In several terms, Africa has been bombarded with various nomenclatures in times past in efforts to define and sometimes cup its complexness. With vast stretches of lands, landscapes and intricate networks of people, making up one-sixth of the world’s population, that are constantly evolving, it is indeed understandable that it makes for concision to coin singular terms in order to abbreviate this ever dynamic continent and all that comes with it.
Such terms as Pan-Africanism—which was a derivative of the much-coveted Afrocentrism and a product of the European slave trade—had, for a long time, paraded the consciousness towards African unity or more expansively, Afro-unity. Black consciousness, whose most loquacious proponent was the South African activist Steve Biko brewed by the events of apartheid era, is another which tends to align with the same aim—all geared towards moving the black race and continent towards a new identity unbridled by the straps of Western interventions. Lately, the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbebe, in an attempt to offer an extension to these thought processes unravelled new perspectives through Afropolitanism.
One thing central to these terms as they evolve is that they seem to be hinting at the values of exchange between Africa (both as a race and a continent) and the West (more as an ideology than a race). At first it was in staunch opposition to Western ideologies and a retracing of roots within the continent, followed by a call for a conscious acceptance of the values embedded in these roots as legitimate rather than them being a sub-civilisation. Most recently it hovers somewhere between taking those values as the fundamental kernel, without any need for justification or validation while reaching out to other cultures. Now, Wole Soyinka’s “A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude” could well read, “A tiger does not need to proclaim his tigritude to dine with a wolf.”
This gradually points to the fact that gone are the days when ignorance is detrimental only to the ignored. Like a boomerang, it is bound to alienate those who do not strive to become a part of the knowledge pond in which every race in the world strives to bathe mutually, without necessarily proclaiming their respective tigritude. This is the outgrowth of the increasing interconnectivity of a global world. Beyond that, it also signifies that Africa or African or Black- whoever of today will be very difficult, if not impossible, to summarise with any pre-saved template of a definition of Africa, especially not a template synonymous with external perspectives. This holds true even for those who live in the continent and have never set foot outside
it—those purported to be “very African”.
In the art sector, which I would like to speak about specifically, it is as if one is stuck in time with all the talk of “African art.” The term African art or African artist, as it is used today whether connoting art or artists from the continent, is now in a state of dormancy with a lack of movement or life, as if stale. More so because it is like a box, romantically decorated from the outside, with which we strive to contain many variables in constant motion that seek to break out from their confinement. Perhaps it would have been appropriate to talk of Africa a century or even decades ago with the same set values that we tend to define it now, but can we also talk about this “Africa” with all the events recorded in the belly of its history without in fact projecting the past verbatim to the present? Should the definition of Africa not take into consideration the transient forms by which its core manifests today?
In a conversation with the Berlin-based, Cameroonian curator Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, he made a point that the term “African artist” is still valid in every sense and is not in itself perishable. He continued that one must not reject the appropriateness of the term for the sake of a few (whose pseudo- or non-knowledge of Africa offers only a nose view). While I agree with this notion, I believe that more vigor and activity has to be injected into the term not by a redefinition, but by a re-evaluation. The Africa of today is constantly undergoing change, and not just changing but reaching beyond limits set by pre-saved definitions. It is indeed in the continent’s nature and that of its people to defile statistics and pole projections. A city like Lagos with its 17 million inhabitants is among one of the many fitting examples of such transcendence, but also Congo’s Kinshasa, Cairo, and even Sudan as a Nation State. This characteristic of “going beyond” the preordained is as a result of unplanned pressures and tensions from all angles on the quest for survival and sustenance. They are equally met with unplanned solutions, which invariably escape the charts of analysts.
Therefore, rather than talk of the African artist, I propose that we talk about the Trans-African artist. The prefix Trans- by definition connotes “going beyond”, “transcending,” and in some cases implies a thorough change. It suggests dynamism and vigour—that from which something unpredictable emanates. It equally implies crossing back and forth, like in an exchange, and wherever there is exchange, a boundary is traversed into unfamiliar spheres where another dimension takes on existence. Although this term has been used mostly in relation to economic factors as it pertains to particular geographic structures such as in the case of the Trans-African Highways—roads constructed across the continent by the African Union in collaboration with The Africa Development Bank aimed at promoting trade in the view that it will consequentially alleviate poverty, it could equally apply as a metaphor for the method of artistic exchange, or any other exchange for that matter, in Africa today.
It is important to lay emphasis on this idea of exchange as a distinctive quality of Trans-Africanism. Here I want to mention that the Trans-African Highway, which, for the sake of analysis, we could adopt as a physical symbol of exchange, was never promoted during the colonial plague. It was far more advantageous to have an Africa that the colonizers could define according to their gains, and it is no new knowledge that any chance at African unity or even exchange was greatly shattered during the power ping-pong played during those decades. Therefore, as we propose to carry this term over to the arts, one begins to see that is implies building artistic highways, bridges, and links with one another. It implies an Africa unhindered by any form of border or location, whether physically, in thoughts or in ideas of creative processes. As Achille Mbembe duly noted:
These states and borders were mere fabrications, there is really in the strictest sense nothing in them that would have us exalt them… it is imperative, therefore, to do something different if we want to breathe life back into Africa and in so doing revive the possibilities of the survival of art, philosophy, and aesthetics that will surely contribute something new to the world in general.
The Trans-African artist is the artist whose sensibilities transcends or goes beyond the pre-saved definitions of what constitutes art from Africa. They draw inspiration from exchange between peoples of diverse tribes and countries within the continent without having to contest, compare, or seek validation for these sensibilities. They do not seek a definition of Africa in their African-ness because Africa is what they make of it and not the other way round. Trans-Africanism is the ability to transform African-ness into fluid forms that need not be defined. It is not an outside covering, but an inside mechanism of networks and exchanges. Therefore gone are the days of long pens writing about Africa from New York and Paris without having ever set foot on the continent—no, boots must get dirty first. There is no African art if it all depends on the whims, taste, and even the political knowledge of a curator or collector in Paris who neither understands nor partakes in the reality in which the artists create these works, whether she or he is French or French-Senegalese.
The Invisible Borders Trans-African Photography Initiative takes its cue from this re-evaluation. It is a project whose essence lies in promoting exchange and building links between artists and artistic processes within the continent and beyond. It is dedicated to nurturing photographers, writers, and filmmakers with a consciousness towards the dividends of exchange and networking within diverse cultures and people. This concept only takes the African continent as a departure point, but is not in any way limited to it. For those in the diaspora it calls for a rejection of brain-drain and blind integration as a dangerous disease but, better still, embraces the schizophrenic nature of multi-experiences as an advantage in the human advancement. This relives the deduction made by Mozambican writer Mia Couto:
The ambivalence of African intellectuals, politicians, and artists must be viewed as something positive…It is a foundation that may well contribute to the invention of an identity conceivable only in a dynamic and changing manner. Being inside and outside as well is an advantage in a world whose borders are eroding.
The concept of Trans-Africanism attests to the non-linearity of the human experience and the elasticity of human capabilities. Instead of reinforcing borders through clinging to an identity for fear of losing oneself, we ought to see ourselves as work in progress, constantly in motion and activity, and finding ourselves in each other’s identity, a communal identity so to speak. In as much as my view is inclusive of all humans and all races, I strongly stand by the fact that it falls on Africans (artists or not) to encourage this exchange greatly amongst themselves in order to continuously consolidate that which constitutes the core values, for charity which begins at home will never leave the stomach foodless while parading its goodwill abroad.
There are many projects operating in/from Africa and Europe that are mostly founded by Africans whose activities echo the attributes of Trans-Africanism. A few of them include: the Pan-African Circle of Artists (PACA), Nigeria; Art Bakery, Cameroon; Art Moves Africa, Belgium; Mobility Hub Africa, Belgium; Creative Africa Network; Appartement 22, Morocco; Doula Art, Cameroon; Centre for Contemporary Arts Lagos, Nigeria; The Addis Foto Festival, Ethiopia; Kuona Trust, Kenya; as well as artist-led projects such as “Do We Need Cola Cola To Dance?” by dancer and choreographer Qudus Onikeku. These endeavours are pointers towards a new era in Africa’s art scene where the parameters of artistic processes are recorded and evaluated by activities from within the continent rather than from lofty heights of external intellectual misappropriation. And despite the odds against the survival of an independently flourishing art industry, these artists and art operators keep up the good work.