Seeing for ourselves

Young African writers interested in challenging stereotypes about their continent met in Lagos for two weeks earlier this month for the first of three writers’ laboratories run by Space for Pan-African Research, Creation and Knowledge (Sparck). The organisation has its headquarters at the Africa Centre in Cape Town.

The workshop’s founders and coordinators, Dominique Malaquais and Kadiatou Diallo, set the workshop against the backdrop of two dance festivals in Lagos. Interviews with choreographers and dancers, as well as visits to dance studios, were part of the process. The writers had to observe dance performances, interview artists and critique one another’s writing.

Malaquais is the Paris-based associate editor of locally published literary magazine Chimurenga. She also works as a political scientist with the National Science Research Centre in France and does extensive research in Africa.

“We talked to a Nigerian choreographer, Qudus Onikeku, and he was telling us that there is a real problem with journalism and the arts in Nigeria. But most countries have this problem,” said Malaquais.

“He was saying that it [the problem] is lazy journalism; [that it] doesn’t engage with the arts and that it’s more like promotion. We wanted real dialogue. We had the idea of bringing together writers and artists, not because we’re in the business of creating writers or artists but to give a platform to do self-critical writing.”

Malaquais said that the aim was to “develop young writing. The writer has to break the bonds of habit.”

Diallo is a Cape Town-based visual artist. She said they wanted to challenge dominant voices that write from a skewed Western perspective on Africa. “We want to sustain a conversation and create a network that writers can draw from, that can be a safety net to challenge them. It’s experimental — it’s about engaging,” said Diallo.

“We need to think about the dance industry as one that includes the artists and the writers,” said Onikeku. “That means knowing about dance, the arts and politics. Some writers also don’t look at dance as a profession — that’s because of the society they live in.”

Heddy Maalem, a seasoned Algerian-French choreographer based in France, spoke about his disappointment at “the lack of arts writing”.

“You cannot ask each journalist to be an excellent critic and we need more critics,” he said. “In France we have three to five newspapers writing about dance and the size of the reviews is being reduced each year,” Maalem said. “We are in the world of media — you become invisible if there is no article about you in the newspaper or a story on TV.”

He said that he had met few black African journalists writing about dance. He attributed this partly to the “power relationship between the North and South”.

“Money, power and aesthetics are in the North,” Maalem said. “When you are in Europe, France continues to imagine that humanity is white. They think otherness is elsewhere. This is subconscious, but it’s a problem because the point of view of someone living in Paris can’t be the same as someone living in Lagos. We need more Africans writing about the arts,” he said.

London-born creative writer Amanda Epe, whose father is Nigerian and whose mother is Ghanaian, said: “Many of us have closed minds about Africa. We have one perspective and tell one story written from a colonial perspective. We need to write Africa from our perspective. We need to write about the Africa that we see.

“Writers use [outdated] words such as ‘traditional’ and ‘tribal’. Yet Africa is in a global space and this is not reflected in the writing. I have friends who were born in Kenya and Uganda and they’re Indian — they are not black Africans but they call themselves African. That’s what new writing should reflect.”

Other writers are set to join the network through two more workshops — one in Kinshasa and the other in Dakar.

Yazeed Kamaldien attended the workshop in Lagos as a guest of Sparck. For more information, vist: www.africacentre.net/sparck

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