). Tiwani Contemporary curated a panel discussion about Africa and the contemporary art market. The events (which were all free and unticketed) took place in front of large audiences of engaged and vocal individuals, some appeared to have simply walked in straight off the street. This is a rare thing to find on the Southbank. Sunday evening came to a beautiful conclusion with a set by Miryam Solomon. They promise Africa Utopia will happen again next year; we only hope that they consider using a different name.