“Are you an African artist? …”

Spoek Mathambo (2011)

There’s a strong (European) mainstream that is still secretly seduced by the idea that poor black people, especially those in African slums, can’t or won’t make great art or if they do, it’s the exception. They (that’s some English media producers and western audiences) need to believe that great art happens with harps. So opera singers emerging from Khayelitsha in Cape Town are a much bigger “story” than opera singers in Hampstead Garden or Norwood Suburb.

Last year, I was tasked with writing about “Wonder Welders,” a group of people in Tanzania with varying degrees of disability, i.e. mental and physical, who make commercial sculptures to support themselves. A well-meaning British publication, which commissioned the piece, then panned it. Why? Because the interesting bit – the incredible levels of jealousy and sexual affairs that prevailed in the workplace – was too complicated for their audience. The story of African disabled people who make a living welding sculptures should be one of triumph, the virtues of NGO charity and victory.

Like imported mangos, African art for European audiences loses its juiciness and is hijacked by a mix of not enough honesty, a desire to put bums on seats, and global narratives that favor tales of exotic lives and resilience. Instead of asking the much more interesting questions they go for the “cheap shot”: colonialism, slavery or exoticism. The bottom line is that the exotic/victim binary of colonial yore is very much alive and kicking in representation of African arts and music. But people living and working in Africa have moved on from this.

Take the case of Fredy Massamba, a pop singer from Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo. In 2012 I happened to be at the Busara Music Festival in Zanzibar where Freddy was performing at an 18th century fort.

Fredy is the Congo’s equivalent of Robbie Williams- he is hugely popular, something of a legend, but unlike Robbie, he has no concerns about involving himself in contentious, and potentially reputation-damaging conversations. Standing on a stage enthusing thousands to think about who they vote for, Fredy uses his magnetism and cultural leverage to galvanise discussion and change. It’s the kind of the Central African equivalent of One Direction asking us to challenge austerity politics and poverty porn.

Hang on. We are sitting on the floor of a Zanzibar fort that was used by British forces to defend their empire. Eating a chips and egg omelet (“Chipsi Mayai”),  Freddy is teasing me about him being richer than I will ever dream, and in which quarter of Paris he’ll buy an apartment.

Later, sitting on the floor with the rest of the band chipping in—in French and English—our conversation drifts onto post-colonialism. In the background the Nigerian singer Nneka urges us to challenge the big men in power: “Vagabonds in power, VIP!” The audience is delirious with recognition. That’s when Freddy and I discuss whether the French were less brutal in their empire grabbing than the English.

Hang on. We are sitting on the floor of a Zanzibar fort that was used by British forces to defend their empire. Eating a chips and egg omelet (“Chipsi Mayai”),  Freddy is teasing me about him being richer than I will ever dream, and in which quarter of Paris he’ll buy an apartment. This is not a conversation I can imagine happening in England – not ever. There’s never a suggestion that I will trot out the standard BBC question: “Are you an African artist?” None at all. I promise to send Freddy a copy of the article. He giggles and says, “Yeah! Of course I wanna know how I am portrayed in Europe, of course I do! If  you help me do well in Europe I’ll buy that apartment in Paris.”

Fast forward several years later to the SouthBank Center, London for Africa Utopia Festival. Spoek Mathambo, the brilliant, left-field producer, MC and DJ, is asked whether European media has started to grapple with representation of Africa or about Africans and whether they’ve moved beyond exotic/victim binaries:

I think the question itself is as problematic as the dynamic it’s trying to tackle. To be frank, I don’t care. As an African we have our own battle of representation to fight. Our independence means we can fulfill our potential and live our lives without being worried about a myopic foreign gaze.

Part of me gets it: Why the hell should he be bothered how Europe views him? He’s got enough to think about.

Near London Bridge, in a dreary corporate hotel lounge of pastels and enlarged photos of vulva-esque tulips, South African film-maker Khalo Matabane is promoting his film, Nelson Mandela: the Myth and Me.

Matabane is friendly, relaxed and smiley, as he delivers his careful, thoughtful intellectual darts. He has little or no time for the parameters of the film industry, the global socio-economic elites that drive and determine how Africa is represented:

We have a limited palate of tropes. Ubuntu, the resilient forgiving African, or the political black, it’s all a construct. It serves an elite. It’s irrelevant what the national debate is, what the masses think. We are film makers, we don’t fit, we’re critical, bizarre, weird, we stand outside… we’re difficult… we get it wrong sometimes…..that’s why I do what I do. It requires absolute honesty with myself, if I think my critique is not driven by an outside agenda I can sleep at night! But there are probably dictators who sleep at night too. For me, it’s important I don’t betray my interviewees too. The question should be, am I happy with my films? Any film I’ve ever done?

Running through or behind all of these conversations with African intellectuals, creatives and artists, there is a constant profound recognition that the Global North plays far too big a part in defining what Africa is. The space for arts, music and film, has been defined and severely limited by existing stereotypes of victimhood, violence, chaos, corruption. All ably perpetrated by that unmanageable cypher “The Media”, its unwieldy bed mate the Academy, and of course the grand puppet master, global economic trade relations or information flows. In all spheres, the Global North is still  far too keen to gallop towards the equally simplistic notion of the happy resilient African in the face of ridiculous obstacles and natural hazards.

Why then, are we so averse to acknowledging complexity, difference, subtlety and agency when it comes to music, film, poetry and dance that emerges from different regions in Africa?

Resilience is such a problematic, vacuous, anythingy kind of word that even the New York Times had an essay about it, and TED Talks abound on the topic. From parenting to surviving teen bullying, “resilience” is what individuals have in the face of structural disasters. It obliterates systems, politics or intent. Resilience is an individual reaction to a one-off problem. And this determines what is culture worth reporting on coming out of the 52 different countries in Africa.

Why then, are we so averse to acknowledging complexity, difference, subtlety and agency when it comes to music, film, poetry and dance that emerges from different regions in Africa?

Of course there are exceptions:  British-Nigerian artist Chris Ofili’s work is complicated and interesting: he intelligently examines beauty and goddess culture and primitiveness. Zambian singer Namvula sings in Chichewa to global audiences, and brings together folk, oral cultures and contemporary pop. Equally, Phoebe Boswell, the multiple award winning conceptual artist – who is currently looking at what it means to be child of a fourth generation, White Kenyan father and Kikuyu mother and at the spaces in between – asks where home is, and does huge beautiful works that question the diaspora and what it means to be dislocated. She embraces frailty and privilege – personal and social – often, and she’s not afraid of banging witch doctors up against Hackney artists. She is aware that what she is doing is completely new, and quotes James Baldwin: “The place where I fit does not exist until I make it”.

This is more than a gripe, or a whinge, or a fancy-pants version of  “Oh shock! England ain’t that interested in intellectual complexity coming out of Africa.” Because actually, at some level it is: witness the recent British Library exhibition that lovingly explored the massive literary traditions of West Africa.  No, this then aims to ignite a debate that needs to be happening in bigger spaces, outside of just the academy or the bar late at night in a side street in Arusha (or in the carefully curated British Library exhibit). We need to ask who is shaping the debate about African arts in the Global North. Why is the power balance still so skewed, the worlds still so separate? Is it just about the cash dólar or Euros, (get the gig, the record deal, the film funded) or are there ways we can educate audiences (globally) to be significantly more demanding and interested in what is emerging out of Africa?

Further Reading

This is Congo

A long-awaited documentary takes a look at the state of politics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and highlights those who are working to build a new future.