Book review – Inside look at Africa’s cities

2013-01-27 10:00

Painters like Gerard Sekoto and writer activists of Chinua Achebe’s generation, perhaps even Sol Plaatje and Tiyo Soga before them, convincingly made a case for African Modernity through their work.

They appealed to ideas of order and progress as politicians, priests and men of press.

However, there’s a new recalcitrant spirit that has been clawing at the edges of all of that.

It’s not shaped by men in suits pontificating their grand smarts in dignified offices, but through a complex sociocultural experience that is a co-creation of people we exclude in marketing campaigns like the Joburg municipality’s drive to lure more people back into the inner city.

It’s the old lady selling boiled pork trotters on the doorstep of the KFC franchise on Bree Street and the taxi driver blasting maskandi music as he drives past her.

Projects like Afropolis: City, Media, Art: Urbanization Africa register this spirit as a bold statement towards learning to articulate what exists beyond Africa’s post-modernity.

So Afropolis confronts us with the fact and complexities of life in five African cities – Cairo, Lagos, Kinshasa, Nairobi and Johannesburg.

They are collectively dubbed Africa’s Big Five megacities.

It’s informed by a simple premise that is set out in the hefty 328-page catalogue.

Today, over half of the world’s population lives in cities.

In particular, the regions of the Global South face rapid globalisation, with African cities recording the highest urbanisation rates.

These African contexts have created specific urban structures, topographies and cultures, notably different from European-American models of urban development.

“African cities are characterised by increasingly flexible, mobile and provisional intersections of residents that operate without clearly delineated notions of how the city is to be inhabited and used,” observes AbdouMaliq Simone, the London-based sociologist in one of the included papers titled People As Infrastructure – Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg.

To understand these unique features of African urbanity, the artists and academics collaborating on Afropolis left the macropolitical issues related to statistics and development scenarios that often permeate studies on urban living.

They chose to explore, instead, the city as a complex scheme of social networks and cultural relationships that shape life in these African mega cities.

The Afropolis exhibition originally hung at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne, Germany, from November 2010 to March 2011.

It was curated by Kerstin Pinther, cultural anthropologist Larissa Förster from Cologne and Christian Hanussek, an artist and curator from Berlin.

They managed to carve a curatorial approach that highlights the interconnectedness of scientific and artistic ideas.

As the catalogue preface declares, it not only explores urban histories and recent developments, but presents 30 artistic viewpoints on issues of urbanity about and from these five cities.

The project goes beyond also strategically memorialising the vibrant art scenes that have emerged in these five complex cities.

Through Kenyan writer Mbugua Wa Mungai, we learn of a unique purveyor street culture in Nairobi.

He contributes a research paper titled Matatu As Social Matrix.

Matatu refers to Nairobi’s ubiquitous commuter minibuses and Wa Mungai looks at how these unique modes of transport help shape a city’s identity and process.

The name dates back to the 1950s when the original matatu minibuses cost three pennies to ride.

The bus conductor would call out “mapenny matuatu”, meaning three pennies.

The elaborately decorated minibuses are meeting places, elaborately decorated artworks in motion and a site of conflict as well as joy.

The city of Cairo is represented by a crop of burgeoning cutting edge cartoonists.

Exemplary is Magdy El Shafee, who was arrested on the eve of the 2010 Arab Spring revolution for his graphic novel, Metro, which explored corruption in Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

He has since been released. Excerpts from his book have been reproduced here for good measure.

Among other contributions, Joburg is rhythmically rendered in an audiovisual collaborative work of film maker Jyoti Mistry, and performance poet and author Kgafela oa Magogodi.

Titled Itchy City, it’s a five-minute video appraisal of the City of Gold in which snippets of Magogodi’s performance are superimposed with real and painted views of Joburg.

The result is a powerful commentary on everyday life, and the absurdities of this tragic and once glorious cosmopolitan African city.

Kinshasa would not be adequately addressed without confronting the meaning of both the now dead dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and Rumble in the Jungle, that seminal boxing battle royal between African-American heavyweights George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.

So Dominique Malaquais’ essay, titled Rumble in Kinshasa, along with Gary Stewart’s Congo Music, are a study of the fight’s cultural impact are indispensable.

The two flirt with and parody the Congo’s Conradian stigma.

The catalogue was unavailable to English readers until now as it was in German.

It has now been translated and published in South Africa by Jacana Media and the Goethe-Institut.

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