African Futures Just don’t be so white!

AF: Sei nicht so weiß
African futures Festival © Goethe-Institut/Lerato Maduna

It is a survival strategy for many artists with African roots to revolt against traditional thought patterns and stereotype thinking. In this respect, Europe still has a lot to learn.

It’s a sunny afternoon in Southwest Soweto. Albert Ibokwe Khoza is standing right in front of me – naked. Naked and, as it seems, very angry. Just one moment ago he has burnt some dried leaves and tossed them through the impromptu performance space. Now he is staring at me and the other spectators in the front row with sparkling eyes. He is planting himself in front of us stamping his big feet. Albert is a Sangoma, a traditional healer. “Perhaps he is performing some kind of ritual”, I think to myself. But then he is grasping his hair, a long queue of 1,50 meters,whipping it onto the floor. He’s just annoyed, he says, adding that he always been given funny looks ever since he had been trained as a dancer. Then he starts to laugh and performs a few tendus.

The western festival scene is already taking notice of Albert. And I’m beginning to sense that he will be extremely successful in Europe. After all, he destroys the exotic notion we are all secretely craving. Besides, his agent lives in Berlin. However, Albert will be moving within a strictly carved out territory of a Eurocentric arts scene. He will be talking about identity und his struggle for acceptance. He will be singing, stomping his feet and charming everyone. But still I assume he will only partly succeed in illustrating the hard work behind dealing with one’s identity.

Radical exchange

For artists of African heritage, it is an everyday business to position themselves. They can only dream of differing images of Africa with ignorance prevailing in the Western world. Over here, it is still not understood that people are in fact able to switch from Yoruba and Xhosa traditions commuting between the urban chaos of cities like Lagos, London or Johannesburg. People are moving more or less smoothly between countries, cultures and continents, but still they have one thing in common: They are constantly confronted with Western stereotype regarding Africa on the one hand and social conventions on the continent on the other.

The morning before Albert’s performance artist Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi takes to the stage of the Goethe-Insititut. This year’s festival theme deals with the future of Africa, and she introduces her women’s collective. So, why has she joined hands with other black artists? “Because we purely need one another”, she says. “On our own, we would probably not succeed in an art’s world dominated by white patriarchal structures. However, as a group, we have a chance to be seen.” Slowly Thenjiwe and her colleagues are conquering South African cultural spaces calling themselves “multipliers” to emphasize the added value of their work, namely their joint efforts to reject traditional lines of thought. “To us, this is more than a rhetoric matter”, she says. “We have to overcome prevailing structures in order to be able to work”. Dealing with one’s own stereotypes is merely a strategy to survive. That’s why we’re setting up a number of projects such as a pop-up bookstore in which stories about race, class und gender are told by human beings, not by books.

Her pop-up gallery based in Soweto also aims to get close to people. It’s not by chance that Albert is shaking his big belly right in front of my nose this afternoon. Those few art spaces in Soweto reach out for tourists and white people based in Johannesburg in order to confront them with a reality they know so little about. “It’s really hard to get people from Johannesburg to come and see the shows“, says curator Zanele Matsumi. "They are still afraid of entering the townships“. It is Matsumis firm belief that such fears of contacts can and must be overcome by a radical confrontation. Otherwise, she says, the tension that still dominates her town will never be resolved.

Talking of mutual reservations: Europe is in need of new ways of dealing with Africa’s diverse societies too. A number of cultural institutions are beginning to recognize this need. So far the relation between African artists and Europe was based on financial dependence. But artists are beginning to have a determining influence on their collaborations, and Western institutions are listening. This is a chance of drawing attention form black and white, African and European perspectives to the daily life of people like Albert. In Johannesburg, a place where artists remain confronted with taboos and violations of the past, at least the Goethe-Institut is moving away from a dimensional viewpoint. Over here, Albert does not have to explain why he considers himself cosmopolitan - the city’s guests would certainly call themselves cosmopolitans too.

Thenjiwe Nkosi and I are standing in front of a cinema in the city’s fancy district Maboneng. We have just watched a science fiction movie about two man-eating female dissidents from Cameroon. We are talking about Audre Lorde and about how heavily the idea of black feminism has influenced both of us, amazed to find out just how much two black women, one from Europe and one from Africa, have in common. Suddenly, the film’s director is coming towards us. He has heard me saying that my father is actually from his neighboring country. "Oh, that’s nice, you are from Guinea!“, he shouts excitedly. “No, you got me wrong”, I answer instinctively, obviously a result of me having lived in Europe for 40 years. “I am German“. He’s looking at me with pity and places his hand on my shoulder. "Oh, come on girl“, he says with a fatherly tone in his voice, „just don’t be so white”.

I am so annoyed that it takes me a beer to regain my smile. I’m laughing about the fact that you can never be sure who is labelling you and how. About the absurdity of the fact that I’ve been trying for ages to convince my German home of my belonging, even though my idea of origin exceeds a nationality stamped on your passport. And I also laugh about the fact that I find it highly disturbing that a guy from Cameroon is trying to explain my own identity to me. Thenjiwe and I are looking at each other. Her mother is from Greece, mine from Hamburg. For the tourists passing by we’re all Africans anyway.