Taking African Cartoons Seriously: Politics, Satire, and Culture
Edited by Peter Limb and Tejumola Olaniyan,
Michigan State University Press | East Lansing; 2018
Aristotle noted that man was a social animal, but also that we are the only species that laughs. What we laugh at remains something of a mystery.
We humans also practise professions that make of laughter a source of livelihood: court jesters have been around since the time of the pharaohs, but now we also have professional comedians and cartoonists – as well as those unwitting comedians, politicians. Cartoons, which often ridicule this latter species, are by definition funny. This is all the more reason why we should be Taking Africa’s Cartoons Seriously, as the authors of this book argue.
The flourishing of Africa’s cartoonists indicates that democracy is taking root. Edited by Peter Limb and Tejumola Olaniyan, the book is meant to correct the lack of analysis of political cartoons, and to introduce new approaches to the phenomenon. It contains an introduction and overview, seven essays, and five interviews with prominent cartoonists from sub-Saharan Africa.
The works analysed are by practitioners in Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana, while those interviewed are from Botswana, Namibia, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. Most of the essays present analyses of how and why cartoons work, while two present the vagaries of media freedom in South Africa and Ghana.
It is instructive that the cartoonists’ countries of origin influence their works and their thoughts about what they do. The political regimes in power in each case determine the form and content. Democracy is a necessary condition for cartooning that does not descend into hagiography.
Nigeria, the most populous country on the continent, has a long history of military rule and sporadic attempts at democracy. Ganiyu A Jimoh’s examination of cartoons about the Nigerian police uses semiotics as a methodology to demonstrate how cartoons work. He also provides a brief history of corruption in the police force before turning to cartoonists’ use of physical features: the potbelly – to denote corruption and ill-gotten wealth, as well as indolence and a dereliction of duty.
Caricature is a favourite device of most cartoonists, exaggerating the physical features of leaders and the elites – a nose enlarged, a look in the eye made hyperbole, a character trait rendered hilarious. Caricature diminishes the authority of the powermonger, stripping him (more often a him) of legitimacy and reducing him to less than ordinary.
Olaniyan examines the work of Bisi Ogunbadejo, a veteran cartoonist who focuses not on political failure but on “how such failures come to be” because of the human condition. His work, says Olaniyan, exemplifies the cartoon of exploration rather than the more common cartoon of display, where ridicule is paramount. While Ogunbadejo’s exploratory cartoons do not produce belly laughs, they present “irresistible humour at its most troubling unhumorous best”, plunging the reader into contemplation of a paradox.
Baba G Jallow explores the decade after 1957 in Ghana, during the reign of Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana. Nkrumah went from being the nation’s saviour to declaring a one-party state, crowning himself president-for-life and encouraging his people to see him as a god.
Cartoonists showered him with praise, but the day he was deposed, the very same cartoonists ridiculed him and celebrated his downfall. Jallow argues, unconvincingly, that excessive praise can be a coded form of critique. “What appears to be caricatures of one person or issue might actually be caricatures of those who caricature the person or issue,” he argues. It seems he fails to see that not all cartoons achieve their aim. Some simply aren’t much of anything: neither funny, nor acute, critical nor interesting.
Joseph Oduro-Frimpong examines a later period in Ghana, the fourth republic of 1993, after which “Ghana boasts a robust press freedom”. He focuses on The Black Narrator, “the first to exemplify the changing nature of cartooning in Ghana since 1992”. This cartoonist tackles corruption in government, the judiciary and sanitation – the latter an issue that posed a grave threat to public health. Oduro-Frimpong is concerned to break the distinction between entertainment and political resistance, seeing cartoons as “one of the myriad ways ordinary people cope with and undermine the politics of hegemony pursued by the political elite”.
Seeing cartoons as a “running commentary on events”, Gathara sets out a brief history of the media and cartooning in Kenya, paying homage to pioneers such as Paul “Madd” Kelemba, “the first indigenous political cartoonist to reach national prominence” who emerged in 1986. Madd was succeeded by Godfrey Mwampembwa, aka Gado, now one of the foremost cartoonists on the continent.
These days, the state sometimes uses the threat of litigation to silence critics, and in 2014 the editors of The Standard, a Kenyan news outlet, were summoned to State House in connection with an exposé about state overspending. Gado was the victim in April 2015, asked by his editor to “take a break” before being sacked in February 2016. As a consequence, says Gathara, self-censorship has become the greatest threat to media freedom in Kenya. But the state is not the only threat: advertisers also play a nefarious role in keeping certain issues out of newspapers.
Paula Callus explores tactics of subversion in her chapter on animation, a form allied to cartooning but requiring technological devices rather than two-dimensional paper. She points to the increasing ubiquity of the Internet, smartphones and new forms of production and distribution for cartoonists, filmmakers and media practitioners. She focuses particularly on emerging animators – such as Gatumia Gatumia, whose The Greedy Lords of the Jungle, a short animated film that could be interpreted in myriad ways, is a critique of colonialism but also of power relations in post-colonial Africa.
The producers of these animations rely on the moving image as a way of bypassing the eye of the censor to get to children, thereby producing sublimated critiques of power relations. But she cautions that rather than simply being oppositional, some of these artists are prone to imbrication in the systems they question, sometimes becoming complicit with the aims of funders, or of government’s desire to develop the IT sector.
South Africa looms large in the book. It has unique features, most notably a history of oppressive relations between white overlords and black subjects, a condition that has not been entirely eradicated by more than two decades of democracy. The country’s early cartoonists – mainly white, exploiting the space made possible by a whites-only democracy – appear to have long experience of how to cock a snook at power, a tradition continued by Jonathan Shapiro, aka Zapiro, one of the most respected practitioners in Africa.
Post 1994, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has been angered by Zapiro’s disillusionment with the failure of the post-apartheid project, especially when he portrayed younger leaders as monkeys, devolving rather than evolving, betraying the traditions set by Nelson Mandela. Indeed, Zapiro has laid himself open to charges of racism, which the ANC has exploited.
A new mood swept the country during the reign of Jacob Zuma, when democracy waned, corruption became a structural feature of the economy, service delivery plummeted, and a new smartphone-carrying generation began to agitate against the inequalities that weighed on them. Andy Mason and Su Opperman, in both their interview with Zapiro and their history of the media after apartheid, foreground quite radical shifts in relations between cartoonists, the public and the powers that be. They present a history of debacles: rude depictions of Zuma caused outrage among ANC leaders and supporters – more so if white artists produced these, as they were more prone to charges of racism.
Mason and Opperman’s interview with Zapiro seems overly concerned with the cartoonist’s disengagement from a new public, lamenting the reactions of young black people who, they imply, should know that Zapiro is a struggle veteran. One can’t help thinking these writers are failing to come to terms with a new set of struggles inspired by new conditions. But they raise the question of self-censorship: should Zapiro watch what he says lest he offend a new generation? The issue has taken on a new urgency in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris and the awful dialectic between Islamic terrorism and Islamophobia. Cartoonists have to court outrage as well as take a side, and sometimes are able to convey the difficulty of treading this fine line. Effective cartoonists use irony to overcome this duality, but this is not always welcome.
The book raises a series of questions, the central one being what cartooning is meant to do: should it reflect, enlighten, or castigate? All of the above? For Aristotle, comedy was the representation of people “worse than us”, and what we laugh at is the ugly and the shameful. He was right!
The beautiful game has transformed the lives of many African football stars, but maladministration at home means these players have to go overseas to shine
Like many visitors before him, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg did the tour of Mama Oliech’s, a “must visit” restaurant in Nairobi, when he came to Kenya last year. The eatery is the epitome of how football can change the fortunes of a family.
“I had lunch in Nairobi with Joseph Mucheru, the Kenyan Cabinet Secretary of Information and Communications… we ate at Mama Oliech’s Restaurant – a local place everyone recommended. One of my favourite parts of travelling to a new country is trying the food. I enjoyed ugali and a whole fried tilapia for the first time and loved them both!” Zuckerberg gushed.
The restaurant, located in the upmarket Hurlingham area of Nairobi is owned by Mary Oliech, whose son Dennis is one of Kenya’s best-known professional footballers. Owing to Dennis’s fame and fortune, the restaurant not only got a facelift but receives unquantifiable visibility, thus attracting more customers.
Dennis Oliech awarded best player at the LG Cup Africa. Photo: LG Electronics
Dennis is a legend of Kenyan football, barrelling his way into the national psyche when still a schoolboy. He later joined the paid ranks, playing for Al Arabi in Qatar. Holding the record for the highest number of goals scored for the national team – 34 – Oliech was later to ply his trade in France playing for Nantes, Auxerre and Ajaccio.
Dennis’s story mirrors many others across the African continent, where football has lifted entire families out of poverty to better lives. George Bwana is an agent whose charges play in Kenya, Zambia and Europe. The former secretary general of Kenya’s Gor Mahia Football Club says he is impressed with the economic progress some of the players in his stable are making.
“I have seen them buy flats or build flats for rental purposes. What most of these players need is good financial advice because their time as players is fleeting. It is my duty as their manager to give them sound financial advice,” says Bwana, who is currently undertaking a Masters in sports management from South Africa’s Nelson Mandela University.
Meddie Kagere exemplifies the current crop of African players – borderless people who move to where the money is. Born in Uganda of parents from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kagere has played in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Albania, and is now with Tanzanian champions Simba SC.
In an earlier interview with this writer, Kagere said that footballers’ careers had a short life span, which they must make the best of when they can. “I know in a few years’ time I will be over the hill and I must always look for what is best for me and my family,” he said.
Unfortunately, this strong urge to succeed has seen some players and their managers cut corners. This is rampant among African players, especially as regards age. It is an article of faith that most African players have two ages – their real age and their playing age; the latter can, at times, be as much as five years lower.
In 2016, Nigeria’s 2015 Fifa U-17 World Cup-winning squad had almost half of its 60 tested players reportedly fail a mandatory MRI screening that establishes the age of squad members. This faux pas was to continue at this year’s World Cup, when Nigerian goalkeeper Francis Uzoho fired off a tweet celebrating his son’s 17th birthday.
“Wow, my second son, Michael, is 17 today. I seek God’s blessings for him. Daddy loves you, boy,” he posted. Which any normal dad would do. However, the matter gets a bit complicated when you consider that Uzoho’s official papers show that he is only 19 years old. So, we have a 19-year-old with a 17-year-old son. The tweet was quickly pulled down when it went viral.
Then there is the issue of corruption. This June, the Ghanaian government dissolved the country’s football association after its president, Kwesi Nyantakyi, was pictured taking $65,000 from an undercover reporter pretending to be a businessman keen to invest in Ghanaian football.
Also netted in the operation was Kenyan Adan Marwa, who was set to officiate as an assistant referee at the World Cup in Russia this year. He was caught on film taking a $600 bribe from the same undercover reporter. The continent’s football body, CAF, immediately swung into action, banning Marwa from football activities for life.
The other cheating area is highly debatable. It is a matter of fact that many players and their teams believe in the power of black magic. There have been cases where teams refused to use official entrances, believing that the designated entries had been “treated”.
Agent George Bwana confesses there was a season when his club, Gor Mahia, was doing badly in the Kenya Premier League. “The league was well under way and here we were lying in position 13 out of 18. Some elderly supporters came to my office and ordered me to look for a powerful witch doctor to straighten things out. Being a staunch Christian, I refused. All I asked was for more money to sign quality strikers, to which they agreed. At the end of the day, we missed winning the league by a whisker, finishing second,” he says.
Bwana says that having healthy account books will fix most of a club’s problems. In comes sports betting giant SportPesa. According to the CEO, Captain Ronald Karauri, the firm came into football to help raise the standards. Currently, the company sponsors the Kenyan premier league as well as the two leading clubs, Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards; together, the sponsorships amount to $3 million annually. “In Tanzania we sponsor Yanga and Simba, while in the UK we sponsor Hull City and Everton. Southampton is our official betting partner, while Arsenal is our African betting partner,” he says.
Such sponsorship has seen some people accumulate a lot of clout that others have used to propel themselves into politics. The most famous in Africa is Congolese politician Moise Katumbi, who is one of the continent’s richest men. Katumbi – who owns TP Mazembe, which has won the CAF Champions League – is seen as a front-runner in the DRC’s presidential polls on December 23, this year.
In Liberia, George Weah, riding more on his exploits in football than his political abilities, won that country’s presidential elections in December last year, beating more seasoned politicians.
So, what does the future hold for Africa’s football? As Karauri of SportPesa says: “Africa is full of talent and what we lack are structures to nurture this talent. We need to identify young talent, but unfortunately even the federations seem to have lost focus. If African governments make sports a priority, which they should, African teams can dominate the world.”
But not everyone shares Karauri’s view. Roy Gachuhi is a veteran football journalist with over 40 years in the trade and an elephantine memory of regional football events. Roy, who has just written a book, Kickoff, that focuses on the beautiful game, argues that African football has been internationally influential for some time, pointing out Weah’s winning of the World Player of the Year in 1995.
He agrees with Karauri that mismanagement is the bane of African football. “The problem is with our management,” he told Africa in Fact. “It is still in the stone age. Its main hallmarks are mind-boggling greed and incompetence. This is the challenge of the future.”
Tireless cultural activism has seen women artists from Africa rival their male counterparts on the world stage
In 1911, South African writer Olive Schreiner published Women and Labour, a landmark feminist book. Schreiner not only criticised the “wilful and unqualified” wrong of paying women less for doing equal work, but also noted how in the visual arts the gender bias saw “a mighty army of men, a million strong, employed in producing plastic art alone, both high and low” – everything from the decorative arts and illustrations through to paintings and sculptures. Much has changed in the ensuing century, and even more so in the past two decades. Tireless cultural activism has seen women artists from Africa rival their male counterparts on the world stage.
In the last year alone, whether it is at new museum openings in Cape Town or Marrakech, or at art biennales in Dakar or Lubumbashi, women artists from the continent have made a strong showing. Earlier this year in Germany, South African curator Gabi Ngcobo headed up the first all-black curatorial team for the Berlin Biennale, where her selection strongly favoured black women artists.
Painters like Ghanaian-British Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Nigerian-American Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Ethiopian-American Julie Mehretu and SA-Dutch Marlene Dumas are the most renowned African artists working internationally. That they choose to live and work in the global north is partly a reflection on the relative paucity of art patronage on the continent, South Africa aside. Things are changing, though, notably in Accra, Addis Ababa, Lagos and Marrakech, where burgeoning art scenes are enabling local talent to prosper.
This list reflects a new wave of female talent based in Africa. The list reveals some regional biases, which are unavoidable given South Africa’s outsize prominence. But, it also reveals the endurance of traditional techniques amidst a flourishing of new approaches.
Durban-raised Gratrix (b. 1982, Mexico City) is best known for her vivid floral still lifes and portraits featuring richly textured surfaces. Blessed with a satirist’s sharp wit, her work is breezily mocking. Her portraits of chiefly white subjects are typically distorted, their facial features either exaggerated or misaligned in ways that flippantly misquote the earnest experiments of the Cubists. Rather than valorise her white subjects, and indeed the cultural traditions they represent, Gratrix wilfully troubles their puffed-up sense of self. Her gaudily coloured floral still lifes, a selection of which won her the 2018 Discovery Prize at Art Brussels in Belgium, mine a similar vein.
Georgina Gratrix’s oil on canvas Man with a Plan, 2017, was first exhibited in Johannesburg and formed part of a suite of sometimes mocking portraits of men. Photo: SMAC, Cape Town/Johannesburg
Dineo Seshee Bopape
Last year was a watershed moment for Dineo Bopape (b. 1981, Polokwane), a genre-bending artist whose practice encompasses drawing, painting, photography, filmmaking and the production of enigmatic sculptural installations. She won the $100,000 Future Generation Art Prize. Also in 2017, she staged live performances by the 20-member Polokwane Choral Society as part of her Standard Bank Young Artist Award. Despite their cryptic nature, the tumbledown aesthetics of her large-scale installations bear a ghostly resemblance to the informal structures created on the fringes and in the interstices of formal cities globally.
Dineo Sheshee Bopape’s murky-lit installation Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings], 2016–18, on view earlier this year at the Berlin Biennale, included a video of Nina Simone performing Feelings at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival. Courtesy Dineo Seshee Bopape, Jabu Arnell, Lachell Workman, Mo Laudi, Robert Rhee, Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg/Beirut
Photo: Timo Ohler
Elisabeth Efua Sutherland
In February, speaking at the 1–54 art fair in Marrakech, Elisabeth Efua Sutherland (b. 1991, Accra) spoke of how her interest in the performative arts was primed by her grandmother, Efua Theodora Sutherland, one of Ghana’s best-known playwrights and children’s authors. After returning to Ghana with a master’s degree in contemporary performance from Brunel University in London, in 2013, she debuted a production exploring an Ananse folktale at the annual Chale Wote Street Art Festival in Accra. Sutherland credits this spirited community event for introducing her to the city’s burgeoning alternative art scene. Although proficient with digital media, her first love is performance: “You can’t touch it. It’s an experience you have in a moment, and then it’s gone and you hold it in your memory.”
Elisabeth Efua Sutherland, Sui Generi, taken at Chale Wote Street Art Festival, Jamestown, Accra, 2015 Photo: Desire Clark
Over the past two decades Billie Zangewa (b. 1973, Blantyre) has been making lustrous silk collages on irregularly shaped fabric grounds portraying narratives of urbanity, intimacy and selfhood. Inner-city Johannesburg was a prominent early subject. Raised in Botswana, Zangewa’s vision of her adopted hometown now exceeds the steel, glass and concrete infrastructure that first greets visitors; rather, what interests the artist is the city’s private social rituals and middle-class abundance. Her habit of orchestrating personal anecdote into pictorial form has, over time, seen Zangewa assemble a remarkable body of work that is unambiguously grounded in a “confessional feminism”, a term coined by critic Ginia Bellafante.
Billie Zangewa’s silk collages form part of a large body of work featuring Zangewa’s doppelganger, a tall, poised woman resembling the artist. They were exhibited at the 2018 Joburg Art Fair on an exhibition that explored private social rituals and middle-class abundance.
Photo: BLANK, Cape Town
Zimbabwean Portia Zvavahera (b. 1985, Juru) is regarded as a leading exponent of Harare’s expressionist brand of figure painting. Zvavahera uses oil-based printing inks and oil bar to create limpid portraits of club-footed giants and spectral female figures decked in regal finery. She came to prominence in 2013 when she showed her work in the Zimbabwe Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Zvavahera was shortly picked up by South African gallery Stevenson; in quick succession she won the 2013 Tollman Award for the Visual Arts and 2014 FNB Art Prize, both in South Africa. A devout Christian, Zvavahera says her paintings often reflect her life experiences. “I paint mostly painful moments,” she said. “It’s like a healing process.”
Portia Zvavahera’s triptych Hapana Chitsva, made from oil-based printing ink and oilstick on canvas, was specifically commissioned for the 2018 Berlin Biennale where it was exhibited in KW Institute for Contemporary Art Photo: Timo Ohler /Stevenson Cape Town/Johannesburg
If African filmmakers believed more in their own stories, and had more funding, cinema on the continent could be on the brink of a golden age
Africa’s film industry is set to play a key role in creating new jobs in Africa as the continent prepares for massive demographic waves. This is according to a recently released report, Framing the Shot – Key Trends in African Film 2018 by Dayo Ogunyemi’s Lagos-based production house 234 Media, in partnership with the Goethe-Institut and with support from the German Federal Foreign Office. Within a generation, the report says, Africa will have the world’s largest workforce, while it will have more than a third of the world’s population by 2100.
According to the analysis, the two largest film industries in Africa currently contribute a total of $1 billion to the continent’s annual GDP. Nigerian film generates close to one million jobs, while the South African industry generates over 21,600. Box-office revenues reached $12 million for Nigeria last year, with a third of the total going to local films. South Africa boasted a significantly larger revenue at $89.6 million for the same period, but with only 3.8% going to South African productions.
A scene from Necktie Youth, the award-winning 2015 directorial debut of 28-year-old South African filmmaker Sibs Shongwe-La Mer.
“Exhibition infrastructure, as evidenced by cinema screen penetration ratios, is low in every country in Africa,” write the authors of the report. “This places a ceiling on what film releases can earn in domestic cinemas… If Africa were to follow China’s example and invest extensively in cinema infrastructure… annual box-office revenues across Africa could rise to $1.5 – $2 billion; with Nigeria and South Africa accounting for as much as $500 million.”
But investments are still falling short, and African filmmakers face numerous challenges in financing and distributing their productions. For producer Steven Markovitz – whose film A Kasha was selected for the 2018 Venice International Film Festival (August 28 – September 9), one of the main challenges for African producers is getting funders from established industries such as South Africa’s to co-produce films from other countries. “It’s so important that we support each other on the continent,” he commented.
For Markovitz, the film industry has greatly evolved in Africa over the past few years: “We are making better films and there is more interest in African films internationally. We need to be making more films!” The producer also believes support for great African projects is not always at hand. “There needs to be more support for African films,” he told Africa in Fact. “There is a new generation of filmmakers who are starting to get noticed. With the right support, I am feeling optimistic.”
A Kasha is a brave example of a film made in spite of countless obstacles. A truly independent production, it was shot in a war zone, in Sudan. Funding – from the Doha Film Institute, then Arab Fund For Arts and Culture, and the Berlinale’s World Cinema Fund – was obtained just before the shoot began. “(Director) Hajooj Kuka’s tenacity against many very difficult obstacles is what pulled the film over the line,” said Markovitz. “The film was made with very supportive partners and we now hope, after Venice, it will travel far and wide.”
In certain African countries with smaller film industries, where production receives meagre government support, it takes incredibly resilient teams to make a movie, let alone a blockbuster. This is the case of the mega-hit, Supa Modo, directed by Kenya’s Likarion Wainaina. One of the few African films selected for the 2018 Berlin Film Festival in February, Supa Modo went on to open the Nairobi Film Festival. Wainaina worked odd jobs in the film industry for years and funded Supa Modo by saving every penny from his pay cheque. The son of a single mother, who raised him in Kenya after breaking up with his father in Russia, Wainaina now plans to direct African sci-fi films, a genre known as “African futurism”.
For Spanish newspaper El Pais, Supa Modo is testimony that Africa is more than “corruption and poverty”. The film tells the story of Jo, “a witty nine-year-old terminally ill girl (who) is taken back to her rural village to live out the rest of her short life”. Jo wants to be a superhero, and her whole village helps to make her dream come true. Supa Modo was an unprecedented box office success in Kenya and won numerous international awards.
Another country where filmmakers face huge barriers at the time of developing their projects is Togo. Producers who have been able to thrive in this hostile environment are now hopeful after the government’s recent launch of a local film week, which included a screenwriting residency. This nod from the authorities was underlined by a statement from Togo’s Minister of Culture, Guy Madje Lorenzo: “Our wish is that the film industry be in Togo, as in other places, an activity of collective creativity at its best, a particularly promising sector of activity, providing innovative jobs with decent pay.”
Second only to India’s Bollywood in terms of number of films produced per year, Nigeria’s Nollywood has struggled to make its films more attractive to international audiences. A satirical comedy, Green White Green, recently acquired by Netflix, attempts to bridge that gap. While its plot and style do not thoroughly escape the “cheesiness” Nollywood audiences know and love, it is a film with higher artistic aims, both in its concept and its execution. While Nollywood’s trademark acting styles and stories will continue to have a large audience in Nigeria, the emergence of films like this, which can also reach a broader international audience, is certainly good news for the local film industry.
Scene from The Wound Photo: Urucu Media
At the Durban Film Mart this year, feature and documentary projects from all over Africa – including several from under-represented film industries – received awards from top European funds and markets. The awards, including several in cash, went to projects from Mozambique, Niger, Cape Verde, Zimbabwe, Benin and South Africa. Cash awards are useful, but the media exposure and connections producers can secure at Durban are often more valuable. Meanwhile, in early September, Venice was set to host African and Arab world filmmakers at the Final Cut workshop, which offers training and awards for films in the post-production stage. The work-in-progress projects selected for this year’s edition include, among others, a fiction film co-produced by Lesotho and Germany, Mother, I am suffocating, This is My Last Film About You, and a documentary co-produced by France, Chad, and Germany, The Waiting Bench.
A Kasha, is a Final Cut alumnus. The film won two awards, the Biennale prize and a subtitling services award, at the 2017 edition. “Final Cut was great for the film to get feedback on the rough cut and raise its profile with the international film community,” Markovitz told Africa in Fact. The film, which portrays a love story against the backdrop of Sudan’s civil war, will now compete for the festival’s coveted Critics’ Week audience award.
The Venice Film Festival could provide participating African producers with useful opportunities to reach much-needed European financing and distribution. Other films that received Final Cut awards last year included Egyptian documentary Dream Away, Tangier-set Joint Possession/Indivision, and South Africa´s The Harvesters. A South African film, The Wound – a production of Urucu Media, one of the most active and successful film companies in the region – was an acclaimed participant at a previous edition.
African film continues to face a number of problems, according to Elias Ribeiro, who heads up Urucu Media. “I find that South Africans, and Africans in general, sometimes do not have faith in their own stories,” he told me when I had the opportunity to interview him in Rio de Janeiro in 2015. “Many of them are trying to replicate foreign film models, such as Hollywood’s. Even the government funds look for traditional Hollywood-style screenwriting… The people who run (the top international film) funds often comment that they get very few projects from Africa and they want more.”
Ribeiro’s job as a producer was to “bridge that gap between the people who have these incredible stories about these unique cultures and communities and the people who have the power to make films a reality,” he told me then. Since then, Ribeiro, arguably the most active film producer on the continent, has created a vibrant African screenwriting residency called Realness, which is now in its third edition.
With 130 applicants for its 2018 edition, Realness selected only a handful to participate in six intensive weeks of training and mentoring. After the residency, the projects are presented at the prestigious Durban Film Mart. Markets and festivals that collaborate with Realness include EAVE Producers Workshop, France’s La Fabrique Cinéma, Torino Film Lab, and Toronto Talent Lab. While African filmmakers generally have to go to European festivals and markets to receive top-quality training and exposure, Realness has brought that to African soil.
The participating filmmakers heralded “an important and exciting new wave of African storytelling by Africans for Africans and the world,” said UK literary agent David Kayser, a member of the Realness 2018 selection panel. “The strength of the projects, and the talent driving them, will benefit hugely from the expertise, exposure and incubation that Realness offers and I look forward to seeing how they mature.”
Realness has helped to fully develop a number of projects for the international financing market, Ribeiro says. But the African film industry lacks “creative producers who understand development and international financing and distribution, and can advance the projects forward.”
Ribeiro’s company picks one project from every Realness batch per year to develop inhouse. “Fifteen projects from 12 countries have participated in Realness. The residency has a strong focus on women filmmakers, and 50% of the participants have been women of colour,” he comments.
But, he added, projects that were not picked up by Urucu didn’t progress. To address the problem, Ribeiro and his partners aim to create a producers’ training programme to be run in cooperation with EAVE, which already runs two such programmes in Latin America and Asia. Ribeiro, a Brazilian transplant to South Africa, has a vision for African film that many local producers probably lack, perhaps in part because his country of origin has one of the world’s most solid systems for funding national films.
“African film is still problematic because there are very few financial instruments to develop content, let alone finance a production,” Ribeiro told Africa in Fact. He decried the fact that producers still have to rely on seeking European co-producers and funds that support projects from developing nations.
Ribeiro was recently appointed director of the Cape Town Film Market, one of Africa’s most established venues for making film-production deals. The 2018 edition, which takes place in October, will be the first under Ribeiro’s direction. “I would like the Cape Town Film Market to become a space where policymakers gather to look at best practices in different territories, to analyse what is working and how it was implemented. With a coordinated effort, new financing instruments for the global south could emerge,” he told Africa in Fact.
In his vision, producers in Africa and Latin America could partner to create “something similar to the European Union’s Media Programme”, which supports film production across European borders. Meanwhile, BRICS countries could develop their own version of the European Council’s Eurimages, which provides funding for co-productions and fosters cooperation among film professionals from different member nations. As Ribeiro sees it, if African filmmakers believe their own stories more, and more funders understand their economic potential, African filmmaking could be on the brink of a golden age.
African food entrepreneurs need government support to protect the value of their heritage products
When it comes to international food fashion, Africa is the new Asia. So, say über-influential, absurdly chic London food design studio Bompas & Parr. Their 2018 report, The Imminent Future of Food, predicts that internationally the “obsession with food from Asian countries will dwindle in favour of African cuisine because (Africa) is arguably the main remaining world food culture left to be adopted, adapted and commercialised.
“Bompas & Parr has already worked on African-focused projects for European commercial clients which reveal starkly different flavours, consumer expectations and notions of hospitality,” the report continues. “At our bar, Alcoholic Architecture, we also hosted sell-out special events incorporating Ghanaian bitters in cocktails, revealing a profound curiosity on the part of consumers for new tastes and flavours. This is just the start.”
Traditional Ethiopian dish consisting of a meat, vegetables, grains, rice and served with pancake-like injera.
The continent is also suddenly super-food central, with the worldwide wellness blogger brigade ditching last year’s chia seeds and turmeric in favour of African indigenous ingredients such as baobab and marula. Confusingly, the American actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who runs lifestyle brand and website Goop, has recently referred to both sorghum and fonio as “the new quinoa”. Since both are gluten-free, low GI, African ancient grains it is all much of a muchness as regards nutritional value – though both taste significantly better than South American quinoa.
The hipster health nuts and the foodie fashionistas aren’t wrong to recognise value in African cuisines. They offer a plethora of fine flavours, from the aromatic cumin and cinnamon infused lamb tagines of Morocco to the generous peanut and ginger joys of Ghanaian hkatenkwan chicken and on into the comforting floral flavours of a Congolese cassava kwanga bread. Interesting ingredients abound, including the rich, soured splendours of South African amasi curds and the berbere-spiced grace of an Ethiopian wot pot.
What is unsavoury is the implication that the continent’s deliciously diverse time-honoured epicurean expressions of identity exist to be “adopted, adapted and commercialised” as transient novelties in northern cosmopoles. Try adopting, adapting and commercialising a regional French food without so much as a by your leave! You’ll quickly find yourself slapped with a geographical denomination suit.
Tangible and intangible benefits can and should accrue to all sectors of African society by way of the continent’s “new Asia” status. But it is also possible that the trend will become yet another round of cultural appropriation, bio-prospecting and/or piracy. To prevent such a situation, African food entrepreneurs are attempting to take the lead in curating the commercialisation of their continent’s cuisine at home and abroad.
Turning food culture into economic value for Africans is especially important given that the Food and Agricultural Organisation reported that in 2017 there were 224 million under-nourished people in sub-Saharan Africa. On this score alone it would be morally repugnant if the fashion for African food further exploited and impoverished the continent’s culinary cultures.
Currently, the global fine-dining world is focusing on heritage flavours reimagined to delight modern palates. This trend is as true in the New Nordic cuisine of René Redzepi, chef-patron of two-Michelin star Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, as it is in the work of Pierre Thiam, executive chef of the contemporary African restaurant Nok by Alara in Lagos, Nigeria.
Nok, located within a bespoke building designed by Ghanaian-British architectural superstar David Adjaye, serves a signature starter of ofada rice balls sauced with egusi (wild gourd seed pesto) and ndole (bitter, leaf salsa). At Epicure – Johannesburg’s culinary kingdom of Afro-optimistic elegance – Burundian-born chef/patron Coco Reinarhz engages in an exquisite ancient-to-modern culinary dialogue that includes a plate of fried plantain aloko topped with a swirl of tuile biscuit and a quenelle of ruby bissap rouge (hibiscus) sorbet.
This style of cooking often requires relatively rare traditional ingredients and indigenous knowledge. Chefs often have to seek out and commission such crops from relatively isolated, traditional subsistence farming and foraging communities, many of whom exist on the fringe of the cash economy. In so doing, they create and maintain profitable markets for otherwise endangered heritage foods, and go some way to promoting biodiversity and supporting indigenous agricultural and culinary knowledge.
This is as true for Brazilian Chef Alex Atala, who uses Amazonian ingredients at DOM, his Sāo Paulo restaurant; Atala won the Chef’s Choice award at the 2014 S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2014. It’s also true of Paternoster, where South African chef Kobus Van der Merwe creates perfect plates, such as maasbanker bokkom and pear salad with ice plant, dune spinach and sea lettuce tossed in pickled ginger, celery and almonds.
Executive Chef Pierre Thiam. Photo: supplied
Ivorian entrepreneur Swaady Martin, CEO of Yswara fine African tea, describes her business model as “luxe ubuntu”. A recent winner of a Brand Africa award, she processes and blends African heritage ingredients sourced from fair-trade growers, using equipment commissioned and manufactured in Africa. She says, “luxe ubuntu describes the concept of an inclusive luxury business model in which all the members of a supply chain are beneficiaries of the economic value generated. We are committed to reversing the commodity trap by keeping the value add in Africa.”
Martin, who opened her flagship store at the Cosmopolitan Building in Maboneng, Johannesburg in September 2017, has concluded deals with Selfridges in the UK and Galeries Lafayette in France. Such international links not only provide tangible benefits of export earnings and profit repatriation, but also play a role in distancing Africa from hitherto commonplace negative stereotypes by encouraging desirable associations with elegant, world-class wonderful artisan offerings.
Some government interest and assistance could further promote such image improvements. In Peru, government promotion of regionally specific, high-end heritage cuisine, and the restaurants that serve it, brought significant economic benefits. Until recently, for instance, tourists commonly considered Lima to be a kidnap risk and begrudged the stopover on the way to Machu Picchu. It is now a “must-visit” food experience destination, with five restaurants in the top 50 of the S. Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants list. Similarly, the Mexican government has promoted the country as a culinary destination and inscribed Aztec food culture in the UNESCO-administered list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
How is it that the government of Mozambique has not applied for piri piri to be classified as such? This classic southern African sauce/seasoning is increasingly popular worldwide with an appreciative audience – most of whom have no notion that their favourite flavour originates in the Afro-Lusitanian fusion food culture of Maputo. Meanwhile, the “peri peri” (sic) potato chips sold all over the US are an inferior interpretation that undermines the value of authentic piri piri and may limit the long-term potential for Mozambican food entrepreneurs to create a food tourism industry around their fiery birthright.
Burundian-born Coco Reinarhz, chef/patron of Epicure in Johannesburg. Photo: Clinton Nortje
Real Mozambican piri piri is made from an African Landrace chilli, according to a regionally specific recipe. It would, therefore, be an ideal candidate for an international Geographical Indicator (GI), which would protect the value that resides within such heritage. Currently, the European Union (EU) has registered more than 837 GI-recognised products, including Cheddar cheese, Parma ham and Rioja wine. Following World Trade Organisation (WTO) dispute resolution proceedings, the EU was forced to amend its GI legislation to recognise third-country GIs.
It is now possible for producers from non-European countries to register GIs under EU Regulation 510/2006, provided the GI is protected in its country of origin. Colombian coffee was the first product from a developing country to be granted such GI by the EU. With Europe being a major export market for many developing world products, this law affords producers a valuable opportunity to protect their GIs throughout the EU member countries by submitting a single application.
GI applications under the EU system require detailed documentation on the product’s specificity and link with the territory. To date, the only African products registered with the EU GI are Rooibos, Honey bush, Karoo lamb and Essourian argan oil. Yet African governments neglect to protect foodstuffs in their own jurisdictions, while they hamper food entrepreneurs’ ability to put a premium value on their intangible cultural heritage at export.
The world is waking up to the beauty of African cuisines. Recognition is all well and good. A share in the tangible and intangible value of such food cultures for the people from whence they come would be better. A culinary coalition is required to make this a reality.
African restaurateurs and other food producers are increasingly creating partnerships, upstream with suppliers and downstream with end users. What they lack is sufficient governmental support and respect. A trend is transient. African epicurean entrepreneurs must campaign for a permanent seat at the table of great world food cultures. As we saw earlier, this would be just the start.