Afua Hirsch on Exploring African Culture Beyond the Western Gaze

Making my new tv series African Renaissance, a question has always haunted me: what would the African continent look like if it had never been colonized?

By filming the work of Ethiopian photographer Aïda Muluneh in Addis Ababa, the question lost its hypothetical character. As a newcomer to the Ethiopian capital, I had a hard time adjusting to the Ethiopian Amharic alphabet, as well as date and time systems that avoid world conventions. As you read this, it is 2012 in Ethiopia and time is running on a 12 hour clock starting at dawn and again at dusk. I saw how Muleneh styled her model with low-cut braids and dressed her ensemble in signature primary colors, fusing Afro-futuristic art, fashion and photography in her surreal prints. For me, they served as a portal to the unknown world of his country, a world that never completely succumbed to Eurocentric cultural or administrative traditions.

Ethiopia is beginning to overcome the misuse of its reputation as synonymous with famine and misery, a pervasive image for as long as I can remember. Perhaps drawing attention to the country’s past difficulties was well intentioned. But the failure to balance appeals for charity with other images of this ancient land has created a unique and misleading narrative that persists.

Nowadays Ethiopia is emerging as a must-see destination, attracting travelers with its incredible ancient ruins, such as the 2,000-year-old obelisk of Aksum, one of the four great kingdoms of the ancient world. . Its 4th-century cave churches, carved into mountains at elevations not possible when Christians were persecuted, casually bear murals of a black baby Jesus, black prophets, saints and angels, at a time when the he church in Europe was playing for the first time its role in the propagation of white supremacist images of biblical figures.

With Church Elder Melake Genet Adhana, in front of Yohannes Maequdi Church, Ethiopia © BBC / Clearstory / Alex Brisland

But my quest in this, and in all the episodes of my series, was to move 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, its music and culture on its own terms.

It is a continent of unimaginable diversity, and the three countries in which we have filmed, Ethiopia, Kenya and Senegal, are not alike in terms of culture, history or culture. ‘art. There is no “African history” – except perhaps innovation – and it is the creative beating heart of these countries that I wanted to find.

My goal was neither to confirm nor to reject images projected on them from the outside, but to discover their own artistic expression.

The power of this expression has gained ground in recent months. It was only a matter of time before the fight against racism – evidenced by the murder of George Floyd in the United States – turned into global questions about the cultures of people of African descent, how the blackness is distorted and trivialized, and why ideas about black creativity, innovation and art continue to degrade.

With artist Eshetu Tiruneh and his painting ‘Victims of the Famine’ © Alex Brisland

The best response to the prejudices that still plague predominantly white societies is to look to the homeland itself.

In Senegal, a francophone nation in the far west of Africa that I inhabited for several years in my twenties, resistance against colonial rule is still a driving force in art. There is an important and vibrant work, from DJ Awadi, founding member of hip-hop group Positive Black Soul, who brings the sounds of highlife music to life in its eclectic fusions, to Germaine Acogny, legendary choreographer and mother of African dance. contemporary.

I visit Acogny at Mudra Afrique, his school in the sandy expanse of the Senegalese coastline, where selected dancers from across the continent learn his method, transcending the widest range of ethnic and linguistic boundaries. As Acogny tells me, its mission to merge the traditional and the contemporary runs deeper than a form of choreography. “Africa is a force,” she explains. “And here Africans must also know that and be proud of who they are. People without culture are disappearing from Earth.

The first president of Senegal, Léopold Senghor, was a powerful supporter of this philosophy, which he and others – notably the Martinican writer Aimé Césaire – have dubbed negritude. The poet-president has invested 30% of the Senegalese budget in culture and the arts, a powerful commitment for a new nation, and from which Britain may well learn.

With Ethiopian photographer Aïda Muluneh (right) on a shoot © Alex Brisland

Modern Kenya also has a lot to teach us about political responses to our greatest challenges. The East African nation has positioned itself as a country ready to take bold action on climate change and sustainability, and this development is reflected in its arts scene. Arriving in a country that has banned plastic bags – your airline warns you to leave everything in your possession on the plane when you land – it may not be surprising that sculptors such as Meshack Oiro create fusion pieces that experiment with form and space using metals, plastics and other wastes collected from landfills in Nairobi.

These contemporary stories must be understood in the historical context of a country that has experienced one of Britain’s most daring and criminal land grabs. Foreigners’ perceptions of Kenya are likely to overlap with decades of colonial romanticism on this land – a narrative we unflinchingly explore on the series.

I visit the house where Danish author Karen Blixen wrote Outside of Africa, a novel that has done so much to promote the idea of ​​Africa as a vast empty savannah, populated by many majestic creatures and a few unimportant humans. I interview Mau-Mau veterans at the site of one of Britain’s torture camps to “de-radicalize” the men and women whose crime was to fight the appropriation of their resources and the exploitation of their work.

Kenyan painter Michael Soi is emerging as a leading voice in the conversation about the new wave of colonialism threatening the sovereignty of so many African nations – the race for influence, credit and resource extraction. Soi’s paintings explore the role of China, as well as Kenya’s political elite, with humor and satire. Seeing Xi Jinping painted in a coat of Self style is a rare visual pleasure.

Growing up with African heritage in Britain, at a time when it still had a nostalgic desire for colonial grandeur, left me deeply oblivious to the true complexity of art in African countries. No series could really remedy this – the breadth of artistic tradition and contemporary creativity across the African continent far exceeds what hour-long films across three countries can offer.

But after a lifetime of re-educating myself, doing this series 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 spirit of innovation and the same talent which have earned them the global influence they have today. ‘hui. The second is that in each of these countries I still have so much to learn.

‘African Renaissance’ is on BBC4 from August 17 at 9 p.m.

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Letter in response to this article:

No representation of Christ is an authentic representation / From CDC Armstrong, Belfast, UK


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