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February 23, 2019

Book Review: The rebirth of Africa through art

Poster promoting an exhibition of Steve Ogallo’s book
Poster promoting an exhibition of Steve Ogallo’s book

Book: Afro Renaissance

Author:  Steve Ogallo and Native Nairobi

Genre: Art and culture

Publisher: Self-published

Available: World’s Loudest Library comic book store, The Alchemist 

Price: Sh850


This book is about the rebirth of African culture. It focuses on undoing the belief that Africans are primitive and backward, and so is their culture. Its purpose is to serve as a cultural reanimation, a marriage of what is innately African, and not just the widely accepted stereotypes, with influences from the other parts of the world. It is about birthing a new generation of art, which allows for its evolution by rewriting the African narrative.

The interesting feature or approach about it is that it combines a narration of the history and development of culture, poetry and the art itself, done by artists Steve Ogolla and Native Nairobi.

The book critiques the perception on whether “is there really African art?”. This is a frustration those who strive to rewrite the African narrative face. In the same breath, the writers pose, what is American art? What is Asian art? What is Australian art?

And can African art remain so, if it is not allowed to be? It would appear African art is the only one not allowed to mix and interbreed with other cultures, if it is to be original. It has to be purely and strictly African, with no global influence. What a double standard.

They go ahead and note only a small group of collectors, industry insiders and individuals are capable of art at galleries, something the second Kenyan Vice President notes in Joseph Murumbi: A Legacy of Integrity.

And the lack of interest in collecting art among Africans, especially those in East Africa, Murumbi notes, was because of paucity of sophisticated cultural objects, and widespread influence of Christian missionaries. They caused many Africans to abandon their traditional practices and dress code and feel embarrassed about anything suggesting they were not “modern”.

Native and Ogolla agree with the above point. They say the journey into African history is more like sifting through rubble, scavenging for what was left after the whitewashing of African art and culture, where African art was looted during European conquest in the 1800s. They note that African art in pieces, masks, sculptures and textiles in their thousands are displayed in prominent museums around the world. African art, thus, becomes a victim of this dynamic by dragging the artist into a flurry of redesigning the pot, while the world continues to make and share more art, contributing to the urban culture to the urban era.

The book notes it’s time Africans took charge of their image to define their future history, create a narrative that nurtures Africa and makes them proud to be African in character.  But in my opinion, Africans didn’t at any point stop being Africans. What happened is part of their Africanism was diluted by foreign cultures.

Split into Astronomy, Ancient Africa, Duality, the war period, awareness of self and a new hope for Africa, the book brings out the development of the continent.

Although Africa is referred to as the Dark Continent, Africans used astronomy in the sense of the Tuaregs using the stars through the desert, and influencing ancient Egyptian and Nubian architecture, which remain some of the greatest monuments of ancient world. The book illustrates this with some drawings and poems.

Ancient Africa looks makes the point that black is for beauty, beauty divine.

Duality looks into the light in “African Darkness”. Not really acting as opposite expressions of morality and humanity, but as natural states of being, each facilitating the existence of the other.

The book also looks into the war that has affected many African countries, and through poems, it brings out the suffering children go through, the tribal conflicts in the continent and the elusive peace.

And being aware of self, forming the collective consciousness that is the “universe”, brings the immaterial into being — Awareness of Self. That our perception of the universe remains largely dependent on how we perceive the “self”. So, if Africa is a Dark Continent, it remains so because our lights are dimmed.

But there is hope. There is hope for Africa, beautiful majestic and rising high. Birthing the new generation through art.

It is a book that makes one self-evaluate and feel drawn to art and culture; to learn more about Africa. 

I, however, think it could have been edited better.

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