"The Weekend Read": Visual Arts and the Transformation of the African Narrative

By: Deonta Wortham 

The visual arts. The medium by which so many try to decipher, expose and describe the context of their culture’s psyche. But can these societal attributes can accurately illustrate the vast complexities that is "reality"? Well, that the visual artist steps in - and “shakes” things up.

Mary Sibande,  I decline. I refuse to decline.  (2010) Image Credit: Gallery Momo

Mary Sibande, I decline. I refuse to decline. (2010) Image Credit: Gallery Momo

Like so many before them, contemporary African artists have attempted to answer and expose societal questions and beliefs through the guise of creative visual work. Works that inspire, highlight, and even anger their audience. Their works transform, and unmask the very nature of one's existence - and often the visual artist dares their audience to dream and aspire - in effect to be more.

When one looks at the cosmopolitan inspired works of Angola's Edson Changas, we witness the integrated simplicity of the urban space meddled with the perplexing facets of contemporary cosmopolitan life. Spurring questions regarding the cultural reality of contemporary Africa with that of the world’s growing consumerist society.

Edson Changas, 'Oikonomos' (2011) Image Credit: http://www.contemporaryand.com/

Through photography, videography and the medium of sculpture, Tanzanian visual artist Rehema Chachage explores the topics of gender, alienation, poverty, and loneliness. Each piece seeks to "spotlight" areas of modern life that are perpetually overlooked, or marginalized. In particular, Chachage seeks to note the changing existence of the African woman in societies that are consistently transforming.

Rehema Chachage, Mizizi/Nasaba (Kinship/Roots) Image Credit: http://rehemachachage.com/

At Gallery Momo in Johannesburg, Thandi Sibisi - the first South African black woman to open a major art gallery in South Africa - is "setting the atmosphere" for artists that actively explore issues such as power dynamics and disregarded facets of contemporary South African life.

Thandi Sibisi, Owner Gallery Momo Image Credit: The Guardian 

These artists' stringent efforts to expose the "underbellies" of African life illustrate the vast nature of contemporary existences across the continent. In the efforts of Changas, Chavhage, and those exhibiting their work at Sibisi's gallery, we are able to note that the African "narrative" is steadily being transformed. 

Andrew Tshabang, Sheme members on the way to Nhlangakazi holy mountain, Natal (2007) Imange Credit: Gallery Momo

Every day brings with it a "new" transformed African reality. Our ability to see these changes are due to the creative efforts of visual artist like those aforementioned. The visual arts tell of life in its  most natural form, they expose the dark realities that we are so often presuppose to overlook, and finally they give a physical, creative, and intellectual illustration of the society in which we find ourselves beholden to.

African visual arts does all these things and more, ensuring that Africa both notices its shortcomings and embraces the tenacity of those willing to perpetually question their existence. 

"The Weekend Read": Your Urban Africa, A Photo Series

By: Deonta Wortham

*This is a part of African: The Built Environment, an ongoing series that will focus on life in African urban centers

Noting the persistent neglect by international media outlets to focus on the aspects of African urban life in 2010 Tanzanian born, and London based, architect David Adjaye set out to establish a media platform that would illustrate the Africa of the Lagos and of Dar es Salaam: urban Africa. Adjaye desired to expose the bustling reality of in Africa’s countless major cities. Relying on the contribution of urban African dwellers across the continent Adjaye created “Your Urban Africa,” an online photo gallery that invites African urbanites to share photos of their African cities in order to highlight African cosmopolitan life.

In a 2010 CNN interview Adjaye noted that his efforts were in part caused by a realization that “there was a cavity in the collective consciousness of urban life in Africa.” A mismatch, of sorts, that has persistently prevented the urban African experience from fully authenticating itself, particularly on the world stage. 

I realized there was a cavity in the collective consciousness of urban life in Africa.
— David Adjaye, CNN Interview 2010

The following images are part of Adjaye's “Your Urban Africa.” They illustrate an Africa that is rarely acknowledged, and yet thy exemplify the immense potential that lies in Africa’s vast, and growing, urban centers. These photos, more importantly, tell the stories of countless African urbanites that are proud to call these urban centers home

"The Midweek Read": Addressing the Issues of African Urban Cores

By: Deonta Wortham

As noted in a profile of the Ivorian architectural firm the Koffi & Diabaté Group, urban planners across the continent are developing innovative methods to prepare African urban centers for the imminent arrival of migrants that will flood city centers in search of economic opportunity in the coming decades. The World Bank has noted that Africa is urbanizing faster than any region in the world, and the urban population, which presently numbers 320 million, is forecasted to reach 654 million by the year 2030. That a fifty percent increase over the span of fifteen years!
The importance of developing innovative, and sustainable, approaches to ready urban centers for their imminent population “bulge” will be of the utmost importance to both African governments, and even more so to the citizens that will call African urban centers “home.”

In this respect, action must be taken to ensure that both private and public entities are able to jointly advance the development effort in rapidly urbanizing areas.

Take the work that the Koffi & Diabaté Group is undertaking in Abidjan. The architectural firm has literally “branched out” to include a number of enterprises that contribute specifically to the development of the core of the Ivorian nation’s largest city. Ranging from the development of urban apartment complexes meant to ease the burdens of urban life, to the development of an arm within the firm that directly addresses urban water issues.

The Koffi & Diabaté Group has noted that urbanization in African cities detail not only the construction of sound urban built environment, but additionally that urbanization in the “African” context means directly interacting with the urban populace to ensure that their needs are being met in relation to the development of their cities.

The importance in doing so transcends the notion of “city planning” and “architectural prowess” and instead focuses on the nexus of the capacity building and sustained development within urban cores. The work of the Koffi & Diabaté Group, serves as a prime example of the work that needs to be enacted in urban centers across the continent. As the persistent reality of migration of the African into the continent’s urban centers face the African continent, the need to improve standards of living within the continent’s urban centers will continue to be an issue of concern that will, require prolonged action on the part of both private and public African actors.

Addressing the issue of African urbanization will additionally require the development of an African architectural community that is capable of advancing the urbanization effort in a coherent and sustainable manner. Koffi & Diabaté Group’s Managing Director Issa Diabaté notes that across the African continent, and particularly in his native Ivory Coast, there is a severe shortage of architects. This leads to a hampered ability to envision the capability of an improved urban spaces and leads to the continuation of urban centers that are plagued with issues caused by uncurbed population growth.

An Aerial of Abidjan's City Center  Image Credit: Cedric Favero 

An Aerial of Abidjan's City Center  Image Credit: Cedric Favero 

Changing the African urban landscape, in a conclusive sense, will not come over a short span of time, but by slowly ensuring that certain issues are solved will reduce strains on urban centers in the coming decades.

Noting the importance of African urban centers in the economic development of the continent, is of the utmost significance that African governments begin the process of detailing manners in which these urban centers can develop in a sustainable fashion, with the help of architects and urban planners that are capable of maximizing the urban center’s potential.

In the coming years the number of African dwellers will only continue to rise. Looking beyond the year 2030, hundreds of millions of new African urbanites will call the continent cities their home. Action needs to be done to ensure that such work is possible, and the encouragement of work of private firms, similar to that of the Koffi & Diabaté Group, should be vigorously advocated.