By Phetogo Tshepo Mahasha | Shadow and Act June 4, 2014 at 1:19PM
Legitimate Art Criticism is concerned with: The Artist, who they are; the work, and the Artist’s environment.
Given what the environment was and is, it raises questions when an artist like for example - Simphiwe Dana can be mentioned in a critic’s article, which in its attempts at giving her work context, doesn’t mention The African Renaissance, but in fact shifts the cultural context to Sun-Ra’s Afro-Futurism, seeing Dana as its “offspring”.
I think in the light of that “African Renaissance” statue in Senegal, which is taller than the Statue of Liberty, for Africans and the rest of the world to think that our cultural production could in a way be immune from the psychic influence of that bulk of mass is to be a bit dishonest; to think that growing up under that mass of statue doesn’t influence our spaces is dishonest. At this point, in my opinion, no art from Africa can be considered without taking into account that gigantic mass of a statue.
In my capacity, as a self-aware creative, I’ve asked myself questions: Without my context, my environment, would I have done that Muhsinah’s ‘Yiy’ music video the way that I’ve done? If my dad, driven by the renaissance, hadn’t encouraged me to know myself, would I have fashioned my art as have? The answer is no, not at all. When an African artist does a film for the renaissance, or out of the renaissance, as I have done as a creative, the art is at times found on blogs dedicated to Afrofuturism, even though the artist himself is not aware of what Afrofuturism is, of which I wasn’t aware of in 2008. It is labelled ‘Afrofuturism’ without even mentioning the artist’s context. I will expand on this in point 6.
For example, for the movie “U-Carmen eKhayelitsha’/Carmen in Khayelitsha, it took a special environment and circumstances for that film to get funding and get made, even Roger Ebert in a minimal review said, ‘That the [South] African Renaissance in film continues with...Carmen in Khayelitsha’. To a more recent release like, ‘Viva Riva’ I spotted a post on a facebook timeline post that mentions…the African Renaissance. This is the environment, no matter how minimal it may seem it is important: In which cultural environment did Mark Shuttleworth go to space to be the first “African in space” and create a flavour of Linux operating system and name it ‘Ubuntu’? What where his reasons for undertaking that expensive space trip? These context questions matter.
When I first heard of Spoek Mathambo he called his music “Township Techno”; true, it may not be a step too far from prefixing it ‘Afro-Something’, but it was still an honest attempt to contextualize his music within the township continuum, with South African music as its lineage. Hearing the genre name itself, ‘Township Techno’ gives a pretty good idea what is happening, though it doesn’t go as far as I hope it should, which is just naming it something different like, ‘HighLife’ music (music originating in Ghana) or Kwaito.
Spoek Mathambo is an even more interesting artist in terms of Art Criticism because he illustrates the strength of ‘Manifesto salesmen.’
To give a clear idea of what I mean by Manifesto salesmanship there is an interesting review of the case of Frida Kahlo and Surrealism. Andre Breton went around selling the Surrealism Manifesto to artists who produced the work without any prior knowledge of his manifesto.
“In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States”- a review from LA Reviews of Books which ends with: “And so, in the end it turns out Breton was justified in his fears. People will call almost anything surrealism”, Eli Diner writes:
“Take the case of Kahlo. She met Breton on his 1938 trip to Mexico. Fascinated by her work, he wrote an essay to accompany her show that year at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York and included some of her paintings in an exhibition the following year in Paris. In 1940, she exhibited work in the International Surrealist Exhibition in Mexico City. She experimented a little with automatic writing and painting and participated in a few exquisite corpses, but Kahlo, for her part, rejected the label and disavowed any interest in surrealism, insisting that she did not “paint dreams.” In a letter to a friend in 1952, she summed up her feelings on the subject: “I detest surrealism. To me it seems to be a decadent manifestation of bourgeois art.” Kahlo’s naive style, disturbing imagery, phantasmagoric ruptures and canvases crowded with “non-western” logics of the folkloric, the archaic and the natural, suggest that her many affinities with surrealism remain just that, incidental. For Breton this was precisely the point. Kahlo offered a kind of natural confirmation of the surrealist sensibility. He wrote of his “surprise and joy” upon discovering her work, which had “blossomed forth […] into pure surreality, despite the fact that it had been conceived without any prior knowledge whatsoever of the ideas motivating the activities of my friends and myself.” Activities, it should be added, that principally included the very procedure Breton performed in identifying Kahlo. As much as the art and literature — or, for that matter, the games, the manifestos, and the so-called “researches”— surrealism consisted of the hunt for iterations of the surreal. From distant corners of the globe, in primitive art and tribal cultures; among the hysterics in the Salpêtrière Hospital; in objects acquired at Paris flea markets; among the work of a few contemporaries deemed kindred spirits or the poetry of a 14-year-old girl seen to have arrived at a pure automatism; and through literary and artistic forebears reshuffled in an ever-changing account of their own lineage, the surrealists gleefully coopted whatever might fit into their vast catalogue of surreality.”
Which brings me to a TED talk by Wanuri Kahiu, titled ‘Afrofuturism and the African’ (July 2012). With all due respect, the TED talk by Kahiu is very clear that it is a manifesto sales pitch, comparable to Andre Breton’s sales pitch, in that she disregards the incidental ‘similarity’ of the work produced around Africa and Afrofuturism, and she disregards the African context in which the work is produced around Africa, and she wants to force the ‘Afrofuturism’ context which has it’s own history on the African works. In the talk, Kahiu gives a brief history of Afrofuturism and then to underlie the sales pitch, “…but that was very specifically about African-Americans but I wanted to find a place for Afrofuturism in Africa.” Then she proceeds to offset the cultural context of ancient African myths, legends and visuals with Afrofuturism.
With all due respect, I find this sort of ‘Bretonian’ manifesto salesmanship a bit damaging. It distorts the diachronic (historical narrative) analysis of the work by not seeing it as a mere concurrent and incidental relationship. I humbly doubt, and I may be wrong, that Spoek Mathambo or Wanuri Kahiu, as I was, knew what Afrofuturism was when they began. I humbly assume that it was sold to them, as it was sold to me. I may be wrong in this assumption, in effect to point at a sense of inevitability.
As it was for me, it was one of those things that you do something and present it to others and others tell you what you are doing from their own context, like – “hey, you are doing Afrofuturism’, which if you are black and live in Africa it really strikes me as inevitable to produce such work in the renaissance context; and that’s not ground enough for the Renaissance’s continuum to be distorted.
In Art, there is tension, collaboration and assimilation in the interactions between people of African Descent world-wide. These can be systematically listed and tracked, so that the Art production is correctly interpreted and contextualized. This tension and assimilation must be taken into account; lineage of things must be taken into consideration.
In my opinion, Afrofuturism and other Afro-manifestos cannot entirely and securely stand separately from the African Renaissance because in some aesthetic terms they depend on the cultural excavations of the Renaissance.
True, culture may build on work of other cultures of other cultures of other cultures…
As I have explored my views, I concluded:
a) The prefix ‘afro-’ needs to be minimized for the sake of freeing African imagination. Since I can’t foresee and cover the entire use of the prefix, I am referring to the points that I’ve covered in this essay in relation to art-criticism. I see it as a necessity for the sake of encouraging imagination to grow and not be restricted to other pre-existing manifestos, where we’d only attach to other pre-existing manifestos and not come up with something unique. This will promote fresh thinking. Afro-manifestos have a “leeching” tinge to them. They are forms of reacting to things instead of all out attempt at ‘originality’ - Black people reacting to other manifestos: Punk (Afro-Punk), Surrealism (Afro-Surrealism) etc. I haven’t even taken into account that Afrofuturism may be a misnomer, when looked at with the “Futurism” manifesto.
b) Art critics need to be bold enough to give things stand alone names. Everything is about encouraging invention. ‘High-life’ music is highlife. The implication being that any person of any descent can do Highlife music; can the same be easily said for any of the ‘Afro-’ prefixed semi-manifestos? Or does it pivot on race? Can a Japanese person do ‘Afro-punk’ and if so, would it require another prefix to be Japanese-Afro-Punk? I have difficulty answering these questions. I don’t think I would be way off to imagine that the South American manifesto of ‘Magic Realism’ would be called ‘Afro-something’ if it was being done by people of African descent. We need to encourage new names and manifestos.
c) The African Renaissance is about creating a floor in a much larger context, which aims for African people to be free amongst other free people. It’s about freeing the African from the “struggle for reason” by collecting and restoring artefacts, and projecting these into the future so that this base will always be available to future generations. It is either within the context of ultimate freedom (Free to explore and create new black African identities, new Manifestos) and/or the offsetting of “the struggle for reason” that cultural production takes place and should be evaluated in. it must be recognized that ‘some’ current African Art cannot be contextualized without mention of the Renaissance and its excavations.
Even as I write this I have doubts, that of course I may be biased. It took a long time to finish this essay and to publish it. I wouldn’t like to speak only for myself, I’d like to believe that there must be others who feel the same as I do: I don’t, for a second, doubt the force of my imagination. My mind may change in time about the contents of this essay but at this point I am convinced.