A market in Isara Remo, Ogun State, Nigeria.
An African magazine reached out to me for a future article they are doing on African creatives and wanted my input. There were a few questions regarding how we change the perception of Africa to outsiders and what we have to offer. Basically, how should we promote Africa as having a rich pot of culture, and how do we show that it’s not just a continent of poverty so that we can change the perceptions of outsiders.
This has been an ongoing theme I’ve been seeing lately from African outlets, and I know they mean well, but this is the wrong approach and mindset to have in my opinion. Here’s why.
1. Africans shouldn’t bother themselves with trying to change the perceptions of outsiders. It isn’t our job. You’d never hear artists in the West bothering themselves about changing the perceptions of Africans towards them. It isn’t even part of the equation. Why should Africans be saddled with this baggage? An earnest and objective person will recognize the multifaceted nature of any society. People that refuse to recognize this aren’t worth your time. Your time is valuable.
2. The world already knows that Africa has a lot to offer. Chinese firms aren’t all over Africa right now because of the weather. Why are we asking these questions about what Africa has to offer in the first place? Europeans and Western societies house the creative works and sculptures of our ancestors in their museums. They know we have rich cultures and they’ve known for centuries. The people most in the dark about what Africans have are Africans.
3. Poverty is a reality. We don’t need to counter poverty with images of extravagance, opulence and obscene wealth. Poverty is real and we shouldn’t only promote things that cater to upper class aesthetics. If art is meant to be a reflection of the artist, then where is the room for the narratives of the poor aesthete? Don’t they matter? If you’re a poor creative, you’re probably not going to African Fashion Week to ogle clothes that most people can’t afford. I see Africans on tumblr posting pics of million dollar estates and sprawling mansions. The estates and homes are nice, but what is the end goal? To counter images of poverty? That’s it? The question you should be asking is why are you so ashamed of your poor brothers and sisters being seen in the first place?
It’s not just a thing of balance and showing a different side that isn’t about poverty. There is real shame there. Some of us want to act like they don’t exist. I once saw an image here on Tumblr of a sprawling estate somewhere I believe in South Africa that was on acres and acres of land that only someone worth hundreds of millions could ever afford, and the text underneath it said "An average middle class home". Things like that are just as misleading as the perceptions outsiders have of Africans all being dirt poor. It’s just in the opposite direction. Why the need to embellish? Why can’t we be real? This isn’t a rejection of wealth on my part. Not at all. We need to arrive at a place where all of these depictions are valid, because they are. You don’t need to “counter” anything, and certainly not with wild embellishments. If you want to show off African opulence, then do that. Don’t do it as a response to images of poverty.
4. The perceptions that need to change are our own regarding how we view ourselves and our arts. We need to support our arts and value them socially. All art, not just the “cool stuff”. A woodworker in the village is no less important than a hip sartorial urban dweller. Also, we tend to value academic efforts, which we definitely should, but we should also value our creatives. I think this is happening with younger generations, so things are definitely looking up. We all can’t be doctors and lawyers (Sorry Mom and Dad).
5. When you start talking about doing things to change the perception of outsiders, you’re essentially saying that their opinions hold weight. At least, more weight than yours. Why should it? Why should what they think matter so much? If an ignorant buffoon wants to think of Africans as uncultured “African booty scratchers”, then so be it. I’ll scratch my ass to my heart’s content. We’ve got to move beyond this. People who view Africa and Africans negatively don’t matter. Stop trying to gain their favor or change their perceptions.
6. Create and cultivate your art and culture for yourselves. People from all walks of life who are receptive and respectful will come to appreciate it eventually. I’m old enough to know that there was a time when listening to Fela would get you laughed at in school in the US. I grew up listening to Fela, King Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey and so on, so all this was near and dear to my heart. The “cool kids” weren’t listening to Fela when I was in school, believe me. Nothing changed about Fela’s music, but it’s now cool to dig Fela because eventually, those who are receptive will come. You don’t have to change who you are. Just stay the course. The message there is that you need to be true to yourself. Once you start doing things to placate the whims and opinions of outsiders, then you’ve lost yourself. If you’re a creative and you’re constantly worrying about doing things for outsiders, your art won’t be true and it will suffer. We have enough phonies in the world, no need to further clutter the world with phony creations as well.
It’s alright, just be true to yourself. You’re not alone. Come sit with the rest of the African booty scratchers. We have ample booties to scratch and jollof rice to eat. Sounds wonderful to me.