Friday, 5 September 2008

Sci-Cultura's Newer New Home

So long, farewell blogger. It's been real.

Please update your links to

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Africans in France Sans Papiers

An interesting read in the Guardian today that gives a laudable account of Parisian photographer Fabien Breuvart, who in show of solidarity with hard working, tax-paying but non-social-benefits-claiming illegal African immigrants a.k.a sans papiers (without papers) has taken hundreds of photos (500+ and counting) of these workers alongside documented members of the public. The body of work is entitled Vas-y, montre ta carte! (Go on, show your card!) and carries a clear message: ‘the only difference between these two people is a piece of paper’.

See the article for more of Breuvart’s photos and details on Sarkozy-son-of-an-immigrant’s tough immigration policies that have allegedly resulted in an 80% increase of deportations of the sans-papiers since last year. The article also contains personal accounts of interviewees that reflect France’s colonial history - Algeria, Ivory Coast and Mali. Apparently the French mantra liberté, equalité et fraternité does not apply to the sans-papiers. Domage.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Kehinde Wiley::My New Favourite Painter

Apparently I have been out of the loop, only having recently discovered the genius that is Kehinde Wiley. Although now that I think about it, I had come across one of his uniquely-styled majestic paintings of a hoodie (UK slang for teenaged male in a hooded top) on a horse on some random page on facebook (should I be saying this?). Anyway, to the point - I recently saw Wiley’s exhibition The World Stage: Africa, Lagos ~ Dakar at the Studio Museum in Harlem (hat tip Kamau - you’ve become a regular resource to this blog!).

Wiley’s distinct portraiture of young, urban black men in an ornate setting has been branded by reviewers as European renaissance meets hip-hop. In a similar yet distinct thread, this exhibition presents gigantic oil on canvas paintings of local, young, male models, dressed in contemporary wear, in poses that mimic historical public sculptures from the streets of Lagos and Dakar in a backdrop of ornate, bright and colourful West African textiles. Believe me, the image here is nowhere close to doing the real thing justice.

I particularly liked Wiley’s reported interaction with the local young men and granting them some artistic license to express themselves when they modelled the theatrical poses for him. I was greatly impressed by the vibrancy, life-like expressions, and contradictory grandeur yet intimacy that these paintings portrayed, especially given their impressive larger-than-life size. I stood in one spot in the centre of the appropriately high-ceilinged exhibition room, and gently rotated, surrounded by at least ten paintings, wanting to be enveloped by and absorb all of their splendour. It was readily evident that Wiley had put a lot of thought into his choice of West African textiles used in the backdrop, not only in terms of their intricate designs but also their kaleidoscopic splash of colours which blend amazingly and surprisingly well with the colourful attire and mood of the subjects. In addition, in some cases the elaborate designs of the textiles transcend the boundary of being just the background, but swirl across, subtlely merging and interacting with the subject. From my Wiley-related investigations online, this appears to be a trademark Wiley-esque trait. The World Stage: Africa, Lagos ~ Dakar is on at the Studio Museum in Harlem until 26th October 2008. If you can, go see. I guarantee, you will not be disappointed. Or your money back :)

I hope my suspicions that Kehinde Wiley is only just warming up are confirmed, this reportedly being his second body of work inspired out of the US borders. The other being World Stage: China.

When I really like something, I have a tendency to want to immerse myself in it and absorb everything there is to know about it. If like me, you still want more on this über cool (are the kids still saying this?) wealth of talent, check out his website and profile on myspace.

Also, more of Kehinde Wiley’s work to tantalise your senses (yipee!) at the RECOGNIZE! exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC, that is said to explore hip-hop culture’s vitality and beauty by Wiley and other artists. Also on until 26th October 2008. Sadly, I am relying on the internet to get my Wiley fix from the latter. If I had a mansion with huge walls, I know what would be adorning them. Sigh.

Images from Kofi, artnet and i heart art.

Sci-Cultura's New Home

On a housekeeping note, the url for this blog is now
I tried to keep it simple by only removing the "blogspot". The old url will be redirected here, but I know not for how long. So please ammend your links / bookmarks accordingly and stay tuned!

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Senegal.::DJ Awadi::.Immigration

I just came across this slideshow I'd bookmarked about 2 years ago that accompanies Senegalese rapper DJ Awadi's "Sunugaal" (roughly translates from Wolof to "our canoe"). It still brings tears to my eyes. It is one of those occassions where words are meaningless - the images speak for themselves and they speak volumes. The lyrics from "Sunugaal" which was in response to the tragic deaths of young Senegalese (and other West African) men who risk their lives as they head out to the Spanish Canary Islands in simple, overcrowded wooden fishing boats are available on the same link in English, French and Spanish. An overview with statistics, migration routes, etc that links different African countries and the coveted Atlantic and Mediterranean islands that offer a door way to Europe is available here.

This heart-wrenching topic does not have the same level of media presence as it did before, I suspect partly because the Spanish government and EU went on a crackdown to put an end to this fatally risky arrival of Africans onto Spanish holidaymakers' shores who then become their problem. Sadly, some survivors have been known to be deported back to their countries and still give it another go. I would be interested to know if anyone has any news / information to share. The last I heard anything connected to this was last year when there was controversy around Spanish designer Antonio Miro's decision to use African immigrants as models on the catwalk, with canoes in the set, as a way of bringing this tragedy to the forefront of people's minds. Details here.

Also, in connection, a personal account entitled Kingsley's Crossing available in DVD and podcast documents a Cameroonian man's 6-month journey across Africa in search of a better life in Europe. You can buy Kingsley's Crossing here. (via Kamau)

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Crowning Glory - Part Deux - contemporary African hair

Apparently, the black hair industry in North America alone is worth approximately $4 billion, possibly on par with the "ethnic" cosmetics industry. I suppose this is only a natural progression from the not-so-long ago past where the use of oils, dyes such as red cam wood, perfumes such as lavender, frankincense and sandalwood and ornaments such as beads, shells, seeds, coral, amber were ubiquitously used traditionally to adorn African coiffures. Sisal fibres used to make braids have now been replaced with synthetic extensions of various textures as well as human hair. Wigs, which have been identified as far back as the time of the ancient Egyptians, are now similarly synthetic or convincingly human hair.

Interestingly, although there has been a proffesionalisation of hairdressers and the use of more sophisticated tools to manipulate and negotiate hairstyles (with the exception of the irreplaceable afro comb), unlike the tradition of having hair styled by a friend or relative, hair dressers and barbers alike have maintained the social aspect of creating a space for exchange between stylists and clients. Today hairdressing salons typically nourish an environment for gossip and banter.

The West has inevitably influenced the evolution of African hairstyles and headdress. The now ubiquitous headscarf was in part linked to prudish / modest Victorian (late 19th Century) values, as well as straightening with the use of heat or chemicals. Many hairstyles have persisted and others been fashionably created. Just like the fashion industry, the hairstyles that are in vogue ebb and flow. A jheri curl wearer may be subject to rib-tickling taunts about smearing windows and staining pillows, whereas back in the day it was the “fresh” style of the 80s and early 90s. I confess I was a cool cat back then with my wet curls ☺ Although not so much with my cornrows, which are certainly more fashionable now than they were during my childhood in the 80s.

There is a vast amount of discourse around hair of African ancestry – from its artistic attributes (see beautiful images by JD Okhai Ojeikere; inset by Samuel Fosso) (double hat tip Kamau), to its role in shaping identity, to the rights and wrongs of wearing it natural or chemically processed, but to cite a few. A powerful element of self-expression from the choice of hairstyle that cannot be evaded is that hair may be used as a means to convey a political message. The legendary 1960s Civil Rights / Black Consciousness Movement that emanated from the USA was inexorably linked to the grand and perpetually fashionable afro. African men and women in my parents’ generation wore afros – some to express their fashion sense and others to express the feeling of pride in newly decolonised lands. As a child, I clearly remember the black power fist plastic afro combs that were ubiquitous in Kenya, although at the time I didn’t appreciate the statement they made.

The same could be said for locs (aka dreadlocks), which were previously strongly associated with being a Rastafarian or a rebel, such as the Mau Mau freedom fighters against British colonial rule in Kenya. Today in Kenya, despite the earlier association with the Mungiki (a now illegal politico-religious group), it is apparent that society is becoming more tolerant to this choice of hairstyle, with many hairdressers in Nairobi tending to locs, which are being increasingly worn by men and women alike. Again, just like the ‘fro, locs are being worn as a message of Black Consciousness or simply a trendy fashion-sense.

Despite their renaissance, unfortunately, I still hear of corporate employers in North America, Europe and Africa who have a problem with the choice of these natural hairstyles despite their neat appearance. It’s quite remarkable how hair is so strongly weaved into our socio-political fabric that it evokes such strong reactions and resistance to the transformation of hairstyles' image in people's minds. Regardless, African hair will remain a hot topic of discussion for a long time to come. As far as I am concerned how I wear my hair is an expression of self, but it does not define who I am.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Crowning Glory – Part One – a brief note on the history of African hair

Hair has been a unavoidably dominant feature of African art and culture since time immemorial. Hairstyles have been coiffured as aesthetic expressions much like other temporary adornments such as body paint, which bear a sharp contrast to permanent expressions such as scarification or skull elongation that was practised by the Mangbetu people of what is now Democratic Republic of Congo.

Typically, in many communities, far beyond a tool for an individual’s expression of self, symbolic and distinctive hairstyles were also used to reflect specific characteristics such as age, sex, social and religious status. Hair in these contexts is elaborately explored within specific communities sparsed across the African continent in a fascinating book whose title is derived from an exhibition, Hair in African Art and Culture (available from Amazon) in the Museum for African Art in New York City. This beautiful and enriching, glossy, photo-essay coffee table book successfully encapsulates the rich variety of hair arrangements in both men and women, boys and girls, that have had a central place in African life and art. The blurry lines and intimate entwinement of life and art are presented by photography and sculpture and elaborated with text, including anthropological accounts.

It is a fascinating read - Within various groups spanning the African continent, hairstyles were significant as they were used to mark and express together with meaningful cries or ululation significant life-changing events such as mourning or initiations. Hair had a voice and the eyes in the community “heard” the message of the wearer. For instance, in women thick long tresses symbolised fertility and strength; disheveled hair a state of disharmony such as a bereavement; and plaited hair a commitment to social order. Interestingly, the fact that hair was entrusted to another person, usually of the same sex, created and flourished a social bond between the stylist and the wearer. Something that undoubtedly carries on today.

Hair was also used to breath life into masks, that were used in ritual. The same sacrity was given to hair used in juju (i.e. charms) that could potentially be used to harm or protect the owner. Consequently, hair was disposed of with great care.

My next post will be on the somewhat contentious subject of contemporary African hair.