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I like things to grow organically, therefore community comes in. In my studio practice for so many years I’ve found that I have to work with so many people. You build this kind of community and then you find that you are drawing a lot of inspiration, and the energy of the community becomes a part of what you are doing.
(El Anatsui in Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie International 57—El Anatsui, 2018, color video).

1Community is “fundamental to the materials and intrinsic to the fabric” of El Anatsui’s work (Vogel 201) — tapestries made of reclaimed bottle tops and soda can blades, patiently knitted together by a team of artists in his studio in Nsukka, Nigeria. This collective aspect of his art was emphasised in the installation he presented at the Conciergerie in Paris, for the belated opening of the Africa 2020 cultural season on December 1, 2020. An extract from the documentary Fold, Crumble, Crush: The Art of El Anatsui displayed video images of the artist’s helpers, and the spectators themselves were invited to become part of the installation, entitled En quête de liberté (“In search of freedom”). Sitting on rocks, they could reflect on Anatsui’s monumental tapestries and on two undulating rivers made of textile, on which the video image of water was projected, conjuring up the two branches of the nearby Seine.

2Community is arguably the notion that has been the most discussed for the past two years. As “social distancing” quickly became part and parcel of our lives, we accepted to stop seeing our friends and extended family, curtailing drastically our artistic experiences, especially the collective ones. More than anything, the global pandemic exacerbated social inequalities within human communities, giving way to various “shadow pandemics”, one of the most notable being what NYU Philosophy and Law Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah identifies as “the shadow pandemic of the global south”: “In rich countries, Covid’s medical consequences killed elderly people. In developing countries, Covid’s economic consequences killed the poor” (Appiah). Appiah urges to “take seriously the rhetoric of an ‘international community’”: taking the example of a Namibian small-business owner who worries about what will become of her employees, he argues that “[a]round these small local circles of reciprocal caring, we need to build larger, global ones” (Appiah). “Small local circles of reciprocal caring” have indeed proved vital, everywhere on the planet, but more acutely in places such as the Mathare informal settlements near Nairobi, where local street artists painted murals in public spaces to popularise sanitary measures, while the inhabitants were undergoing severe (and, on occasion, deadly) police repression of curfew breaches (Mutahi and Wanjiru).

3The impact of the Covid pandemic has also been felt differently in places where the art sector is not properly supported by the State. Quite paradoxically, while we were all hooked on artists’ Instagram pages, looking for digital inspiration, distraction and self-care, many of them were struggling to survive economically. Thus, on International Dance Day 2020 (April, 29), a celebration of Dance created by the Dance Committee of the International Theatre Institute in partnership with UNESCO, Gregory Maqoma was selected to give “a dance message translated into different languages and responded to by dancers and dance companies around the world with dance videos” because, as he puts it, “[i]t is dance that we lean on in this extraordinary, chaotic and disrupted period in our lives” (Maqoma). However, at the same time, the prominent South African choreographer could not help but notice the utter lack of economic stimulus package for the arts sector in South Africa. While the world was taking the ‘Jerusalema Dance Challenge’, dancing to South African DJ Master KG’s famous tune, many professional dancers were left to struggle by themselves, prompting Maqoma to launch, with others, the Sustaining Theatre and Dance foundation, as an act of resistance and self-organisation.

4Even though far from perfect (Angèle et al.), the French government’s attitude regarding the cultural sector has been comparatively helpful and, even though the Africa 2020 season was necessarily delayed, General Commissioner N’Goné Fall and her team need to be congratulated for bringing this ambitious cultural programme to fruition, to the best of what the circumstances could offer. They made sure the Home Office would provide artists with visas but, unfortunately, three Congolese artists were denied entry by Belgium — a country which, paradoxically enough, is in charge of providing visas to DRC citizens who wish to stay in the Schengen space for less than three months (Bouchez). Michael Disanka, a theatre-maker and actor who founded the Kinshasa collective d’Art-d’Art, was the only one in five performers allowed to come to present his Sept Mouvements Congo at the Festival de Marseille 2021 edition, with his wife, fellow-actress Christiana Tabaro — but they had to leave their six-month old baby behind as ‘proof’ that they would return. The interventions of N’Goné Fall and Festival de Marseille director Jan Goossens did not change the Belgian decision. The latter was made following the ‘disappearance’ of one of d’Art-d’Art’s rising dancers after performing Sept Mouvements Congo at the Festival Impatience at the CentQuatre in Paris earlier this year, a performance for which they won the SACD Prize. A very disappointed Disanka had immediately informed the Belgian authorities of that unfortunate event. Goossens notes that such defections were not dealbreakers in the past and could be negotiated with the embassies, but the situation has worsened over the past five years (Bouchez). As Marseille-based author Valérie Manteau, member of a collective in favour of “lively, welcoming and popular” culture in Marseille, rightfully recalls, if multiple entry visas were easier to obtain, African citizens would be less tempted to overstay their visas (Bouchez). DRC plastic artist Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo, invited to the Halle Tropisme in Montpellier, had the same unfortunate experience (Bouchez).

5Disanka and Tabaro ended up presenting a transformed version of their performance at the Festival de Marseille, to which they added a paragraph at the end, addressing the spectators directly: “Don’t monopolise freedom! Don’t monopolise Europe, don’t monopolise Africa!” (Bouchez). Invited to take part in Adeline Rosenstein’s Laboratoire Poison 3 in the same edition, Disanka indirectly refers to the ‘necessity’ to leave his child behind: “We have been dreaming the world from Kinshasa for more than ten years. But the best sons and daughters you send us don’t want to hear that. It has been so exhausting to repeat the same thing for more than three months” (Bouchez). Claiming Kinshasa as his base from which to dream the world, Disanka was heeding Ousmane Sembene’s 2006 Cannes speech, in which the Senegalese filmmaker, who lived in Marseille from 1948 to 1960, famously declared: “We are not alone in the world, but we are our own sun” (Askaripour).

6It is the multiplicity of creative suns shining from various (and very different) corners of the African continent that this special issue wishes to look at. Considering “African creation” from a broad perspective, we take our cue from South-Africa based philosopher and historian Achille Mbembe who, asked in 2013 about the African contribution to a future world, looked at the cultural history of the continent and identified “three attributes that can be conceptually deemed creative”: multiplicity, circulation and composition (Blaser). This special issue aims at recovering the multiplicity of creative African contexts, while bearing in mind the openness of these contexts, especially in the age of the internet, even if the propension of African people and ideas to circulate within the continent and abroad predates the invention of cyberspace. The third principle, composition, is described by Mbembe as a definition of identity in relation: “the subject is understood as being made and remade through the ethical interaction with what or who is not him” (Blaser). Composition can also be understood in a temporal sense: just like the Ghanaian Twi motif of the Sankofa bird, which builds its new nest with the straws of its former one (El Anatsui), contemporary creation is inscribed in a globalised world while being rooted in colonial and pre-colonial African contexts. Although this special issue focuses on the present, this heritage and its influence on today’s societies cannot be ignored. This was quite evident at the wonderful “New Black Vanguard” exhibition that featured in the Rencontres Photographiques d’Arles in the summer of 2021. This “loose collective” was identified by Antwaun Sargent as made up of artists from Africa and the African diaspora “making fashion images that establish the significance of the Black figure — and even more radically, the Black creator — as a new ideal in contemporary culture” (Sargent 11). Among them is Nigerian photographer Daniel Obasi, who created the NNEM series shot for Vogue Portugal in 2019 (Sargent 205). He describes his photography as “an Afrofuturist fantasy” (Obasi in Sargent 205): while acknowledging that “Afrofuturism” can be too “generic” (a tendency he counters with very specific cultural references), he claims that “[w]hat is interesting about Afrofuturism is that it doesn’t shy away from the past. It’s inspired by the past. It’s inspired by a lot of African mythology, a lot of African deities, inspired by a lot of African tribal influences. And that helps mold the context in which we’re all growing” (Obasi in Sargent 308).

7In that respect, a major turning point took place recently and should not go unnoticed here. On September 22, 2021, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a very powerful speech for the reopening of the Ethnological Museum and the Asian Art Museum at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, in which she claimed that “[a]rt lives in history and history lives in art. Much of what we call African art are also documents that tell stories” (Humboldt Forum). Noticing that “the work ha[d] started”, with the planned return of looted Benin Bronze (of which Germany has the second largest collection in the world) by the Humboldt Forum next year, her speech was praised by Senegalese economist and philosopher Felwine Sarr. The co-author, with Bénédicte Savoy, of the famous 2018 report on the much-needed restitution of African artifacts instantly tweeted: “Wonderful speech of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the opening of the Humboldt Forum on the #Restitution# of African artifacts. Every word was true and just (Felwine Sarr, Tweet 25, September 2021, 18:32)”. Now France has broken what Savoy called a “Berlin Wall” (Savoy in Nayeri and Onishi), sending back 26 artworks ransacked at the 1892 assault of Abomey, “in a first large-scale act of restitution to Africa by a former European colonial power” (Nayeri and Onishi), seemingly heeding Dan Hick’s concluding sentence in Brutish Museums to “take action to make the 2020s a decade of restitution” (Hicks 242). As Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne notices: “[These artworks] were on view in Cotonou in 2006, and drew 275,000 visitors in an African country where people do not usually go to museums” (Diagne in Farago). And this exposure to national treasures could very well inspire young artists, as Nigerian American visual artist Toyin Ojih Odutola explains: “What new languages can form when a child looks at these objects? What new art can come from that? Seeing Ife bronzes as a teenager, seeing the scarification, seeing the language of the skin, left an indelible mark in me, because now I do that in my work, even if I wasn’t cognizant at the time” (Ojih Odutola in Farago). This artistic influence was exemplified by another highlight of the Africa 2020 season: the Quai Branly Ex Africa/Africa Reborn exhibition, which was explicitly designed as a counter-exhibition (contre-exposition) (Dagen 85) to William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe’s 1984 exhibition Primitivism” in 20th-Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. On the contrary, the Ex Africa curator Philippe Dagen claimed that “the ‘curiosity’, ‘exoticism’ and ‘picturesque’ approaches — that is to say, colonial and condescending — are beginning to disappear, and the objects are more frequently considered with respect to their own religious, social or political meanings” (Musée du Quai Branly). He invited contemporary artists from the continent and the diaspora, as well as European artists, to a fruitful artistic dialogue and a postcolonial deconstruction of the notion of primitivism, culminating in Congolese painter Chéri Samba’s Vraie carte du monde, seen from the continent’s perspective.

8The intent to focus on creation in “English-speaking African countries” could quite legitimately be questioned here. Only to mention literature, it is in the very name of community that Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o made the decision to favour Gikũyũ over English in 1977, “a European language” thanks to which he had “contribut[ed] to the development of what would be called an Afro-Saxon literature” (Ngũgĩ 151). Gikũyũ, on the contrary, allowed Caitaani Mũtharaba-inĩ (Devil on the Cross) to be read by families: “in this way the novel was appropriated and became part of the community’s oral tradition” (Ngũgĩ 154). Interestingly, in March 2021, Ngũgĩ was nominated as both author and translator for the International Booker Prize, becoming the first nominee writing in an indigenous African language. Even in African publications in English, English is rarely the only language used and always co-exists with other languages although these, often the author’s mother tongue(s), end up being othered by publishing conventions. Thus, the winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature Abdulrazak Gurnah, who grew up in Tanzania, refuses to have Swahili words italicised or explained in a glossary by British and American publishers — a publishing practice which to him is a way “to make the alien feel alien” (Alter). Multilingualism is at the heart of any meaningful research on African art, literary or otherwise, and here we use the adjective “English-speaking” as a convenient one, for lack of a better alternative, to refer to very different cultural and geographical contexts brought together by (violent) British colonisation and thus coming to share a lingua franca which is more than just Globish. This is by no means to enclose cultures in fake categories, ignoring the complexity of African usages of English, or the transnational power of Instituts Français who are often at the origins of artistic collaborations between African artists from French-speaking and English-speaking countries. The question of translation and lack thereof, was posed to South African singers Hlengiwe Lushaba and Sbusiso Shozi, and South African dancer Smangaliso Ngwenya, who all participated in the Festival de Marseille 2019 edition and kindly agreed to be interviewed in the second part of this issue. Providing a translation of the songs in an accompanying booklet or refusing to do so for some songs is a meaningful artistic act that goes beyond any simplistic definition of what “understanding” means.

9Lushaba’s, Shozi’s and Ngwenya’s interviews are part of a decision to make the most of a recently signed partnership between Aix-Marseille Université and the multidisciplinary Festival de Marseille, which has moved far beyond its first focus on dance. Under Jan Goossens’s directorship (2016-2021), the Festival has embraced the city’s historical, cultural and social ties with Africa, which date back to its function as the first colonial port in France, and persist in its multiple diasporic ties and recent position as one of Europe’s main transit points for African immigrants whose status is more and more precarious. We decided to interview English-speaking African artists who performed at the Festival, usually at the time of their performances, asking them about their creative practice. These interviews offer artistic perspectives on the issues at hand; more than mere illustrations, they provide insightful analyses, embodied critical perspectives, genuine artistic research. They are meant to create a dialogue with papers published in the first part of the volume, articles by researchers based in Africa, Europe and the United States, who have first-hand (and sometimes personal) knowledge of the artists and activists they deal with. Producing research while remote teaching and/or studying has proved quite a psychological and physical challenge, and I want to thank them here for their dedication and perseverance. I also want to thank E-rea’s editorial team, editor-in-chief Marie-Odile Hédon in particular, for their constant (and much-needed) support.

10Building on Mbembe’s emphasis on the importance of circulation in African cultures — who went as far as to claim that “Africa was digital before the digital” because of its capacity for innovation (Mbembe) — Aurélie Journo opens this issue with a fascinating sociological study of literary networks, mainly from 2000 to the 2010s, in countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Cameroon. As it looks at the too often ignored continuity between pre-digital and digital literary geographies, her paper echoes the last interview in our issue and South African performance artist Kopano Maroga’s experience in publishing the printed (and then digital) Any Body Zine, before recently turning it into a podcast. Both Journo’s academic article and Maroga’s interview provide a tangible sense of what artistic community means, whether it be the symbolic and relational capital provided by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the late Binyavanga Wainaina to the participants in their literary workshops or the very meeting of Adichie and Wainaina on online forums, which gave way to a deep friendship.

11Adichie’s famous warning on “The Danger of a Single Story” (Adichie 2009) resonates in the second contribution of this issue, in which Enoch Lamptey, Jojo Manu-Osafo and Kofi Takyi Asante provide an insightful socio-political analysis of the Ghana@50 and Ghana@60 celebrations, identifying the authorship of competing national narratives, making points which resonate in most countries nowadays, when nationalist sentiment is ubiquitous. Drawing on both qualitative and quantitative analyses, the authors interrogate the notion of “achievement”, its perception by Ghanaian students from different political factions and its use by politicians. The use of the past is also at the heart of Stacey Kennedy’s paper, which focuses on two major Nigerian artistic events, ART X Lagos and the Lagos Biennial 2019, looking, from a very engaged perspective, at the work on show and at their interaction with the venues and their artistic and historical memory. Kennedy’s piece draws its title from Ousmane Sembene’s Cannes quote, borrowed by the organizers of ART X Lagos for a talk entitled “We Are Our Own Sun: Cultivating An Art Ecosystem”. That is precisely what her study examines: a Lagosian artistic solar system, which has already been quite a long time in the making.The last two articles focus on black female artists who also look both at the past and towards the future, challenging (neo)colonial body politics in South Africa. Tayler Friar looks at the paintings of Lady Skollie and Tracey Rose in their relationship to the historical and symbolical figure of Sarah Baartman. Following research in black feminism on the body politics of the gendered racialised body, she offers an insightful study of two innovative South African painters. In a concluding essay, Sarah Davies Cordova provides a very detailed analysis of Mamela Nyamza’s embodied activism. Her sensitive descriptions and wonderful images allow the reader to (almost) attend the performances by proxy, sensing as it were the personal, political and artistic story of a major South African lesbian black female artist, whose never-ending fight for justice and creativity commands our admiration.

12The visual cover of the special issue brings us back to the importance of community. Obiageli Okigbo is a Brussels-based Nigerian artist, daughter of famous Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo (1932-1967). The Twilight Moment in the Wake of a Dream is part of the “Out of the Ashes” series, which “explores themes of Transcendence and Metamorphosis, interrogating the cyclical nature of the human condition; the everlasting cycle of Birth, Death and Re-birth” (O. Okigbo) — a fitting description of the troubled times we live in. Even if Obiageli Okigbo barely knew her father, who died fighting on the Biafran front when she was very young, it is her exhibition of oil paintings alongside his poetry at the Brunei Gallery in London in 2007 that “marked the beginning of [her] vocation as an artist” (Anogwih). If she kindly (and promptly) gave permission to use The Twilight Moment, it is because French researcher and translator Christiane Fioupou, who published a translation into French of Christopher Okigbo’s Labyrinths last year, stroke a friendship with her following the extensive research she undertook in her father’s work.

13As mentioned above, translation does not necessarily mean understanding but it does help build bridges between cultures, peoples and minds. In a long interview featuring in this issue, Christiane Fioupou explains what translation means for her, who taught for 12 years in Ouagadougou, and has often managed to combine intellectual pursuits with friendship with the likes of Senegalese film-maker Djibril Diop Mambéty and Nigerian poet Niyi Osundare. Christiane Fioupou wrote her PhD thesis on Wole Soyinka and has been translating his plays and poems ever since, the latest of which she translated especially for the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisation (Mucem) in Marseille, where Wole Soyinka came for two public discussions on October 1 and 2, 2021. That was fourteen years after coming to the Fête du Livre, in Aix-en-Provence, a popular literary celebration focused on world-class non-French-speaking writers. On October 15, 2021, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was the Fête’s invitée. She had just published a piece in the Times in which she wrote, about Soyinka: “Is this a good place to confess my crush, an overly bashful crush, on this politically courageous literary stylist, who also happens to be, in his eighties, striking and supple-skinned, with a lean energy, a sense of dramatic flourish, a resonant voice not unaware of its own music?” (Adichie 2021b). Her affection for Chinua Achebe is well-known, as she famously opened her first novel Purple Hibiscus with the indirect quote “Things started to fall apart…” (Adichie 2004, 3), but she acknowledges that “[she] came to Soyinka later, first struggling through his plays, staples of secondary school literature classes, and then discovering his memoirs, and finding in them a kind of fellow feeling” (Adichie 2021b). The same overcome difficulty seems to characterise her relation to Christopher Okigbo, whose “Heavensgate” she was asked to memorise in her secondary school literature class in Nsukka, where he was killed in battle: “I can still recite it by heart. I did not understand it, did not find the academic ‘meaning’ I had been taught to look for in poems, but it was also the only poem that left me with a strange feeling, a shiver of recognition” (Adichie 2011). She wrote the latter sentence in her introduction to the 2011 edition of Labyrinths, translated by Mona de Pracontal for Christiane Fioupou’s 2020 translation of the collection. Okigbo plays a fictional role in Adichie’s second novel Half of a Yellow Sun, whose translation by de Pracontal, L’autre moitié du soleil, gave its name to the 2021 edition of the Fête du Livre.

14In the book festival, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was presenting her latest book, Notes on Grief. It describes one of the most (if not the most) difficult human experience, losing a parent, and losing them in the most painful way, being able neither to say goodbye nor to pay one’s last respect at a funeral, because of health restrictions and their impact on (international) mobility. Her deep admiration and affection for her father was already palpable in her writing and literary filiation, as can be seen in this review of one of Achebe’s essays:

His prose, which often has the cadence of spoken Nigerian English in his fiction, is sometimes plainly conversational here. I was reminded of my father, a contemporary of Achebe’s, telling stories of his past, in the circuitous storytelling tradition of the Igbo, each story circling in on itself, revelling in coincidence. (Adichie 2012)

  • 1 These explanations were given by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in public discussion with Guy Astic and (...)

15Notes on Grief is as much a description of her never-ending pain as it is a celebration of her father, whose gifts for story-telling shaped her own. He was a well-respected man in his community, being Nigeria’s first Professor of Statistics. When time came to take a title, giving way to the insistence of his hometown traditional rulers, he took “Odelu-Ora”, “One Who Writes for The Community”. She and her siblings would indulge in what she describes as a “litany of love”, calling him by his title to tease him lovingly. When she started to become famous, her mother, in an act of affectionate creation pointing to the literary sun she had herself created, started to call her by another title, “Odelu-Uwa”, One Who Writes for The World.1

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Notes

1 These explanations were given by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in public discussion with Guy Astic and Fanny Robles on “The Writing of History”, at the Fête du Livre, on October 16, 2021.

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Référence électronique

Fanny ROBLES, « Introduction »E-rea [En ligne], 19.1 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2021, consulté le 26 janvier 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/13229 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.13229

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