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“Are you an African artist? …” 0

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 British 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.

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 Imperial forces to defend their slavery trade. 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.

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by Thembi Mutch

Photo Credits: Africasacountry

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