Category Archives: Art

How to Write About Africa

Yesterday I attended a panel event as part of the Luminato festival in Toronto titled ‘African Issues and the Challenge of Artistic Response’. One of the speakers, and the main reason I attended was Binyavanga Wainaina. Wainaina offers extensive insight into the Western medias’ portrayl of the African continent. Wainaina’s humorous and satirical style make listening to him a delight. I encountered his article ‘How to write about Africa’ a few years ago and it is one of my favorite pieces of writing. I’d like to share it in this blog post as it summarizes many of my own discontents with western images of Africa. Enjoy.

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.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African’s cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it—because you care.

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love—take advantage of this. If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. If you are a woman, treat Africa as a man who wears a bush jacket and disappears off into the sunset. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.

Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with. The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth. The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country.

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).

Bad Western characters may include children of Tory cabinet ministers, Afrikaners, employees of the World Bank. When talking about exploitation by foreigners mention the Chinese and Indian traders. Blame the West for Africa’s situation. But do not be too specific.

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.

Describe, in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa’, and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West. The biggest taboo in writing about Africa is to describe or show dead or suffering white people.

Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people’s property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant. Big cats have public-school accents. Hyenas are fair game and have vaguely Middle Eastern accents. Any short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with good humour (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or chimpanzee or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil).

After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa’s most important people. Do not offend them. You need them to invite you to their 30,000-acre game ranch or ‘conservation area’, and this is the only way you will get to interview the celebrity activist. Often a book cover with a heroic-looking conservationist on it works magic for sales. Anybody white, tanned and wearing khaki who once had a pet antelope or a farm is a conservationist, one who is preserving Africa’s rich heritage. When interviewing him or her, do not ask how much funding they have; do not ask how much money they make off their game. Never ask how much they pay their employees.

Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and game are critical—Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces. When writing about the plight of flora and fauna, make sure you mention that Africa is overpopulated. When your main character is in a desert or jungle living with indigenous peoples (anybody short) it is okay to mention that Africa has been severely depopulated by Aids and War (use caps).

You’ll also need a nightclub called Tropicana, where mercenaries, evil nouveau riche Africans and prostitutes and guerrillas and expats hang out.

Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.

-Binyavanga Wainaina



Filed under Africa, Art, Binyavanga Wainaina, Current Events, Development, How to write about Africa, International Development, Politics, Power of Whiteness

‘Authentic African-ness’

Headless manikins in vibrantly colored clothes point guns at each.

They sit at a round table discussing the fate of something unknown.

They decline in the luxurious setting of a wooded paradise.

These are a few of the installations that are part of artist Yinka Shonibare’s work. As my past blog posts have been perhaps a tad cynical, I thought I would focus on some work being done, that I perceive as successfully addressing the complexities of development in Africa and the ‘third world’.

Shonibare is one of my favourite artists, and I feel both his work and life experience speak to issues of identity, race and power relations that need to be addressed within the realm of development. Shonibare, who considers himself ‘bi-racial’, was born to a wealthy Nigerian family in London. He moved to Lagos, Nigeria, as a young child, but returned to London at the age of 16 to attend boarding school. Shonibare’s family owned homes in both London and Lagos allowing Shonibare to spend many summers in the UK. When Shonibare was 19, a viral disease attacked his immune system leaving him partly paralysed. Although Shonibare underwent physical therapy he still walks with a limp, and addresses his disability throughout his art. In his post- secondary education, Shonibare attended Wimbledon College of Art, London’s Byam Shaw School of Art and Goldsmiths College, completing his MA in fine arts.

A pivotal moment in Shonibare’s academic career and what would continue to shape his art to this day was a comment from one of his professors. While Shonibare was working on an art exhibit regarding Perestroika (the economic and political reforms introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987), his professor approached him. In an interview with Shonibare by the Zeleza Post, the reporter describes the encounter:

One day his tutor confronted him,

“Why are you making work about Perestroika?” the tutor, a white Briton, asked.

“You are African, aren’t you? Why don’t you make authentic African art?”

At first, Mr. Shonibare was taken aback.

“I tried to figure out what he meant by authentic African art,” he said.

“I didn’t know how to be authentic. What would I do if I was being authentic?”

“My tutor wanted me to be pure African,” Mr. Shonibare said,

“I wanted to show I live in a world which is vast and take in other influences, in the way that any white artist has been able to do for centuries.

The reporter continues to descibers Shonibare’s search of ‘authentic African-ness’:

[Shonibare]…visited an African fabric shop in the Brixton market in South London, discovering, to his amazement, that the best African fabric was actually manufactured in the Netherlands and exported to Africa. Further, the Dutch wax prints, as they are known, were originally inspired by Javanese batiks. This idea, that a fabric connoting African identity was not really African, delighted the budding conceptual artist.


The fabrics took on particular meaning for Shonibare and his work, as he explains:

The fabrics are not authentically African – they were produced by the Dutch in the 19th century and then subsequently by the English for sales to the African market. It is important that I don’t go to Africa to buy them, so that all African exotic implications remain fake.

They prove to have a crossbred cultural background quite of their own. And it’s the fallacy of that signification that I like. It’s the way I view culture, it’s an artificial construct.



It was these patterns that became the basis for Shonibare’s installations. Manikins in Victorian dress are used by Shonibare to engage with issues emerging from African colonialism. Among Shonibare’s installations are titles such as The Scramble for Africa, How to Blow up Two Heads at Once and The Swing. Shonibare tries to address the artificiality of some seemingly homogenous African identity. His work The Scramble for Africa has been recognized for identifying how the Berlin Conference arbitrarily created countries, influenced by various European cultures.

Shonibare’s art is not only restricted to installations, as much of his work includes sculptures, paintings and photography. One of his more famous works is his interpretation of Dorian Grey through photography. Shonibare recreates scenes from the work but inserts himself as an alternative black character. As with all his works, his photography addresses identity and power relations. Producing a scene in which a black male is in an influential position during the Victorian time period, speaks directly to power relations, race and African identity. While I could go on and on about Shonibare’s art, the complexity and relevance of his work may be lost in my writing and instead if you are interested I’d suggest watching these short videos of his interviews.

Shonibare’s art brings out important issues related to development, especially African development. This idea of a homogenous African continent and identity seems to plague development work. As I addressed in earlier posts, building a well, orphanage or school are perceived as one size fits all solutions. Often cultural specificities are ignored, and if not disregarded there are specific understandings of Africa that are addressed though development and also projected through western media sources. Images of rural settings, huts or tin roofed houses, ‘traditional’ African dress, women with babies tied to them, water on their heads and animals, dominate NGO advertisements and documents, focused on ‘improving’ conditions in Africa. While surely these images are related to real happenings in various parts of Africa, where are the complexities, the contradictions, and the diversity that we so often identify in our messy North American society?

-The cities, with their pollution, South African owned burger chains, and suit wearing workforce that easily pass the beggars on the concrete streets.

-The hospitals with their western trained doctors, using Japanese produced medicine, to help ‘African’ patients riddled with HIV.

-The online universities in Africa with their students from the upper echelons of society, who sit in their mansions on their laptops, while they stream lectures from Harvard University

I believe it is exactly this lack of acknowledged complexity, which Shonibare attempts to address through his work that needs to be examined in the study of African development. It is true that art addressing these complex issues can fall into the same trap as the other form of ‘development in North America’ that I have addressed in my blog. Perhaps it is just my personal bias derived from my love for modern art, however I feel that in constantly producing new work, publications and engaging in interviews, work like Shonibare’s, can facilitate a serious discussion. If you disagree, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. Also if you are interested in Shonibare’s work, a good introduction to his work can be found at:

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Filed under Africa, Art, Current Events, International Development, Politics, Post Colonial, Yinka Shonibare