What is African art?

Who is the African artist?

What are African themes and who is the African artist creating for?

These three questions have been weaved into conversations that date as far back as 1963 that seek to define what African literature and by extension African art was. The last few years have seen an attempt to reclaim our stories from the blinkered perspectives of poverty, war and disease. Odour Oduku’s essay on the danger of limiting the artistic freedom of African writers by placing on them the burden of being spokes people for the continent provides great insight on the discussion of the politics of identity of African art. Why can’t African writers just create? Why must we wrestle with the question of who we are, the burden of representation or the meaning behind our work before we begin to create?

Wanuri Kahui’s TED talk where she introduced the phrase Afro bubblegum is an extension of the discussion of the dangers of categorization or ‘pigeon-holing’ of African writers as Taiye Selasi aptly put it in her essay in the Guardian, to the world of film,fashion and visual art. So what is Afro bubble gum? It is art that is fun, fierce and frivolous. It is art that is not policy driven, or for education that or panders to ‘darkness’ of the African continent, it is art that is created for the joy of it. Art for the sake of imagination, art for art’s sake.

What then is the significance of Africa Nouveau and festivals in general in growing the movement and empowering us to create art for art’s sake?

Festivals are points of expression. It is in these spaces that I get to listen to and see offbeat music and forms of dress. The 2nd edition of Africa Nouveau was fashion driven and it was timely in the sense that this generation is witnessing a mashup of different styles and accessorization in one outfit. We are dressing for the fun of it, because it makes us happy. We are refusing to be defined. To me, this is Afrobubblegum in practicality. Festivals provide a safe space away from the homophobia and stereotypes and allow you to be who you are, however you are.

It was beautiful to watch because this was not fashion that I saw everyday. Africa Nouveau was a motif of the counter-culture, a rebellion in the name of Afrobubblegum. From the colourful street-wear of Rui Fashions to the fish leather pouch skins of Nyar Nam, to the eccentric dress of the attendees, it was truly a feast.

Yony Wai-te’s exhibition at the Nairobi Gallery is another great example of the exploration of ‘Otherness’. Through fashion, we are starting to see a fluidity in gender. It is borrowing from our individual masculinity and femininity to create this unique androgynous style and I couldn’t be more grateful to be alive to witness it.

Afrobubblegum is not art that running away from ‘reality’. Poverty, disease and war are still going on, but then those aren’t the only stories that can be told about Africa. There is also joy and vibrancy. Festivals are celebration of this ‘otherness’ and one of the platforms that help end Africa’s single story.

Photo credit: Pius Valentino Gumo