Afua Hirsch: “The prejudice still surrounding Africa is absolutely rooted in a racist past”

In her new BBC Four series, Afua Hirsch explores how artists in three African nations are responding to their traumatic histories. She speaks to Matt Elton about the continent’s past, and its bright future

Afua Hirsch in Kenya. (Photo by Clear Story/BBC)

Matt Elton: Your new series, African Renaissance, explores the art of three African nations. How did you decide which countries to focus upon?

Afua Hirsch: Given that Africa is a continent of more than 50 countries and incredible human, cultural, geographic and historical diversity, we wanted to focus on countries with a rich ancient culture and contemporary art scene. I felt that it was also really important to tell stories from the African continent that are less familiar to people in Britain, because we can sometimes follow slightly colonial patterns of tending to look at the nations that are most well-known as Commonwealth members or former British colonies.

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The first country we explore is Senegal, a former Francophone French colony with a fascinating precolonial history and an interesting story of resistance against empire, which has produced some incredible art as a result of that journey. It’s also somewhere that I have lived, so I have a personal attachment to it.

Secondly, we went to Ethiopia, which has an ancient Christian tradition and a vibrant contemporary art scene. The third country, Kenya, is probably more familiar to British people – but although they may think of its wildlife and landscape, they probably haven’t fully engaged with its cultural history.

So each country had a story that we felt was a bit different to the ones that people are used to hearing, and each has so much to offer the world in terms of the sheer brilliance of the art that it’s now producing.

Is it too reductive to say that the art and culture of all three of these nations is, to some extent, defined by their struggles for liberation?

You can’t ignore the history of empire, colonialism and the struggle for liberation, and it looks very different in all of those three countries. Kenya had a violent struggle with colonialism, and its resistance movement is quite well known. Senegal’s story is unique, because its Sufi Islam prophets led the resistance and have become embedded in its religious, literary and artistic culture as a result. Finally, Ethiopia was never formally colonised, so it stands out as the only country on the African continent to not have experience of settlers or European colonialism. But it had its struggles against invasion by Italy under Mussolini in the 1930s.

However, it’s also important not to simply reduce the story of African nations to either the fact that they were colonised or their resistance to empire. In Europe, we tend to locate ourselves at the centre of stories about Africa. Even when we do acknowledge African resistance, we still frame it in terms of Britain or France’s role and how that affected the way in which Africans think about themselves. That’s an important story, but it’s also not the only story. African culture existed before Europeans came to Africa and it continues to thrive – indeed, it’s now reclaiming much of the space that Europeans controlled. So while it’s crucial to engage with colonial history, it’s also crucial not to repeat it by being colonial in the way in which we now think about how those stories are told.

You argue in the series that Ethiopia is a nation with a proud, significant culture that is equal to any in the west. What was your experience like there?

That was a really powerful experience for me. I was struck by the irony of Europeans travelling to Ethiopia feeling that they needed to ‘civilise’ or Christianise a country that was Christian before any part of the British Isles was. It was a really profound experience to go to the city of Aksum and see the shrine which people believe houses the Ark of the Covenant containing the sacred tablets on which the Ten Commandments are transcribed – received directly from God by Moses, as the story goes. It’s a site of pilgrimage surrounded by a unique culture, and it was amazing to see these ancient monuments, and to be part of that biblical story, in the context of a nation that hasn’t been colonised and has rejected many globalised imperial norms. For example, Ethiopia doesn’t subscribe to international time zones – it has its own time zone and its own calendar.

One of the experiences I found most affecting was visiting the museum of the Red Terror, which explores communist rule in Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991. It was moving to see how the trauma of that period has been converted into art that speaks on a really human level of the suffering and resilience of Ethiopians. People know Ethiopia for the wrong things: for tyrannical government and for famine, which was a generation-defining view of Ethiopia. When you talk to Ethiopian artists they tell those same stories – because those, of course, remain things that happened to Ethiopia. But, instead of the west’s rather infantalising narrative of victimhood, they tell those stories in a way that humanises them and gives them agency.

When Europeans discovered Africa was home to cultures and civilisations that existed long before theirs, they made up a story of it as a ‘dark continent’, which has been incredibly pervasive. Why do you think it’s exerted such a hold on the popular imagination?

Imperialism was, in some ways, very sophisticated. It was recognised that you can’t rule people by force alone; you have to make them believe in their own inferiority, and also persuade European people of their superiority to justify what would otherwise be murder and theft. You can’t go to a country and take people’s land and destroy their heritage unless you can convince people that there is some kind of moral imperative in doing so. The ideology that underpinned this was very powerful: it persuaded generations of people that this was the right thing to do. It also persuaded people who were colonised that it was their moral destiny to be ruled over because they were primitive or savage.

It’s now very clear how racist, toxic and destructive those ideas were. But I, and many other people, were raised in their shadow. My mother was born in a British colony, the Gold Coast – now Ghana – and she went to school being told that Britain was superior and that her own history was one of savagery. That kind of brainwashing goes deep into the psyche, and unpacking it takes generations.

Though Africans have rejected that ideology for decades – and the independence movements that brought about the end of the British empire were a wholesale rejection of those ideas – their psychological consequences take longer to unpick. That’s why I love talking to artists: they have a unique way of getting to the roots of these historical, psychological forces and disrupting them with their creativity. I think it helps all of us to ask which parts of that ideology still shape our thinking, and engage with people who challenge us to see things in ways that don’t bear the stain of the racist thinking that led to Africa being colonised in the first place.

How do these artists, particularly young artists, in the countries that you visited view their own histories?

There was a real defiance among the artists I spoke to. They’re no longer interested in positioning themselves and all of their work as a response to colonialism in a way that was maybe the case for the generation that had to fight it head on. I think that Africans generally are rejecting the narrative that they have to prove themselves to the west or that they even care what the western media says about them.

They’re talking to each other, and reaching out to other parts of the world – to South America or China, for instance – in order to create new conversations. It was refreshing, and quite humbling, to realise that they didn’t care whether or not we persuade British TV audiences that they’re making good art. They are making good art and, if we’re fortunate enough to experience it, we’ll learn a lot from them. There’s a spirit of not seeking approval or being apologetic any more – of just forging new ways of doing things.

As you mentioned, you also visited Senegal. How far do its French influences still manifest themselves today?

It’s impossible to ignore. There were many more French settlers in Senegal than there were in equivalent British west African colonies, and there was an idea of becoming ‘French’ that the British didn’t export to their former empire. Britain never tried to tell Nigerians or Ghanaians that they were really British in the same way that France had an idea of French-speaking Africa being somehow French. That really penetrated the identities of people in countries such as Senegal.

But, at the same time, Senegal’s people have such a rebellious, religious history. The form of Islam that’s practised in Senegal has always been very much part of a resistance movement against Eurocentric ideas and imperialism. Those are therefore two quite powerful forces – the French identity, and that form of Islam – pulling in different directions. The way in which people wrestle with that tension and express it through their art is one of the reasons that there’s an electric spark in Senegal. We took a broad approach to what we mean by ‘art’, too: we looked at dance, music, craft and jewellery-making and painting and sculpture. You find that expression in so many different mediums, which is why telling the entire story of somewhere as fascinating as Senegal in one episode is such a challenge. But we tried to pack in as much as possible, in as thoughtful a way as we could.

The idea of giving African people back control of the narrative is particularly interesting when it comes to Kenya. How did the British manufacture a story about Kenya, and what is its legacy today?

The narrative the British created of Kenya was that it was a land of empty space. British people went to Kenya, saw fertile land and compelling wildlife and they wanted it. It was a source of enrichment and exotic holidays, and a way of dominating and acquiring new resources for themselves. Justifying all of that required creating an idea that there was nothing there already, that it was a primordial landscape of savannahs and big skies and red suns. I’m sure you can picture that image of Kenya: a giraffe majestically running across an empty plain as a huge red sun sets in the distance.

People still like to romanticise an idea of Kenya as a place of open space. It’s almost like a blank canvas for Europeans to play on

What that narrative erases is people. The people of Kenya had been there for centuries before any Europeans ever saw that land. The extent to which that narrative has persisted is frustrating: people still like to romanticise an idea of Kenya as a place of open space. It’s almost like a blank canvas for Europeans to play on.

That, obviously, is not true, and Kenya now has a vibrant urban culture. We went to its capital, Nairobi, which is the exact opposite of the idea of empty space. It’s the tech capital of east Africa: innovative and bustling, with a whole generation of innovators hustling and jostling and moving at lightning speed. People get around on a form of transport called matatus, which have become an iconic part of the modern Kenyan experience – a bit like London’s red buses or New York’s yellow taxis. A Kenyan artist, Dennis Muraguri, has depicted them in a series of paintings, turning them into an art form. It’s beautiful to see, and one of many ways in which artists are dismantling the idea of Kenya as a kind of rural, primordial place.

This, of course, isn’t a light story, and the trauma of colonialism, and the struggle to overturn it, is still playing out in many ways in modern Kenya. I think it would be healthy for British people, too, to engage more with the truth of what happened in Kenya and how the dispossession that it involved has left a legacy that’s difficult to overturn.

Are there any resistance figures, whether political, religious or social, from these three nations who you think deserves more attention in the west?

I think all of the resistance figures need more attention. I met a survivor of a former Mau Mau detention centre in Kenya, an old man who, with great dignity, told the story of what he endured in that place at the hands of the British. There’s still an idea in Britain that the Mau Mau were terrorists trying to destroy the successful economy of a great British colony, whereas, really, they were fighting for what every human wants: the right to control their own story, to be respected and treated as equal, and to have access to their own land. The fact they had to fight for such basic things is, I think, still not recognised enough in the west – even despite the United States having had a president, Barack Obama, whose father experienced that struggle. So there is a lot for British people to learn about that history and the pain that still endures.

In Senegal, meanwhile, we saw the Baye Fall – religious followers of the prophets who fought colonial rule and led the nation to independence. Theirs is a really interesting story about Islam and African identity that isn’t well known outside Senegal. The sect’s rituals are a kind of experiential artform, with lots of singing and dancing and graffiti telling the stories of figures such as Sheikh Aamadu Bamba, who led the religious resistance movement. There are images of him in every city; people devote their lives to following him. Such stories have, sadly, never really been well known in Britain.

How would you like viewers of this series to reappraise the history and culture of these nations, and Africa more generally?

I think it’s really important, fundamentally, to shed the ideas that many people still have of Africa as a ‘dark continent’: the place that humanity forgot and that offered nothing to the world; that image of a primitive forest of people in mud huts, untouched by modernism and invention.

Every single thing I just said is the opposite of the truth about the African continent and its millennia of civilisation. There is an incredible continuity of tradition, culture, history, literature and art in every single country on the continent. You can’t appreciate that, no matter how much you look for it, unless you begin to undo some of the conditioning that many of us in Britain – including myself – grew up with. I only saw Africa in the media if something terrible had happened, whether a famine or a war.

It’s important to shed the ideas that many people still have of Africa as the ‘dark continent’, a place humanity forgot and that offered nothing to the world

When, as a child, I made my first trip to Ghana – the country of my mother’s heritage – my school friends were shocked when I said I would call them, because they couldn’t imagine there were phones there. This was in the 1990s, and I know this still happens today.

So it’s important to recognise the strength and pervasiveness of the misconception and prejudice that still surrounds the African continent. It is absolutely rooted in a racist past that we haven’t confronted in Britain. But, to be more positive, if we are able to start to shed and challenge some of those preconceptions, we will find a continent that is forging ahead. It isn’t asking Europeans to take it seriously – it just is serious, solving its own problems, and reinventing itself. It has the youngest population in the world and is a hub of innovation, entrepreneurialism, and incredible cultural creativity. I would say: ignore that at your peril.

In a way, then, Africa doesn’t need Europe, but Europe has a lot to learn if it opens its eyes. That’s the message that comes through these programmes. It is a series about art – and you can watch it just to see beautiful art if you want. But if you pay attention, you will also start to understand where this continent has been, where it’s heading, and why everyone in the world should take it seriously.

Afua Hirsch is a writer, historian and broadcaster, whose books include Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging (Jonathan Cape, 2018). Her new TV series, African Renaissance, is due to air in August on BBC Four

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This article was first published in the September 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine