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Art Criticism: is the prefix ‘Afro-’ (as in “Afro-futurism”) arresting our imagination and manifesto salesmanship?

A prefix modifies a word/statement. The prefix ‘Afro-’ as used in art criticism modifies existing manifestos. But it has the capacity to arrest African imagination, so that the African imagination follows other manifestos, only to attach itself to them and never coming up with an original of its own. Filmmaker and Philosophy student Phetogo Tshepo Mahasha speaks

I initially planned this essay for the “Afro-surrealism” call that I saw published on Shadow & Act [the African-diaspora cinema blog ], but it became apparent as I went on and explored my own viewpoint that I was not comfortable with the idea of the book, though I thought it necessary.

I concluded that: The prefix ‘afro-’ has acquired a parasitic character, leeching off manifestos. And it has the capacity to arrest African imagination, so that the African imagination follows other manifestos, only to attach itself to them and never coming up with an original of its own.

Couple this with an observation that I made: a blog tagged and listed musician Simphiwe Dana as an Afrofuturist, which I found a bit offsetting because the context in which the art was and is being produced, is in a way minimized.

The purpose of this essay is to clarify my own ideas of Art Criticism about the use of the ‘Afro-’ prefix, The African Renaissance and African art, and perhaps try to point a way forward for myself.

As writing this essay lead to the discovery of my own limits of essay writing talent, I would say this is a ‘personal essay’ that guides my own thinking, as I can’t really claim it is definitive.

Mothership
Mothership

The prefix ‘Afro-’

A prefix modifies a word/statement. The prefix ‘Afro-’ as used in art criticism modifies existing manifestos. In my opinion, it does not promote the generation of wholly new ideas and manifestos, but only the modification of the creativity of others. The prefix ‘afro-’ has acquired a parasitic character, leeching off manifestos: Afro-Surrealism, Afro-Punk, Afro-Futurism and Afro-etc. I think it has the capacity to arrest African imagination, so that the African imagination only follows other manifestos, only to attach itself to them and never coming up with an original of its own. I wouldn’t have a problem with it because creativity is about modifying elements that are already there to create something new, but given what’s out there at this point I have an objection. Just a quick internet search reveals that the movie The Matrix is listed as Afro-futurism on some websites. It can go to the point where Afro-futurism can only be about a person of colour in a future space, when in fact for a project like ‘The Matrix’, the faces and races are interchangeable, it would still be what it is without black people in it.

I read an Afro-Surrealist manifesto written by D. Scot Miller and it had me asking a few questions. In this manifesto, Miller outlines what isn’t Afro-Surrealism. He writes, “Afro-Surrealism is not surrealism.”

“…Leopold Senghor, poet, first president of Senegal, and African Surrealist, made this distinction: ‘European Surrealism is empirical. African Surrealism is mystical and metaphorical.’”

And then he says of Afro-Surrealism, “[it] presupposes that beyond this visible world, there is an invisible world striving to manifest, and it is our job to uncover it.”

And he goes on to say, “Afro-Surrealists restore the cult of the past. We revisit old ways with new eyes. We appropriate 19th century slavery symbols, like Kara Walker, and 18th century colonial ones, like Yinka Shonibare. We re-introduce ‘madness’ as visitations from the gods, and acknowledge the possibility of magic. We take up the obsessions of the ancients and kindle the dis-ease, clearing the murk of the collective unconsciousness as it manifests in these dreams called culture.”

Miller claims that Afro-Surrealism is NOT Surrealism. And then he goes on to define something that’s different from ‘Surrealism’ and calls it ‘Afro-Surreal’. My question when I read Miller’s Manifesto was why call it Afro-Surrealism if it is not Surrealism? Why prefix the word Surrealism with ‘Afro-’? Most importantly, since it is so different from surrealism, why not call it something entirely new?

Miller considers The Neptunes early music Afro-futurist. Would that same music if it was produced by a person of a different race still be considered Afro-futurist? What made it fundamentally Afro-futurist except for race?

African Renaissance

Ever since the independence of the first African state there has been talk of an African Renaissance, a rebirth of Africa.

This is to be realized by taking what was before colonisation and put it in its proper place. African Renaissance can be divided into three processes: excavations, integrating the material into the present and projecting the material into the future.

The African renaissance to me is naturally linked with the development of African Philosophy that carries on today. African Philosophy has at its base the idea of the “Struggle for reason”. To quote Mogobe B. Ramose:

“One of the bases of colonization was that the belief ‘man is a rational animal’ was not spoken of the African, the Amerindian, and the Australasian … Little did Aristotle realize that his definition of ‘man’ laid down the foundation for the struggle for reason—not only between men and women but also between the colonialists and the Africans, the Amerindians, and the Australasian’s.”

“The struggle for reason—who is and who is not a rational animal—is the foundation of racism.”

These African Renaissance excavations are about restoring whatever cultural artefacts/Philosophy/idea, basically they’re an attempt to restore the humanity of Africans in the light of this ‘struggle for reason’, post-colonization; this is the environment, and artists will most certainly interact with it: Picking up bits and fashioning them, if they choose to do so.

It’s about freeing the African from this struggle for reason by collecting and restoring artefacts/philosophies, and projecting these into the future so that this base will always be available to future generations, presumably a generation of free Africans, free to create whatever they please, free from the “struggle for reason”. It is within either of these contexts of ultimate freedom and/or of the offsetting of “the struggle for reason” that I see cultural production taking place and being evaluated.

Legitimate Art Criticism is concerned with: The Artist (who they are), the work, and the Artist’s environment.

Given what the environment was and is, it raises questions when an artist like for example – Simphiwe Dana can be mentioned in a critic’s article, which in its attempts at giving her work context, doesn’t mention The African Renaissance, but in fact shifts the cultural context to Sun-Ra’s Afro-Futurism, seeing Dana as its “offspring”.

  Manifesto salesmanship

When I first heard of Spoek Mathambo he called his music “Township Techno”. True, it may not be a step too far from prefixing it ‘Afro-Something’, but it was still an honest attempt to contextualize his music within the township continuum, with South African music as its lineage. Hearing the genre name itself ‘Township Techno’ gives a pretty good idea what is happening, though it doesn’t go as far as I hope it should, which is just naming it something different like, ‘HighLife’ music (music originating in Ghana) or Kwaito.

Spoek Mathambo is an even more interesting artist in terms of Art Criticism because he illustrates the strength of ‘Manifesto salesmen.’

To give a clear idea of what I mean by Manifesto salesmanship there is an interesting review of the case of Frida Kahlo and Surrealism. Andre Breton went around selling the Surrealism Manifesto to artists who produced the work without any prior knowledge of his manifesto.

In the LA Reviews of Books, a review of the exhibition “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States” ends with: “And so, in the end it turns out Breton was justified in his fears. People will call almost anything surrealism”. Eli Diner writes:

“Take the case of Kahlo. She met Breton on his 1938 trip to Mexico. Fascinated by her work, he wrote an essay to accompany her show that year at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York and included some of her paintings in an exhibition the following year in Paris. In 1940, she exhibited work in the International Surrealist Exhibition in Mexico City. She experimented a little with automatic writing and painting and participated in a few exquisite corpses, but Kahlo, for her part, rejected the label and disavowed any interest in surrealism, insisting that she did not “paint dreams.” In a letter to a friend in 1952, she summed up her feelings on the subject: “I detest surrealism. To me it seems to be a decadent manifestation of bourgeois art.” Kahlo’s naive style, disturbing imagery, phantasmagoric ruptures and canvases crowded with “non-western” logics of the folkloric, the archaic and the natural, suggest that her many affinities with surrealism remain just that, incidental. For Breton this was precisely the point. Kahlo offered a kind of natural confirmation of the surrealist sensibility. He wrote of his “surprise and joy” upon discovering her work, which had “blossomed forth […] into pure surreality, despite the fact that it had been conceived without any prior knowledge whatsoever of the ideas motivating the activities of my friends and myself.” Activities, it should be added, that principally included the very procedure Breton performed in identifying Kahlo. As much as the art and literature — or, for that matter, the games, the manifestos, and the so-called “researches”— surrealism consisted of the hunt for iterations of the surreal. From distant corners of the globe, in primitive art and tribal cultures; among the hysterics in the Salpêtrière Hospital; in objects acquired at Paris flea markets; among the work of a few contemporaries deemed kindred spirits or the poetry of a 14-year-old girl seen to have arrived at a pure automatism; and through literary and artistic forebears reshuffled in an ever-changing account of their own lineage, the surrealists gleefully coopted whatever might fit into their vast catalogue of surreality.”

Which brings me to a TED Talk by the Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu titled ‘Afro-futurism in popular culture’ (July 2012). Kahiu makes it very clear that the Talk is a manifesto sales pitch, comparable to Andre Breton’s sales pitch, in that she disregards the incidental ‘similarity’ of the work produced around Africa and Afro-futurism, and she disregards the African context in which the work is produced around Africa, and she wants to force the ‘Afro-futurism’ context which has it’s own history on the African works. In the talk, Kahiu gives a brief history of Afro-futurism, and then to underlie the sales pitch, “…but that was very specifically about African-Americans, but I wanted to find a place for Afro-futurism in Africa.” Then she proceeds to offset the cultural context of ancient African myths, legends and visuals with Afro-futurism.

With all due respect, I find this sort of ‘Bretonian’ manifesto salesmanship a bit damaging. It distorts the diachronic (historical narrative) analysis of the work by not seeing it as a mere concurrent and incidental relationship. I humbly doubt, and I may be wrong, that Spoek Mathambo or Wanuri Kahiu knew what Afro-futurism was when they began. I humbly assume that it was sold to them, as it was sold to me. I may be wrong in this assumption, in effect to point at a sense of inevitability.

As it was for me, it’s one of those cases where you do something and present it to others, and others tell you what you are doing from their own context, like – “hey, you are doing Afro-futurism”, and if you are black and live in Africa it really strikes me as inevitable that you will produce such work in the renaissance context; but that’s not sufficient ground for the Renaissance’s continuum to be distorted.

In Art, there is tension, collaboration and assimilation in the interactions between people of African Descent worldwide. These can be systematically listed and tracked, so that the Art production is correctly interpreted and contextualized. This tension and assimilation must be taken into account; lineage of things must be taken into consideration.

In my opinion, Afro-futurism and other Afro-manifestos cannot entirely and securely stand separately from the African Renaissance because in some aesthetic terms they depend on the cultural excavations of the Renaissance.

Conclusion

True, culture may build on work of other cultures of other cultures of other cultures…

As I have explored my views, I concluded:

a) The use of the prefix ‘afro-’ needs to be minimized for the sake of freeing African imagination. Since I can’t foresee and cover the entire use of the prefix, I am referring to the points that I’ve covered in this essay in relation to art-criticism.  I see it as a necessity for the sake of encouraging imagination to grow, and not be restricted to – or attached to – other pre-existing manifestos and make it harder for ourselves to come up with something unique. Minimizing the ‘afro’ prefix would promote fresh thinking. Afro-manifestos have a “leeching” tinge to them. They are forms of reacting to things instead of all out attempt at ‘originality’ – Black people reacting to other manifestos: Punk (Afro-Punk), Surrealism (Afro-Surrealism) etc.  I haven’t even taken into account that Afro-futurism may be a misnomer, when looked at with the “Futurism” manifesto.

b) Art critics need to be bold enough to give things stand-alone names. Everything is about encouraging invention. ‘High-life’ music is highlife. The implication being that any person of any descent can do Highlife music; can the same be easily said for any of the ‘Afro-’ prefixed semi-manifestos? Or does it pivot on race? Can a Japanese person do ‘Afro-punk’ and if so, would it require another prefix to be Japanese-Afro-Punk? I have difficulty answering these questions. I don’t think I’m way off in imagining the South American manifesto of ‘Magic Realism’ would be called ‘Afro-something’ if it was being done by people of African descent. We need to encourage new names and manifestos.

c) The African Renaissance is about creating a floor in a much larger context, one that aims for African people to be free amongst other free people. It’s about freeing the African from the “struggle for reason” by collecting and restoring artefacts, and projecting these into the future so that this base will always be available to future generations. It is either within the context of ultimate freedom (Free to explore and create new black African identities, new Manifestos) and/or the offsetting of “the struggle for reason” that cultural production takes place and should be evaluated in. It must be recognized that ‘some’ current African Art cannot be contextualized without mention of the Renaissance and its excavations.

Even as I write this I have doubts that of course I may be biased. It took a long time to finish this essay and to publish it. I wouldn’t like to speak only for myself, I’d like to believe that there must be others who feel the same as I do. I don’t, for a second, doubt the force of my imagination. My mind may change in time about the contents of this essay but at this point I am convinced.

Phetogo Tshepo Mahasha is a filmmaker and Philosophy student from South Africa.

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