Excerpt: Mwenya Kabwe, ‘Astronautus Afrikanus: Performing African Futurism’ – Acts of Transgression (2019)

(To reconnect with our Africa in Words review of the text, by Tom Penfold, please click here.)

Astronautus Afrikanus: Performing African Futurism’ is one of two previews, excerpted, with the kind permission of the publisher, from Acts of Transgression: Contemporary Live Art in South Africa, Wits University Press: 2019. Edited by Jay Pather and Catherine Boulle.

The excerpt from Sarah Nuttall’s chapter ‘Upsurge’, can be found here

Astronautus Afrikanus: Performing African Futurism, Mwenya Kabwe.
In a short video available online, in which Edward Mukuka Nkoloso appears to be wearing a cape and a standard-issue World War II helmet, Nkoloso is interviewed by a British reporter. When asked to identify his spacecraft, he points to two empty oil drums stacked on top of each other with a small oval window. His Afronauts are captured doing jumping jacks as part of their training programme and rolling each other down a series of bumpy hills in empty oil drums to simulate weightlessness. The interviewer calls Nkoloso and his team ‘a bunch of crackpots’.[1]

In the context of the 2015 student uprisings, to which the cast of Astronautus Afrikanus[2] was negotiating their degrees of allegiance, this last diminishing utterance by the interviewer was heavily critiqued in an early rehearsal. The discussion of the video centered on what students read as the deep levels of disregard and ridicule of not only Nkoloso and his project, but by extension African ingenuity. The students read the comment of the British interviewer – and, by extension, the west – as delegitimising Nkoloso’s capacity to dream as big as the superpowers of the day. As one of the few pieces of available archival footage of Nkoloso, the video was seen as writing him and his project into history as largely illegitimate and comical. They perceived the tropes of representation here as threatening to rupture the connection between Africanness and intelligence, ingenuity and knowledge-making. These readings set an early agenda for our project as one that was concerned with ‘challenging debilitating discourses on Africa.’ [3] 

In the process of reclaiming the figure of Nkoloso from the pejorative image cast by this video, he was initially read as an African futurist. Our own working definition of the term included the opportunity to engage in a politics of the future that ceases to construct black Africanness in opposition to what Alondra Nelson describes as ‘technologically driven chronicles of progress.’[4] Our starting point was to reclaim Nkoloso as a utopian visionary and African futurist – ahead of his time in his ability to see a Zambian mission to the moon as a metaphor for the expansive and deeply hopeful future of an independent Northern Rhodesia. He planned to launch the rocket from Independence Stadium to coincide with the very first hoisting of the Zambian flag. 

The possibilities also opened for us to read Nkoloso as much more subversive. He became not only an eccentric visionary, taking the metaphor of Zambia’s independence literally to new heights, but also a trickster and satirist. In this reading, the cast imagined Nkoloso’s space programme as a front for underground revolutionary activity, his cape and helmet a disguise, and the antics of his training programme a successful distraction from his clear-headed leadership of an anticolonial student movement.

With all these possibilities afloat, he became the Astronautus Afrikanus creative and intellectual ancestor committing us to exploring how themes and images of space and space travel become an ‘imaginal machine for thinking and organizing to get out of this world that we want to leave behind.’[5] 

Mwenya B. Kabwe, ‘Astronautus Afrikanus’, 2015. Photo credit: Jonathan Georgiades

The production was conceptualised as being driven by the ancient and futuristic, and how these supposed poles might meet in the present. Nkoloso’s space rocket became a kind of connecting device, metaphorically connecting the ground to the sky, the ancient to the future, the practical to the potential. It was this commitment to the potential that we were most inspired by, and out of which came a series of questions that framed the production’s devising process, as captured in the Director’s note: 

It seems that now more than ever we are presented with the opportunity to re-member ourselves. To put ourselves back together and imagine ourselves as Africans, differently…We asked ourselves, what happens if we start from the premise that we know; that we are full of knowing…We asked what happens if we consider indigenous African knowledge systems central rather than alternative; status quo rather than subversive; common practice rather than subordinate, sceptical, inferior and the domain of the ‘less educated’?
Kabwe, Astronautus Afrikanus Programme, 2015 [6]

Among the major issues that the student movements have raised is a desire to know differently from what has historically been valued by institutions. In this light, the process of making Astronautus Afrikanus involved a series of ongoing conversations with the cast of 11 students about knowledge production in a university setting – what it means to know, who determines what is constituted as knowledge, how it is validated and what kinds of knowledge systems are delegitimised and how. 

As a result, the students’ self-directed research processes included detailed engagements with family members, more and less available historical records and their own ideas of African knowledge-making. This research formed the basis of generating their performance material and Pan-African space station characters as technicians, each working with a particular expertise in the collective work of the space station. As the content evolved, so did the form and eventually what was written, as the performance text was a rich assemblage of characters, transformed spaces, objects, costumes, environments and installations until the final rocket launch – a spectacle of light and sound.

The Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements have erupted as an urgent call to reimagine. The works in this chapter respond to this call by opening up ‘fields of possibility’ and ‘new narratives’ that challenge dominant structures with new ideas, images, locations, as well as with new roles and configurations of participants.[7] These projects respond to the critiques of African futurism by working with the possibility of using the future and embracing uncertainty to navigate an often hostile and exclusionary present. At the same time, these performative works indicate that bringing the speculative to bear on the past has everything to do with how we understand the present and, ultimately, with the kinds of new African futures we may actually imagine and bring into being. 

1. ‘1964: Edward Nkoloso’s Space Program,’ YouTube video, 1:02, 2 June 2016, accessed 15 March 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abVrYdYNAyU. /\
2.  In May of 2015, I was invited to be the director in residence at the Rhodes University Drama Department in Grahamstown to make a new work with students across years and with my long-time collaborator and friend Lieketso wa Thaluki. Astronautus Afrikanus was the work we created, and which I directed. /\
3. Steve Odero Ouma, ‘The African Renaissance and Discourse Ownership: Challenging Debilitating Discourses on Africa,’ in African Intellectuals and Decolonisation, ed. Nicholas M Creary (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012), 117. /\
4. Alondra Nelson, ‘Introduction: Future Texts,’ Social Text 20, no. 2 (2002): 1, accessed 13 November 2017, doi: 10.1215/01642472-20-2_71-1.) /\
5. Shukaitis, ‘Space is the (non)place,’ 98. /\
6. Mwenya B. Kabwe, Astronautus Afrikanus Programme (Grahamstown: Rhodes Main Theatre, 21–23 May 2015), 2. /\
7. Jonathan Dotse, ‘We Know We Will,’ in African Futures: Thinking About the Future in Word and Image, eds. Lien Seleme-Heidenreich and Sean O’Toole (Bielefeld: Kerber Culture, 2016), 24. /\

 

We are particularly grateful for permission to publish these previews to underline the interventions of Acts of Transgression, and for the points of crossover with our AiW review. Tom Penfold’s review engages with the multiple ways the volume argues away from the “rationalist imperative to ‘put into words’” (2) and towards the moments of live performance art: in the “upsurge”, as Sarah Nuttall characterises it here, and the “concatenation of emotions that the work of discarding, destruction, reassembling and creation involves”; and the possibilities of the “urgent call to reimagine” and “desire to know differently from what has historically been valued by institutions” that Mwenya Kabwe discusses in the excerpt above.

Sarah Nuttall’s chapter, ‘Upsurge’, and Mwenya Kabwe’s on ‘Astronautus Afrikanus‘ can be read in full in Acts of Transgression: Contemporary Live Art in South Africa (2019). With our thanks once again to the publishers, Wits UP.
Acts of Transgression is edited by Jay Pather and Catherine Boulle.

Click here to reconnect with our AiW review of the text, by Tom Penfold.

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