Sun | Jan 21, 2018

Carolyn Cooper | Africa Utopia in London

Published:Sunday | September 11, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Last weekend, the Africa Utopia festival was staged at the Southbank Centre in London. It was a far cry from the 'Human Zoo' exhibit that was fiercely contested by protesters two years ago. Europe's largest multi-arts centre, The Barbican, had planned to display black bodies trapped in degrading poses, claiming it was art!

Black people in the UK went ballistic. Sara Myers, a journalist in Birmingham, launched a petition on to shut down the racist exhibition. More than 23,000 people signed. The black British graphic designer Jon Daniel conceived brilliant 'Barbican and Bailey' posters.

Taking the model of the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey circus ads for the greatest show on earth, Daniel wickedly satirised the exhibition: "Good old-fashioned European clownialism"; "a work of unparalleled prejudice masquerading as art". The Barbican was forced to scrap the show.




Africa Utopia, now in its fifth year, is definitely not a human zoo. As the publicity materials put it, the festival is a celebration of "art and ideas from Africa that are changing the world". For some unenlightened souls, particularly in the West, 'Africa' and 'Utopia' are a contradiction in terms.

The stereotypical images of the African continent in the global media are economic underdevelopment, political corruption, ecological degradation and on and on. A whole litany of ills! It is precisely this anti-Utopian perception of Africa that the festival confronts. What it offers instead is not an idealistic, utopian vision. It affirms, in a very practical way, the contribution that the many peoples of the African continent have made to world civilisation.

This year's marquee event was Mandela Trilogy, an opera on the life of South Africa's epic hero, performed by the Cape Town opera company. There was a whole host of other engaging events. South African writer Zukiswa Wanner was there to share her children's book Refilwe, which gives an African twist to the story of Rapunzel. Literally. Refilwe has beautiful dreadlocks.

I had to buy the book for my nephew, Cole. Boys need to read these tales. After all, they'll grow up to be princes and they'll have to know how to choose the right girl with 'good' hair. But that's a whole other story about the root of our problem with hair.




The Senegalese musician Baaba Maal has been a moving force of the festival since its inception. He engaged in conversation with the Guardian's editor-at-large Gary Younge at a public forum on 'Activism, Africa and the Arts'. Maal reminded us about the role of the traditional griot as oral historian, poet and also incisive critic of the political elite. The artist in traditional African societies was the conscience of the people. And this is a responsibility Maal acknowledges today.

One of the issues that came up was whether or not he would accept an invitation to perform in Israel. He seemed ambivalent, arguing, it appeared, that music has the potential to open up dialogues about social change. In the discussion period, a woman challenged him to consider the possibility that his performance in Israel would be exploited by the state as a sign that all was well with their world. After all, the great Baaba Maal had come to sing for them!

Maal seemed to take her point. But in response to a very direct follow-up question from another member of the audience about whether or not he was planning to accept the invitation to perform in Israel, Maal declined to give an answer. He wasn't ready to go public.

This issue of boycotting Israel reminded me that total isolation of South Africa was such a powerful weapon in the battle against apartheid.




There were so many other ideas to consider at Africa Utopia! The Royal African Society screened provocative films. A special edition of the popular panel series #HowToFixNigeria focused on sexism. Adura Onashile's play, Expensive Sh*t, looked at the life of Tolu, who used to be part of Fela Kuti's Shrine club in Lagos. She now works as a toilet attendant at a club in Glasgow. Tolu knows how to tek bad tings mek joke. Then there was the Ghanaian actress Maame Adjei from the web series, An African City. It's about five "sexually confident" women who move to Accra from Europe.

One of the very popular elements of the festival was style and fashion. Exciting collections from top African/diaspora designers were showcased by #Africansquad. The show included trans models and a trans fashion designer who all put on quite a performance. I could just hear the yardie audience carrying on bad if this was Jamaica.

The People's Catwalk was another exciting event that invited any and everybody to strut their stuff. So I got my big break as a model on the London stage! To much applause, I closed the show wearing a fabulous dress by one of Nigeria's master designers Jimi King. I hope that either Pulse or Saint will offer me a contract when they see the footage.

Africa Utopia was delicious food for mind, body and spirit. Truth is stranger than fiction. On Friday, I found an email in Spam from Mary at Qingdao Cinderella Hair. It said, "We can supply you good quality hair with lowest price." No thanks, Mary! Like Refilwe, I have good African hair.

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to and