“I love art. I love colours. I also adore the white and the black; I live for the grey and breathe from the imagination, from the expression. Particularly I think African art is so incredible especially when it lacks encryption of the Western gene.”
When Mel told me this, he was trying to express his frustration at the rapid loss of real African arts. He is a university student who cares little about books and much about looks, shapes, theatre and arts. Mel’s remarks reminded me how superficial our approach to arts, society and law sometimes is.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to present a paper at the University of Cape Town, which has one of the most prominent law schools in Africa. As I sat in a crowded room, I listened to a postdoctoral fellow attack our colonised legal education, calling for a turn back to customary law. And while I munched the presenter’s ideas in my mind, I could feel the room’s atmosphere grow uneasy. It was like a pressure cooker, ready to bust anytime and…it did.
WHAT'S CUSTOMARY LAW?
A bunch of highly educated African participants could not tolerate this so-called nonsense. In a characteristic South Africa accent, they argued, “A return to customary law? What’s wrong with you ‘ma-men’? A return to customary law would make women the greatest losers…and after all, what is customary law? What qualifies as customary law and why? Where is it contained?”
On the following day, I had to make my presentation. I knew I was highly unqualified to speak about customary law. In any case, my topic had nothing to do with customary law. I was dealing with a rather technical constitutional law topic. In any case, I put on my colourful African shirt to be well suited for the occasion, and many praises indeed came my way before my talk began.
I began, “Yesterday, we had a heated exchange between presenters and the audience. To comply with the sentiments in the room, I decided to put on my African shirt.” There were claps and cheers. But, I said, “I must admit that I bought this ‘African shirt’ on Amazon.com and it is made in China.” There was hearty laughter in the room. It was clear that our approach to decolonisation is rather superficial. It is not enough a shirt, a turn to customary law. Surely, decolonisation cannot be a step back in time. It is rather a well-thought-out leap into the future, aiming high, going for the best on our own terms and conditions.
THROWING THE PAST OVERBOARD
I took advantage of explaining that in our desire to go back to the roots, we often make the mistake of throwing the past overboard: what a blunder! No present can be built without the past. The future is built on the foundations of the past. Ignoring the past positive and negative experiences means ignoring knowledge and experience. It amounts to building with no foundations where every generation would be starting from zero. This may be a romantic present, but also artificial and unsustainable, like "Wakanda" without "vibranium".
Colonisation changed us for ever. Colonisation also changed Asia, North and South America, Rome, Greece and Mesopotamia. Great civilisations have a lifespan; yesterday’s colonisers will be tomorrow’s colonised. Africa’s time will come — it is just a matter of time. Yet denying our colonised past amounts to denying our future and all that we have learnt from other civilisations, good and bad.
As I spoke to the attentive audience and before descending into the constitutional topic, I expressed my deep concern at the speed with which Africa is losing its arts. Arts are the language of culture. If we lose arts, we lose genuine self-expression. Today, we do not appreciate artisanal crafts and no longer identify with their story, why? For many of our young artists, self-expression means copying the Afro-American rap approach. This fashion, Mel argued, “is directly related to the experience of Africans in America; it may be the justified burst of a centuries-tortured society that finds its identity neither here nor there. However, it seems not to blend so smoothly in most African traditional societies.”
HOW MUCH CAN WE EXPRESS?
As Mel put it in our conversation, “for decades, throughout the days of slavery and dominion, our very own ancestors, battled so that we may enjoy the magnanimity of their dreams that someday we would be free. A freedom that was to be a redemption of the soul and a hope of the future. Yet we chose to catwalk into those dreams with our hands full of the West — from their culture to their language to the way they dress. We let the heritage of our land, our story, die with our forefathers. And so in essence we haven’t even taken up their dreams yet. We like what originates from a distance and we despise what we are blessed to have.”
We have the freedom of expression. But how much can we express? Sydney Mutua told me once, “We have lost our own judgement. The parameters of beauty we work with are Western parameters. Beautiful music, paintings, people and furniture are not only Western but consumeristic. Music glam and glazed with flashy cars and bling diamonds and rings to the taste of the West or what the West considers African.”
The jury is still out on African arts. I support the case that self-examination and deeper reflection are necessary for us to rediscover the beautiful role Africa’s artistic talents, amazing innovation, imagination and wit will offer and impact future civilisations.
Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. [email protected]; Twitter: @lgfranceschi