The Fallacy Of The African Aesthetic

Presenting the African aesthetic to the world in this monotonous parade of prints and patterns is as offensive as the essential banality in the told stories of Africa by the international media.

The truism, “Africans love bold patterns”, is yet another excuse for lazy Art Direction. Don’t get me wrong, patterns are great, but at what point do they stop being the electrotype for everything African? First of all, Africa is a big place… In case you were wondering, so how then can you stamp us all under this one aesthetic? This aesthetic of phony, contemporary iterations of some traditional symbols and colours, inspired by Ankara and the likes, contrived for acceptance, a must for unity, contrived to blur the lines of diversity in Africa and to present us as one big country. I know it sounds like I hate the current aesthetic, I don’t, I really don’t, as a matter of fact I love Ankara and the likes. How can I put this?… Okay, it’s kind of like, liking bread a whole lot, but having to eat bread, 3 times a day, everyday, for all your life. You’re like, “I like bread, but I can have it with, butter, sardines, or better still, I could just eat eba and okra” and the reply you get is, “here’s some bread to calm your nerves”. *sigh*

Yes, we love Ankara, but as you know, Ankara is also called “Dutch wax print”, “real English wax” etc. I think it’s pretty clear where I’m headed with this. Without going into the history of Ankara in West Africa, I’ll let you in on a little secret, it isn’t as authentically “African” as you probably think it is. So why then do we love Ankara? Because it appeals to our African eyes, plain and simple. The problem here is focusing all this excessive energy on celebrating Ankara itself, as opposed to focusing on what makes Ankara appealing in the first place. Exploring the visual elements that resonate to our deeply African selves allows us to eradicate this predictability in our identity. The problem is, for example, pretending like without Ankara or some loud pattern there is no west African aesthetic. This is fundamentally untrue. When it comes to owning our identity there are so many visual directions we have shut out as art directors simply because of this seemingly irrevocable marriage. I am guilty too.

As a Nigerian art director, I am too mini, at least based on my level of research and study to speak for the whole of Africa. But here is what i’ll say, Nigerians need to get back to basics. let the fundamentals of culture motivate our motives, things like scenery, food etc. Let’s address the root of what balance, scale, taste and rhythm mean to us. Let’s address our visual composition, traditional and contemporary. Let’s address our time, our past, our very humanity as Nigerians and lets stop hiding behind the cliches painted across our eyes. Let’s rethink our patterns from a dynamic and existential angle, like Karo Akpokiere’s Lagos pattern series http://www.karoakpokiere.com/filter/Lagos/Lagos-patterns . Let’s be ourselves. We don’t have to be what the western world thinks of us or what they are either.

This whole post isn’t a rebellion to cliches of the African aesthetic or African print as it is. I mean, if brand alignment and other forms of contextualization are at play in the reason behind using these cliches, then it’s a go go. This is more of a call to action to expand the frontiers of what looks African. To lay to ashes the shackles of predictability.

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