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Africanism: Orientalism 2.0

Interest in African culture highlights our ignorance, but is an important step

By Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya

Africa is in. This summer that message rang loud and clear, all over the world, because of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Far from being exceptional, however, the World Cup represents a larger trend of interest in African culture. As consumers, we are more ready than ever to buy African-influenced fashion, art, and music. Gucci and Balenciaga recently showcased batik-style prints similar to those worn by West African women in their 2010 collections. The current Broadway show “Fela!” pays homage to the music of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian-born artist considered to be the father of the Afrobeat movement. And these are just two of many similar examples.

This pattern is at once troubling and promising. The lumping together of diverse African cultures and the highlighting of “African” art that largely does not come from African natives indicate our society’s ignorance regarding this region. However, our newfound interest in African culture also demonstrates the potential knowledge we have to gain and the willingness we have to do so. At the crossroads between appreciation and ignorance, Africanism has become the Orientalism of the 21st century.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the large influx of Asian immigrants and the rise of Asian nations in political and economic power led to an increased cultural interest in the region, termed Orientalism. In the words of the post-colonial scholar Edward Said, Orientalism is “a manner of regularized writing, vision, and study, dominated by imperatives, perspectives, and ideological biases ostensibly suited to the Orient.” Said writes that this perception of the area did not originate in the countries associated with the Orient but was “willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West.”

However, while Orientalism was paternalistic and heavily based in colonialism, our modern appreciation for all things Asian is, in many ways, the product of Orientalism. Though the images it portrayed were largely inaccurate, it fueled a movement to collect authentically Asian art. For instance, due to its influence the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has Himalayan, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Southeast Asian wings, which together fill close to a quarter of the museum. The presence and study of these objects contributed to a more accurate cultural perception of Asian society.

Today Africa is situated at a similar point that Asia was a hundred years ago. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the population of Africa had passed 1 billion, 41 percent of whom are under the age of 15. Africa is the second largest continent in size and possesses the greatest amount of undeveloped land of any continent. Foreign governments and investors are beginning to take notice. According to Bloomberg News, China’s investment in Africa rose 77.5 percent in the first nine months of 2010 to $875 million. The Washington D.C-based private equity firm Emerging Capital Partners has invested an estimated $1.2 billion in African funds since 1999.

Unfortunately, the cultural end of this interest, Africanism, does not accurately or astutely portray the continent. Like Orientalism, Africanism is heavy handed in its understanding of different cultures and deft in creating stereotypes. Much of today’s “African” art is only a rough interpretation of African themes, reproduced by non-African artists. A recent New York Times article on Africa’s growing cultural influence showcased the African themes of “Avatar,” the afro-centric design in Marc Jacobs Spring 2010 collection, and the music of ethnically Sri Lankan singer M.I.A as examples “African” art. The MFA’s single African wing is a fraction of the size of the Chinese wing. Before African culture can influence the non-African world in an honest manner, it needs to be represented by individuals who are African natives.

Our knowledge of Africa right now is on par with our knowledge of Asia several generations ago. It remains to be seen how quickly and diligently we can act on our willingness to learn. However, as the path of Orientalism has shown us, under-informed cultural interest can provide the means for authentic, well-founded appreciation.

Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya ’13, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Quincy House.

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