Dispatches from Africa Utopia: It’s Complicated


"Africa is all too often written off as an intractable "problem" for the world to solve. I hope this festival will reveal just some of what Africa has to offer the rest of the world: the energy of our youth and their desire to engage with the world; the transformative potential of culture and, perhaps most potently, the power of community to bind people together."

 – Africa Utopia Co-curator, Baaba Maal

Indeed the festival's main question was, in what ways can the continent lead the way in thinking about culture, community, sustainability and ethical wealth creation? In short, what can the rest of the world learn from Africa?


Ambassador Syndrome*: Is there a tendency with Africans in the Diaspora to romanticise Africa?

Based on the talks & debates I attended, if I had to sum up the theme of the festival in a phrase, it would be: "It's complicated"

Journalist, writer, editor, cultural critic and blogger, Belinda Otas, told it like it is in "Africa is not a country: Reporting Africa" – a panel discussing the perception gap between how Africa is reported and the reality of the continent. She asserted that her major concern is not how the West sees Africa but how we, as Africans see ourselves –  "It is not the responsibility of the journalist to make Africans feel good about themselves." So the work is not about simply countering the prevalent negative portrayals of our continent with pretty ones. It is about taking an honest look at the whole picture and facing the fact that, as we evolve, there will be things we don't like.

* A panelist from the Granta Magazine hosted "Imagining Africa" talk suggested that every single African struggles with this affliction. 


Other complicated questions

An audience member posed the following question to the "ARISE and Shine" panel, hosted by ARISE magazine: "is it still relevant to use the adjective 'African' ?"

Panelist, poet, playwright, performer, artist/designer, Inua Ellams, thinks that it depends on what you mean by the word. 

In the mind of panelist, South African poet Lebo Mashile, 'African' represents hybridity, complexity and multiple narratives.


So what does it mean to be an African artist? 

Fashion designer Tsemaye Binitie discussed how Africa influences who he is, through and through but, when he gets down to work, he designs for everybody. 

And indeed, the 'Africa on the catwalk' fashion was a fantastic representation of how exciting, innovative and diverse African fashion is right now. That it's about more than head-to-toe wax print outfits (not that I don't love those too). The designers featured – including Bestow Elan, Chichia London, Eki Orleans and Kezia Frederick – each have a distinct and memorable style.


Keeping it complex

Missla Libsekal, founder of the site Another Africa, gave great advice to young aspiring creatives: "nurture your curiosity". Advice that I cannot agree more with, as a creative practitioner myself. Nurturing your curiosity is what keeps you excited, motivated and what helps you grow (creatively and otherwise). Whenever I experience a creative slump, it's precisely because I have neglected to do this most enjoyable thing (of which this blog is just one outlet)!

So here's to an excellent week with dedicated time out for getting carried away by your curiosity!



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