The V&A feels even more lavish by night than by day – everything is that little bit grander, shinier and sparklier. I was there last Friday for Afropolitans, an evening celebrating artistic talent from a ‘new generation of tastemakers whose sensibilities are rooted in their African identities’. Organised on the occasion of the V&A’s current show of South African photography (which closes in a couple of weeks, so don’t miss out), the event featured a menu of live music, a fashion show, various installations, screenings and talks. Gathering in the entrance hall, the crowd was good-looking, the drinks were flowing, and the mood was upbeat – club V&A.
With just a few hours to explore, I was reluctant to spend a whole 60 minutes sitting in a lecture theatre (it was a Friday night, after all) but I’m glad I made the effort. The panel discussion, ‘What is an Afropolitan?’, certainly shed some light on what for me (and perhaps many people present) was an unfamiliar term. The word was coined in a 2005 essay by Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu, and has since inspired a number of blogs (see here and here) and plenty of positive feedback from people who identify with its ideas. The panellists – Hannah Pool, Lulu Kitololo, Yemi Alade-Lawal and Minna Salami, plus chair Tolu Ogunlesi – each discussed what ‘Afropolitan’ meant to them, coming up with varied but mostly complementary interpretations.
On a basic level, being an Afropolitan seemed to involve being creative, being sophisticated, and above all, being both globally-connected and African-centred. Perhaps most interesting was the view put forward in different ways by both Salami and Alade-Lawal, who said that the term has more to do with a state of mind – an ‘Afro/African consciousness’ or political awareness – than with ethnicity. Anybody might be an Afropolitan, as chair Ogunlesi concluded; it’s an inclusive term, which makes a virtue out of difference and confusion, and asks questions rather than making assumptions.
The Q&A afterwards was a good opportunity to consider some of this a little more critically; isn’t being an Afropolitan a rather elitist idea? asked one audience member. Clearly, some people living in Africa may not be able to – and may not wish to – identify with the panellists’ globe-hopping, culturally mobile lives. Equally, some people of African descent living in countries like the UK may have never been anywhere near Africa; can they be Afropolitans too? The response that it’s simply a matter of ‘being interested’ didn’t quite cut it for me; it’s all very well showing an interest in an Afropolitan lifestyle and sensibility if you have the means to do so, but if the upshot of this is that Africans who can’t be ‘Afropolitans’ appear to remain in a sort of disconnected, out-of-date alternate universe, I’m not quite so keen. Nonetheless, the term certainly seemed to chime with a lot of the audience’s experiences, and I felt that one of Ogunlesi’s closing comments, that it’s just another ‘lens’ through which to look, was a fair assessment.
The discussion was positive and inspiring, but not quite enough to prevent me sneaking out slightly before the end, in an attempt to catch some of the other events. No such luck; the queues for the photography studio and textile workshop were a mile long, and the rain had driven South African musician Spoek Mathambo and his fans indoors. Skulking inside, we fell foul of the draconian V&A drinks police – no drinks in (or through) the shop or any of the galleries, which meant it was impossible to get from one part of the event to the other without first downing your small and expensive beverage. I appreciate that they don’t want tipsy visitors spilling drinks on the merchandise (or on the priceless exhibits) but really, this should perhaps be re-thought for next time.
After a while, drink-less yet still enthusiastic, consensus shifted towards ignoring the fact that it was peeing down with rain and just getting on with it, as the music began in the beautiful V&A courtyard. A small cluster of hardy revellers sploshed their way through a few Mathambo numbers, accessorising with umbrellas, while one small but exceptionally confident young boy threw some impressive shapes right in the middle of a massive puddle. We shortly retreated to the comfort of the café to rest our legs and dry out our feet, not long before it was hometime anyway – curfew is 10pm. I suppose sculptures need their sleep too.
For the V&A, this kind of thing is a surefire hit in certain respects: people will always show up, and beyond a bit of crowd management, it’s simply a matter of letting people enjoy themselves. The trickier question, of course, is, what’s the point of this event? Does it have a point? Is it breaking any new ground, and does it matter? I’m all for encouraging exposure of contemporary art and creativity from and about Africa, and if this has the side-effect of challenging stereotypes and making people think in new ways, so much the better. But I’m not so keen on the idea of big ‘African themed’ shows and festivals that pop up periodically and then disappear again, only to be ‘rediscovered’ a few years down the line (Africa ’95 and Africa ’05… Africa ’15, anyone?). It’s great to have large events that get people involved, but the ‘showcase’ format risks creating an empty ‘brand Africa’, perhaps at the expense of some more critical and interesting (but lesser-known and maybe less accessible) work, which doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.
The interesting thing about Afropolitans was that it partly managed to circumvent this problem, by being more about people than about places. It trod a fine line between lumping African countries together, and attempting to weave threads between them and the rest of the world, through both personal and national histories and stories. One suspects that an exhibition of British photography in Johannesburg (for example) would not be considered an appropriate occasion on which to also present an evening discussion about Swedish textiles, even if there were some kind of common historical or social context. For the Afropolitan, however, there’s no doubt that it’s precisely this kind of mash-up of cultural references that often resonates most strongly. From this perspective, flinging South, West and North African elements together for an evening in London could thus be seen less as an exercise in box-filling, and more as a coming together of some of the many and diverse influences that feed into contemporary Afropolitan sensibilities. So well done, V&A, for putting on a fun and thought-provoking evening; more like this, please.