Africa’s artists step from shadows of colonialism and into the limelight
Western influences still cloud continent’s cultural and artistic identity, but its entertainers now changing this paradigm – one dance, song and story at a time
Western cultural identity, norms, and traditions have dominated the global art scene for centuries. Colonialism – a policy of acquiring full or partial political, economic, and cultural control over another country – has played a key role in this.
Besides exploiting a country’s resources and people for Western economic gain, the practice also affected local culture and artistic traditions, which were often seen – and therefore treated – as inferior.
Take Africa which, together with Asia and Latin America, was a prime target for European imperialists. While the European wave of colonisation, which lasted from the 1600s to the late 1900s, belongs to the history books, its effects linger.
Even now, school and university curriculums – some exceptions aside – still, to a large extent, revolve around European historical figures, leaders, statesmen, political figures, authors, painters, and artists. The same applies to what is taught in the continent’s art schools.
Telling Africa’s own stories
“African art students are mainly taught Shakespeare and how to tell Western stories in a Western way,” says Thembi Mtshali-Jones from South Africa, who will perform her award-winning one-woman play, A Woman in Waiting, during the World Cultures Festival, at Hong Kong Cultural Centre’s Studio Theatre, on November 2 and 3.
The piece, a collaboration with playwright Yaël Farber, is based on her life as a woman of colour in apartheid South Africa, including the humiliations, fears, sadness, loss, and emotional pain she faced. “We need to start telling our own stories.”
Like her story, many African youngsters tend to learn about what their continent has to offer only much later in life, she notes. “It is only upon graduation when most of them are confronted with African stories for the first time,” she says.
“I work with a lot of young people. Some of them even struggle to speak their own home language,” Mtshali-Jones adds, referring to the fact that South Africa has 11 official languages, from English and Afrikaans to Zulu Xhosa and Venda. “A lot of that has to change.”
Nigerian author and storyteller Ayodele Olofintuade, who works with young writers and artists on a regular basis, agrees that Africa’s current education system remains largely based on what was prescribed by former colonial powers. “Education under colonial rule wasn’t designed to make us Africans think,” she says. “It was made to make us follow, to turn us into zombies.”
Holding on to traditions
Yet, rising from the ashes of colonialism, the African people have shown their resilience.
Daniel Odame Kissi, director of African Culture Connection (HK) and a Ghana native, stresses that Africans were far from pushovers in terms of their colonisers.
African people resisted European forced with tooth and nail. “The Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana, for instance, did fight against the British,” he says.
This meant that Ghanaians tried and, to a large extent, managed to hold on to certain valuable traditions. Some attempts were successful. “If you’d go to Kumasi [the capital city of the Ashanti region, in southern Ghana] people wear traditional clothing, which they will wear whilst at work and going to the shops.”
Kissi adds that most traditional dances are still performed in a traditional way, too. “Dance and music students at the University of Ghana need to be part of a traditional dance troupe and learn from master drummers,” he says. “They are trained by these master drummers, like in the past. It is a difficult training process.”
Kissi has recently organised workshops of African mask-making, dancing and drumming for World Cultures Festival 2017 – Vibrant Africa, organised by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.
Merging Western and African art
While history cannot be changed, many artists in Africa are working to create a better future by embracing the past.
One of the region’s most celebrated artists who is doing just that is Germaine Acogny, the “Mother of modern African dance”.
Acogny hails from Senegal, a former French colony, and learned African dance from a young age and later went to Paris to study European contemporary dance.
As she grew and developed as a dancer, she started infusing what she learned in France with African dance elements and techniques to create her own style of choreography.
She eventually brought her style, knowledge, and expertise back to her roots when she opened L’Ecole des Sables in 1998.
While based in Senegal, the centre for traditional and contemporary African dances caters for dancers from across Africa and beyond. She says it is important for African dancers to tell their story through African contemporary dance, not just Western traditions.
“We are the only centre in the world that invites African dancers from Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone countries,” Acogny, 73, said in an interview with Die Welt in 2016. “We provide scholarships so that students can realise their dream of dancing.”
African stories told the African way
Acogny isn’t the only artist who is merging Western and African artistic traditions to tell their story. Split/Mixed, an autobiographical one-man show by Rwandan actor Ery Nzaramba, which will be performed during the World Cultures Festival, is a good example.
The play, performed at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is about the impact of the 1994 genocide on Nzaramba’s own identity through dance and theatre.
Born in Rwanda, the actor left with his family in 1994 when he was still a teenager for a new life in Europe, as the genocide raged through his home country. He studied at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels, in Belgium, and at Britain’s Birmingham School of Acting.
With Split/Mixed, he takes the audience on his candid search to comprehend his country’s story and his own identity by using elements from both worlds he calls his own.
Strelitziais another good example. Combining drama, poetry, music, song, African and Western dance elements, this award-winning performance by Nigerian playwright Donna Ogunnaike revolves around the trials and tribulations of an ordinary Nigerian woman.
When it comes to Africa’s best artists, painters included, it is those who are merging western and African traditions, Kissi says. “The combination of old and new techniques makes African contemporary art popular and successful.”
Rewriting what has been rewritten
Olofintuade says it is crucial that African artists are given and seize an unbiased, global podium to showcase their talents and tell their stories – tales which have often been rewritten by colonial powers.
Most of Africa’s stories were passed on orally, and not written down, she says.
“When Western writers started to write these stories down, they also rewrote them,”Olofintuade says.
Mtshali-Jones says it is also time that Africans start telling their own stories instead of waiting for someone else to do it.
“We need to start retelling our stories, our own way,” she says. “Even stories like Shaka Zulu. I remember when we played Shaka Zulu, in the 1980s. One of the actresses who played Nandi [Shaka Zulu’s mother] had to undergo surgery to have a straight nose. This was an African woman!”
While colonialism undoubtedly had an impact on African artistic expression and tradition, Africa has left its own imprint on the West, too, Kissi says. “The foundation of jazz and blues is rooted in Africa, after all.”
Many more stories of Africa are being told to Hong Kong audiences through a line-up of African performing artists at World Cultures Festival 2017, which is on now until November 19.