Friday, 29 December 2017


By Tobias Schlosser

On his seventh album, dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah shows that he still has a great deal of energy and anger, but also heaps of empathy and love.

The title of his complex and well-thought-out record Revolutionary Minds (Fane Phonics label) immediately makes clear that his main agenda is changing the world. He wants to see people liberating themselves from oppressing forces.

The cover of Revolutionary Minds.
As with his former records, Zephaniah does not focus on one specific issue of marginalisation and exclusion, but on a range of issues that include unequal educational opportunities, animal rights, women’s rights, indigenous rights, religious freedom, sexual abuse of children by religious authorities, political and artistic corruption, police arbitrariness, the state of whistle-blowers, past and possible future environmental catastrophes and so on (the list doesn’t end here).

Some might associate revolution with chaos, violence and inherently dangerous movements that could lead to totalitarian regimes. But this is not the revolution Zephaniah has in mind. The artist is turning the tables and making it perfectly clear that the most dangerous thing is not being a revolutionary. He demonstrates the danger of passivity in the song “In this World”: 

We live in a world where they say we communicate more, but the world stayed silent when the slave trade was making money, the world stayed silent when the Nazis started to kill trade unionists, people with disabilities, homosexuals, left-handed people and Jews, and now in the age of the global village and mass communications, the world is staying silent as the Palestinians are annihilated.

Benjamin Zephaniah and band (photo R. Ecclestone).
The same thought is brought up when actor Matt Damon reads the words of the American historian and activist Howard Zinn on the track “Revolutionary Minds”: “The problem is not civil disobedience, the problem is civil obedience”. Thus, no one can fail to understand that from Zephaniah’s point of view, being a revolutionary means uprightness and honesty. And with this righteousness the artist deeply disagrees with the current status quo, which, he asserts, comes from the “greed and short-sightedness” of politicians and economic leaders.

The heart of Revolutionary Minds consists of the longest, electronic, dub-wise track “In this World”. The poem is a mere enumeration of injustices in the world we inhabit:

We live in a world where one in four people live in a state of absolute poverty, 35,000 children die each day because they are born to poor parents, each year 24,000 people are killed and maimed by landmines, and when you hear the information rich telling you that the world is ‘wired’ and getting smaller, remember many people in the world have never made a phone call.

A serious Zephaniah (R. Ecclestone).
This counting and accounting goes on for more than six minutes, so after a while, listeners may start feeling uncomfortable. The strength of the poem is its descriptive power, a merciless and enduring confrontation with something that is there, but which nobody seems to have any interest in discussing. Nevertheless, the poem ends on a positive note: “We care, but we don’t fear”. The message is that not everything is lost, that there is still hope.

Fans may sometimes get the impression that they’re at a philosophy lecture, hearing a smart person creatively explain Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil, and learning that evil powers can emerge when everybody just plays by the rules of the current regime, focusing on what is right or wrong in the eyes of the leaders. Here, moral obligations – which might result in disagreement and resistance – are rejected by the individual. Are most people just too lazy or afraid to make an effort to achieve change?

This passivity might also be the reason that a certain president is currently in power; he is the subject of the poem “President”. Without revealing the name of the person, it is still clear whom Zephaniah has in mind when he vents his fury: “Dear Mister President [...] you suck presidentially. Just run, run as slowly as you can, and take your arms trade with you”.

Zephaniah’s anger seems equally a sign of deep sadness. In the poem “What Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us”, the artist reminds his listeners of the death of the young British man who was murdered in 1993. The case unveiled institutionalised racism in Britain and questioned the juridical practice of double jeopardy with regard to murder cases. With the current incidents of police violence in the United States, bringing up the case of Stephen Lawrence is like witnessing a never-ending tragic cycle. Almost 25 years later, his murder reminds us that we live in a world where freedom and justice are not rights that can be taken for granted.

With respect to musical influences, Revolutionary Minds is quite diverse, very electronic, very roots and very reggae-based. It is not easy to put Zephaniah’s artistic styles into one genre. However, it is not necessary to do so. The artist has other motivations, as he has already stated on his last record Naked: “Is it hip hop or is it reggae, who really care? As long as it’s loud, as long as it’s clear”. And it is clear.

Tobias Schlosser is a writer, researcher and expert drink-maker, based in Germany. 

You can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Monday, 4 December 2017


Fans of African art in France have been spoilt for choice this year, with an abundance of exhibitions around the country, particularly in the capital Paris.

Paintings from Ebony Curated gallery at AKAA.
During the spring, Art Paris Art Fair featured Africa as its “guest of honour”, with works from all over the continent, while the Louis Vuitton Foundation dedicated its vast space to art from South Africa and other countries in the region.

Paintings, sculptures and photographs have all been on view, with established and emerging artists showcased. The highlights of the year so far include the thrilling Also Known as Africa art and design fair (AKAA) and the highly praised exhibition of photographs by Malian icon Malick Sidibé, titled Mali Twist and running until Feb. 25, 2018.

AKAA presented its second annual fair in November with 140 artists from 28 countries participating. The three-day event, which attracted 15,000 visitors, received glowing reviews for its quality and cultural programme comprising talks, music, film screenings and dance.

“The fair is a great way to bring people together who love this art,” said Sorella Acosta, the owner of Spanish gallery “Out of Africa”.

AKAA founder Victoria Mann
AKAA is the brainchild of Victoria Mann, a French-American art lover and entrepreneur who studied modern African art before turning to the contemporary sphere.

“It’s a very exciting time for African art, which has seen a world-wide momentum,” Mann said. “But despite all the interest, the market is also very fragile. We’re thinking about the development globally and working with a select group of galleries every year.”

She told SWAN that the fair collaborated closely with “creators, thinkers and writers” to develop its cultural programme, which was directed by Senegalese curator Dalimata Diop. The AKAA selection committee also included Simon Njami, a writer, curator and artistic director of the Dakar Biennale’s 12th edition. Some 38 international galleries were chosen to take part in this year’s AKAA.

"Tears of Bananaman" by Jean-François Boclé.
“We believe in a sense of community and working hand in hand with participants for an exchange of perspectives that will make us go forward,” Mann said. “One of our key aims at Also Known as Africa is to create dialogue.”

The artworks certainly gave rise to discussion. One installation - created by Jean-François Boclé and presented by the Paris-based Caribbean gallery Maëlle - comprised bunches of bananas arranged in human form, for a reflection on the legacy of colonialism.

Titled The tears of Bananaman, the artwork had words or phrases carved into the fruit’s peel, in various languages: eat your liberty, come mis labios, tropicale moi. On the final day of the fair, the bananas were distributed to visitors, some of whom seemed bemused as they hesitatingly took bites. The irony was not lost on others - that the fair was taking place in a country that has a complicated and uneasy relationship with its former colonies and overseas territories.

Bananas were also a feature in paintings by South African artist Lady Skollie, whose pulsating works were displayed on the lower floor of the Carreau du Temple, a renovated 19th-century covered market where the fair was held. Skollie’s “Mating Dance” incorporated the yellow shapes, sending echoes of Josephine Baker’s legendary and controversial images while also provoking thoughts about history.

Artist Virginia Ryan, beside her artwork.
Artists who participated in the fair, such as Virginia Ryan of Italy, willingly agreed to be photographed with a bunch of bananas, for a seeming expansion of the artwork. Ryan was one of several artists “from other nationalities” at AKAA who have links to Africa. Her latest work investigates the “relationship between white and black, between contrast and contact,” according to the fair’s organizers.

“We’re not putting artists into a box and saying you have to be from a certain place,” Mann said. “AKAA allows for interpretation. Participants can determine themselves what is Africa and what it means.”

The artists from the continent addressed a range of topics, such as inequality and apartheid, as in the case of South African painter Robyn Denny. She put on an exhibition titled “Indigo - Passage to Healing” with performance artist Mamela Nyamza.

The show (curated by Beathur Mgoza Baker and hosted by Candice Berman of the Johannesburg-based Berman Contemporary gallery) consisted of Denny’s large-scale paintings and Nyamza’s live dance performance.

“Through our collaboration, we talk about the dark history that many people don’t want to talk about,” said Denny, who used crushed indigo and acrylic for her work, creating striking hues. “There’s nothing we can’t say to each other.”

Artists Robyn Denny, James Barnor and Mamela Nyamza.
Healing, in fact, was a theme of this year’s AKAA, which posed the question: can art heal us?

“When we turn our gaze away, artists heal and revive our inherited memories, giving us back our history,” said the organizers.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of AKAA was that very few objects could be considered a “pretense” for "real" art, unlike in many contemporary fairs. Whether it was the sculptures of Senegalese artist Ousmane Sow - who died last year and to whom the fair paid homage – or the pictures of Ghanaian pioneering photographer James Barnor, nearly all the works evoked history and narratives.

“One thing the artists here have in common is that they are story-tellers, and we all respond to a good story,” said Mann.


Across town, the same could be said of Malick Sidibé, whose work captures an era in the Malian capital Bamako and tells stories of the young people, families, and couples who invited him to their soirées and into their lives.

Malick Sidibe: Nuit de Noël, 1963. Gelatin Silver Print.
Collection Fondation Cartier pour l'art Contemporain
On show at the innovative Fondation Cartier in Paris, the photographs in Mali Twist highlight the diversity of Sidibé’s output from 1960 to 1980, including some world-renowned images: Nuit de Noël (Christmas Night) and Fans of James Brown. They pull viewers back to by-gone parties and to picnics along the Niger River.

For art lovers who appreciate music, Mali Twist has its own original playlist as well, selected by U.S.-based writer and professor Manthia Diawara and curator André Magnin. 

As if that’s not enough, visitors can also view the sardonic portraits of city life by Congolese painter JP Mika, whose art “reveals the influence of Sidibé’s work on an entire generation of artists”, as Magnin puts it.

The next edition of AKAA takes place Nov. 8 to 11, 2018. You can follow SWAN on Twitter @mckenzie_ale.

Artist JP Mika in front of one of his paintings at Mali Twist.