Unforgettable: Africa in the world


Africa blares its rhythms at the world's largest exhibition
By Olaiya 'Subomi
(written in 2002)

Hall 12 was no ordinary hall. That was where the soul of the Hanover 2000 Expo seemed lodged. It was the home of African participants at the global meeting of Art and Science; Environment and Nature.
While other halls hosting other regions of the world swam in cold, turgid features, Hall 12 basked in robust life and evoked deep feelings. Where boxed music entertained in the European and part of Asian halls, live and loud music, performances and rambunctious jives reigned in the Africa Hall.
Hall 12 was conceptualised by the German architect, Michael Radtke who grew up in Tanzania. He earned a special commendation from the Expo organisers for his appropriate management of space to accommodate the diverse nuances and cultural elements of all the countries. 'We tried to merge all the countries into one big entity without injuring their individual identities and cultural pride. We tried to create a universe of big Africa under one roof', Radtke said.
Ostensibly, participants from the other regions most times in the course of every day of the six-month Expo, found themselves thronging Hall 12 repeatedly -- to refresh and savour the abundant life teeming endlessly in the Africa Hall. Picturesquely, the mix of rustic and pulsating rhythm of Africa was effectively recreated in the hall.
Hinyagerwa P. Asheeke, Namibian ambassador to Germany and Chairperson of the Africa Hall Committee had declared at the outset of the Expo in June 2000, that: 'Our aim at EXPO 2000 is to present a continent on the move and to show how we are bridging the gap between tradition and modernity'. The visitor he assured, 'can experience Africa's natural wealth and cultural riches, its manifold roots and history, but also see the innovative concepts that will accompany its journey into the future'.
But whereas Aseeke assured that in the Hall 12, African countries would present state-of-the-art projects -- on the use of renewable sources of energy, futuristic satellite, technology for use in desertification control, new approaches to the conservation of unique areas of natural beauty, cross border concepts on the sustainable use of water -- almost all of the countries seemingly went beyond the thematic bounds to elevate the arts and culture to the fore of their presentation.
Also Aseeke had projected that the Africa Hall would 'be a place where our continent comes alive, as also seen in our cultural programme of which concerts and exhibition, dances and story telling are enthralling visitors of all ages'. And so it came to pass. There was less science but more of art and life.
The trip to the dreamt Africa was symbolically presented in Monique Le Houelleur, a gigantic sculpture executed by an artist from Cote D'Ivoire. The huge (about 15 feet) female figure raised her two hands up as in supplication. The meaning was unambiguous 'the future is in our hands'.
The artist however, said his sculpture expressed 'solidarity' among all nations and people of the continent.
The underlining philosophy of the Africa Hall however, was to re-create and re-present the image of a continent obsessively prejudiced by Western media and; persistently persecuted by the Euro-Western economic institutions. This much was achieved as each country turned out in its best attire. Individually and collectively, they presented the beauties of their land and culture and in doing so, proclaimed that the years of locust was over! Now is the time for aggressive self-assertion and self-regeneration in economic, political, cultural and social spheres.
Hall 12 however, resonated more in the vibrancy of the performing arts. Tens of dance, drama and musical troupes were imported to the Expo ground. Thus a fiesta of the diverse culture of Africa was presented on the two performance stages in the hall as well as at the various other outdoor venues within the vast Expo ground.
Significantly too, most of the countries bogged down by fratricidal wars, ethnic bigotry, hunger, pestilence, political unrest left their trouble back at home. They were at the Expo with smile; bubbling with smile. The Eritrea stand for instance, showed no trace of a country under seemingly intractable stress arising from war with Ethiopia. Sudan created a peaceful world around its little pavillion and; even offered its visitors cups of traditional drinks and sweet.
Yet the most impressive of the Africa's outing at the Hanover 2000 dubbed the biggest so far in the 70-year old history of the Expo project, was the series of individual projects presented in the Africa Hall. The projects according to Zinge, director of the performances at the Expo, were meant to show the intense creative endeavours happening on the continent.
It was to educate the many overzealous western critics who had dubbed Africa, the 'unthinking' continent or said that the Africans are anti-logic and short in profound philosophy, Zinge a German contended.
First of these individual projects is the Car Art From Africa. Esther Mahlangu, the famous female artist from the Transvaal Province in South Africa, had painted a BMW 5251 series, in the traditional art of her Ndebele tribe. Many visitors to the stand were enthralled by the deep sense of aesthetics and the perfect execution of colour schemes.
Old lady Esther said 'I wanted to combine tradition and modern times in my art car'. The Ndebele art is the traditional practice of decorating house walls in harvest season, by women of the Ndebele tribe; just like the Uli art of the Igbo women of Nigeria.
Esther learnt the art from her mother. But she has almost single-handedly launched it on the international circle. Before the Expo outing, she had been engaged by a gallery in Stuttgart, Germany to paint most of the houses in a town. Her engagement by the BMW plant is to enable her contribute to the special BMW series called 'The Art Collection'. Already the series has 15 exhibits accomplished by artists drawn from many countries of the world.
In the course of the opening of the Expo, President Thabo Mbeki led a delegation of South Africans to Esther's exhibit and he showered commendation on the aged artist whom he described as a 'great ambassador of our motherland'.
Few meters away from Mahlangu's BMW is the curious piece of art -- Floating Calabash - an installation by the Nigerian artist, Emeka Udemba. Without the appurtenances of colour lights and the hydro-electric device that powered it to activity, the Floating Calabash looked so ordinary; indeed, like a pool of water littered by some miserable calabashes. Thus most visitors stared at it out of curiousity; some of them, after touring the innards of the hall would sit by the side of the artificial pool of bluish water to perhaps, source energy or peace.
It was hard to decipher the meaning of the installation. But when all its accouterments are activated, Udemba's installation sparkled in a swelter of colours and motions as the calabashes move around the pool of water. They created dynamic sensation as their painted body waltzed to rhythm of the colour lighting. Udemba was born in the South Eastern part of Nigeria and educated in the South Western part. His creative instinct is restive but his imagination is fertile though his themes might appear fleeting.
Most celebrated individual project was the sensational conceptual fashion designs by Senegalese woman, Oumou Sy. Energy deep and intense characterised Oumou's wearable art - a blend of traditional materials and and modern design concepts. The exhibit that almost gorged out the eyes of visitors was a gown with rafia as appliques. It was simple and complicated at the same time. On the catwalk the raffia created a rhythm as they swayed musically with the helm of the dress.
Oumou Sy , 48-year old textile artist and theatre designer producer said she intended making a statement for the 'African rural women as the bringer of life and as provider of survival of her family'. Her designs are bold, expressive and can be outrageous especially, when she delves into conceptual art. An example was a long gown with compact discs as embroideries. She had wanted to adorn the cloth with shining stars but, 'since I cannot take them from the sky, I use the silver CDs. This is easier for me, and at the same time it pays tribute to the Cybercafes throughout the world'.
Oumou, who was discouraged from attending school by her father on the excuse that western education would destroy her creativity, is indeed credited with having initiated the first Internet Café in West Africa when she created the 'Cyber Dress' concept -- a composition that adapts CDs to wearable materials. Cyber fashion, she says 'reflects the cultural and ethnic mix that the Internet enables... for the Net gives people the opportunity to set off on virtual journeys throughout the world'.
The other celebrated artist in the Hall 12 was the activist South African woman, Gcina Mhlophe. Through story telling, Gcina administers therapy on the poor, the distressed, the depressed and the deprived. She energises the otherwise docile people to rise up and fight for their rights. When she started her art in the heat of Apartheid in South Africa, she ran foul of the authorities many times. She was haunted, tortured and forced to flee. But the repressive instrument of persecution could not stop her heavy, sensuous voice from activating the consciousness of her listeners to challenge the status quo.
She began at 17 and now at 42, the fire in Gcina's voice and the militancy in her stage work have not wained. On the Hanover Expo stage, the story teller tantalised a full house with her swelter of motifs and parables with which she touched the conscience of leaders and the sensibility of the led. Alone on stage, energetic, forceful and expressive Gcina did the work of five other artists at the same time - she sang, danced, chanted, mimed and enlisted the participation of her audience. She also teased their libidinous instinct through the movement of her waist to syncopated percussion.
Further down in the south of the Africa Hall had been mounted a marvel. A house constructed with cans of beverages. The 'Tin Can Restaurant' was the idea of Michael Hones. He said he wanted to pay homage to services rendered by the can, which most people having satisfied their thirst often threw away carelessly. He thought to create wealth from the waste. Piling the empty can on one another must be an ardous task. Sure?
Hones said: 'Actually, this is all very simple. We line up the tin cans in long rows with wire, and then they are piled up on each other and, again with the aid of wire, tied together. And hey presto, there is the wall. You just need four of these walls plus a a roof made out of corrugated iron, and you have a tin can house'. Hones a mechanical engineer, developed his recycling concept in Lesotho. He now has a factory in Lesotho and has been building for many clients since then.
Sitting in a strategic corner of the Africa Hall was a baby of the foremost African stateman, Nelson Rohilala Mandela. A huge pavillion indeed, it had the character of an installation with movie like motif. On approach, the visitors had the impression he was walking into a huge movie screen with the big man looking down at the visitor. Pasted on his chest cavity, are five kids of multi-racial origin. It seemed the big man spotting an invocative smile was poring into the hearts of the visitor; asking for a little help to brighten the today and future of the unfortunate African children.
The pavillion of the Nelson Mandela's Children's Fund is colourful; manifesting the brilliant, innocent life of children. The appeal is that the older folks should not endanger the future of the leaders of tomorrow.
Initiated in 1994, the Fund was inspired by an experience Mandela had shortly before the democratic election that ushered him in as the first president of post-apartheid South Africa.
While leaving a luxury hotel in Cape Town, shortly after a political meeting, recounted Mandela, "A group of children came running towards my car. They were street children who looked frozen and hungry. In this night, I could have given them some money, saved my conscience and driven home. But I was simply unable to forget these young and yet so sorely afflicted faces".
That night Mandela couldn't sleep as the images of the deprived kids haunted him. Idea of the |Nelson Mandela's Children Fund was born that night. It was eventually launched with the objectives of raising money to cater for such needy children. The objective was expanded to cater not only for the street kids but also other disadvantaged youths such as orphans and the handicapped. At the outset, Mandela donated over a third of his annual salary to the cause and this encouraged numerous other donors. Over 700 local and international organisations now support the institution.
Education and training in vocational studies take the lion share of the donations, but the ultimate aim is to alleviate the rampant unemployment among youths on the continent. Also, abused youths such as rape victims, psychologically traumatised by careless parents or guardians as well as health projects benefit from the Fund.
At the Expo, the Mandela gift to youths was specially celebrated with the United Nation's Secretary General, the Ghanaian Kofi Annan proclaiming that the project would be formally presented to the UN General Assembly to draw further assistance.
Six months into the Expo, the attendants at the Fund's stand claimed that they raised over a million Deutsch Mark in addition to recording thousands of commitment by visitors from many countries of the world.
Africa was a sonorous song at the Hanover Expo but its attitude to the progressive theme of the project -- Humanity and Nature - was suspect. While every other continent played to dictate of the theme, Africa adopted an escapist stand. The African participants decided to perspectives the theme from a mercantilist angle.
They displayed new technology projects from their individual countries quite alright, but much of the transactions that went on in the various pavillions was matter of buying and selling. This was contrary to the Expo regulations that the exhibits should not be traded while the Expo lasted.
Victor Awa, a Nigerian culture worker pursuing a doctorate degree in History in Magdeburg, Germany who visited the Hall 12, quipped that the African nations had wisely resolved to exploit the Expo to tackle the magnificent burden of hunger and wants that had weaken their appetite and ambition for scientific and technological advancement.


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