Why Africa?

The Samadine neighbourhood in Ouagadougo. Mural of Thomas Sankara, a man who remains an inspiration for the people of the country.

The Samadine neighbourhood in Ouagadougo. Mural of Thomas Sankara, a man who remains an inspiration for the people of the country.

“Vico’s The New Science is everywhere a reminder that scholars hide, overlook or mistreat the gross physical evidence of human activity, including their own.”

Edward Said, “Reflections On Exile”, page 86

“…In the progress of nations, negroes have shown less capacity for self-government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary whenever they have been left to their own devices they have shown an instant tendency to lapse into barbarism.”

President Andrew Johnson, from Amy Kaplan’s “The Anarchy of Empire In The Making Of U.S. Culture”, page 83

In the course of the coming weeks, I will post work from two projects I began work on in 2015; The first in Rwanda, and the other in Burkina Faso. Each project engages with the people, history and politics of a region I have long felt has been choked under our wish to ‘represent’ or ‘give voice to’. These projects do neither – they do not represent Africa or Africans, and nor do they give ‘voice’ to them. What they do is engage with modern African politics, history and society, and see them as the result of ordinary human beings dealing with the same challenges and coping with the same prejudices as those in other states. They shun the exotic, and the colonial classic ideas and images of Africa we continue to see today. They avoid reducing complex social and political realities to cultural and genetic essences. They reject judgements of  ‘backwardness’, or ‘barbarism’ or ‘moral inhumanity’ as something innate, but instead look at the historical and economic roots of a place, a people and a politics. They refuse the  decades of colonial visual cliches and social prejudices that have come down to us over the years, and that continue to influence so much of visual work done in and about the African continent. Even some of the most ‘enlightened’ attempts to cut past the reductive and inhumane ideas about the people of the continent, still stay mired in efforts to change ‘representations’, as if to undo what has been done to the continent is simply a new public relations campaign. What is required, and what is reflected here in these new works, is a quiet but serious engagement with the continents modern political and social history, and an acknowledgement of the economic and cultural chains it remains trapped in. It is from this material base that we can begin to hear and see the continent for its lived reality, and possibly understand a way to work in it.

A brief description of the Rwanda project can be found here.

A brief description of the Burkina Faso project can be found here.

A bibliography of books and articles used – one that will continue to grow, can be found here.

Below is a short essay I wrote about why I chose to focus on African stories. It is from the website, which can be found here.

Binyanvanga Wainaina’s essay How To Write About Africa was an eye-opening read. Veiled behind a cynical and mocking language, one could sense the great pain of a great writer. Wainaina’s words carried the frustration and incomprehension of a people who can only stand and stare in shock at the way the world – particularly that of mainstream media and popular culture, speaks about them, their lives, histories and culture. How, in the face of so many new voices, ideas, literature, arts, research, and politics emerging from the continent, it still remained buried under an overwhelming mountain of cliches and unconsidered prejudices. For Wainaina, being ‘African’ placed you into an entirely new class of human practice and agency – one that existed between the exotic and the egregiously barbaric, and outside the realm of normal, materialist human thought. Pointing his finger at European interlocutors, he mocked them for their consistent reduction of the place:

Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.

Though I had read his piece in 2006, his words stayed with me when I moved to Rwanda in 2012. The challenge he had posed – to avoid the knee-jerk reactionary practice deeply informed by centuries of European colonial imaginary about Africa, became one I was unable to take up for years. It was only in 2014, and after a chance meeting with a few research students from Harvard, that I found an idea, and an approach, that I believed would avoid some of the traps Wainaina spoke about. Of course, during that time there were many readings – Mbembe, Mamdani, Thiong’o, Diawara, Fanon, Anta Diop, W.J.T. Mitchel and Bernal and others  – beautiful voices, speaking back to Europe, reminding her of her terrible legacies in the continent, the lingering scars, and their modern manifestations in the form of ‘development’ policies and ‘free market’ agreements. Voices like the talented, brilliant and witty Chimamanda Adichie talking about the dangers of one story, and gently pointing how telling stories or making photographs, was an act of power, and contained with it all that that power means:

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.”

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

But it was Achilles Mbembe, who perhaps cut through the politeness, and the cynicism, and laid bare the brutality of the reduction of the continent and its people to a handful of cliches, ones that stymied a genuine intellectual, artistic, philosophical and political engagement with the region, and moved us to see it as an equal, though unique, material and historical space.

The literature of political science and development economics…have undermined the very possibility of understanding African economic and political facts. In spite of the countless critiques made of theories of social evolutionism and ideologies of development and modernization, the academic output in these disciplines continues, almost entirely, in total thrall to these two teleologies. This thraldom has had implications for understanding the purposes of these disciplines in Africa, for the conception of their object, and for the choice of their methods. Mired in the demands of what is immediately useful, enclosed in the narrow horizon of ‘good governance’ and the neo-liberal  catechism about the market economy, torn by the current of fads for “civil society,” “conflict resolution,” and alleged “transitions to democracy,” the discussion, as habitually engaged, is primarily concerned, not with comprehending the political in Africa or with producing knowledge in general, but with social engineering. As a general rule, what is stated is dogmatically programmatic; interpretations are almost always cavalier, and what passes for argument is almost always reductionist. The criteria that African agents accept as valid, the reasons they exchange within their own instituted rationalities, are, to many, of no value. What African agents accept as reasons for acting, what their claim to act in the light of reason implies, what makes their action intelligible to themselves: all this is of virtually no account in the eyes of the analysts.

Mbembe, Achille “In The Post Colony”, Page 7

Mbembe, Adichie and Wainaina are just a few of a growing crescendo of intellectuals speaking out against the stultifying, bigoted and reductionist stories emerging about Africa. And despite these new voices from the thousands of Africa artists, poets, writers, academics, musicians, politicians, intellectuals and citizens producing works that fundamentally undermine the cliches that we continue to create, the power to tell the stories that are remembered and repeated remains in the hands of the European. There is no avoiding the  fact that there still exists massive imbalances of power embedded in decisions about what to publish, how and where to distribution, determine the focus of discourse that continue to silence the perspectives emerging from the continent. What can give solace however, is that this power is receding, however slowly, and that our only choice is to continue to speak back, and to push back.

These new projects – from Burkina Faso, and Rwanda, emerge from my small effort to engage with African reasons for acting and their claims to act in light of reason. They do not attempt to explain Africa, but draw our eyes and minds to regions of African agency and formation. And since photographers tend to measure creativity in terms purely aesthetic, I have chosen to offer it in terms epistemic – my work begins in the history and politics of people, and the meanings they are inscribing in their societies. My readings are woefully incomplete, and this continent it too vast, too diverse for me to imagine even reading the tip of its incredible intellectual and artistic output. But I am reading. These projects are fundamentally about the ideas and imaginations of people I meet and work with. They are not metaphors for the entire continent, but local stories based on local political and historical realities. They are about ordinary people who are – much as the rest of us, as much victims as writers of their history. But perhaps most importantly, they merely add to a growing number of voices emerging from the continent. Today, the people’s struggle for  rights and justice are spreading in the region, from Burkina Faso to South Africa, and a generation is seeing past the bromides of neo-liberal hypnosis, and challenging political, economic and intellectual structures of repression, marginalization and erasure.

These works are nothing more than echoes of the voices of people I see and meet all around me, who are re-mapping the continent, writing its stories, refusing the enforced reductions and claiming their voices and place in our world.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

From “Headmen” To “Hitmen”–A People Brutalised Yet Again

Another photographer turns up at another manufactured ‘traditional’ geography, and produces another set of racist, reductive and entirely fake set of images. I don’t mean ‘fake’ in the way that most photographer’s get all concerned about. I mean ‘fake’ in a much more serious way, one that reduces people to social, political and historical caricatures and makes them into concocted objects for class titillation and voyeurism. And this American magazine–mired deep in the heart of American imperialism, its violence and its brutality–publishes the images and accompanies them with what can only be described as one of the most incredibly ahistorical, obfuscatory and infantile articles I have read outside of stuff frequently published by Time Magazine and/or The New York Times.

Details »

Thomas Sankara’s Restless Children

The project is now complete. Although, we may never really complete the telling of this remarkable story. You can see the project by clicking on this link here, or on the image below.

Eyes Of Aliyah–Deport, Deprive, Extradite Initiative By Nisha Kapoor

I have publicly and on this forum very explicitly argued against the strange ‘disappearance’ of black/brown bodies that are the actual targets and victims of our ‘liberal’ state policies of surveillance, entrapment, drone assassinations, renditions and indefinite detention. I recently argued:

“Western visual journalism, and visual artists, have erased the actual victims of the criminal policies of the imperial state. Instead, most all have chosen to produce a large array of projects examining drone attacks, surveillance, detentions and other practices, through the use of digital abstractions, analogous environments, still life work or just simply the fascinating and enticing safety of datagrams and charts. Even a quick look at recent exhibitions focusing on the ‘war on terror’ or wars in general, have invited works that use digital representations of war, or focus on the technologies of war. An extreme case of this deflection are recent projects on drone warfare that not only avoid the actual brown/black bodies that are the targets of deadly drone attacks, but are not even produced anywhere near the geographies and social ecologies where drone attacks continue to happen! Yet, these works have found tremendous popularity, though i remain confused what kinds of conversations or debates they provoke given that the voices of the families of those who have been killed, are not only entirely missing, but people who can raised the difficult questions about the lies and propaganda that are used to justify the killings, are also entirely missing.”

Details »

Public Release of “The Sinner”

This is my first feature length documentary film and we–Justice Project Pakistan, with the guiding support of Sarah BelalRimmel Mohydin and others at Justice Project Pakistan, are finally releasing it.

And we are doing it first in Pakistan.

The film takes us into the world of capital punishment in Pakistan through the life of one man; Jan Masi. Jan Masi worked as an execution for nearly 30 years, and claims to have executed over 1800 people. He started his work in the enthusiastic pursuit of revenge for the execution of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

This isn’t a typical documentary film. No talking heads. No linear story-telling. No polemics or moral grand standing. No righteous exclamations against capital punishment. Instead, Jan Masi, his life, his scars, his fears and despair, act as metaphors for the meaning of capital punishment in Pakistan, and the consequences it has on the broader Pakistani society.

Sudhir Patwardhan

Sudhir Patwardhan.

Can you discover ‘an influence’ after the fact?

What do you call someone who seems to embody your eye, your sensibility, and yet you had never seen his / her work, and yet, when you now see it, you see the ‘influence’…the similarities?

Is he confronting the same questions? Is he seeing this incredibly complex and multi-layered world with the same desire to depict it as close to that complexity as possible?

I was taken aback. The aesthetic pursuit is so familiar. It is as if he is a step ahead of me. He is a step ahead of me.

I am going through these images–gorgeous, striking, unique, and no, I refuse to give you some ‘European’ reference to understand them in any way. They are Patwardhan’s and his alone. But I want to make them as photographs.

They are the photographs I would make if in Mumbai. It is beautiful stuff. It makes me want to go and make photographs.

Details »

Make It Right For Palestine, November 4, 2017

Be there. Hyde Park. Speaker’s Corner. London. 12:00 noon. 4th November, 2017.

The Polis Project…Is Up And Running

If you can’t join them, then just do it on your own.

We launched a new collective focused on research, reportage and resistance. The specific goals and objectives are being developed as we speak, but the idea is a simple one: to collect under one banner a group of individuals from different fields – artists, writers, academics, photographers, intellectuals, poets and others, who are consistently working against the grain. In this time of collective conformity, and a media sycophancy to power and extremism, some of us felt the need to create a small space where people are still determined to refuse the agendas of political power, debilitating capitalism, nationalist extremism and neoliberal idiocy, and remain fools in their hearts, and idealists in their souls.

Details »

Short Doc: “As If A Nightmare”;The Story Of Former Bagram Prisoner Abdul Haleem Saifullah


We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

Details »

Short Doc: “Prisoner 1432” – The Story of Former Bagram Prisoner Amanatullah Ali


We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

Details »

10 Things To Consider…

I recommend that photographers, photojournalists, documentary photographers remember these wise words by Tania Canas, RISE Arts Director / Member – I am copying and pasting it here. As brown and black bodies are stripped of their clothing, as brown and black children are dehumanised to mere misery, as brown and black women are reduced to simply victims, as ghettos and brothels and refugee camps and slums become the ‘paint by number’ formula for White photographer’s career and publishing success, it becomes increasingly important that those of us on the receiving end of White ‘largesse’ begin to build obstacles, speak back, and refuse / reject these ‘representations’ and their reductive, violent and brutal narrative frames. We have lost too much, and are in danger of whatever little we have left as humans and as histories, if we permit this process to continue.

Details »

%d bloggers like this: