With a remit to explore
how African art and ideas can change the world for the better: how Africa can lead the way in thinking about culture, community, technology, fashion, sustainability and ethical wealth creation,
Africa Utopia was a three-day event hosted at London’s Southbank Centre over 11-14 September 2014. The packed timetable included talks by writers from the Africa39 anthology, a zine-making workshop by Kwani? magazine, founding father of Ethio-jazz Mulatu Astatke playing live and in conversation, dance, yoga, singing and storytelling workshops, an African design showcase, art installations, a fashion show, performances by the Orchestre Symphonique de Kimbanguiste, Simply Soweto Encha and Gina Yashere, a club night, and numerous talks and panel discussions on subjects from mixed race identities or celebrating African lesbian, gay, queer and trans activism to leadership and business in Africa.
I spent Sunday at Africa Utopia, and it felt to me (disclaimer: I’m not African or of African heritage, so my perspective is that of someone outside the main conversation) like Afropolitanism in action, in the sense of being a meeting point for Africans from across the continent and the diaspora to exchange ideas, but also in the sense for which the notion of Afropolitanism has been criticised: its focus on aesthetics and consumerism.
African-influenced and designed clothes and home furnishings suffused the event’s marketplace, many of them handmade, ethically traded and well-designed, and often (though certainly not exclusively) tending towards the high end in price. A number of the talks, too, focused on aesthetics, style and arts, ranging from African design and architecture to the African fashion industry.
— Southbank Centre (@southbankcentre) September 13, 2014
But this wasn’t just a celebration of our ability to buy ankara shoes, but also an event designed to share ideas about how African entrepreneurialism, arts and design are moving forward.
Dr Ola Orekunrin, founder of the air ambulance service Flying Doctors Nigeria, epitomised this spirit as she talked about her vision of hacking – in the sense of using technology in imaginative new ways to make things better – as the way forward for Africa. Instead of attempting to emulate Western healthcare systems in Nigeria, why not hack healthcare – leapfrog stages of development, and use emergent technologies such as mobile phones and the internet to create a new vision for healthcare? Africa ‘must skip over less efficient, less effective, expensive solutions’ and ‘move straight into the information age’, she argued.
Orekunrin acknowledged that Nigeria’s healthcare system faces enormous infrastructure problems but, she suggested, instead of waiting to fix the roads and electricity, why not use technology to bring healthcare to remote areas – as she is doing with her Flying Doctors service. ‘We have to end the era of copy and paste,’ Orekunrin argued, pointing not only to a need for African solutions to African problems, but also that such solutions could be an improvement on what we currently have in the West. Why, she asked, doesn’t Africa export its own goods and ideas – apart from oil and labour – to the West (or, as she more memorably put it, ‘Why isn’t Jay-Z drinking palm wine in his videos?’)
In Africa, why not leapfrog over the West’s infrastructure and move straight into the information age? – Ola Orekunrin #AfricaUtopia
— Africa in Words (@AfricainWords) September 14, 2014
Kiran Yoliswa and Alae Ismail from Styled by Africa, who ran a fantastic workshop on ‘Blogging Africa’, explained how their blog had enabled them to bring high-end African fashion to the West, and to build connections between African fashion lovers both in Africa and in the West. Other talks similarly focused on technology included a food hackathon (which sought to ‘build networks, cross-pollinate ideas and create new products and tools to innovate and improve the way food resources are shared’), ‘Data in Africa: Fuel for the Future’, and ‘Digital Africa: the Future is Now’ which featured ‘video pieces and sonic experiments by emerging artists working in Africa and the diaspora’. Some of these talks are available on the Southbank Centre’s Youtube channel.
The panel on ‘re-imagining Africa’ with Mary Evans, Funmi Adewole, Bola Agbaje and Zena Edwards took a slightly different tack, enabling a conversation across artistic disciplines: art, dance, theatre/film and poetry. Playwright Bola Agbaje described how she had felt that she ‘didn’t exist on screen’ but her work had enabled her to re-imagine herself as both Nigerian and British (the film adaptation of Bola Agbaje’s play Gone Too Far is released in October 2014, and you can see the trailer here).
— Southbank Centre (@southbankcentre) September 11, 2014
Interestingly, where other panels emphasised the digital and abstraction from physical time and space, many of these artists were returning to physicality and the body, whether in the sense of exploring the power of language, as in poet Zena Edwards’ case, or through the direct use of bodies in their work. Dancer and scholar Funmi Adewole described how she began dancing after realising the power of physicality when she was growing up in Ile-Ife (Nigeria), where acts such as kneeling, greeting and prostrating were important parts of everyday social life. She wanted to ‘find access to this physical, embodied world’ through dance, as well as to challenge ideas about how black bodies were expected to perform.
Mary Evans’ most recent installation, which was showing over the Africa Utopia weekend, features life-size bodies or figures made from craft paper. She said that she uses the figures as a cipher, onto which the audience can project their own ideas. But it was important to her to make these bodies highly visible, because of the invisibility of Africans in the UK mainstream that Bola Agbaje had described.
It didn’t escape my notice that all of the speakers and panel chairs at the talks I attended were women, and I heard members of the audience remarking how refreshing it was to have an event in a mainstream venue like the Southbank where women of colour made up a large number of the speakers and organisers. This, along with its originality of programming, its support for emerging as well as established artists, thinkers and entrepreneurs, and its desire to debate exactly how Africa can ‘hack’ or move forward, rather than simply claim that Africa is ‘rising’, were the strengths of Africa Utopia to my mind.