Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction, review by Dawn Bothwell
Throughout modern history, Africa has moved through a culture of paradoxes. This paradox first came through religion and ethics: European colonisers, who claimed to act in the name of progress (industrial development and global trade), ignored the Golden Rule in Christianity to “do unto others…” In post-colonial Africa, the promise of democracy is frequently evoked, then revoked in the face of lingering after-effects: poverty, withheld education and dependency upon other more developed economic infrastructures.
In 1974 Sun Ra released a ground-breaking proposition to young African Americans with Space Is The Place. Seeing no suitable position for displaced African Americans in society, he proposed the only alternative was intergalactic escape. ‘We’ll set up a colony for black people here, see what they can do with a planet of their own, without any white people there. They could drink in the beauty of this planet, it would affect their vibrations - for the better, of course. Another place in the universe up under different stars…’ From the well-charted territory of Afro-futurism, the gravity of the effects of colonial Africa - of mass-displacement both geographically and culturally - are clear as Sun Ra holds a mirror up to the treatment of Africans by western society as the ‘Other.’
Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction explores, from a new perspective, the legacy of paradox left to play out in what is now one of the world’s fastest growing economies. The exhibition uses science fiction as a device to try and break through common perceptions of the continent, shown frequently by the media as violent, turbulent and stunted by poverty. The extensive body of work creates a contemporary image, drawing from a disjointed heritage. The notably lo-fi aesthetic throughout these collected works acts as a commentary on new conventions of Sci-Fi in film, countering the seamless gleam of Hollywood’s detached and futuristic imagery. It reaches to the success of the genre’s heyday, binding the drive of aspiration to real-life influences, reinforcing the role of the genre to amplify real social concerns and to question motivations for the future.
The exhibition takes its title from Mark Ariel Waller’s work Superpower - Dakar Chapter (2004). Filmed in Dakar, Senegal in 2002, he aimed to represent his own experience of working in Africa, countering sensational representations of the country by combining documentary, low budget soap opera TV and speculative narratives. Waller developed the scripted work with Dakar based artists Laboratoire Agit’Art using native professional and amateur actors. The film plays upon the city’s location on a sea front with one road leading out, and its culture of sharing news through word of mouth, in a fractured, elliptical espionage plot. Three professors -Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka - are anthropomorphised stars from Orion’s Belt, carrying out a plot to disrupt an alien cloud that is causing disturbances on earth. It transpires that rather than just disrupting its surroundings, this particle cloud can reflect time, showing parallel dimensions. Waller’s eye for everyday detail within Dakar avoids an exoticised reading of the city and instead encourages a new and estranged interpretation of mundane features of the landscape: fishing poles become radio signal receivers, and the same car travels past and reappears as if in a closed loop of time.
Neïl Beloufa paradoxically describes his video installation Kempinski (2007) as a ‘science fiction documentary.’ Filmed in Bamako, Mali, Beloufa uses the simple trick of switching future for present tense, asking people from Bamako to stand at night time, in their normal surroundings holding a florescent light as they talk about what they see in the future. The results are startling as the concepts discussed are far from clichéd notions of the future found in cinema or television: instead they include the here and now, human motivations remain the same but we are alleviated of machines, cars and tools - the devices that remain are sentient, buildings are made out of light and move like people. The most surprising thing is how the visions described correlate so well together: the work presents an emphatic portrait of the future.
In his photographic series Icarus 13 (2006) Kiluanji Kia Henda documents the Angolan government’s first ever expedition to the sun. Photographs of futuristic space stations and astronomical observatories are all in fact buildings left over from the country’s relationship with Russia following their independence from Portugal in 1975; one is a mausoleum to the first president of Angola, another a cinema. All are distinctively Soviet reminders of Russia’s one-time influence and commitment to make the country a Marxist-Leninist state. Their neglected condition highlights the plight of Angola and many other post-colonial countries that were caught in the middle of the Cold War. The idea of a government mission to the sun is of course an absurd allegory, based upon a joke about the Mozambiquan president’s ambition to fly to the sun: when told that he would burn like Icarus he supposedly proclaimed his solution was to fly at night. The reference acts as a commentary on the problems of post-colonial countries and their continual subjugation by other cultures which impose upon them their own hopes and dreams.
João Maria Gusmão & Pedro Paiva present 3 short 16mm films which take the perspective of the outsider, the alien. Solar, the Blindman Eating a Papaya (2011) and The Horse of the Prophet (2011) were produced while on residency in Kenya. The first, showing a slow image of a blind man eating, is almost overwhelmingly sensual, the filming of it at night seeming to transform something normal into a question about how we perceive the world in the everyday - could sight or hearing be interchangeable for another sense that we haven’t experienced’
Two earlier works by Neill Blomkamp included are Alive in Joburg and Tetra Vaal. The first is the short on which his film District 9 was based. The real life interviews with citizens of Johannesburg speaking about immigrants from Zimbabwe, and the fear which stems their view of them as an unpredictable foreign culture, is a truly effective use of the Sci-Fi genre to dodge predictable and entrenched readings of Africa and expose the concerns at the heart of a rapidly transforming society.
Audio - Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction Discussion Event
On Sat 5 May exhibition curators Nav Haq and Al Cameron discussed ideas related to Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction with exhibiting artist Mark Aerial Waller. This discussion looked at the different reasons and methodologies employed by artists in the exhibition, and what it is that the science fiction genre offers to the debate about representations of Africa.