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March 30 2017

Afrotopia | Redefinition, Renegotiation, Realignment for the African Renaissance

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Lecture: Culture and imagination of Renewal in Africa, with Professor Felwine Sarr
Saturday 11 March 2017 | 10h00 - 12h00 | La Rotonde des Arts, Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire)

“When will we ever stop considering others’ past as our future?” - Sami Tchak

This provocative quip by the famed Togolese author to the young economist and philosopher, Professor Felwine Sarr (Senegal) lays out the premise of his recent publication, Afrotopia (2016). Already being described as a manifesto for a new vision of Africa, Sarr’s extended essay looks to redefine, renegotiate and realign Africa and African people, advocating for a rejection of the mimicry of the global north, where African culture and traditionalism has become synonymous with backwardness and a lack of progress. Sarr posits that by unpacking the economy, philosophy and culture of the African continent, in its rich multiplicity, there is the possibility for true emancipation, for an authentic African Renaissance.

While speaking at La Rotonde des Arts in Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire) as part of Arterial Network’s 10th anniversary programme of events, Professor Sarr elaborated on the role of culture in the emancipation of Africa, and its ability to shape a new reality in a cathartic process of creative realignment. In this vision, arts and culture become a ‘cure’ to redefine the ‘African’ as an independent, empowered subject, rather than a passive object that is often linked to caricature and ridicule, from without and within. In asking WHO is defining Africa and Africans, it becomes easier to identify the pervasive tropes created by former colonisers that have become internalised by Africans themselves. For Sarr, “Culture is a glimmer of hope for Africa” with it’s unique ability to transcend barriers with its fluid, adaptable nature.

During his lecture, Sarr referenced the Ivorian reggae artist, Tiken Jah Fakoly, as an example of this self-victimisation and portrayal of African people as passive objects in his early work. However, in recent years, his music has veered strongly towards the theme of African emancipation and African subjectivity, and aims to raise awareness among the youth of the necessity to fight against this self-imposed impotence and sense of hopelessness. His recent work speaks to the fact that no one will come to build the continent, and it is Africans who must force off the yoke of history within themselves that leads to this lack of confidence. Through his music, he is able to fight back against the negative stereotypes by presenting Africa in a new, more authentic light.

According to Sarr, violence and liberation go hand-in-hand, as we have seen in most regions of Africa following the colonial era; leaving devastation in its wake, but also a purge relating to centuries of colonial subjugation. Following this period of great adversity, the next phase must surely bring greater clarity of vision, of thought and of confidence to move forward as a continent. Sarr referenced South Africa as an example of a country that has not undergone this trial by fire as other countries have, which has led to a stewing of aggressions that has erupted most recently in the xenophobic attacks in Durban and Johannesburg. He posits that this is due to a suppression of anger that has not been adequately worked through following the end of apartheid. The necessity of self-expression in order to make progress cannot be understated, and this is where art and culture can assist individuals to creatively work through their own stories and history, as well as the story and history of the collective when it comes to nation building.

The value system of African culture remains far below where it should be, with African art and cultural productions being undervalued by governments and ordinary citizens alike. Sarr explained that Africans need to be able to create a cultural matrix that works for the continent, that can adapt to changing situations as it moves between the old and the new, where we currently find ourselves stuck. Art and culture is essential to reshaping social life by expressing African experiences in ways that are inclusive and supportive of cultural ideas. The establishment of creative spaces where these changes/ exchanges can occur is crucial to the act of emancipation, as well as arts and cultural themed events, because, as Professor Sarr puts it, “art and imagination contribute to this revolutionary process.”

The very act of creation is conducive to nation building and the establishment of an African Renaissance. Before the act of creation can happen, the reflection, imagination and conception of the idea must occur so that when the product is concluded, there is already a lot of work that has been done to pay the idea forward to the audience so that they may pick up on the message, and incorporate it into their way of thinking. These multiple sources of inspiration and ideas are essential to the wellness of a society as they equip individuals with the tools to creatively problem solve and work through adversity, among other things. As Sarr explains, “culture is often understood as the genesis of man.”

In closing, Professor Sarr elaborated on the merits of religion and culture as instigators for positive change across Africa. He also cautioned the audience to look to the continent for inspiration, rather than conforming to world trends that are often devoid of meaning to the contexts where they are propagated.

Korkor Amarteifio (former Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of Arterial Network) kicked off the question and answer round by querying how Professor Sarr can advocate for religion as a force for development, considering how churches across Africa are often run more like businesses than spaces of spiritual instruction and sharing. In response, Sarr clarified that perhaps ‘spirituality’ is the better term to use, while also acknowledging that contemporary churches are often used as a tool for subjugation of their congregations, rather than development. That being said, traditional African religions, or ‘spirituality,’ can have healing qualities and enable Africans to recover from the violence that has been enacted against them, empowering them to move forward. An example that he used was the Rwandan genocide that erupted due to an erasure of local culture by the Germans and Belgians, showing that a loss of culture allows individuals to lose sight of themselves.

Sandy Kouamé, a young filmmaker from Côte d’Ivoire, took the floor to lament the lack of infrastructure for filmmakers to develop their craft in order to readdress the caricaturing and misrepresentation of Africa and African people. The audience present agreed with her impassioned statement about the power of the image to share ideas, and the need for further capacity building for the arts in order to democratise new media, like cinema and photography.

Nathan Kiwere of Arterial Network Uganda enquired about the relevance of traditionalism in an age of post-modernism and progress. In response to this, Sarr said, “We should not be following modernism for the sake of following, but rather transition based on the fertile traditions that we already have. We must use culture as a filter to encounter the rest of the world, and we need to decide through conscious effort what is sustainable and what should survive/ endure. The European renaissance sought inspiration and direction (redirection) from their own ancient culture, from what had been before, and Africa must come back to itself in the same way.”

In response to a question from George Camille, Arterial Network Seychelles, about the position of African art as more influencer or influenced within the global village, Sarr responded that, “In general, capitalism makes African art more influenced than influential. Africa still inspires others across the globe, but lacks the economic impetus or power to place monetary value on its productions. Art in Africa is often produced for economic reasons which destroys the artistic meaning or integrity of the object. I believe that this relationship with the ‘market’ needs to be redefined.”

In closing, Mike van Graan (Former Secretary General), delved into the issue of political interference that continues to stifle artistic production across Africa. He said, “Politics is about creating rules within society for equitable access and regulation, but Africa’s political theme is one of inequity. Currently, imagination is suppressed, and those with imagination are not encouraged to participate.” He acknowledged Professor Sarr’s argument that Africa is caught between modernity and pre-colonial identity to an extent, but took this further by saying “we are actually caught between colonialists and the oppressive new regime that relies on patriarchy and a dismissal of LGBTI rights.”

Sarr agreed that Africa has experienced the exile of intellectuals and artists due to their subversive nature as individuals who are able and/ or willing to speak up. Although he countered with the notion that artists have never needed an institutional facilitation in order to create. That even under fascism or an autocracy, there is always a window of opportunity for self-expression as this is the nature of the artist to be non-conformist. He said, “In a situation where artists are repressed, arrested or harmed, these are situations where their societal value is bolstered. Their strength is revealed due to the fear they strike into the hearts of political powers who would suppress them. That is of course not to say that suppression is valid behaviour, but simply to say that this is where the artist is needed most.”

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