By Phetogo Tshepo Mahasha | Shadow and Act June 4, 2014 at 1:19PM
I initially planned this essay for the “Afro-surrealism” call that I saw published on Shadow & Act, but it became apparent as I went on and explored my own viewpoint that I was not comfortable with the idea of the book, though I thought it necessary.
I concluded that: The prefix ‘afro-’ has acquired a parasitic character, leeching off manifestos. And it has the capacity to arrest African imagination, so that the African imagination follows other manifestos, only to attach itself to them and never coming up with an original of its own.
Couple this with an observation that I made: a blog tagged and listed musician Simphiwe Dana as an Afrofuturist; which I found a bit offsetting because the context in which the art was and is being produced, is in a way minimized. (http://www.thisisafrica.me/downloads/detail/19548/we-ve-been-to-the-moon-and-back-afro-futurism-in-music)
The purpose of this essay is to clarify my own ideas of Art Criticism about the use of the ‘Afro-’ prefix, The African Renaissance and African art, and perhaps try to point a way forward for myself.
As writing this essay lead to the discovery of my own limits of essay writing talent, I would say this is a ‘personal essay’ that guides my own thinking as I can’t really claim it is definitive.
The prefix ‘Afro-’
A prefix modifies a word/statement. The prefix ‘Afro-’ as used in art criticism modifies existing manifestos. In my opinion, it does not promote the generation of wholly new ideas and manifestos, but only the modification of the creativity of others. The prefix ‘afro-’ has acquired a parasitic character, leeching off manifestos: Afro-Surrealism, Afro-Punk, Afro-Futurism and Afro-etc. I think it has the capacity to arrest African imagination, so that the African imagination only follows other manifestos, only to attach itself to them and never coming up with an original of its own. I wouldn’t have a problem with it because creativity is about modifying elements that are already there to create something new, but given what’s out there at this point I have an objection. Just a quick internet search reveals that the movie ‘The Matrix’ is listed as Afro-futurism on some websites (http://afrofuturism.net/filmvideography-2/). It can go to the point where Afrofuturism can only be about a person of colour in a future space, when in fact for a project like ‘The Matrix’, the faces and races are interchangeable, it would still be what it is without black people in it.
I read an Afro-Surrealist manifesto written by D. Scot Miller (http://dscotmiller.blogspot.com/2009/05/afrosurreal.html) and it had me asking a few questions. In this manifesto, Miller outlines what isn’t Afro-Surrealism. He writes, “Afro-Surrealism is not surrealism.”
“…Leopold Senghor, poet, first president of Senegal, and African Surrealist, made this distinction: ‘European Surrealism is empirical. African Surrealism is mystical and metaphorical.’”
And then he says of Afro-Surrealism, “[it] presupposes that beyond this visible world, there is an invisible world striving to manifest, and it is our job to uncover it.”
And he goes on to say, “Afro-Surrealists restore the cult of the past. We revisit old ways with new eyes. We appropriate 19th century slavery symbols like Kara Walker, and 18th century colonial ones like Yinka Shonibare. We re-introduce ‘madness’ as visitations from the gods, and acknowledge the possibility of magic. We take up the obsessions of the ancients and kindle the dis-ease, clearing the murk of the collective unconsciousness as it manifests in these dreams called culture”
Miller claims that Afro-Surrealism is NOT Surrealism. And then he goes on to define something that’s different from ‘Surrealism’ and calls it ‘Afro-Surreal’. My question when I read Miller’s Manifesto was why call it Afro-Surrealism if it is not Surrealism? Why prefix the word Surrealism with ‘Afro-’? Most importantly, since it is so different from surrealism, why not call it something entirely new?
Miller considers The Neptunes early music Afrofuturist. Would that same music if it was produced by a person of a different race still be considered Afrofuturist? What made it fundamentally Afrofuturist except for race?
To give a brief overview of the African Renaissance-
Ever since the independence of the first African state there has been talk of an African Renaissance, a rebirth of Africa.
This is to be realized by taking what was before colonisation and put it in its proper place. African Renaissance can be divided into three processes: excavations, integrating the material into the present and projecting the material into the future.
The African renaissance to me is naturally linked with the development of African Philosophy that carries on today. African Philosophy has at its base the idea of the “Struggle for reason”. To quote Mogobe B. Ramose:
“One of the bases of colonization was that the belief ‘man is a rational animal’ was not spoken of the African, the Amerindian, and the Australasian…Little did Aristotle realize that his definition of ‘man’ laid down the foundation for the struggle for reason—not only between men and women but also between the colonialists and the Africans,2 the Amerindians,3 and the Australasian’s.” 
“The struggle for reason—who is and who is not a rational animal—is the foundation of racism.” [Ramose: 3]
These African Renaissance excavations are about restoring whatever cultural artefacts/Philosophy/idea, basically they’re an attempt to restore the humanity of Africans in the light of this ‘struggle for reason’, post-colonization; this is the environment, and artists will most certainly interact with it: Picking up bits and fashioning them, if they choose to do so.
It’s about freeing the African from this struggle for reason by collecting and restoring artefacts/philosophies, and projecting these into the future so that this base will always be available to future generations, presumably a generation of free Africans, free to create whatever they please, free from the “struggle for reason”. It is within either of these contexts of ultimate freedom and/or of the offsetting of “the struggle for reason” that I see cultural production taking place and being evaluated.