Leave us alone

Breeze Yoko's mural highlights three African political icons: Steve Biko, Amilcar Cabral and Kwame Nkrumah.

Yoko working on Steve Biko's likeness for his mural.

The South African artist, Breeze Yoko, has generously allowed me to share these images of him completing this striking mural in the Swiss city, Basel. Yoko is presenting at the Focus 10: Contemporary African Art Fair. He is also one of 16 artists featured in the curated show “Artistic Visions”: A Snaphot of Contemporary African Art. The mural highlights three African political icons: Steve Biko, Amilcar Cabral and Kwame Nkrumah.

The choice of these three icons to convey his message of African selfdetermination makes sense. Nkrumah was the first prime minister of independent Ghana and is generally considered the “father” of post-independence black Africa. He is famous for his attempt to create “a United States of Africa,” to some extent manifested in the Organization of African Unity and later the African Union but without the necessary mechanisms to enable Africans to move freely between countries (rather than sometimes having to fly via a European capital), increase representation and influence of diasporas, or facilitate trade, among others.  Nkrumah was eventually removed and driven into exile, by force, as president of Ghana by a combination of factors (his own lack of hubris, a conspiracy from western powers and his own local enemies). Cabral, in turn, represents the generation of African leaders who led armed struggles (Nkrumah led a largely unarmed, mass struggle in Ghana), but also contributed to a theoretical understanding of how to take on imperialism and capitalism head on. He sadly did not see Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde gain independence and was murdered, in 1973, by a member of his own party who was compromised by Portuguese intelligence.  Cabral and Nkrumah both lived the end of their lives in Guinea-Conakry, though Nkrumah would die on a health visit to Rumania.

Yoko sizes up the empty canvas with a photograph of Amilcar Cabral.

As for Biko, he is from Yoko’s homeland, South Africa. Biko invigorated black South Africans’ struggle against white rule in the 1970s before he was murdered by apartheid police. With South Africans becoming disappointed by ANC rule (graft, non-delivery, white privilege remaining largely intact), Biko is making a comeback influencing parts of the ANC (ironically, the previous president of the country, Thabo Mbeki, who is usually associated with neoliberal reforms that deepened racial and class inequalities, was a fan and surrounded himself with advisors from the Black Consciousness Movement), to public intellectuals (the sociologist Xolela Mangcu) and political movements (the peripatetic Black First, Land First).

A pedestrian looks at the finished mural.

This is not the first time, Yoko, who is from Cape Town, has featured Biko in his work. In fact, his art practice is informed by Biko’s dictum to reclaim and forge new “schemes, forms and strategies” in politics and culture. His first solo work was titled, “Biko’s Children” (2007). It explores Biko’s legacy in postapartheid South Africa. That same year, 2007, it won the Audience Award at the Tricontinental Film Festival in Johannesburg, South Africa, and later won the Special Jury Award at the Sienna Film Festival, Italy as well as was nominated for the Blachèere Foundation Prize at the Dak’Aart Biennale, Senegal. Yoko is usually based in Johannesburg.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.