It’s been over a month since I watched Dutch artist Steven Jouwersma’s short film “N’gosa Bedimo” (Music from the Ghosts), and still I’m not quite sure what to say. You see, on one hand, the post should have been a slam-dunk. Jouwersma’s film and the project which it documents—an attempt, over the course of a three-week art exchange in the village of Bonendale, to start “the first metal band in Cameroon”—are rife with neocolonial undertones. “N’gosa Bedimo” is practically begging for the type of critique that this website does so often. And yet, in this case, a takedown seemed too easy, empty, even a little cruel.
Sure, I could have pointed to Jouwersma’s explanation that the impetus for his project came from the discovery of a color-coded world map showing the number of metal bands per capita by country (the countries with the greatest proportion of metal, such as Norway, in dark red, and those with the fewest, such as Cameroon, in light green), and drawn some insightful connection to colonial evocations of an empty, virgin Africa ripe for European cultural imports. I could also have complained about Jouwersma’s cherry picking of local cultural and religious beliefs in order to make them appear to parallel the mythologies surrounding Western metal bands. Certainly I could have offered a strong critique of the fact that “N’gosa Bedimo” plays on tropes of a dark, mysterious Africa in order to weave a quasi-supernatural tale around the metal band that Jouwersma formed in collaboration with local musicians.
All of those critiques would have been valid; and yet, I kept asking myself, what would be the point? This was a small film made by an independent artist. It had 343 views on YouTube. Why draw attention to it if only to slam it?
There are some representations of Africa and Africans that deserve our scorn: The cynical attempts by celebrities and corporations to exploit the same tired stereotypes for their own fame and fortune; the dehumanizing accounts offered by mega-charities which spend more on overhead than they do helping people on the ground; the simplistic narratives put forward by governments and mainstream media outlets which often do more to engender hatred and conflict than they do to enhance cooperation and understanding.
Sometimes, however, those engaged—rightly—in critiquing Western representations of Africa and Africans make the mistake of directing the same high-powered rhetorical artillery that they use for Madonna and Fox News at a small independent filmmaker or, worse still, at a nineteen-year-old international volunteer who posts a picture of herself cradling an African baby on her Facebook wall.
It’s not that these people can’t be criticized. It’s just that this criticism shouldn’t come in the form of a takedown on a website. It should come in the form of a discussion. It should involve a genuine attempt to understand where that person was coming from, after which one might gently offer a critique in the hopes of causing that person to consider something they hadn’t before; to think about things in a new way.
Last week, I finally spoke to Steven Jouwersma. Not surprisingly, I found him to be genuine, likable, and articulate about his work. I realized in talking to him that I had been so wrapped up in the problematic aspects of his representation of Cameroon that I had failed to realize that the primary objective of his project was not to say something about Cameroon, or Bonendale, but about the nature of art. For him, the project was about musical innovation, seeing what happens when a certain musical form is divorced from the context of a specific “scene.” (He drew a comparison to an artist who produced a work where a brass band played house music.)
Jouwersma was also receptive to my critiques of his work. The project, he acknowledged, “of course has some colonial aspects to it—I bring something you don’t have.” But all artists, he argued, “import their idea of what art is supposed to be … There’s always a kind of violence there, of something to critique upon. I hope to be open about it.”
I’m not sure that Jouwersma would do anything differently as a result of our conversation if he were offered a similar opportunity in the future. I would like to think, though, that I at least made some suggestions of things he might consider in his upcoming projects. Certainly he caused me to look at his work, and other projects like it, in a new light. And so we both learned a little; and we learned in a deeper and more lasting way than we would have if I had simply written a scathing critique, patted myself on the back for my critical faculties, and moved on to the next target.