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Tag Archives: Afropolitanism

The Exoticisation and Otherisation of the Afrikan by the Afrikan

Written by Doreen Gaura for POVO Journal 2014: Inaugural Women’s Edition

In the last decade or so we have seen an increase in Afrikan visibility and participation in the marketing of the continent as a commercial and creative hub. We have embarked on re – branding the image of Afrika i.e. moving away from the traditional Afro-pessimistic narrative to a more positive vibrant one as well as reclaiming the marketing rights of our own continent and cultures. This paradigm shift has reaped benefits for more and more, mostly young, Afrikan designers, artists and entrepreneurs both on the continent and in the Afrikan diaspora.
It is a cause for celebration particularly in light of the reductive, Afro – pessimistic narratives that have plagued us for centuries and enabled the violent dispossession and subjugation of our people. However, I fear that while it has created room for Afrikans and our cultures in the global market as well as facilitated cultural exchange amongst ourselves as Afrikans on a much larger scale, I feel that this new visibility and celebration of our various cultures and the different aspects thereof has done very little to facilitate a shift from the exoticisation of the Afrikan and Afrikan culture.

If anything, it would appear to have not only validated it because that same narrative is now being vocalised by Afrikans “so it must be true”, but we now participate in the exoticisation of ourselves and our cultures.

I can personally think of many examples of this that I have either observed or encountered personally over the years both as a Zimbabwean immigrant living and working in Cape Town, South Afrika and as a Zimbabwean emigrant returning home every year for a visit. During my last visit to Zimbabwe I was called “exotic” by strangers for spotting natural/afro-textured hair and donning afro inspired clothing and accessories. I found this both very problematic and somewhat offensive at the same time even though on all three occasions it was intended to be a compliment.

The term “exotic” does not sit well with me, particularly when it is said in reference to people (of colour) or to POC cultures and heritages and this is because of the historical baggage that comes along with that term. Historically, and even in the present day, the term exotic mostly serves the purpose of propping up and sanctioning the otherisation of the “exotic” subject so as to fetishise and objectify them/it making them/it inferior to what is considered the “norm”. This thinking operates on the premise that there is a singular norm and anything that deviates from this alleged norm then automatically becomes unusual and abnormal.

The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the US defines exoticisation as:
…a process by which a human figure is cast as foreign, not in the concrete sense of belonging to a foreign country or ethnic group, but in the phenomenological and ethical sense of being “other.” The other is considered an object of interest and contemplation for the viewing subject, who presumably represents a cultural norm. The hallmark of exoticization in European and American literature is the construction of the other as strange and mysterious—often in some desirable or attractive but nevertheless distanced way—as if she did not exist within a plausible cultural or psychological context.

What I take issue with when I’m referred to as exotic, particularly by fellow Afrikans and more especially by fellow Zimbabweans is that the things that aren’t foreign about me BECAUSE I’m a brown/black Zimbabwean or Afrikan are the exact things that my viewer considers exotic and distances themselves from; things such as not relaxing my hair or not wearing a weave or even not identifying as a Christian but instead as an Afro – spiritualist. This of course speaks to the politics of decolonisation and betrays to what extent we are really a nation (and perhaps even a continent) of Anglophiles whose idea of normal is really Euro-centric and it is often through this Anglophile/ Euro-centric lens that we engage with our cultures or identities and wind up falling into the trap of commodifying them as opposed to promoting them.

The commodification and exoticisation of ourselves, our cultures and our identities also seems to entrench the socio economic and political issues that already plague our communities. It appears to disenfranchise certain communities (particularly the rural ones) who by the way are usually the ones who preserve, live and identify with these cultural aspects more than those who wind up profiting from commodifying and commercialising said cultures. We end up replacing the current perpetrators of the exploitation of our people and our cultures. Also it is very problematic how we seem to be only embracing our cultures because we feel that there is business to be made from them for as long as the west is still enamoured by the idea of the exotic other.

The exoticisation of Afrikans is nothing new and we have seen this in stories like the Allan Quartermain series and various other aspects of pop culture that romanticise and fetishise the idea of Afrika as an endless majestic wilderness filled with adventure and “primitive but mysterious and alluring jungle people”. It is this sort of exoticisation that we seem to have internalised and adapted somewhat. Since the emergence of Afropolitanism, which has come under much justifiable criticism we have seen more and more young Afrikans appearing to be engaging with both their own as well as other Afrikan cultures. I say appearing because of late I have wondered to what extent most of us actually engage, if at all, with the plethora of Afrikan cultures we are enthusiastically commodifying and consuming.

I started to question this when I noticed that in conversations with fellow young people, be it in South Afrika or Zimbabwe, around “afro-print” couture for example, most people treated the plethora of prints being used in the fashion industry as though they all emerge from a homogenous culture, called “Afrikan”. Not many bother to learn more about the origins of the prints they were using or buying and what, if any, significance or meaning they hold to the bearers of that particular culture. Because we use whiteness as the standard or default for normal, modern, urban, progressive, sophisticated etc we appear to be more interested in engaging with our identities using Euro-centric rules and norms i.e. moving away from the roots of said identities while maintaining the things that have received the West’s endorsement and approval and that can fit seamlessly into the neoliberal capitalist imaging of the world at the expense of the sacred aspects of our identities. What appears to be a celebration and promotion of Afrikan identities is in most instances a celebration and promotion of Western identities and norms just with an Afrikan twist to it.

It is true that doors have been opened up and conversations started about our Afrikan cultures with business opportunities being provided for our Afrikan designers but to what extent are the designers engaging with the cultures they are “marketing” in order to be considered representatives of said cultures? Is a Kente inspired printed fabric the same as a Capulana print one and therefore can be used interchangeably? Are the symbols in these prints just meaningless pretty squiggles and designs on a piece of cloth or do they represent something? To what extent are the rest of the beneficiaries of those cultures being included in this distribution of their identity? Is the appropriate respect being awarded to the sacred aspects of the things we are marketing? Is commodifying Afrikan cultures creating multiple and nuanced narratives or just creating an illusion of representation and adding an Afrikan voice to the already existing reductive narrative of the “exotic other”? In my opinion these are all pertinent questions that elicit the necessary conversations that I believe we should be having as young Afrikans.
That we are not is indeed problematic or has the potential to be. Don’t get me wrong, I am not entirely against the marketing of our cultures ourselves as I am for the idea of (re)discovering, (re)claiming, and (re)framing/branding our identity first as black Afrikans then as members of various ethnic and cultural groups that fall under that banner (of Afrikan) that is removed from the imposed monolithic common identity that is “human” which is usually understood as a synonym for Europhile but I believe that we need to stop viewing and identifying ourselves using a Westernised/ white gaze.

Others may wonder if it is still necessary to be talking about such things and if these things still matter but for as long as we and the rest of the world determine our value by our ability to produce Afrikan flavoured versions of Western convention and form because we are “inferior” we still have lot of talking, learning and unlearning to do. Of course, there will always be the risk of opening ourselves up to continued exoticisation by others through this promotion and celebration of ourselves and our cultures, that is unavoidable, but at least we can aim to dismantle the ever reductionist narrative somewhat and more importantly we can cease to legitimise and reinforce the problematic racialised inferiority imposed on us by ideas of Euro-centric supremacy.

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I am Afrikan! But What Does it Mean to be Afrikan? (Part 1)

This Is New Africa

This Is New Africa

In a lot of ways I suppose I can be described as an Afropolitan and I suppose in some ways I do identify as one. However, this does not dismiss the fact that I am struggling with what or how I really feel about certain aspects of it and that these aspects have caused some form of disdain within me. A few weeks ago, Minna Salami, an Afrikan woman writer/ blogger I admire and respect so much, posted a piece titled Can Africans have multiple subcultures? A response to “Exorcising Afropolitanism” on her blog Ms.Afropolitan and that, along with the conversations that took place beneath the post, is what inspired this post.

In many ways Afropolitanism is a wonderful thing and a necessary stage of evolution for the peoples of Afrika. It has brought about in the young people of Afrika a resurgence of their sense of pride in their identities and their origins, a little reminiscent of the start of contemporary Pan Afrikanism on the continent in the 40s. It is particularly popular amongst the young Afrikans in the diaspora and in a way they were the ones that coined the term, much like Pan – Afrikanism was popularised by Afrikans overseas around the beginning of the 20th century.

This pride, that has mostly been facilitated by Afropolitanism in recent years, is expressed in Afrikan pop culture today; in the music, in the visual and performing arts, in fashion and design, literature and socio-political activism, although the latter is not as popular among the, according to my own observations, mostly apathetic youth. It is because this pride finds rooting in the fact that Afrikaness has become a pop culture and a brand that I battle with completely embracing Afropolitanism.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This is all great. Not only are we exhibiting pride in who we are and demanding recognition as equals in the global arena but we are also demanding that we participate and that we ourselves be the ones to bring what Afrika has to offer to the global table. My problem is that although we are doing this, we are not redefining how we participate or changing the narrative of what and who the Afrikan is in the least or rather in a way that I consider ideal. We are not really, or better yet, not always demanding equality and recognition based on who we were and who we can be in relation to our forebears but rather we are demanding recognition for our ability to be like the Westerner – as if to say “we are not the other because we can be just like you”.

Historically, what has been considered the brown person’s “greatest and only” contribution to the post modern state has mostly been in music and sport. This of course is something that we should continue to be proud of but it is not the only thing we are good for. A lot of people agree with me on this and we see this in articles on young brown achievers (mostly in the diaspora) and that is wonderful but what I find problematic is that we are calling for recognition of brown achievement only in spheres of influence that are not necessarily recognised as historically or culturally Afrikan like playing the violin or chess or in modern science and neglecting to call for, not just the recognition of the individuals themselves but the discipline i.e. why are we not calling for the international recognition of the central Afrikan kora as an indication of excellence for instance along with the individual that has mastered it?

A couple of months ago, people were hoping for the first “black” pope and my question is, why aren’t we calling for the recognition of Afrikan or Aboriginal Australian or Native American traditional spiritualities and their respective leaders? I mean, we recognise the Dalai Lama of Tibet so why can’t our spiritual leaders also receive the same respect and recognition? People the world over, including in Afrika, celebrated America’s first “black” president, even those of us who hail from countries in Afrika where Barack Obama would not be classified as “black”, while very few question when America will know its first Apache or Cherokee president just by way of example. I find it worrying that as a historically oppressed people who have experienced colonialism on the continent (and in South Africa apartheid) and in the Americas, slavery, we will celebrate our complicity in the continued oppression and marginalisation of the indigenous peoples of America.

In spite of this resurgence in Afrikan pride and the tidal wave that is Afropolitanism, I still come across a lot of young Afrikans who believe that prior to our encounter with the colonisers and slavers, we really were primitive savages with no form of civilization to speak of and we therefore should be grateful, to a certain degree for colonisation. We will widely recognise every other religion and faith on the planet except the faith of our ancestors. Instead, we, at best, dismiss it as backward and primitive and at worst we regard it as evil and demonic and call for its eradication. A lot of young Afrikans on the continent believe that Afrikans did not know God before the bible or the Q’uran reached our shores. I am all for freedom of worship and respect people’s religions but the moment people decide to ignorantly attack their indigenous beliefs and their respective practitioners, well, I get really riled up. To quote Ancesrtal Voices: Esoteric Knowledge

Since 9/11 ‘religious tolerance’ has become a key phrase in the mainstream, emphasising the need for respect of other faiths even if we do not share them. But does this apply to all? African spirituality despite being the oldest spiritual thought and expression known to humanity, is the least acknowledged and the most disregarded by society.

Our widely accepted alleged lack of contribution to the history of the world is barely being challenged in this new “we are Afrikan” “This is New Afrika (TINA)” fever that has taken us over and question is “what exactly is it that we are trying to achieve here with all this awesomeness around us?” As a people who for the last few centuries have been taught that we were nothing but uncivilized savages and barbarians surely this should not be the case in our demand for respect and recognition. For a long time it was believed that we were lesser and today, in more subtle ways, the same message is still being conveyed. Western science and the foreign religions all supported this belief. The belief that we are not completely human and that we are as good as mules to be exploited to the fullest by the more “superior” other. We have been taught to feel ashamed of our physical, social and cultural identities. Told that they were things in desperate need of remedying. This remedy? To aspire as far as possible to “elevate” ourselves to the level of other more superior cultures and races. We have challenged this of course but the narrative has not been about our competitiveness based on the identities of our ancestors prior to the forced assimilation but based on our ability to assimilate post the indoctrination.

We shun our traditions and call them harmful primitive and uncivilized, and this in the absence of historically common place prompting or encouragement from our oppressors. It is now a voluntary action on our part. When we do embrace them, we only embrace the commodified and bastardized (sometimes harmful) cultures and traditions the same way as the visitor does because we are now the visitors ourselves. Practices and beliefs that defined us in ancient times are now just as exotic to us as they are to the visitor that is enticed by the “beauty” of certain aspects of the other. But of course we are. Why wouldn’t we be? We have arrived after all. We are now included in the inner circle of whiteness and we have proven our right to be so. We will, as outsiders and “foreigners”, group our hundreds of cultures and merge them into one that is called Afrikan. Afrikan music, Afrikan print, Afrikan art, Afrikan language, Afrikan culture, Afrikan woman, Afrikan man. It is all one big village after all and we are all the same. We have created this homogenized product (not to be mistaken with united) that is to be pimped off to the world, including the peoples of Afrika themselves as a brand but this time we are doing it ourselves. Viva la revolucion! (tongue lodged firmly in cheek).

 

As if that’s not enough there does not appear to be a desire to really understand, respect, value or embody this culture, its origins or its journey into the future. Caucasians on the whole, even in their progressiveness and modernity, wear their whiteness with pride. They wear their “supremacy” and their privilege with pride. It is so embedded in them that it has practically become a part of their DNA. Even with the pan cultural or neo liberal, who may feel uncomfortable with certain aspects of their realities or may envy certain attributes in other people’s realities, one thing that remains certain is that they never truly feel shame or hatred towards their whiteness. Is there anything wrong with that? Absolutely not! However, why do we not do that with our us-ness. Why is it so important to us to qualify ourselves by demanding a right to “white” pride and denouncing our right to “black” pride?

We define our success using their standards of measurement, be they modern or post modern. Our grasp of western forms of education puts us above others but never our grasp of our own forms of education. We no longer recognise or accept different ways of doing, knowing and being that exist outside of western formal structures. We will judge each other harsher for our inability to articulate ourselves in western languages than we do for our inability to articulate ourselves in our native tongues. In fact, the latter is more often applauded than ridiculed. We will take pride in the size, grandeur and location of our homes than we do in our family relations. We personalise wealth and limit it to the nuclear family and term that progress while doing away with recognising that family goes beyond the nuclear and family wealth is not just reserved for the nuclear. We focus more on the duration of our life spans than the positive impact on others that we make in our life times however long or short they may be.

Sure, we need to look towards the future, modernise and keep up with the times but at what and whose expense? Can we truly demand an equal share of the pie when we don’t really believe that we deserve it as we are? Can we really consider ourselves a formidable force to be reckoned with if we are just but trees without roots? We are convinced that we need to let go of the past and catch up with the rest of the world in the future and yet the rest of the world knows exactly what their past is, how it informs their present and how it will define their future and their role therein. Surviving monarchies in the west not only continue to exist but continue to be respected and yet the surviving  monarchies on the continent are held up for public scrutiny or completely ignored. I believe that as a group of peoples that have been taught to hate ourselves we desperately need to love ourselves first, find pride in where we come from and the contribution we have made to civilization and the modern world before we can seek to position ourselves at the global table. Until we do this, I believe that whatever or however many places we secure at said table, we will always be bottom feeders, be it explicitly or implicitly. Pride in ourselves is great and always welcome, but it is what informs and inspires that pride that is paramount. Afropolitanism can either make or break us and so I believe we must proceed with caution.

 

© Doreen Victoria Gaura/ Colouredraysofgrey, 2013

 

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