Is it African? Questions of Aesthetics, Authenticity and Classification


In the past few weeks, the question of what constitutes as 'African' has come up in different contexts.

As I prepared my African fiction and non-fiction reading lists, I had to reflect on how I was selecting the books. In the end, I defined African fiction as such because of the heritage of the author and thus their perspective and experience, whether or not the subject of the book had anything to do with Africa. On the other hand, African non-fiction picks had everything to do with the subject matter.

I attended a couple of conferences in April: the African Creative Industries Investment Summit (ACIIS) and London Business School's Africa Day. Both were great opportunities to meet some truly inspiring people and listen to some exciting insights and ideas (and as much as I've been a skeptic of networking – I must say that that was actually the highlight of these 2 events. In fact, these experiences changed my whole perspective on the matter but, more about that here).

What did of course come up was this question of the African aesthetic. What makes something African?


All Hail Tradition

A common response is to call up tradition and all of its expressions. I feel that people are often too romantic about this and as a result do not really interrogate what they assume to be traditional.

For example, as a tourist in Kenya, you will be spoiled for choice when it comes to curios. The majority of these souvenirs are not to be confused with some great piece of a historical cultural tradition. They are simply trinkets to serve the market just as Big Ben and Big Apple key rings are. 

How about the fabric that has become synonymous with Africa – wax print, kitenge, Ankara? With origins in Indonesia and commercialised via Holland, I would argue that how it's been appropriated on our continent has created a uniquely African cultural expression. Traditional? Not really but kinda sort of … 

Traditions and cultures evolve. As we are exposed to different people, places and ideas, we give and take and everybody involved evolves in some way. To hark after an 'authentic' and untouched tradition or culture is to be a very frustrated seeker who will never arrive. Just looking at some of the beautiful photos in the legendary Africa Adorned gives evidence of this. Maasai's with plastic beads that were manufactured overseas and nomads in the Sahara wearing charms created from relics of Western contemporary pop culture. 


Unnecessary Confines

I've heard many an African creative complain about being put in a box and expected to create what audiences associate with as African, with regards to music, literature, fine art and more. You become a professional artist because you are inquisitive and curious. You want to explore and experiment and innovate. You do not become an artist in order to pander to other people's narrow views of the world. 

I understand the frustration. Labelling something as 'African' can place limits on it because of people's perceptions and preconceptions. At the same time, personally, I am proud to be associated with my heritage because it does define who I am. As a key piece of my identity, it informs my outlook and this outlook is going to be evident in some way, large or indeed very very small, in what I produce and/or how I produce it. But so will all the other pieces of my identity and experience

I get it. Why do some artists have to be 'African' whereas others are simply 'great'? Why do some artists have to be niche while others can transcend their niches and become mainstream? These kinds of challenges are not isolated to Africans but also to women, young people, older people etc. Essentially, to people who are easily distinguishable – and therefore classifiable – as different (which I'd take over 'normal' any day but, that's me). Of course we have to ask, different to who? Who is assuming the power to make these judgements and decisions? Who is influencing the world? Again, that's one for another time – there's only so much we can discuss in one sitting! 


Forward and Beyond

Accomplished photographer Uzo Oleh spoke on one of the ACIIS panels and I think he said it best:

"Let go of the labels and just move forward and keep creating stuff."

Does that mean I should drop the "Afri-" and just call my blog "Love"? No way! I celebrate African and African-inspired creativity and initiative because, I believe that there is a place for that in terms of inspiring and encouraging more Africans to stop living somebody else's dream, as well as to showcase to the world the diversity and complexity of 'African' and of the African experience.


These are my thoughts – I would love to hear yours.


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2 thoughts on “Is it African? Questions of Aesthetics, Authenticity and Classification”

  1. This is a very good question – especially for me, a white South African. Although I’m now an Australian resident and passport holder, Africa still beats in my heart, and I love returning to the continent. This is an enormous question also from the point of view of those who view Africa as one country – I don’t need to remind you of the great diversity of cultures that inhabit the continent, not to mention the various forms of colonial legacies which still influence people’s lives. A fascinating question to which I have few answers, except perhaps to note that there does exist some essential notion, some entity or phenomenon, which can be identified as uniquely African.

  2. Thanks for sharing Susan. I think it’s definitely one of those questions to which there can be no definitive answers. Each person will simply have to decide for themselves how they identify, what they associate etc. I agree with you about that undefinable essence … and I feel it whenever I go home and, thankfully, even in some places far from the continent where that particular energy is alive.

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