West Africa: a spotter's guide

Creative Tourist

New African art and music fest We Face Forward runs in Manchester this summer, and its focus is all on West Africa. Don’t know your Ghana from The Gambia? Fear not, our potted guide to contemporary African art, music and culture will get you started

What is West Africa? Enormous is what it is. Covering 5 million square miles, it’s 55 times bigger than Blighty, stretches from the Sahara to the Atlantic, and is made up of 16 countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.

But isn’t Africa all desert and, um, not much else? We refer you to our previous answer. Being so big, it is breathtaking in its diversity, from the oil riches of Nigeria to the destructive harmattan winds of the Sahara, from Dakar’s art biennial, Dak’Art, to the world’s second largest film industry, Nollywood.

Nolly-what? Nollywood. Nigeria’s film industry. It’s the second largest in the world, bigger than Hollywood and covering every possible cinematic genre. Nigeria is not alone: Senegal, Mali and Ghana also have healthy film industries.

But it’s still really hot in West Africa isn’t it? Yes. The closer to the Sahara you are, the hotter it gets; for Mali and Niger temperatures regularly top 90°F. It can be dusty too: the Sahara throws off 300 million tonnes of dust a year. On top of that, the desert is on the move; it swallows up an area the size of New York State every ten years.

Sounds bad. It is. Along with the effects of global warming, pollution, political instability and population growth, it’s one of the biggest challenges that West Africa faces.

Aha! So it is all sand and no action. Not really. As a region it has seen an awful lot of action. All of its countries had thrown off colonial shackles by 1974 (bar Liberia; never colonised); there has been huge political strife since, much of it brutal, but African independence was founded on the principal of Pan-Africanism. Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, argued that independence should be based on a political unity separate from socialist or capitalist forces – a halfway house between East and West.

A third way, if you like? Sort of. Countries such as Mali may be economically poor but they subscribe to a form of social capital – the idea that cultural and social interaction is more important than individual wealth. And given the fact that a country such as Nigeria has over 500 languages, there is relative cultural unity – in food, music, dress and political consciousness.

You’re starting to sound a bit zealous. Possibly, but that’s because we’re from Manchester and quite like the idea of social rather than financial capital.

So go on, what else should I know about West Africa? Loads, but we’ll stick to culture for now. Its music has been in the spotlight ever since Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat burst into life in the 1970s, but West African music is very now thanks to artists such as Amadou & Mariam, AfroCubism and Damon Albarn’s Africa Express collective. Photography isn’t far behind, with a strong documentary scene offset by internationally-renowned art photographers such as Francois-Xavier Gbré and George Osodi. Contemporary art has been on the radar for a while now, with large-scale works by artists such as Barthélémy Toguo and Pascale Marthine Tayou putting West African art on the global art map; their work receiving global attention thanks to its fusion of African tradition, modern techniques and political focus. Art here is as an agent for change; there is an integrity and energy about it that is quite beguiling.

Wow. Indeed, and that’s without taking into account the aforementioned film industry, or literature. Oh, and there’s football too, a sporting love embodied in the World Cup prowess of the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria teams.

Maybe we should take a trip out there then? No need. Some of West Africa’s best known artists and musicians are in Manchester this summer, for We Face Forward, an art and music festival that might just give you a taste of the region without having to leave our own fair shores.

Manchester? What has the rainy city got to do with West Africa? Apart from the obvious cotton trade, football and slavery links, you mean?

Um, yeah. According to Maria Balshaw, head honcho at both the Whitworth and Manchester art galleries and the curatorial tour de force behind We Face Forward, “It is not just about textiles and the slave trade; it is the back and forth of fabric, designs and ideas over the past 100 years that makes the relationship between Manchester and West Africa so dynamic.”

“The back and forth of ideas?” I like that. Thought you might. Maria also mentioned that the festival “is not just about West Africa, or even Africa; these artists are working internationally and are already part of the contemporary art world.”

I think I’ve got it now. You probably haven’t. Getting to grips with a region so massive isn’t going to happen overnight. But get yourself to Manchester this summer and you might just about scratch the surface.

We Face Forward, 2 June-16 September 2012. Like this? Try our West Africa Playlist for the soundtrack to the summer; or read our review of the West African photography at Manchester Art Gallery this summer. As usual, we’ll be running amazing competitions and weekenders throughout the summer – join our mailing list now so that you don’t miss a single beat. 

Images (top to bottom):  Nyani Quarmyne, “This is my home”, from the series We Were Once Three Miles from the Sea (2010 – 11), courtesy the artist; Charles Okereke, Fuelled Tank; Meshac Gaba, Ensemble, 2012; Femi Kuti and Positive Force; Poupées Pascale, 2010, Pascale Marthine Tayou, crystal, mixed media. Photo by Marco Minò, image courtesy of GALLERIA CONTINUA, San Gimignano  Beijing  Le; Malick Sidibe, Nuite de Noel, 1963, courtesy the artist.


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