Monday, 9 April 2018


By Tobias Schlosser

In the imagination of the “Global North”, Africa is often pictured as an “underdeveloped” continent marked by poverty and conflict. The exhibition “Afro-Tech and the Future of Re-Invention” in Dortmund, Germany, challenges this stereotypical image, however, and presents the continent as one full of resources, especially with regards to art and science, and their interconnectedness.

Representing 22 countries, the show - now in its final weeks - comprises 20 Afrofuturistic artistic perspectives and 12 technological projects from Africa. The public may see these as technological productions to be contrasted or compared with devices from “Western” societies.

The poster for "Afro-Tech and the Future of Re-Invention",
Design: KoeperHerfurth.
One innovation from Cameroon, for example, is called the “CardioPad” and has medical sensors attached to a tablet. Non-experts can use “Cardiopad” to carry out medical examinations which will be analysed by doctors from a distance.

This invention can be handy in rural areas as it saves time, travel and expense, and balances out infrastructural inequalities that limit access to medical facilities.
Secondly, the South African company “Robohand”, founded by machine artist Ivan Oven and carpenter Richard van As, creates designs and software that can be used to manufacture medical prostheses via 3-D-printers. In this way, people who need prostheses of fingers, hands, arms or even legs now have an Open Source to get their prostheses at incredibly low cost, no matter where they live.
In addition, the exhibition shows that Kiira Motors Corporation has developed a solar-energy bus that has the capacity to run for the whole day without being recharged, thanks to its lithium-ion batteries. With that sustainable invention, Uganda’s cities could become less polluted and noisy. These are only three of the striking technological concepts on display.
The artistic perspectives of “Afro-Tech” are based meanwhile on the concept of Afrofuturism in which a future is imagined where inequalities no longer exist. However, due to new forms of technology and digitalisation, the future visions also detect possible dangers, and function as a warning for certain issues such as ecological disasters or new forms of exclusion and marginalisation.
The artistic media range from photographs, (short) films, documentaries and a video cycle that celebrates the works of jazz musician Sun Ra, to a music station where visitors can explore the sounds of the iconic techno music duo Drexciya - who tell the myth of a black Atlantis. The music playlist contains music from “canonical” Afrofuturistic artists such as American singers Erykah Badu and Janelle Monáe as well as Jamaican dub musician and producer Lee “Scratch” Perry.
An installation at the "Afro-Tech" exhibition.
Photo: Woidich Hannes.
Some of the documentaries screened at “Afro-Tech” are challenging and quite avant-gardist, such as the almost 20-minute-long video “Deep down Tidal” (2017) by Guyanese-Danish artist and activist Tabita Rezaire. The video puts forward the argument that in a postcolonial world where there is no space left to be conquered, electronic space is created that everyone depends on, so it can be colonised.
The view is that the Internet does not create equality, but gives room for racism, homophobia and transphobia with its “architecture of violence”. This examination is underscored by the fact that the fibre-optic cables which are under the Atlantic Ocean serve to facilitate the exchange of Eurocentric knowledge within the “Global North” and they are exactly the same routes used during the slave trade.
Thus, the ocean or water reminds one of every historical deed because it bore witness to earlier crimes and now it sees how neo-colonial routes are being established. This circular approach to time indeed rules many Afrofuturistic oeuvres (the form of exclusion may vary, but the politics of exclusion remains), and it works against cultural amnesia.
“Water is a communication interface. Water will download your secrets.” – Statement from the documentary “Deep Down Tidal” (2017) by Tabita Rezaire
These mechanisms of marginalisation are also the reason why some of the artistic positions seem quite apocalyptic. The photo-series “The Prophecy” by Belgian-Beninese photographer Fabrice Monteiro shows spirits of the Earth who demonstrate the consequences of pollution in a disturbingly dystopian way. Here, an animistic world-view is used as a warning.
Wangechi Mutu's The End of eating Everything, 2013.
Copyright Wangechi Mutu. Courtesy of the artist.
The same applies to the short film “The End of eating Everything” (2013), created by Kenyan visual artist Wangechi Mutu in cooperation with US-American R’n’B singer Santigold. The film portrays the Earth as both a ship and a monster which is run only by consumption, greed and a total loss of control. It is eating up everything that is still living and poisons the atmosphere with its exhaust fumes before its destruction and rebirth.
Besides these alarming visions, the exhibition highlights rebellion and resistance. Based on the Rastafari philosophy, the Italian artist and activist Jaromil (Denis Roio) designed an operating system called “Rastasoft” which can be downloaded for free and which is not controlled by commercial interests of the conventional operating systems. People are thus not forced to spend money in order to have a system which allows them to publish online.
Having the real innovations on one side and the dystopian visions of a final destruction of the planet on the other, the exhibition “Afro-Tech” leaves no doubt that there is a thin line between use and misuse, between emancipation and discrimination, and between chances and the politics of exclusion.
Emphasising the interconnectedness between futuristic and artistic visions and the inventions coming from Africa, the exhibition further illustrates that the future has already started. In that sense, "Afro-Tech" presents not only a future of re-invention - as the title of the exhibition indicates - it promotes a re-imagination of Africa as a continent full of technological and artistic resources.
“Afro-Tech and the Future of Re-Invention” runs until April 22, 2018, and can be seen at “Dortmunder U”, a centre for art and creativity. It is organized by the German multi-award- winning art club HMKV (Hartware MedienKunstVerein), in cooperation with the regional association “Regionalverband Ruhr” (RVR) and the association Africa Positive e.V.
For more information:
Tobias Schlosser is a writer, researcher and expert drink-maker, based in Germany. He thanks Steven Rattey for his enthusiasm and expert knowledge about science-fiction and futuristic art. Without it, this article wouldn’t have been possible.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018


The acclaimed Martinican writer and politician Aimé Césaire, one of the founders of the négritude movement, passed away 10 years ago at the age of 94, in April 2008. His literary works, however, have never ceased to provoke thought and discussion, and they are being increasingly read and examined to discover explicit and implicit meanings.

In a new article, scholar and translator Giuseppe Sofo has analysed Césaire’s Une tempête, a postcolonial rewriting of, or response to, Shakespeare’s The Tempest that was published for the first time 50 years ago by the pioneering publishing house Présence Africaine, in 1968, and then by Seuil the following year.
 The cover of Une tempête.
In the article, Sofo reads Césaire’s Une tempête in parallel with the French translation of The Tempest that was done by François-Victor Hugo and published in 1859 - to prove the influence of this translation on Césaire’s text. Incorporating other French translations in his research, Sofo highlights how the relationship between original text and rewriting - and between translation and rewriting - has influenced the evolution of Césaire’s text.
The research emphasizes the significant role of translation in the literary system, and especially in the reception of a text by the public. It also aims to show that Césaire’s work is the fruit of a “double derivation”, since it is both linked to Shakespeare’s text and to Hugo’s translation of that text.
Readers can access Sofo's full article in French at: 

Citation, réécriture et traduction :
Une tempête d’Aimé Césaire et les traductions françaises de Shakespeare
Aimé Césaire est décédé il y a dix ans, en avril 2008, à l’âge de 94 ans. Son œuvre littéraire n’a pourtant jamais cessé de produire de la pensée, et elle est de plus en plus lue et examinée pour découvrir toutes les significations explicites et implicites impliquées dans ses textes.
Le texte au centre de cet article par Giuseppe Sofo est Une tempête, réécriture postcoloniale de La Tempête de Shakespeare, publiée pour la première fois il y a cinquante ans, par Présence Africaine, en 1968, puis par Seuil en 1969. Dans cet article, Sofo lira Une tempête de Césaire en parallèle avec la traduction de La Tempête par François-Victor Hugo, publiée en 1859, dont on montrera l’influence sur le texte de Césaire, et d’autres traductions françaises, pour souligner comment la relation entre texte original et réécriture – et entre traduction et réécriture – a influencé l’évolution du texte.
Cela nous aidera à souligner l’importance du rôle de la traduction dans le système littéraire, et surtout dans la réception d’un texte par le public et à montrer que l’œuvre de Césaire est le fruit d’une double dérivation, puisqu’elle est à la fois le fruit de l’œuvre de Shakespeare et celui de la traduction d’Hugo.
SWAN propose un lien pour trouver l’article complet de Giuseppe Sofo:

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale. For tweets about the translation of Caribbean writing, please follow @CaribTranslate.

Monday, 19 March 2018


The 2018 Paris Book Fair (Livre Paris) took place against the backdrop of demonstrations in Mayotte that echoed similar protests a year ago in French Guiana, putting the topics of literary activism and popular disaffection high on the agenda at the March 16-19 event.

Literary representatives from French Guiana at Livre Paris.
Writers from France’s overseas regions and departments, which include Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, spoke out about their role and contribution to French literature, highlighting the social and economic conditions in their territories.
Launching an anthology of short stories titled Guyane: Nou gon ké sa (We're fed up), Guyanese authors said they felt compelled to address on-going struggles.
“The demonstrations were for better security, healthcare, infrastructure, transportation, all of which affects everybody,” said Joël Roy, one of the contributors. “Writers aren’t separate from this.”
In March 2017, strikes and protests in Guiana blocked streets, caused the temporary closure of schools and some businesses, and delayed the launch of a rocket from the aerospace centre that is run by France and the European Space Agency.
Reports of the demonstrations filled the airwaves in mainland France, with some commentators making it seem as if the population was being unreasonable (“We can’t keep sending money there,” said one Parisian). But writers have been among those spotlighting the hypocrisy in government policy, where money can be found to launch rockets but not to improve access to healthcare or to control crime.
Tchisseka Lobelt, founder of Promolivres, French Guiana.
French President Emmanuel Macron eventually visited Guiana to address the concerns of the 250,000 residents, and to make a number of pledges; but there was no political representation at the launch of Nou gon ké sa in Paris, despite invitations having been extended, said Tchisséka Lobelt, who chaired the literary panel at the fair.
While the authors and activists present (such as Sylviane Vayaboury and France Nay) evoked the grievances and injustice that led to the protests, they aren’t just waiting around for political support, although this would be welcome.
Lobelt, for instance, is one of the movers behind promoting the literature of Guiana and providing a platform for writers. In 1996, she founded an association called Promolivres, which in turn created the Salon du Livre de Cayenne - a biennial book fair that had its 10th “edition” last November.
The Salon attracts participants from neighbouring countries such as Brazil and Suriname, and the 2017 “guest of honour” was Colombia.
For Lobelt, intra-regional literary cooperation is important, and she believes translation can help to pave the way for readers to know more about the literature of France’s overseas departments and regions.
A new anthology of stories by writers
from French Guiana.
“Translation is key, and we have to develop a real policy to get books translated from French and Creole into other regional languages and vice versa,” she told SWAN.
Anglophone Caribbean writers such as Guyana’s Pauline Melville and Jamaica’s Alecia McKenzie (founder of the Caribbean Translation Project, and SWAN’s editor) have been able to participate in the Cayenne book fair because of translation, Lobelt said. Both have been winners of the Prix Carbet des lycéens, a prize awarded by French high-school students in Guadeloupe, Guiana, Martinique and (now) London.
In addition, French writer Jean-François Tifiou, who has written an absorbing and well-researched book about the women prisoners sent to Guiana when it was a notorious French penal colony, is looking at getting his work translated into English and Spanish. Tifiou visited schools in the region to present De Quimper à Cayenne (From Quimper to Cayenne), and many readers believe that the book deserves to be more widely known.
“Even if we translated one book per year, that would already be something,” said Lobelt. “We can do a lot on our own, but we still need institutional help.”
At the Paris Book Fair, the French “Outre-Mer” Ministry emphasized support for writers and publishers from the overseas departments and regions, which are traditionally grouped at a special pavilion. The ministry cited the international stature and unique “witnessing” of writers such as Maryse Condé, Patrick Chamoiseau and Aimé Césaire, among others.
A visitor checks out some titles at Livre Paris.
“Literature from the overseas departments has a true specificity, far from clichés and stereotypes,” said an official brochure. “As Chantal Spitz (Tahiti) has declared: ‘My country is not a postcard’.”
This was certainly borne out by some of the debates at Livre Paris (which, uncomfortably, had Russia as the 2018 “guest of honour”).
More than anything, what was notable was that many writers and publishing professionals seemed determined to open the eyes of those who would perhaps prefer not to see certain social situations.

For more information about current events in Mayotte and French Guiana, please see: 

Wednesday, 28 February 2018


By Dimitri Keramitas

I Am Not a Witch is Rungano Nyoni’s provocatively titled first film, which had a Paris screening at the 2017 Amnesty International Human Rights Film Festival. It depicts the scarifying progress of a young girl accused of witchcraft in a rural African country, presumably in southern Africa, although this isn’t entirely clear; but the vagueness lends the film a fable-like quality.

The poster for I Am Not a Witch.
In the same way, we don’t know where the young girl Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) comes from, or why she appears out of nowhere. Local police, acting on the complaints of the community, put Shula into a camp of other witches - or would-be witches - which seems little more than a forced-labour group.

One can’t help thinking of Harry Potter, although I Am Not a Witch reminds us that throughout the history of the persecution of alleged witchcraft, it was overwhelmingly women who were accused. The film brings home the oddness of the Rowling franchise:  although written by a woman (her gender muffled if not masked by those famous two initials), the book’s hero is male, as are most of its main characters. In Nyoni’s film, all the alleged witches are female.

Shula is a child, but the others tend to be elderly, bringing home that other object of witch persecution - the aged, when they’re not in a protected family context. Instead of riding around on brooms and playing flying games, the African witches are tethered to ribbons wherever they go, so they won’t escape (otherwise they may turn into goats).

Furthermore, instead of being comfortably ensconced in a Hogwarts-like institution and making friends, Shula is trundled from place to place to work. She’s adopted by the older women, but still feels achingly alone. Eventually a father figure appears, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), a jovially corrupt government official who exploits the women’s labour. When Mr. Banda observes how Shula acquires some celebrity after using her supposedly clairvoyant abilities to discover a thief (who may or may not be guilty), he takes her under his wing. He protects and cozens her, but also uses her newfound celebrity. Here the film takes a turn to satire, which broadens its concerns but loosens its focus on Shula.

The loneliness of the outsider: a scene from the film.
All the actors in I Am Not a Witch are natural and convincing. Maggie Mulubwa as Shula has a stark presence, and is as assured as Quvenzhané Wallis, the young star of Beasts of  the Southern Wild. The other witches appear to be non-actors - like figures from a documentary rather than a fiction film.

If the movie is a bracing corrective to pop fictions about witchcraft, it also makes us think of the reality of people being accused of practising witchcraft. On the African continent and in India, this has become an improbable 21st-century outrage. Many women have been lynched or hounded from their homes because they were thought to have done supernatural harm to their alleged victims. This is in addition to a veritable melting-pot of the irrationally persecuted: albinos (whose body parts are supposed to have magical powers), so-called heretics (e.g. minority Muslim sects in Turkey and Indonesia) and so-called pagans (such as the Yazidi in Iraq).

I Am Not a Witch touches on these. There’s a harrowing scene where Mr. Banda’s trophy wife (also a witch) goes shopping at a supermart and is hassled by a crowd that looks like it might turn violent. The director also offers a glimpse of a couple of albino children. But she doesn’t follow up on these, and more importantly she doesn’t take the central story of Shula to its logical conclusion. “I am not a witch” turns out not to be a desperate plea or a defiant cry, but merely a young girl’s assertion of her selfhood. We expected more. Aside from easy satire of politics and pop culture, there’s an ostensibly tragic development which somehow makes tragedy seem facile.

Transporting the "witches" in I Am Not a Witch.
Nyoni’s direction is smooth, whether for panoramic shots of the African landscape or arresting close-ups of her characters. For a first film, there’s not a ragged sequence in it. This is something we miss at times, for the stumbling moments in a neophyte director’s work are often the cracks that let in genuine emotion. The lack here is underlined by the classical theme music that turns certain scenes into sentimental interludes.

In the end credits, we see that aside from the writer-director (who was born in Zambia, grew up in Wales and now lives in Portugal) and the principal cast, almost all of the technicians and other participants are of European origin. The sources of financing were also European. The production and distribution of the film - ditto. If what has been sold as an African work of film art is in fact overwhelmingly European, it’s no surprise if it’s been co-opted into a conventional, slick Western aesthetic and vision. Ultimately, I Am Not a Witch may be less an exploration of a social phenomenon in some parts of the world than a parable about itself.

Production: Arte Film Prize, BFI Film Fund, Clandestine Films, Film 4, Soda Pictures, unafilm. Distribution: Pyramide Distribution (France).

Dimitri Keramitas is a Paris-based writer and legal expert.

Friday, 9 February 2018


The name “Lucibela” conjures up an idea of beauty and light, and listeners may think the same of this Cabo Verdean artist’s music. 
The 13 tracks on her first album, Laço umbilical, reveal her extraordinary vocal technique, which “lies in her ability to explore the deep register of Brazil’s great sambistas while adding a thrilling vibrato”, according to one critic.
Born in 1986 on São Nicolau, one of the Barlavento islands lying to the north of the Cabo Verdean archipelago, Lucibela grew up in São Vincente (known for the Port of Mindelo and for being the birthplace of icon Cesaria Evora). Her music correspondingly reveals various influences.  
Lucibela says she has always loved bossa-nova, and this is clear from the album, but she grew up listening as well to Brazilian pop, rock and jazz - music she performed herself as a teenager in her first group, when she had to earn a living following her mother's death.
Her audience in the hotels and bars in Mindelo wanted to hear more “customary” music, however, and she became versed in that too. Her label Lusafrica, which produced Evora’s albums, says Lucibela learned the late singer’s repertoire, which she performed alongside her own.
Although she now lives in Portugal, Laço umbilical is meant to be the cord that links her to Cabo Verde. She sings about issues such as relationships, what it means to be a woman from the islands, and how if feels to be living far away.

From the traditional and upbeat “Chica di Nha Maninha” to the slow, poignant title track, the rich and diverse rhythms of her homeland are there in all the songs, but  Lucibela still manages to forge her own sound. Recommended.

Saturday, 27 January 2018


“Are there bookshops in Nigeria?” asked a French journalist of famous Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, igniting  a firestorm on social media following an event in Paris on Jan. 25.

Many outraged observers accused the journalist of racism and ignorance, while lauding Adichie’s response.

“I think it reflects very poorly on French people that you have to ask this question. Come on, it’s 2018,” Adichie replied, after the journalist qualified her question by saying French people knew little about Nigeria, apart from hearing about Boko Haram and violence.

Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
(Photo: V. Lebrun-Verguethen)
The exchange took place at a public event held at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the third government-sponsored Night of Ideas (Nuit des Idées), whose goal is to “celebrate the stream of ideas between countries, cultures, topics and generations”, according to the organizers.

Adichie, one of  Africa's leading authors, was the headliner or “Ambassador” of the “Night”, which comprised several discussions around France and in other countries.

As an international “icon of feminism”, and a bestselling writer, she was expected to speak about global issues affecting women, but her insightful comments on a range of topics got lost in the firestorm of protest that followed the “bookshop” question.

Many of those who posted about the interview had evidently seen it from secondary sources, and they spread information that the journalist had asked about “libraries” rather than “bookshops” (for which the French word is “librairies”). Summaries of the question and response were re-tweeted thousands of times.

Adichie, author of the novels Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun as well as the book-length essay We Should All be Feminists, later said on her Facebook page that she did not expect a French person to know almost everything about Nigeria.

“But to be asked to ‘tell French people that you have bookshops in Nigeria because they don’t know’ is to cater to a wilfully retrograde idea - that Africa is so apart, so pathologically ‘different,’ that a non-African cannot make reasonable assumptions about life there.

“I am a Nigerian writer whose early education was in Nigeria. It is reasonable to expect that Nigeria has at least one bookshop, since my books are read there,” she added.

Hundreds listen to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
at The Night of Ideas, Paris. (Photo: V. Lebrun-Verguethen)
“Bookshops are in decline all over the world. And that is worth discussing and mourning and hopefully changing. But the question ‘are there bookshops in Nigeria’ was not about that. It was about giving legitimacy to a deliberate, entitled, tiresome, sweeping, base ignorance about Africa. And I do not have the patience for that,” she posted.

“That said, the journalist Caroline Broué was intelligent, thoughtful and well-prepared. When she asked the question, I was taken aback because it was far below the intellectual register of her previous questions,” said Adichie in the Facebook post.

After the event, Broué told SWAN that her question was “badly formulated”, as she had been attempting irony,  trying to convey how little information is given about countries such as Nigeria. She was clearly embarrassed and surprised by the strong reaction.

For many in the diverse audience, the question was just proof of how white Europeans regard those of African origin. “This is not something you can ask, no matter what,” said one spectator following the interview. “It’s just stereotyping as usual.”

While most of the reports about the Nuit des Idées focused on this aspect, Adichie in fact spoke out on various subjects, including the role of literature, the treatment of refugees, and society’s expectations of girls and boys.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie listens,
as she's introduced at the Night of Ideas.
(Photo: V. Lebrun-Verguethen)
“I think words matter,” Adichie said, when asked about the impact of writing. “I think words can make change ... storytelling is very important.”

She said that telling the stories of refugees, for instance, could help to change perspectives. “The discourse on refugees, especially on this continent, it seems to me that it’s so dehumanising,” she told the audience, adding that everyone should try to put themselves in the place of “people who are seeking better lives, better homes”.

On the subject of “African literature”, Adichie said that although she sees herself in the tradition of writing from the continent, “it’s not so much the labels as the value we give to them”.

“Sometimes I’m asked if I’m an African writer, and when I’m in a bad mood, I say ‘no’,” she joked. “We tend to read African literature not as literature but as anthropology. African writers write books, they write literature.”

Regarding feminism, Adichie said she had a pragmatic approach. “For me, it’s really about how do we change things ... and sometimes it’s about incremental change,” she said.

“I think feminism is about men and women,” she added, describing her impressions of how society treats girls and boys. She said that watching her daughter at playgrounds, she saw that “little boys get more room to fail and to fall”.

Society shapes men just as it shapes women, according to Adichie, and the idea of masculinity needs to be changed. “Let the boy cry. Expect him to cry,” she said. Meanwhile, parents should raise girls to “reject likeability.”

“It’s girls that we raise to think they have to be liked,” the writer said. “Where is the damn anger?”

She described feminism as being “about equality” and said that In terms of gender, "we should look at people as people".

“I don’t want my well-being to depend on a man’s kindness. I want my well-being to depend on being a human in the world,” she declared.

Regarding racism in different parts of the world, she said countries should look in their own backyards. While many Europeans preferred to focus on racism in the United States, she said it was essential to discuss it wherever it occurred.

In France, for instance, she described “unpleasant experiences with immigration” where people of African origin are “treated with a kind of contempt”.

“All human beings really deserve equal dignity, and it shouldn’t depend on the passport that we carry,” Adichie said. - SWAN

UPDATE: Since the publication of this article, a new discussion has been raging about Adichie's comments on postolonial theory. In response to a question, she replied: "Postcolonial theory? I don't know what it means. I think it is something that professors made up because they needed to get jobs."


Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Wednesday, 24 January 2018


Hugh Masekela teaches the audience to sing a South African song during
the first International Jazz Day concert in 2012, at UNESCO headquarters,
Paris. An acclaimed musician and tireless human rights activist, Masekela
died on Jan. 23, at age 78, in Johannesburg. His best-known works include
"Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)", which became an anthem in the
 fight to end apartheid and free Mandela. (Photo: McKenzie/SWAN)

Friday, 29 December 2017


By Tobias Schlosser

On his seventh album, dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah shows that he still has a great deal of energy and anger, but also heaps of empathy and love.

The title of his complex and well-thought-out record Revolutionary Minds (Fane Phonics label) immediately makes clear that his main agenda is changing the world. He wants to see people liberating themselves from oppressing forces.

The cover of Revolutionary Minds.
As with his former records, Zephaniah does not focus on one specific issue of marginalisation and exclusion, but on a range of issues that include unequal educational opportunities, animal rights, women’s rights, indigenous rights, religious freedom, sexual abuse of children by religious authorities, political and artistic corruption, police arbitrariness, the state of whistle-blowers, past and possible future environmental catastrophes and so on (the list doesn’t end here).

Some might associate revolution with chaos, violence and inherently dangerous movements that could lead to totalitarian regimes. But this is not the revolution Zephaniah has in mind. The artist is turning the tables and making it perfectly clear that the most dangerous thing is not being a revolutionary. He demonstrates the danger of passivity in the song “In this World”: 

We live in a world where they say we communicate more, but the world stayed silent when the slave trade was making money, the world stayed silent when the Nazis started to kill trade unionists, people with disabilities, homosexuals, left-handed people and Jews, and now in the age of the global village and mass communications, the world is staying silent as the Palestinians are annihilated.

Benjamin Zephaniah and band (photo R. Ecclestone).
The same thought is brought up when actor Matt Damon reads the words of the American historian and activist Howard Zinn on the track “Revolutionary Minds”: “The problem is not civil disobedience, the problem is civil obedience”. Thus, no one can fail to understand that from Zephaniah’s point of view, being a revolutionary means uprightness and honesty. And with this righteousness the artist deeply disagrees with the current status quo, which, he asserts, comes from the “greed and short-sightedness” of politicians and economic leaders.

The heart of Revolutionary Minds consists of the longest, electronic, dub-wise track “In this World”. The poem is a mere enumeration of injustices in the world we inhabit:

We live in a world where one in four people live in a state of absolute poverty, 35,000 children die each day because they are born to poor parents, each year 24,000 people are killed and maimed by landmines, and when you hear the information rich telling you that the world is ‘wired’ and getting smaller, remember many people in the world have never made a phone call.

A serious Zephaniah (R. Ecclestone).
This counting and accounting goes on for more than six minutes, so after a while, listeners may start feeling uncomfortable. The strength of the poem is its descriptive power, a merciless and enduring confrontation with something that is there, but which nobody seems to have any interest in discussing. Nevertheless, the poem ends on a positive note: “We care, but we don’t fear”. The message is that not everything is lost, that there is still hope.

Fans may sometimes get the impression that they’re at a philosophy lecture, hearing a smart person creatively explain Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil, and learning that evil powers can emerge when everybody just plays by the rules of the current regime, focusing on what is right or wrong in the eyes of the leaders. Here, moral obligations – which might result in disagreement and resistance – are rejected by the individual. Are most people just too lazy or afraid to make an effort to achieve change?

This passivity might also be the reason that a certain president is currently in power; he is the subject of the poem “President”. Without revealing the name of the person, it is still clear whom Zephaniah has in mind when he vents his fury: “Dear Mister President [...] you suck presidentially. Just run, run as slowly as you can, and take your arms trade with you”.

Zephaniah’s anger seems equally a sign of deep sadness. In the poem “What Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us”, the artist reminds his listeners of the death of the young British man who was murdered in 1993. The case unveiled institutionalised racism in Britain and questioned the juridical practice of double jeopardy with regard to murder cases. With the current incidents of police violence in the United States, bringing up the case of Stephen Lawrence is like witnessing a never-ending tragic cycle. Almost 25 years later, his murder reminds us that we live in a world where freedom and justice are not rights that can be taken for granted.

With respect to musical influences, Revolutionary Minds is quite diverse, very electronic, very roots and very reggae-based. It is not easy to put Zephaniah’s artistic styles into one genre. However, it is not necessary to do so. The artist has other motivations, as he has already stated on his last record Naked: “Is it hip hop or is it reggae, who really care? As long as it’s loud, as long as it’s clear”. And it is clear.

Tobias Schlosser is a writer, researcher and expert drink-maker, based in Germany. 

You can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Monday, 4 December 2017


Fans of African art in France have been spoilt for choice this year, with an abundance of exhibitions around the country, particularly in the capital Paris.

Paintings from Ebony Curated gallery at AKAA.
During the spring, Art Paris Art Fair featured Africa as its “guest of honour”, with works from all over the continent, while the Louis Vuitton Foundation dedicated its vast space to art from South Africa and other countries in the region.

Paintings, sculptures and photographs have all been on view, with established and emerging artists showcased. The highlights of the year so far include the thrilling Also Known as Africa art and design fair (AKAA) and the highly praised exhibition of photographs by Malian icon Malick Sidibé, titled Mali Twist and running until Feb. 25, 2018.

AKAA presented its second annual fair in November with 140 artists from 28 countries participating. The three-day event, which attracted 15,000 visitors, received glowing reviews for its quality and cultural programme comprising talks, music, film screenings and dance.

“The fair is a great way to bring people together who love this art,” said Sorella Acosta, the owner of Spanish gallery “Out of Africa”.

AKAA founder Victoria Mann
AKAA is the brainchild of Victoria Mann, a French-American art lover and entrepreneur who studied modern African art before turning to the contemporary sphere.

“It’s a very exciting time for African art, which has seen a world-wide momentum,” Mann said. “But despite all the interest, the market is also very fragile. We’re thinking about the development globally and working with a select group of galleries every year.”

She told SWAN that the fair collaborated closely with “creators, thinkers and writers” to develop its cultural programme, which was directed by Senegalese curator Dalimata Diop. The AKAA selection committee also included Simon Njami, a writer, curator and artistic director of the Dakar Biennale’s 12th edition. Some 38 international galleries were chosen to take part in this year’s AKAA.

"Tears of Bananaman" by Jean-François Boclé.
“We believe in a sense of community and working hand in hand with participants for an exchange of perspectives that will make us go forward,” Mann said. “One of our key aims at Also Known as Africa is to create dialogue.”

The artworks certainly gave rise to discussion. One installation - created by Jean-François Boclé and presented by the Paris-based Caribbean gallery Maëlle - comprised bunches of bananas arranged in human form, for a reflection on the legacy of colonialism.

Titled The tears of Bananaman, the artwork had words or phrases carved into the fruit’s peel, in various languages: eat your liberty, come mis labios, tropicale moi. On the final day of the fair, the bananas were distributed to visitors, some of whom seemed bemused as they hesitatingly took bites. The irony was not lost on others - that the fair was taking place in a country that has a complicated and uneasy relationship with its former colonies and overseas territories.

Bananas were also a feature in paintings by South African artist Lady Skollie, whose pulsating works were displayed on the lower floor of the Carreau du Temple, a renovated 19th-century covered market where the fair was held. Skollie’s “Mating Dance” incorporated the yellow shapes, sending echoes of Josephine Baker’s legendary and controversial images while also provoking thoughts about history.

Artist Virginia Ryan, beside her artwork.
Artists who participated in the fair, such as Virginia Ryan of Italy, willingly agreed to be photographed with a bunch of bananas, for a seeming expansion of the artwork. Ryan was one of several artists “from other nationalities” at AKAA who have links to Africa. Her latest work investigates the “relationship between white and black, between contrast and contact,” according to the fair’s organizers.

“We’re not putting artists into a box and saying you have to be from a certain place,” Mann said. “AKAA allows for interpretation. Participants can determine themselves what is Africa and what it means.”

The artists from the continent addressed a range of topics, such as inequality and apartheid, as in the case of South African painter Robyn Denny. She put on an exhibition titled “Indigo - Passage to Healing” with performance artist Mamela Nyamza.

The show (curated by Beathur Mgoza Baker and hosted by Candice Berman of the Johannesburg-based Berman Contemporary gallery) consisted of Denny’s large-scale paintings and Nyamza’s live dance performance.

“Through our collaboration, we talk about the dark history that many people don’t want to talk about,” said Denny, who used crushed indigo and acrylic for her work, creating striking hues. “There’s nothing we can’t say to each other.”

Artists Robyn Denny, James Barnor and Mamela Nyamza.
Healing, in fact, was a theme of this year’s AKAA, which posed the question: can art heal us?

“When we turn our gaze away, artists heal and revive our inherited memories, giving us back our history,” said the organizers.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of AKAA was that very few objects could be considered a “pretense” for "real" art, unlike in many contemporary fairs. Whether it was the sculptures of Senegalese artist Ousmane Sow - who died last year and to whom the fair paid homage – or the pictures of Ghanaian pioneering photographer James Barnor, nearly all the works evoked history and narratives.

“One thing the artists here have in common is that they are story-tellers, and we all respond to a good story,” said Mann.


Across town, the same could be said of Malick Sidibé, whose work captures an era in the Malian capital Bamako and tells stories of the young people, families, and couples who invited him to their soirées and into their lives.

Malick Sidibe: Nuit de Noël, 1963. Gelatin Silver Print.
Collection Fondation Cartier pour l'art Contemporain
On show at the innovative Fondation Cartier in Paris, the photographs in Mali Twist highlight the diversity of Sidibé’s output from 1960 to 1980, including some world-renowned images: Nuit de Noël (Christmas Night) and Fans of James Brown. They pull viewers back to by-gone parties and to picnics along the Niger River.

For art lovers who appreciate music, Mali Twist has its own original playlist as well, selected by U.S.-based writer and professor Manthia Diawara and curator André Magnin. 

As if that’s not enough, visitors can also view the sardonic portraits of city life by Congolese painter JP Mika, whose art “reveals the influence of Sidibé’s work on an entire generation of artists”, as Magnin puts it.

The next edition of AKAA takes place Nov. 8 to 11, 2018. You can follow SWAN on Twitter @mckenzie_ale.

Artist JP Mika in front of one of his paintings at Mali Twist.