Cool Afrika: Ugandan Artist Matt Kayem Explores Afrocentrism

The journal of African Civilizations has rich and wide ranging collections on the research of the origin of Africans, their position in history and contributions to civilizations. The interaction of Africa with the outside world through trade- predominantly the 1500 Slave Trade and subsequent colonialism, brought to a halt the development of Africa and her subsequent destruction through pilfering of her material civilization. By the turn of the 20th century, a lot of Africa had lost her former glory and now was being brainwashed by the adage of European superiority. And evidence that existed to counter this new theory was debunked and the new gospel that led to Europe taking credit for Egyptian civilization was cemented.

Trade with the outside world and colonization period can be looked at as the age of African confusion. Whereas, the emancipation Proclamation of 1861 had given Black people in America a respite from subjugation and some of them were making milestones in the reconstruction of their own history, their counterparts in Africa by the turn of the century had not opened up to their importance in the world apart from playing the second fiddle to the white society. However, from the 1940s, stream of Black elites was making headway to rediscovery thanks to education abroad.

By the time many countries were getting self-government; African scholars including Senegalese Cheikh Anta Diop had successfully vouched for the equality of races by placing the Negroid at the beginning of evolution and Africa as the home of the Homo sapiens. Although there are significant books surrounding the equality of races, the milestones made by the West still make an African feel inferior. This inferiority has made the common phrase among African to be that white people can do wonders thanks to the aeroplane, Computer and the mobile phone- notwithstanding the contribution of blacks- who very few people can tell. For instance Dr. Shirley Jackson is a physicist who helped shape the modern day fiber Optic and Kenya successfully birthed the Mobile money transfer through the successful Safaricom’s Mpesa platform. The weakness though is that, a lot of African contribution in the field of Science and even the arts is not appreciated and even studied in Africa as much as Euclid and Pythagoras are relished.

In ‘Cool Afrika’, Ugandan contemporary artist Matt Kayem explores Afrocentrism, Pan-Africanism, African Rennaisance and Black Consciousness as lived through pop culture. In essence, like a very arrogant vintner, the artist is trying to mix the old wine and the new. Using denim, Kitenge and barkcloth, the Ugandan artist explores subjects in history with their relevance to how we live today.

‘Cool Afrika’ explores to reignite the imagination and creative genius closer home to the continent and at least change the narrative of what we perceive. The artist may have looked majorly at historical figures like the wealthy Mansa Musa- the 13th century ruler of Mali and the Egyptian civilization, however, when you look at it, there are lots of African inventors in the continent who have been given a wide berth by the media and the educational curriculum in spite of their enormous contribution to science and the creative industry.

Meanwhile, the exhibition has come at a time when Africa is being engulfed by the dragon of modern day colonization. Immersing herself in debt, the African continent’s leadership seems to have lost it with their euphoria in infrastructural development. ‘Cool Afrika’ therefore, triggers the conversation of what African-ness is, what Black Consciousness propagated by the likes of Steve Biko really mean and what really defines the African beauty. It also begs us to look keenly on how to utilize the African wealth and how we can draw from the ancient Kemet the inspiration we need to create and consume homegrown products.

What is most intriguing about the art, which was on display at Design Hub- Kampala up to November 11, is how the artist tried to make it my hip and not the deep scholarly and retrospective. The ‘twerking’ in the Mansa Musa Painting and ‘Imhotep’- the ancient Egyptian Architect, Mathematician and physician smoking joint beside Pharaoh Khufu and the guy in shades in The Original Sky Touchers reveal it is all fun for the artist as he espouses old wisdom to remind us of we truly are. The representation of the phallus (Briliantly Endowed) and the Vagina (The True Origin of the World) speaks loud of the Africa as a birth place of civilization and all that Africans have been boasting about, however I think it is time we moved on!

Buried within the excesses of the exhibition are paintings that speak a lot about the African society. Besides the paintings, the artist has well-crafted installations that evoke the African genius, begs for re-adoption of the African creative culture, beseeches the recognition and the marketing of Africa to Africans and calls for African economic patriotism.

I personally love the whole collection because of its rich historical lessons touching on the work of Cheikh Anta Diop and other historians like Prof. Bethwell Ogot and its pop culture intrusion that makes it more hip for the younger generation. It is indeed a well packaged historical lesson.

|Afroway

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