Wednesday 8 June 2016

African Thought & Arts Leadership

Last year, I was asked by pan-African journal Ogojiii to write a piece on African leadership institutes, but except for Dr R.L. Bhiat of the African Leadership Network (ALN), they were rather tardy in responding to interview requests (not a good indication of leadership potential!), so I shifted the focus away from conventional leadership concepts to thought leadership, and especially arts leadership, both of which inform the way Africa thinks, which in turn will shape how the continent looks and works in future. 

I was granted a rare interview with the charming Harvard-trained Ghanaian nuclear physicist and futurist Dr Kwame Amuah, head of the Singularity Institute Africa (SIA), pictured below in a portrait by Jana O'Grady. We got on so well that the interview ran double the scheduled time, probably because Amuah described himself to me as "the modern, scientific anarchist" and his leadership concept was decentralist, egalitarian and organic. Below I run an extract from the article, focusing on the arts leadership aspect.

In 2006, a panel of nine experts headed up by Senegalese singer-guitarist Baaba Maal and the Ghanaian modernist-symbolist painter Owusu-Ankomah painstakingly selected a list of the top 50 African artists then alive who they profiled for The Independent, producing a sweeping canvas of African talent and thought-leadership, covering roughly three generations: the voices and visionaries of the Independence era from the 1950s, of the Transitional era as the Cold War ground to a halt, and of tomorrow.

A handful of the Independence generation have since passed on, notably former builder and mechanic Ousmane Sembène whose colourful life took him from fighting to free France from the Nazis, to heavy-lifting on the docks of Marseilles as a communist unionist, to becoming, apart from a prolific career as a novelist, the father of African cinema with his breakthrough film Borom Sarret (The Wagoner) in 1963. 

Samba Gadjigo, of Mount Holyoke College, wrote that “Ousmane Sembène has, from a marginalized and a very modest beginning, inscribed his name in world history,” and his work “provided the African American Diaspora with an ‘alternative’ knowledge of Africa”: “for Sembène, the terrain of art and cultural representation are a sine qua none for the freedom and revival of African societies.” Despite his deep embrace of communism, Sembène eschewed art-as-political-slogan, rather he “has been devoted to the production and dissemination of emancipating and restorative images for… those Africans disenfranchised and marginalized in their own society, but also whose unsung struggles are a Daily Heroism (the title of Sembene's latest trilogy of films).”

The fire in his trademark long-stemmed pipe may have gone out in 2007, but the groundwork Sembène laid has seen the rise of a new generation who have taken to the big screen including Swaziland’s Zola Maseko who was raised in exile and joined the African National Congress’ armed wing, but found his true forte in documentary film and television including the multi-award-winning The Life and Times of Sarah Baartman (1998), and Chadean film-maker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun who also grew up in exile because of civil war, but who has achieved, in the words of Maal’s panel, “a new language and aesthetic for African cinema” with his own “documentary fiction” style.

Literature is that other great shaper of leading-edge African thought, and apart from the political writings of the likes of Zaire’s Patrice Lumumba or South Africa’s Bantu Steven Biko – currently the subjects of separate volumes of biographies and collected writings in an engaging and accessible new “Voices of Liberation” series by HSRC Press – it is the words of Nigeria’s late Chinua Achebe, the father of the African novel, with his bombshell 1958 debut Things Fall Apart, which have resonated most with the world, his charming Igbo-inflected English style having been translated into 50 languages by the time of his death in 2013.

The transitional generation include some powerful women’s voices such as Zimbabwe’s Tsitsi Dangarembga whose semi-autobiographical debut novel Nervous Conditions won the African section of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1989 and was hailed by writer Doris Lessing as a sure-fire future classic, and who has since gone into writing feminist scripts for box office hits such as the film Neria (1993), while the new generation is represented by the likes of Delia Jarret-Mcauley who drew on her upbringing in war-torn Sierra Leone to write Moses, Citizen and Me which won the 2005 Orwell Prize for political writing, hailed for its nuanced and unusually uplifting treatment of its dark subject matter of child soldiery. 

The emergent talents for whom she and others like Dr Amuah are pathfinding provide African audiences with their best techno-socio-political food for thought: frontier-breaking ways of interrogating themselves, their aspirations, fears and abilities in times of great change for the continent.

Young African Artistic Leaders to Watch

● In fine art, follow Mali’s Abdoulaye Konaté, a former painter who has moved into large-scale installation works to tackle grand themes such as the devastation wrought by HIV/Aids or the interplay between power and religion from a deceptively calm remove, and new-generation artists such as South Africa’s openly combative sculptress Tracey Rose whose surreal and jarring juxtapositions interrogate body, gender and identity.

● In dance, watch the angular/serpentine dance moves of Faustin Linyekula of the Republic of Congo, and the Afro-contemporary ballet of South African dancer and choreographer Dada Masilo whose 2012 détournement of Swan Lake somehow successfully integrated a gay storyline and a good dose of humour too. [Masilo is my niece, but she has wowed audiences in Russia, North America and Europe, so don't take my word for it, watch her on YouTube!]

● In music, take note of new hybrid styles such as the rap-metal-raï of Egypt’s Ramy Essam, the folk-rock-shaabi of Algeria’s Souad Massi, the rap-hiphop of Somalia’s K’naan, and the kwaito of Soweto’s Zola.