Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From May 5 to July 1 2012, the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol, UK, was home to “Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction,” an exhibition curated by Nav Haq and Al Cameron. Exemplifying a recent trend for artists to view the continent through science-fictional lenses, it includes work by João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva (Portugal), Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola), Luis Dourado (Portugal), Mark Aerial Waller (UK), Neïl Beloufa (France), Neill Blomkamp (South Africa/Canada), Omer Fast (Israel/Germany), Paweł Althamer (Poland), Wanuri Kahiu (Kenya), and Bassam El Baroni, Jeremy Beaudry and Nav Haq (Egypy/US/UK).

Some of the short films on display – Kahui’s Pumzi (2009), set in a water-scarce future Africa, and Blompkamp’s Tetra Val (2004) and Alive in Joburg (2005), the latter of which was hothoused into District 9 (2009) – might already be familiar to SFS readers. Of them all, though, the most intriguing is Omer Fast’s Nostalgia (2009), consisting of three parts, each of them continuously looped in an individually dedicated room.

Nostalgia I is a four-and-half minute HD video: in a forest, a white man in camouflage fatigues builds a trap from branches and twine; on the soundtrack, a former Nigerian child soldier talks about his childhood and how a surrogate father figure taught him how to make a partridge trap from branches and twine.

Nostalgia II runs for ten minutes on two synchronized HD screens: on the left, the former child soldier, now a man; on the right, Omer Fast. The interview subject does not seem to understand the artist’s questions, and although he describes the partridge trap his father taught him to build from sticks and twine, the artist grows skeptical of the subject’s inability to provide specific detail about growing up in Nigeria. And, depending on when you join the film, it sooner or later becomes clear that both men are actors, the interview a reconstruction.

The thirty-two minute Nostalgia III, shot on 16mm and transferred to HD, contains eight scenes, with several momentary flashforwards (or, depending on when you join the film, flashbacks). The setting, loosely sketched in passing hints, is an Africa faced with the problem of illegal immigration from Europe (it is unclear whether this is an alternative present or a future after European civilization has collapsed, but everyone dresses like they are from seventies Britain or from a seventies British adventure television series). Nostalgia III alternates scenes from two stories. One follows three British illegal immigrants, who meet their fate in secret tunnels under the African security perimeter. It is a linear narrative, albeit with two scenes actually occurring simultaneously, but the second story is a closed loop. In each scene, one character describes how to make a trap out of sticks and twine, and in the next scene, a character who has heard this information recounts it as first-hand knowledge – A tells B, B tells C, C tells D, D tells A, A tells B, and so on.

While fascinating, Nostalgia is also a little troubling. Its spiraling narrativization, and concomitant destabilization of experience, marginalizes a specific Nigerian voice, transforming his life into an art-commodity. But it is not as troubling as Blomkamp’s shorts, which contain all the problems of District 9 in embryonic form; or as Althamer’s Common Task: Mali, a photographic record of an “encounter” with Dogon villagers that reeks of colonial appropriation and the touristic gaze.

imagesThe other highlight is Kia Henda’s Icarus 13 (2008), an installation recounting the first African space mission – an endeavour every bit as foolish as the one in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow (2006). Launched from Angola, Icarus 13 landed on the surface of the sun – at night, so as to avoid deadly heat – and successfully returned to Earth with ‘some particles from the photosphere’ for laboratory study. The six-hundred-word account of the mission covering one wall culminates in the observation that ‘from the description given by the astronauts, the Sun has the most beautiful night’, before announcing upcoming tourist flights to finance further scientific investigations. There are also a tabletop architect’s model of Icarus 13 on the launch-pad, and eight photographs. The first photograph shows Icarus 13, rising in the centre of the frame, viewed from Luanda, with a vast open sky above and beyond it. The rocket, though, is actually the mausoleum of António Agostinho Neto, Angola’s first president – its base resembles the flared rockets of a Soyuz launch vehicle, while its jagged pinnacle looks like a prototype for London’s The Shard. Other striking buildings are similarly repurposed: a domed structure is labeled “Astronomy Observatory, Namibe Desert,” despite its obvious lack of astronomical equipment, and a low, flat building whose obliquely angled walls might suggest, from above, a star shape, is described as a “Centre of astronomy and astronaut training, Namibe Desert,” although in reality it is a cinema. A medium shot of five construction workers is captioned “Building the spaceship Icarus 13,” while a yellow torus against a dark background is “First picture of the Sun’s photosphere from Icarus 13 in orbit.” The final photograph, labeled “The return of the astronauts,” prises open the gap between image and caption even further by containing nothing to which the caption could actually apply. It is a gap that frustrates, and which calls for the viewer to inflate it with story – just as Kia Henda fills the frustrating gap between the dream of independence and the nightmares of civil war and post-colonial dependence, between socialist aspiration and neo-liberal hegemony, with myth, tall tale, humour and hope.

Among related events at the Arnolfini, Roger Luckhurst (Birkbeck), Rehan Hyder (UWE) and I ran a workshop, “Martians of Africa,” on the relationship between sf and colonialism, asking what would happen if one considered such anti-colonial and post-colonial films as Les statues meurent aussi (Marker and Resnais France 1953) and La Noire de… (Sembene Senegal/France 1966) as works of sf. The exhibition’s run came to a close with a double bill of Africa Paradis (Amoussou Benin/France 2006) and Les Saignantes (Bekolo Cameroon/France 2005).

(Blompkamp’s short films, Gusmão and Paiva’s The Shadow Man (2006-7), and almost all of Beloufa’s Kempinski (2007) are available on youtube. The text of El Baroni, Beaudry and Haq’s second ARPANET dialogue – a fake conversation between Samir Amin, Steve Biko, Francis Fukuyama and Minoru Yamasaki, which would not have seemed out of place in Moorcock’s New Worlds – can be found here.

A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Studies 118 (2012), 559–61.

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