African Art in London

London / Art / Africa

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Deloitte Ignite ‘Africa Weekend’ @ Royal Opera House

After all the excitement of the Southbank’s Africa Utopia season, now the Royal Opera House is having a go – at the end of the month, Covent Garden will be taken over by ‘Africa Weekend’, aka Deloitte Ignite, a three-day festival of African music, dance, film, visual art, performance and more, curated by artist Yinka Shonibare MBE.

Following his hugely popular fourth plinth commission, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, Shonibare turned his attention to another London landmark, the Royal Opera House, where this summer he installed a sculpture on the side of the building called Globe Head Ballerina. I have yet to see it myself, so I can’t judge whether Shonibare has achieved his aim of bringing a ‘childhood sense of magic and wonder to the façade of the Royal Opera House’, but here’s a little preview:

Globe Head Ballerina – Yinka Shonibare MBE (2012)

Now, continuing his relationship with the ROH, Shonibare is curating the ‘Africa Weekend’, a ‘celebration of traditional African and avant-garde arts and culture, expressing Africa’s global contribution to the contemporary arts world’. There’s certainly a great programme lined up, and in contrast to Africa Utopia, it seems much more focused on listening, moving and watching rather than talking (i.e. more performances, less chat). I’m still a bit uncomfortable about the ‘let’s celebrate Africa’ vibe, but when festivals like this bring so many great artists and performers together in one place, it’s hard not to enjoy it… best of all, the daytime events are all free.

Visual art and film highlights include:

  • Africa on the Piazza: open-air screenings of African films, from classic to contemporary, curated by Yinka Shonibare and John Akomfrah (founding member of the Black Audio Film Collective). Covent Garden Piazza, Saturday 1st Sept, 14.00-10.00
  • Rotimi Fani-Kayode: photographs exploring gay African identities (which I enjoyed a lot when I saw them at Rivington Place a while back)

Plus loads of exciting dance, performance and music. You can watch a trailer for the festival here, and see more info about the programme here.

31 August – 2 September

Royal Opera House / Covent Garden – various venues.

Some evening events are ticketed. Daytime events are FREE, but also ticketed. Both free and paid-for tickets are available through the website.


Africa Utopia @ Southbank Centre

Just a quick reminder (to myself as much as anyone) about Africa Utopia, the gigantic festival of all-things-African which has just kicked off at the Southbank. I posted about some of the tempting events in this series several weeks ago, but now that July is upon us, the programme has expanded excitingly in all directions. Here are a few of the contemporary art highlights (just block-book your diary for 21st July…)

Africa Sci-Fi Screening – a chance to see some shorts from the Arnolfini’s Superpower exhibition
Front Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall
Weds 4th July, 9.30pm, free (+ booking fee)

Nollywood or Bust: Africa at the Movies – discussion on the future of African cinema
Front Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall
Sat 21st July, 11am, free

Imagining Africa: a Granta Salon – Yinka Shonibare and others in discussion, hosted by Granta Magazine
Front Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall
Sat 21st July, 12.30pm, free

ARISE and shine – salon event hosted by ARISE Magazine, featuring Dak’art 2012 curator Christine Eyene, among others
Front Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall
Sat 21st July, 3pm, free

Art Connect: Contemporary African Art and the Global Art Market – the next discussion in Tiwani‘s series (previous ones here and here), with my good friend Emeka Ogboh, Mary Evans and others
Front Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall
Sat 21st July, 6pm, free

We Face Forward: Art from West Africa Today – session about the current festival up in Manchester, led by Whitworth curator Bryony Bond
Front Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall
Sun 22nd July, 3.30pm, free

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Africa Utopia @ Southbank Centre

Baaba Maal

There’s a whole host of events coming up at the Southbank Centre this July as part of Africa Utopia, a month-long festival of music, theatre, film, literature, dance, fashion, talks and debates. Baaba Maal has been involved with the programming, and will kick things off on July 3rd with Word Sound Power, an evening of music and poetry with Lemn Sissay and friends.

Highlights include blues legend Taj Mahal, Malian diva Oumou Sangaré (who I’ve been wanting to see for a few years) and, on July 4th, a special free screening and discussion of some of the short films from the Arnolfini’s Africa sci-fi show Superpower, for anyone unable to make it along to Bristol.

Get your tickets early. For more details on the programme and to book, take a look here.


African Art in Bristol and Manchester…

I’m bending the rules a little to let you know about two exciting exhibitions that are on over the next few months. They aren’t in London, but they sound great. So…

First, just open at the Arnolfini in Bristol is Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction. The conceit is an intriguing one – it’s about how artists locate stories, ideas and dreams from science fiction in the African continent. This seems to me like a great concept. What better starting point than Sci-Fi to explore new technologies and possible futures in Africa, not simply as pathways to ‘development’ but as processes requiring critical and creative reflection? With works including Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Icarus 13 (2006) – a series of photographs documenting the preparations for the first ever expedition to the sun, led by the Angolan government – and Neïl Beloufa’s Kempinski (2007), a video installation featuring Malians talking about telepathy and teleportation – the show features a range of Africa and Europe-based artists, and promises to participate in ‘the battle to represent the future.’ Sounds pretty unmissable.

Jugement Dernier I – Barthélémy Toguo

If Superpower leaves you wanting more, in Manchester this summer you can check out We Face Forward, a season of contemporary art and music from West Africa. Part of the London 2012 Festival, the season runs for over three months and includes a bewildering array of artists and musicians in venues across the city including Manchester Art Gallery, Whitworth Art Gallery and the Gallery of Costume. There’s really too much going on to list it all here – better to have a browse of the website and take it from there.

Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction
Show: until 1st July

Opening hours:
Tues-Sun, 11 – 6

16 Narrow Quay, Bristol


We Face Forward
Season runs 2nd June – 16 Sept

Opening hours/venues: various. See here for further details.

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Isango Ensemble @ Hackney Empire

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist - The Isango Ensemble

After last year’s Woyzeck, there’s some more spectacular South African musical theatre coming to London next month, courtesy of the award-winning Isango Ensemble. The company’s performers, who are from townships around South Africa, reinterpret Western theatrical and operatic classics by placing well-known stories in new and powerful contexts that highlight South African historical and contemporary realities.  They are kicking off their international tour with three concurrent shows at the Hackney Empire in London:

La Boheme – Abanxaxhi
11th May – 1st June
Sneak preview available here.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist – Izigwili Ezidlakazelayo
12th May – 3rd June

Aesop’s Fables
13th May – 2nd June

Ticket prices range from a very affordable £8 to £34, with various discounts and multi-buy deals on offer – for instance, if you want to see all three shows, you can get £12 off. More details here.

Hackney Empire
291 Mare Street, London
E8 1EJ

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Postmodernism / Samuel Kane Kwei / Bodys Isek Kingelez @ V&A

This is unforgivably late, but if you’ve got a spare hour or two this weekend I really recommend checking out the Postmodernism show at the V&A before it closes on Sunday. I finally made it down there yesterday, and enjoyed it a lot. It’s a history lesson without being too ‘teachy’, and includes some incredible work from a huge range of fields: design, fashion, architecture, fine art, graphics, film, music, performance – it’s all there, and it’s mostly great. Highlights include David Byrne’s ‘big suit‘, some amazing Memphis designs (my favourite was the Bel Air Chair) and a huge projection of Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’. Rather too many teapots, perhaps, but that’s a small quibble.

Towards the end of the exhibition there’s a bit of a meta moment, with a brief but interesting commentary on the notorious and influential 1989 show Magiciens de la Terre, and two pieces by African artists who featured in itTucked into a corner, there’s a Mercedes coffin by Ghanaian artist Samuel Kane Kwei (similar to the ones by Paa Joe that made such a brouhaha last year at Jack Bell). Next to it, one of Bodys Isek Kingelez’ stunning creations sprouts from a plinth: this ‘Model for a Zaire Pavilion’ is, like all of Kingelez’ work, a mind-boggling feat of imagination and skill. His apparent use of bricolage made his work popular with the postmodern set, including Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass, whose presence looms large over the whole show.

This little section is designed to flag up the Euro-centrism of postmodernism. As the interpretation suggests, ‘Sottsass probably knew little about Kingelez, but he was happy to see a model like this as a transcultural moment’; in other words, the presence of Kwei, Kingelez and other non-Western artists in Magiciens de la Terre revealed more about the curators’ all-consuming postmodernist global vision than the artists’ original intentions. There’s a strange paradox here; what are these two pieces doing in the V&A now, if not to illustrate the curators’ (albeit rather more sophisticated) narrative about Euro-American cultural history? They’re not there to show anything about art, design or culture in Ghana or the DRC, that’s for sure. Still, it’s encouraging to see the beginnings of a critical approach to this kind of issue in a big exhibition like this one.

You can read more about Kingelez and see some rather poor images here.

You can read some interesting pieces on Magiciens de la Terre here.

The exhibition costs £11 for adults and £8 for students, and ends tomorrow…

Victoria and Albert Museum
Cromwell Road, London

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Review: Afropolitans @ V&A

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.

Panellists for ”What is an Afropolitan?” (Left to Right): founder of Afro-Pop Live Yemi Alade-Lawal; journalist and author, Hannah Pool; designer & Afri-Love Blogger Lulu Kitololo; writer and blogger, Minna Salami, aka MsAfropolitan; and journalist, poet and writer, Tolu Ogunlesi

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.

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Staff Benda Bilili

Staff Benda Bilili

Kinshasa’s Staff Benda Bilili set out to be ‘the best handicapped band in Africa’. I was lucky enough to catch their show last summer, and they were most definitely one of the most exhilarating live bands I’d seen in London, handicapped or otherwise. Here is what I wrote at the time:

‘In the sweaty cavern of the Hackney Empire, they worked their audience into a frenzy with their take on Congolese rumba and funk. Wearing a glittery fedora and clutching what looked like an electrified baked-bean tin, 19-year-old singer and future band-leader Roger Landu started off nervously, but soon came into his own, with extraordinary solos on both vocals and the tin, an instrument called the ‘satonge’ which he invented himself. Across the stage, his senior band mates were completely at home, navigating their intricate riffs with ease, belting out beautifully harmonised call-and-response vocals and throwing themselves – at times quite literally – into the performance.’

Staff Benda Bilili play the Union Chapel at a sold-out Gala Event this Friday night, in celebration of their new film, which is in cinemas from March 18th, and screening at several London venues including the Cine Lumière, the Ritzy, Greenwich Picturehouse, and the Odeon in Covent Garden. Not to be missed.

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Mosi Conde @ October Gallery / Bloomsbury Festival

Mosi Conde

If you haven’t yet been along to see Julien Sinzogan’s show at October Gallery, this weekend is a good time to do it. On Saturday, there’s an afternoon of events at the gallery, with a display of artwork made by local children in response to the exhibition; and on Sunday, continuing the (rather loose) West African theme you can catch musician Mosi Conde and his band Kaira Kora Africa in concert, plus improvised art created live by Galen Wainwright, just down the road at St. George’s as part of the Bloomsbury Festival.

Further details here.