Despite what the title of this show implies, Africa is not a country. It is not a monolith. It is not a single entity moving in unison. Its struggles and triumphs are complex and varied. Fortunately, this three-part documentary series never treats it as one place or people on a single journey. The journalist and broadcaster Afua Hirsch takes on three very different countries – Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa – to paint an intricate portrait of a pan-African “cultural renaissance” that she believes is happening in “one of the fastest growing parts of the world and with the youngest population”.
She looks to the forefront of arts and culture in the countries, meeting established icons, but focusing on the younger generation’s creativity and ingenuity in reimagining the status quo. Each country contains a multitude of cultures, influences, languages and ambitions, but Hirsch braids the strands together skilfully.
The new waves of artists are equally impressive in each of the three countries, but themes or national traits emerge in each episode. Nigeria takes a gleefully patriotic, glass-half-full approach, with fashion designers beaming at how their traditional silks – which are painted using a chicken feather dipped in cassava paste – are big in Japan. South Africa is more glass-half-empty, hyperaware of its difficult history; most interviewees there speak of their personal insecurities and the shadow of apartheid. Morocco, having been buoyed and then deflated by the promise of the Arab spring, wants to smash the glass with art that seeks to subvert the western gaze and do away with depictions of Moroccan women as “erotic and submissive”.
In Morocco, Hirsch meets photographers, weavers, rappers, painters and even pioneering female equestrians, who compete against male teams in full traditional costumes. Hirsch’s fascinated questioning brings out the best of her subjects by acknowledging the geopolitical or intersectional issues from which their creativity comes. She explores a fluid African identity, at one point speaking to a music producer who is frustrated by the idea of Morocco not being sufficiently African. “People think we are the Middle East and we are not. We have the same religion, we speak Arabic and there are some influences, but it all comes from Africa,” he says. The episode uncovers something more than a cultural boom – revealing that Morocco’s view of itself is going through as seismic a change as its art scene.
Nigeria proves the most fun. Hirsch meets chefs preparing traditional giant snails with the care and expertise of the finest haute cuisine and spends time with the delightful Mama Nike, an internationally renowned textile artist who wants to pass down the traditional techniques to the younger generation – and preserve her culture’s legacy. This generosity of spirit is abundant in Nigeria, where each creative force seems concerned not only with their own work, but also with opening up more space for those who come after them – by opening galleries and performance spaces and arranging international artist exchange programmes.
But the oil-rich country is not so generous in other respects. As Hirsch explains, “wealth does not alway trickle down”. She visits the newly crowned Ogiame Atuwatse III, the young king (or olu) of Warri, an area in southern Nigeria’s Delta State. Hirsch remains steadfastly respectful as he insists that she bow down at his feet and provide him with gifts. When he is gently questioned about his role, he offers little more than uninspiring metaphors: “The king is … kind of like the door. You see inside and outside at the same time.”
Far more inspiring is the legacy of the father of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti, whose grandson describes him as “anti-establishment and pan-Africanist”, given the galvanising protest music he made during the Nigerian civil war. It speaks to art’s potential to preserve Nigerian culture and shape its future.
On her visit to South Africa, Hirsch stirs a melting pot of modern Africa. The musician and dancer Bontle Modiselle teaches her some viral TikTok moves, yet articulates African modernity with insights befitting academia. She explains that the “township swagger” that defines her look and sound does not expect conformity, because “the diversity of the people doesn’t allow a uniform look and feel”.
Hirsch finds the country far more prosperous and joyful than she expected, with Soweto, the notorious Johannesburg township, surprisingly affluent and middle class in places. There is an unintentionally comic moment when an artist who braids hair into portraits and sculptures gives Hirsch a quick up-do, but seemingly has only has a few seconds to do so. Hirsch explains the value of the art while stoically ignoring said up-do collapsing around her temples.
Hirsch opens the door for the Africa-curious and makes it clear why the world should pay attention to every part of it. The series makes you wish 51 more episodes were coming, to cover the rest of the continent.
Published: 2023-06-13 21:00:09