You’ve probably watched or heard about Black Panther; the movie that is not only raking in millions of dollars, but reimagines the black experience unburdened and untarnished by colonialism. The story is set in the isolated, technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda where we follow the main character’s ascension to the throne.
The culture, religion, music and aesthetics of the movie are heavily influenced by Africa. The continent, of course, has long been a go-to source of inspiration for many artists; you only need to look at Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade or Lupita’s amasunzu hairstyle at the Oscars.
But my interest in this cultural moment focuses on how the mainstream media’s attention allows us to also expand what we’ve conventionally understood as “African” art, and why it often needs a foreign gaze or take to validate its “African-ness”.
What, for example, does the “African” in African art mean, if anything? Must art signal its African-ness — make reference, to tribal, traditional forms or African subjects — to succeed in a global market, especially when the gatekeepers of this market are not African? I believe this is where the concept of Afrofuturism comes in. That we can start viewing artistic works from the continent or in the diaspora as the amalgamation of heritage, but also the evolution of the present and possibilities of the future.
African literature is commonly understood as dealing with colonialism. While nothing is necessarily wrong with this, it can be limiting and narrows down what we recognize as African literature, which in turn limits what we publish and have access to.
When artistic work like Black Panther reimagines the black experience, it is thanks to Afrofuturism’s merger of the imaginary with realism, allowing us to reimagine what artistic work inspired by the continent depicts. So as African writers continue to tell stories that investigate community, class, and politics similar to popular writers such as Ng?g? wa Thiong’o, Buchi Emecheta, and Chinua Achebe, Afrofuturism allows a new generation of writers to explore these themes from a new perspective in literature, architecture, graphic design or fashion.
In a landscape that portrays African art in a single facet, it is a welcome relief to see such works as the successful science fiction novels of Nnedi Okorafor that are set on the continent with African female leads.
It is about time we saw more of this, especially considering the imagination it lends to children. The famous writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie cautions against the single story that portrays poverty, disease, and war-driven narratives of Africa. In this artistic moment it is time to broaden the range of artistic work made available to us, and the value we ascribe to it.
Of course all of this is easier said than done. The programs and schools to support artists in Rwanda are few, and far between. The artists who bootstrap their way are also hard pressed to make a living from it.
While art never stops being made, we, as a people, need to come in to build a foundation that allows African art to grow even when forfeiting the Western gaze that espouses diversity while isolating it. If there is anything we’ve learnt from Black Panther, it is about the power of representation, and recognizing the need to control our own image with a nuanced vision of the continent.