(originaly published on Africa Maboneng)
In recent years, there has been a rise in the appreciation and reinterpretation of African cultural aesthetics- especially in popular fashion and music- and recently, African spirituality has made it to the fore of contemporary popular culture. The Afro-Brazilian band, Ibeyi, Azizaa’s ‘Black Magic Woman’, and the resurgence of African print cloths and masks in contemporary aesthetics have appeared on many a news feed.
I think that we are finally seeing that the legacy of colonialism wasn’t only about slavery, racism and poverty or the destruction of social and political structures… One of the biggest fissures in African identity was the pillaging of artifacts and the destruction of cultural and religious institutions.
Historically, Africans have been people of functionality, communication and ritual (not coincidentally, all peoples share this trait). Many artworks have a utilitarian value; many mundane things are beautiful. One need only picture the patterns of the VhoVenda, the woven baskets of the BaTswana, the headrests of the Ghanaians, the bronzes of Benin to see that African peoples married aesthetics and functionality, every day. The thing is; our history wasn’t written- it was passed down through our stories and their associated objects. The crown prince of a particular tribe may not have been able to sit on the throne until he had been told the stories of his father, grandfather and his father’s rule, to the nth generation. In this way, the history of his bloodline, and the rule of his people was tied up with the physical throne.
As well as the beauty imbued in certain objects by the (sometimes mystical) decorations that adorn them, there are objects that only a select few people in the community are allowed to touch. These are often used in spiritual practices and cultural rituals. Whether it is a mask, a basket or a throne; many artifacts have historically had a twin physical and metaphysical purpose. Their value extended beyond their physicality. The Yoruba people, who live in the southwest of Nigeria and extend into the southeast of Benin, hold the Gelede festival. The festival honours the spiritual role of women in Yoruba society.
The purpose of the performance of Gelede is to pay tribute to the special power of women, both elders and ancestors, who are known affectionately as “our mothers.” Women can use a spiritual life force, ase, which can be creative or destructive The masquerade provides an opportunity for “our mothers” to be placated or pampered so that they do not use their destructive powers against the Yoruba people; instead they encourage rain and fertile soil. Masks are an integral part of this festival- some of which have been removed from their places of utility and value. Removed from the purpose of being alive in the communities that dance in them.
Is it plausible to say that it wasn’t just capital in the form of land and manpower; it wasn’t just trade routes and trade systems that were taken over and changed to benefit the New World? These speak to trade and the economy. Could it follow that the removal of cultural and spiritual artifacts from their sites of significance may have left African peoples with a legacy of poverty when it comes to valuing who we are? Blackwellreference.com says: “The idea that culture can be a medium for political and economic power predates postcolonial theory in social and political thought” (emphasis my own).
Whose Culture is it, anyway?
According to blackwellreference.com, “Cultural colonialism refers to two related practices; the extension of colonial power through cultural activities and institutions (particularly education and media) or the asymmetrical influence of one culture over another…”
Now, I am both a victim of and a willing participant in cultural colonialism because I consume the cultural products of the West. That includes their paradigms, mythologies and philosophies. I may buy a movie ticket or CD or even a book (ka- ching), and all of those funds are fueling the cultural propagation of a culture not my own. This wouldn’t be so bad if the stories of my gods; my ancestors and the monsters they defeated weren’t vilified. Dimo and the characters who defeated him are both cast as demonic. How, when there is clearly a ‘good guy’ and a ‘bad guy’? The religious systems that we have assimilated have cast our stories- our order of the universe- as evil. As such, we have come to fail to see the value in them- spiritually AND physically (read economically).
Movies like ‘300’, ‘Hercules’ and ‘Passion of the Christ’ are multi- million dollar cultural products- all are all based on the mythologies- and yes- obsolete philosophies and religious systems of the West. This rant isn’t only about the cultural value in our stories- it is about the cultural capital in them. We are not taught about Oya, Elegba, or Kgogomodumo, but rather about Thor, Zeus and the Minotaur. These are the stories that we consume on a mass (popular) scale. These are the monsters and heroes we consume. These are the stories we buy. Those are the stories that we are propagating, mentally and economically. American Poet, Saul Williams writes: “What have you bought into, how much will it cost to buy you out?” I chatted with Honey Makwakwa, a sangoma based in Johannesburg. She said, “Research. The information is there. Find the truth and tell the stories in the medium of your choice. We have spectacular historically significant African figures, where are the biopics about them? We have a wealth of history, if only we were willing to look to ourselves instead of the west, we would find that gold mine closer than you think. It’s a perception thing the perception needs to shift, and it’s happening, slowly.”
I’m not saying we need to go back to an idealized, romantic past that we only have access to through the writings of those who didn’t really understand them. Let’s look on the bright side! What I AM saying is that what has become exciting is how our cultural narratives are being pushed into the future. Creatives of all kinds are authoring content about Africa. We have begun to write and illustrate superheroes, demi-gods and monsters back into our contemporary cultural narratives, en masse. I love it.
We are a fetishistic people. We recognise the power and inevitability of duality. A spoon is not just a spoon- it is also a record of our ancestors, carved into the handle, a basket not just a basket- but a complex, mathematically on- point treatise on the geography of its place of origin. All of these things can be read into African cultural products. So let us continue to write them. Put them on the internet. Make them into movies; fashion, movies, songs, paintings- let us revive the heroes and villains of our ancestors and weave the stories of new Gods into our Pantheons. Graphic novels like Genus and Kwezi, movies like Kirikou and the Sorceress and books like Nnedi Okorafor’s ‘Who Fears Death?’ are a testament to the power of African narratives for an African (and worldwide) audience. And let us consume them. Allow them to nourish us. It’s 2015. Our time is now.