Afua Hirsch on exploring African culture beyond the western gaze

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By Afua Hirsch
In making my new television series African Renaissance, one question has always nagged me: what would the African continent look like if it had never been colonised? Filming the work of the Ethiopian photographer Aïda Muluneh in Addis Ababa, the question lost its hypothetical quality. As a new arrival in the Ethiopian capital, I was struggling to adjust to the alphabet of Ethiopia’s Amharic, as well as to systems of date and time that shun global convention. As you read this, it is 2012 in Ethiopia, and the time runs on a 12-hour clock beginning at daybreak and again at dusk. I saw how Muluneh styled her model with floor-skimming braids, and dressed her set in trademark primary colours, fusing Afro-futurist art, fashion and photography into her surrealist prints. To me, they served as a portal into the unfamiliar world of her country, one that has never fully succumbed to Eurocentric cultural or administrative traditions. Ethiopia is beginning to overcome the hijacking of its reputation as synonymous with famine and misery, an image omnipresent for as long as I can remember. Drawing attention to the country’s past hardships may have been well-intentioned. But the failure to balance charity appeals with other images of this ancient land has created a misleading single narrative that persists. These days, Ethiopia is becoming a bucket-list destination, one that attracts travellers with its incredible ancient ruins, such as the 2,000-year-old obelisk at Axum, one of the four great kingdoms of the ancient world. Its fourth-century rock churches, carved into mountains at impossible altitudes when Christians faced persecution, casually bear murals of a black baby Jesus, black prophets, saints and angels, at a time when the church in Europe was first navigating its role in spreading white supremacist images of biblical figures.
But my quest in this, and in all the episodes of my series, was to step away from the western gaze that has done so much harm to the African continent, and to see it for what it is, to explore its art, music and culture on its own terms. It is a continent of unimaginable diversity, and the three countries in which we filmed, Ethiopia, Kenya and Senegal, are nothing alike in culture, history or art. There is no “African story” – except perhaps innovation – and it’s the creative beating heart of these countries I wanted to find. My aim was neither to confirm nor reject images projected on to them from the outside, but to discover their own artistic expression. The power of that expression has gained new traction in recent months. It was only a matter of time before the struggle against racism – brought into painfully sharp focus by the killing of George Floyd in the US – segued into global questions about the cultures of people of African heritage, how blackness is misrepresented and commoditised, and why ideas about black creativity, innovation and art continue to be degraded.
The best answer to the prejudice that still plagues majority white societies is to look to the motherland itself. In Senegal, a francophone nation on the far west coast of Africa which I called home for several years in my twenties, resistance against colonial power is still a driving force in art. There is important and vibrant work, from DJ Awadi, founding member of hip-hop group Positive Black Soul, who is reviving the sounds of highlife music in his eclectic fusions, to Germaine Acogny, the legendary choreographer and mother of contemporary African dance. I visit Acogny at Mudra Afrique, her school in the sandy expanse of Senegal’s coastline, where dancers selected from across the continent learn her method, transcending the widest range of ethnic and linguistic boundaries. As Acogny tells me, her mission to fuse the traditional and contemporary is more profound than a form of choreography. “Africa is a force,” she explains. “And here, Africans need to know that as well, and be proud of what they are. People without culture disappear from Earth.” Senegal’s first president, Léopold Senghor, was a powerful proponent of this philosophy, which he and others – notably the Martinican writer Aimé Césaire – dubbed négritude. The poet-president invested a monumental 30 per cent of Senegal’s budget in culture and the arts, a powerful commitment for a new nation, and one from which Britain could well learn.
Modern Kenya too has much to teach us about policy responses to our greatest challenges. The east African nation has positioned itself as a country willing to take bold measures on climate change and sustainability, and that evolution is reflected in its art scene. Arriving in a country that has banned plastic bags – your airline warns you to leave any in your possession on the plane when you touch down — it’s perhaps no surprise that sculptors such as Meshack Oiro are creating fusion pieces that experiment with form and space using metals, plastics and other waste materials salvaged from Nairobi dumps. These contemporary stories have to be understood within the historical context of a country that experienced one of Britain’s most audacious and criminal land grabs. Outsiders’ perceptions of Kenya risk being layered in decades of colonial romanticism over this land – a narrative we unflinchingly explore in the series. I visit the house where Danish author Karen Blixen wrote Out of Africa, a novel that did so much to promote the idea of Africa as one vast, empty savannah, populated by many majestic creatures and a few inconsequential humans. I interview Mau-Mau veterans at the site of one of the torture camps Britain built to “deradicalise” the men and women whose crime was to fight back against the appropriation of their resources and the exploitation of their labour.
The Kenyan painter Michael Soi is emerging as a leading voice in the conversation about the new wave of colonialism threatening so many African nations’ sovereignty – the scramble for influence, credit and resource extraction. Soi’s paintings probe the role of China, as well as Kenya’s political elite, with humour and satire. Seeing Xi Jinping painted in a nappy, Soi-style, is a rare visual treat. Growing up with African heritage in Britain, at a time when it still had a nostalgic longing for colonial greatness, left me profoundly unaware of the true complexity of art in African countries. No single series could really remedy that – the breadth of artistic tradition and contemporary creativity across the African continent far exceeds what hour-long films about three countries can offer. But after a life spent re-educating myself, making this series has taught me two things. The first is that in Africa there is no tension between tradition and contemporary art: African cultures are always reinventing themselves with the same innovative spirit and talent that have earned them the global influence they have today. The second is that, in every one of these countries, I still have so much more to learn.
(Financial Times)