The ABC’s of Africa at the Louisiana Museum of Art, Denmark, 21st September 2015.
‘To be at the Louisiana today… what was it like?’ I ask myself over and over. It’s difficult to find words to summarise my experience at The Africa Exhibition at the Louisiana Museum of Art, hard to describe such a mix of emotions. From meeting the spirit of all the people displayed so vividly on screens, in paintings, photographs, videos, from seeing the beautiful photos of the Senegalese Omar Victor Diop, from the noisy videos of Congolese speaking in French, Nigerians in their trademark accent, the short films of the colourful Kenyan matatus booming with music. It is from seeing new generations of Africans owning the space they occupy – without apologies. It’s recognizing African artists’ names on walls. And being confronted with all this on the European continent, where, sometimes, Africa feels all too far and foreign.
At the first stop of the exhibition, large maps of Africa hang on the walls; There is one, all yellow, no country boundaries, except for three small countries in West Africa in red. In big letters it says ‘No Ebola’ on the yellow part, and ‘Ebola’ on the red. Another one shows the size of Africa in relation to the rest of the world – or is it the other way around? A small North America covers Western Africa, China and Japan cover the southern African part while India and most of Europe fill the northern and eastern part. And the immensity of this vast landmass begins to dawn on me. This enormous continent of which so little is known.
The exports map catches my eye. Gold, diamonds, oil, uranium, tea and coffee fills the map, and then a bit more gold, diamonds and crude oil. I am stricken by the visual effects of this information that I have taken for granted. Like many other museum goers I stare at the maps as if it were the first time I saw one. I realize that this exhibition is as educational as it is entertaining – the ABCs of Africa. I ponder the relationships between all this wealth and war and the way Africa is often represented. The narrative of conflict, poverty and disease sells better, it evokes emotions. News makes us go ‘…and here I am complaining about my car, or my last holiday, while children in Africa are dying of hunger oh…’News may even help us discover our own humanity, however one-sided they are.
But today, we have other avenues. Avenues of the architecture, culture and identity of the continent. Nairobi is one of the featured cities, and so I run directly to this section. And oh, how it still resembles itself, Nairobi. The thousands of people walking fast and focused along the streets on a screen, images of tall buildings and hundreds of stalls in the streets, a video of matatus – the ‘graffitized’, celebrity-painted, hip hop-booming vehicles that don’t just transport passengers from A to B, but also represent a culture, a way of life for Kenyans. Your identity can be judged by the matatu you chose to commute with.
I see myself walking those streets, ‘hiking’ those matatus. I hear the booming music inside, see the heads of the passengers nodding in time. The conductor bangs the matatu, signaling the driver to stop. It stops wherever, picks customers along the road – as long as there are pedestrians waving it down the matatu stops. And all the traffic behind grinds to a halt with it. More passengers! More money! The conductor swings himself out of the matatu, hits the ground and runs to keep up with it. He calls young ladies ‘baby’, ‘supuu’, some smile others sneer, some swing their heads this way, and their hips that way, their jeans a perfect fit on their well-curved hips. It’s his job to flirt with all good-looking young ladies. Inside the matatu, passengers update Facebook and twitter accounts, taking advantage of free wifi, they maneuver their virtual world as they do the physical one. The conductor bangs on the matatu again – and the wheels go round and round as do the images in my mind.
My hands stretch towards the screen, and tears fill my eyes. A lump settles in my throat. My Africa, my Nairobi in Louisiana. On the screen the same clip is still playing, passengers jump in and out of the matatu as soon as it stops. I look closely, hoping to see my brother, my mother, or perhaps a friend. I recognize none of the faces, but still I look as passengers scramble to get in. I see a part of me in them, I have been there. I, too, have walked, danced and lived that rhythm, the rhythm of the Kenyan matatu. That rhythm connects all of us, we fit in, we bend, we stand, we fall and we rise. Despite our challenges, the matatu unites us as we nod to the beat.
Besides me, a young girl stares at me, but says nothing. How I wish she’d know how happy I feel, so overwhelmed, so proud to be Kenyan today. I’d wish for her to know how grateful I am to these artists, these curators, who have given my Nairobi a fair representation, made it real. My kind of real.
I move to the next exhibit, a picture of a guy wearing wire-woven glasses. I recognise the artist’s name – Kabiru, who makes eyewear art from Nairobi’s trash – has his work admired thousands of miles away. On another screen, a guy is talking about the famous Kibera, the capital of slum tourism. Of how millions of dollars have been poured into one of the world’s largest slums for years, yet little has changed. But is it true? He tells that a lot is changing. Improved housing, better sewage system, even ecological kitchens are coming up. Slum tourists, you’d better hurry, because soon the Kibera you cherish will only be in history books.
Nairobi surrounds me, images of people going about their business, images of tall, beautiful, shiny, dusty and even shanty buildings, images of street art, of loud colourful matatus surround me. I am in Nairobi. I can smell her, and hear her sounds.
I wipe my eyes, look around, wonder who else have these feelings, who else has been transported, who else is a witness. I cannot be sure, but they seem to go around Nairobi unaffected, like they did Dakar, Lagos and Maputo. Maybe as I would, had it been Stockholm, Rome or New York. I want to move on, but I fear that if I leave that space, the feeling I have will be gone as well.
But I do move on, to the works of Wangechi Mutu, a celebrated artist and the reason I came today. A long black rubber snake lies in slumber, consumed with materialism (stuffed in paper from glossy magazines). It has the face of a woman, as does the painting of the supernatural being on the wall. Her work, as she describes it, is the combination of African traditions, consumerism in the new world, and the strength, power and mystery of female beings. I look behind and tell my friend: “Here she is, the lady I told you about, Wangechi Mutu.” She asks where she is from, and I realize I took it for granted that she would recognize the name as Kenyan.
I proceed to Dakar, Senegal, the ‘Fashion Centre’ of Africa. Large, colourful prints, beautiful clothes, models, who look like they were carved to fit just those clothes, models with glowing ebony complexions, big afros, others with shiny, bald heads, big and small, the diversity of Africa. Even in this sophistication, there is no denying the hardships of poverty and war, but the vibrancy of life comes through as well, offering a balanced reality, from Nairobi to Maputo, Jo’burg and Kinshasa. I feel as if I am ON the continent, moving from city to city, with no hindrance by time or distance.
Incidentally, Kinshasa is where my own ignorance is put on display. Inside a small, yellow room a video of the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra is showing. I remember being impressed the first time I heard about it. ‘An African symphony orchestra, in Kinshasa of all places. Maybe Accra, Lagos, or Capetown’, I’d thought. Notwithstanding, most of us, who have lived sub-saharan Africa, have at one time or another encountered the Lingala music, the soothing, melodious voices of Lingala singers and the flexibility of their dancers. While the Congolese gave diamonds and gold to the rest of the world, they gave their beautiful rhythms to the African continent. But yet, even with that knowledge safe in my mind, it’s the story of war, rape, and disease that comes to mind when I think of the DRC. That is the narrative I have bought into. I expected to watch this movie feeling pity. Instead, I am filled with admiration for the cello players who build their own instruments from local materials, as do the guitarists and the violinists, because new ones are out of reach, and for the vocalists who learn the German text for Beethoven’s music and sing it with no background knowledge of the German language. They have perfected their music from love, they work hard in their day jobs and live in tough conditions, but still find time to rehearse.
Their determination and resilience is moving, as are the happy faces around them. It’s not as if I expected everyone to be gloomy, but that I particularly notice the ‘happy faces’ bothers me. Could it be the single-minded narrative that has obscured my vision? War is close to the hearts of the Congolese, but it’s not the only story to be told. As demonstrated by one of the musicians whose deceased father was a major in the army. Her eyes cloud over as she talks about him, but she smiles as she talks of her hopes for her son, maybe he could become a musician like herself.
The film ends with a concert at a market place, with hundreds attending, cheering to the sounds of Beethoven in Congo, of music, rhythm, Africa, my Africa, the enormous, poor, war-hunger-greed-stricken, rough, cruel, tough, smooth, beautiful, rhythmic, flamboyant, innovative, resilient, graciously rich and wonderfully diverse Africa. Louisiana has taken me to Africa.
I have been here since midday walking around several African cities. There’s much more, more sections upstairs and downstairs, more architecture, more culture and more identity. It’s now five o’clock, I need to catch my train on time, since there are no matatus to stop at my command (think of the chaos!).I rush through the remaining exhibitions, but finally realize I’m doing injustice to myself. I need to find another day, a lot more than five hours, to indulge in it all.
But before leaving Louisiana, I pass by Ng’endo Mukii’s Yellow Fever, a short video combining animations, human bodies, music, history, African landscape, dance and hair, all beautifully intertwined. In her short film, Ng’endo shows the effect of historic exclusion of Africans, when defining and endorsing what is beautiful. She questions the role of the media in this, and exposes the absurdity of using it to define ourselves. From choosing plastic hair over our own to the extent of harmful skin bleaching chemicals on our bodies. As Ng’endo eloquently puts it: ‘We seek our ideals outside our own reality’. And a little girl in the short film that sums it all up. When asked how she feels when she looks at herself in the mirror, she says: “It makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable.”
I, too, feel a little uncomfortable with the truths I have been confronted with today. But I still leave Louisiana overwhelmed by joy and appreciation of this reminder of the wonder and mystery that is Africa, and of Africans taking the centre stage in providing a new narrative. Thank you, Louisiana, for acknowledging my identity, for informing and transforming me, for taking me to Africa.