Meet the African artists driving a cultural renaissance

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Sunday, February 25, 2024


Meet the African artists driving a cultural renaissance
Adamma and Adanne Ebo, twin sisters and filmmakers who draw inspiration from their American Southern and Nigerian heritage — plus a little Japanese anime and “hood classic” cinema — at home in Los Angeles, Oct. 6, 2023. A reciprocity of inspiration in the booming young population of Africa and its diaspora, fueled by a multitude of creative efforts and propelled by social media platforms, is driving a cultural renaissance that is making the world more African. (Ricardo Nagaoka/The New York Times)



NEW YORK, NY.- For centuries, the connection between Black people on and off the continent of Africa has been complex, bound up in a painful history of slavery, separation and, at times, suspicion. Yet the relationship has also thrived.

In 1964, Malcolm X visited Ghana. In a speech at a university there, he said: “I don’t feel that I am a visitor in Ghana or in any part of Africa. I feel that I am at home. I’ve been away for 400 years, but not of my own volition, not of my own will.”

For young people today, the relationship is more direct. There’s a reciprocity of inspiration, fueled by a multitude of creative efforts and propelled by social media platforms like TikTok.

Examples are plenty. Resonant movies like “Black Panther” and majestic portraits by artists like Kehinde Wiley and Omar Victor Diop. Nigeria’s hilarious pulp movies, which are binged in homes across Europe and the Caribbean. And the Afropop songs of Kenya’s Sauti Sol and the Afrobeats sounds of Tems, Burna Boy and Mr Eazi. In 2022 alone, Afrobeats artists were streamed more than 13 billion times on Spotify.

For this project, we spoke to 12 leading creators from Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States. They include a two-time Oscar winner and first-time filmmakers, a Michelin-star chef and a bestselling author, a fashion designer and an architect, a visual artist and a pop star. For them, Africa is the motherland, the source from which they draw. They are part of the global web of creatives who are making the world more African.

“I don’t separate the Black diaspora from the Blacks on the continent,” writer Nnedi Okorafor said. “I speak about Blacks, globally, collectively. For many years, that was my personal definition of the Black diaspora: every Black person on the planet.”

— Abdi Latif Dahir and Veronica Chambers

Ruth E. Carter

The costume designer and two-time Oscar winner has propelled Afrofuturism into the fashion mainstream with her work on “Black Panther” and “Wakanda Forever.”

“A costume designer is, first and foremost, a storyteller,” Ruth E. Carter said.

Carter, 63, was the first Black person to win an Oscar in the costuming category, for the 2018 film “Black Panther.” When she took home her second Academy Award in March, for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” she also became the first person to win for both an original movie and its sequel.

Wakanda, the world of the “Black Panther” films, is a fictional African kingdom, reimagined without the footprint of colonization. Carter borrowed from Indigenous cultures across the continent for her designs: Buyers during preproduction sourced tribal artifacts including Dogon masks from Mali, Himba crowns from Namibia, Maasai beading from Kenya and stacked neck rings worn by Ndebele women from South Africa. Carter also drew inspiration from contemporary African fashion designers such as Laduma Ngxokolo, the founder of South African knitwear brand MaXhosa Africa, and Ghanaian British tailor Ozwald Boateng, and scouted streetwear at the Afropunk music festival in Johannesburg to see new trends firsthand.

“There is not and never was a singular African aesthetic,” Carter said.

For the designer, trailblazing has become something of a habit: Through her work over the last three decades on films including “Malcolm X,” “Amistad” and Marvel blockbusters, she has definitively shaped how stories of Black history and culture are represented on the big screen.

“When you’re representing cultures and representing yourself — it’s never a burden, it’s a joy — but the pressure to get it right is like a calling,” Carter said recently from her home in Los Angeles.

Carter, who grew up in Massachusetts, the youngest of eight children raised by a single mother, took her first sewing class at her local Boys and Girls Club. After graduating from Hampton University, a historically Black college in Virginia, she worked in theater and opera before moving in 1986 to Los Angeles, where she met director Spike Lee; her first movie, one of many collaborations with Lee, was 1988’s “School Daze.”

Even when she’s not outfitting Afrofuturist realms, Carter is always looking to Africa and its diaspora for inspiration. For period pieces, she turns to “The Image of the Black in Western Art,” a 10-book series that features thousands of images of people of African descent from across four millenniums. For many of her collaborations with Lee, such as “Do the Right Thing” and “Jungle Fever,” she looked to artist Romare Bearden, known for his collage scenes of city life and the American South. And for “Mo’ Better Blues,” Carter focused on the personal style of jazz musicians such as Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

“It is always important to me to be inspired by something or someone real,” she said. “I search for tiny human details that I can uncover and then apply to my characters.”

Carter’s designs don’t just bring the Black diaspora together: Her work, particularly on “Black Panther,” has helped propel Afrofuturism into the fashion mainstream, inspiring Serena Williams’ French Open catsuit, fan merch and presentations at New York Fashion Week.

“We honor the culture, but we also move it forward,” Carter said.

— By Elizabeth Paton

Mr Eazi

With over 1 billion streams, the Nigerian native’s Afrobeats music is helping reshape global narratives about Africa.

“Where is home?” is not a simple question for Nigerian musician Mr Eazi.

“The plane,” he said, joking, on a video call from New York. Then, more seriously: “I think home is anywhere I have family, so that switches between Accra, London, Cotonou, Lagos and Dubai.”

Mr Eazi, 32, was born Oluwatosin Oluwole Ajibade in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. But his life and career have been marked by a connection to the world outside his native country. The first time Mr Eazi entered a recording studio, he was studying mechanical engineering at a university in Kumasi, Ghana. (It was there that he got the name Mr Eazi: He’d reportedly break up fights, saying, “Take it easy, take it easy.”) He performed in New York in 2016 — invited by rapper Lauryn Hill — before, he said, he had ever done a show in Nigeria. And he was featured on the 2019 “Lion King” soundtrack and has appeared on songs with Colombian singer J Balvin, Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny and Jamaican artist Popcaan, as well as Nicki Minaj and Diplo.

Mr Eazi gained popularity in the mid-to-late 2010s with catchy Afrobeats songs such as “Skin Tight” and “Leg Over.” He described the sound of those early songs as Banku, a melting pot of Ghanaian highlife music with Nigerian chord progressions.

His initial success came at a time when Nigerian artists like Wizkid were breaking through to Western audiences due, in part, to social media, cosigns by international artists — and the diaspora.

His sound was distinctive among his peers. “Many of the most popular Afrobeats artists — such as Wizkid, Davido, and Patoranking — wield an upbeat vocal tempo,” Lawrence Burney wrote for Vice in 2016. Mr Eazi, in contrast, used his “deep hum of a voice to give ballad-like qualities to dance-forward production.”

Africans in Britain were instrumental to Mr Eazi’s early success. “For me, outside of Ghana, the next place that embraced my music was the U.K.,” he said. Young Black students were the first to gravitate toward his music, inviting him to perform for their African Caribbean Societies — campus associations that play a large role in the lives of many Black people studying at British universities. “These were the ones defining what it is to be cool and embracing their Africanness,” he said. “That was the foundation of the African diaspora pushing the music.”

While Mr Eazi has been releasing singles, collaborations and mixtapes — with well over 1 billion streams online — it wasn’t until October that he released what he called his debut studio album, “The Evil Genius.” Recorded in Africa, Britain and the United States, the songs trace a narrative of loneliness, romance and community. Mr Eazi commissioned pieces to visually represent each track from 13 African artists, which were exhibited at shows in Great Britain and Ghana.

“People are discovering Africa first, not through the lens of CNN or The New York Times,” he said, but rather “through the lens of the music.”

— By Desiree Ibekwe

Zhong Feifei

The Congolese Chinese singer and model has 1.6 million followers on Chinese social media platform Weibo.

In a country where blending in is often of value, Zhong Feifei stands out.

“Often the world tells biracial kids that our existence is a 50-50 thing — that you can only ever be less than a whole or not enough,” the singer and model, 27, said from her home in Shanghai last month. “But I feel 100% Congolese and 100% Chinese. For anyone of mixed heritage, there is great power when you can harness that mindset about your identity.”

Several million Chinese workers have migrated to the African continent in recent decades, while an estimated 500,000 African migrants live in China. Zhong, whose mother is Chinese and whose late father was Congolese, is part of a new generation to emerge from this global economic trend, with a childhood split between two worlds. After her birth in Guangzhou, China, she spent her earliest years in the Republic of Congo, before civil war prompted her parents to send her to Shanghai at 5 to be brought up by her “very traditional Chinese grandmother,” Zhong said.

At 14, she left China to join her mother in Kinshasa, Congo, where she discovered a love of Afrobeats musicians such as Burna Boy and Davido as well as groups like TPOK Jazz. She moved to the United States at 18, in 2014, to attend Boston University; at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she returned to China, where she ended up finishing a masters from Johns Hopkins University in global security studies online — while also appearing on a hit reality show called “Produce Camp 2020.” Modeled after a cult Korean music competition program, the show pits aspiring Chinese performers against one another, with the eventual winners forming a new girl group.

Zhong didn’t make the final cut. But as the first mixed-race Black contestant, her appearance provoked a firestorm on Chinese social media platform Weibo; she has subsequently developed a considerable fan base, with 1.6 million Weibo followers, despite endemic racism in China.

“I used to want to work at an NGO, but for now I think I can have more influence in the pop culture sphere when it comes to ‘Blasian’ representation, both in China and beyond — even Hollywood,” she said, citing American former model and businessperson Kimora Lee Simmons and British supermodel Naomi Campbell as models for how to grow her career in the public sphere while celebrating her heritage.

Zhong released a solo hip-hop track, “B.U.R.N.,” in 2020. The following year, she was the first African Chinese model to be featured in a Vogue China cover story, and in 2022 she was the model and producer for the first campaign shot in Congo in Vogue’s 130-year history, for a spread showcasing Congolese designs. Lately, she has been working with Western brands such as Cartier and Fenty Beauty, as well as Chinese labels like Private Policy. Her motivation is to encourage people to chase dreams in spaces where they are not typically seen.

“In China, it feels like there is no one with any public profile who looks like me,” Zhong said. “But more and more people who look like me do exist, here and all over the world. They need to feel represented.”

— By Elizabeth Paton

Nnedi Okorafor

Twenty years ago, American publishers thought the work of the sci-fi novelist was unrelatable. This year, she signed a seven-figure deal for her next book.

When Nnedi Okorafor signed a seven-figure deal earlier this year for her newest novel, “The Africanfuturist,” it was the achievement of a dream three decades in the making.

The book, scheduled to publish in 2025, is the kind of story Okorafor, 49, has always wanted to write, and one she said she never would have been able to sell when she was starting out in the early 2000s. American publishers then didn’t know what to make of her stories, many of which blend African folklore with science fiction, fantasy and magical realism, and repeatedly rejected them as confusing or unrelatable. Once her books found a home, however, they proved irresistible to readers. Her nearly two dozen works of fiction have earned Okorafor a slew of honors — four Hugos, a Nebula, a World Fantasy Award. And a new generation of American storytellers who explicitly use their African heritage, history and mythology to inspire their work have followed in her wake, including Tomi Adeyemi, Ayana Gray, Jordan Ifueko and Namina Forna.

Okorafor, who lives in Phoenix, has long viewed herself as a bridge between two cultures. She was born in Cincinnati to Nigerian parents whose mindset was: “We’re American. But we’ll always be Nigerian; we’ll always want that connection,” Okorafor said. “My mom kept her accent on purpose.”

That connection is the heartbeat of Okorafor’s work, from her sci-fi fantasy novel “Who Fears Death,” set in a post-apocalyptic fictional African nation, to a three-issue arc of Marvel Comics’s Black Panther series. She does extensive research for each of her books and anchors her fantastical stories in traditional West African myths: For example, her “Akata” trilogy, about a Nigerian American albino girl with magical powers, features the mermaidlike Mami Wata, the spider deity Udide, the trickster spirit Ekwensu and Nsibidi symbols, all of which are drawn from Nigerian folklore.

Diasporic folk tales also run through Okorafor’s work. She started writing at 19, when she was temporarily paralyzed after a surgery to treat scoliosis went wrong. Her first short story, written from her hospital bed, was about a flying woman — a character that allowed her to transcend her own physical limitations. Years later, Okorafor came across the folk tale of the Flying Africans, enslaved people in the United States who could fly and used their powers to return to Africa; the myth helped inspire her first published novel, “Zahrah the Windseeker,” about a 13-year-old girl who learns to fly, which won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa in 2008.

As more publishers embrace the artistic and commercial value of African stories, what was once a lonely perch for Okorafor and writers like her has become a beautifully crowded one. Okorafor is excited at the prospect of more literature that speaks to diasporic themes, and of more storytelling directly from Africa. “I’m separate from the continent, but I’m very much connected,” she said. “Some of my connections may be a little spotty, weird and indirect. But that back and forth is strong.”

— By Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff

Omar Victor Diop

History, inheritance and possibility are re-imagined through the lens of the Senegalese photographer, one of the most successful young artists on the continent.

In one of his famed self-portraits, Omar Victor Diop, a Senegalese photographer and artist, wears a three-piece suit and an extravagant paisley bow tie, preparing to blow a yellow, plastic whistle. The elaborately staged photograph evokes the memory of Frederick Douglass, the one-time fugitive slave who in the 19th century rose to become a leading abolitionist, activist, writer and orator, as well as the first African American to be nominated for vice president of the United States.

Diop is no stranger to portraying the aches and hopes of Black people across the world. Throughout his oeuvre, which incorporates historical references and costumes, he has highlighted the vital role of Black and African figures in world history; celebrated the dignity of African migrants and refugees; weaved together the history of Black protests from the Selma, Alabama, march to the Soweto uprising in South Africa; and examined the impact of climate change on Africa and the Global South.

Through his bold images, Diop examines the interplay between African and diasporic experiences by knitting together the past and present.

“I am fascinated and surprised about how Africa is still present in everything an African American would do; they don’t even realize it,” said Diop, who lives and works in Dakar, Senegal, and Paris. “Sometimes you look at an African American in reality TV and you happen to be looking at your sisters and your aunts because of the expressions — it’s translated and said in English, but she could be in Dakar, speaking Wolof.”

Diop is interested in creating connection and community through his work, while also using history to bridge the experiences of people of African descent. By highlighting figures like Douglass or events such as the Women’s War in Nigeria, he said, he hoped to not only kick-start a conversation within the upcoming generation but also deepen the relationship between Africa and the diaspora.

“There are so many inspiring stories that can have significant resonance on the continent and vice versa,” he said. “I think that there is an absolute need for more interaction. We don’t even know each other enough.”

Diop was born in Dakar in 1980 to a father who is a chartered accountant and a mother who is a lawyer. He became a full-time artist over a decade ago, after years of studying finance in Senegal and France and working in corporate communications in Dakar, Nairobi and Lagos, Nigeria.

The self-taught Diop, whose tableaux have been exhibited all over the world, builds on the rich tradition of the West African studio portraiture practiced by artists like Mama Casset (Senegal), Malick Sidibé (Mali) and Samuel Fosso (Nigeria). But his work is not bound by the traditions of studio photography: As he embarks on a project, Diop obsessively reads about his subjects, talks to historians and even tries to replicate his subjects’ sartorial choices, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s suits or Trayvon Martin’s hooded sweatshirt.

“The imagery of fashion, the language of fashion is a tool for me to enter the minds” of viewers, he said. “It’s creating an image that is very attractive as a way to camouflage the heavy subjects that I am bringing. And it is also a way for me to celebrate the memory that I am bringing.”

In early October, Diop announced a new project called “Being There,” which explores the place of race and identity in America in the years following World War II.

Diop is also planning on producing educational materials, including books and games, that will engage young African and diasporic audiences on issues like art and climate change. He hopes to show how their stories of struggle and success are interconnected across centuries and continents.

“I am a firm believer that there is an African spirit of resilience, of excellence despite everything that has been thrown at us,” he said.




— By Abdi Latif Dahir

Adamma and Adanne Ebo

As filmmakers, the Ebo twin sisters draw inspiration from their American Southern and Nigerian heritage, with a little Japanese anime and “hood classic” cinema thrown in.

For their first feature film, Adamma and Adanne Ebo took on the Black church — specifically, the Southern Black church. With its vibrant cultural and spiritual expressions, the twin sisters found surprising ties to Nigeria, their father’s homeland.

“They say write what you know,” Adamma, who wrote and directed “Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul,” said in a recent interview; her twin, Adanne, produced the film.

The movie stars Sterling K. Brown as the fallen pastor of an Atlanta megachurch, and Regina Hall as his pious yet powerful wife. Both actors also signed on as producers, along with Oscar-award winning actor Daniel Kaluuya; Jordan Peele, the Oscar-winning writer and director of “Get Out,” was an executive producer. Among laugh-out-loud moments, the satirical mockumentary delivers an empathetic reflection on church community, and the invisible labor of women that sustains it.

“There’s a lot of dissonance between the two cultures, but then there’s also a lot of overlap,” Adamma said of Nigeria and the American South.

“Church is one of them,” Adanne added.

The children of an American mother and Nigerian father, the sisters describe their upbringing in Atlanta as culturally both Southern Black American — they both played alto sax in a marching band — and Nigerian.

Adamma and Adanne fell in love with cinema through movies like the anime classic “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” as well as films they call “hood classics,” including “Baby Boy,” directed by John Singleton, and the crime saga “Juice” (“criminally underrated”). Like their mother, they attended a historically Black university in the South (their mom is an alumna of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and the twins went to Spelman College). They haven’t traveled to Nigeria and do not speak their father’s native language, Igbo. And yet the sounds and scents of the home they were raised in were decidedly Nigerian.

“Growing up, we were definitely the African kids,” Adamma said, “but definitely not African enough for our Nigerian folks.”

In 2022, the sisters signed a multiyear development deal with Disney Television Studios. They are currently working on an animated superhero series and have formed their own production company. Its name, Ejime, means “twin” in Igbo.

— By Lynsey Chutel

Mory Sacko

At his restaurant MoSuke, in the heart of Paris, the flavors of France, West Africa and Japan are always on the menu.

On the menu at Mory Sacko’s Michelin-starred MoSuke in Paris: a dome of chawanmushi, Japanese steamed egg custard, nestled in a dashi bouillon. Attiéké poisson, a signature Ivorian fish dish, with fermented ground cassava. Plantain served with a foie gras-based albufera sauce and caviar.

Diners may be sitting down in the 14th arrondissement, but they’re beginning a journey through a delicate balance of salt, fat, acid and distinctly African influences — the signature of a chef who describes himself as a French man with Malian heritage and a deep love of Japanese culture. “When you finish all the dishes of the menu,” he said, “it’s like a trip.”

The result: Reservations at MoSuke are booked up months in advance. Within a year of opening in 2020, the restaurant won France’s first Michelin star for West and Central African cuisine. He scored a victory for culinary diplomacy when President Emmanuel Macron invited him to cook for a banquet of African leaders in 2021. Sacko is a regular face on French television: Although he didn’t win, he was a beloved contestant on the French version of “Top Chef” and now hosts “Cuisine Ouverte.”

Sacko, 31, grew up in the suburbs of Paris, the sixth of nine children and the first born in France, but was raised on dishes from Mali, the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Guinea and Gabon. “I was born in France. I grew up here, and I am a French guy,” he said. “But I have my roots, too.”

As a child, Sacko discovered another passion: Japanese manga. Soon he sought out the food of his favorite characters, exotic to his teenage palate. It was the technique and discipline of Japanese cooking that drew him to culinary school at 14. The restaurant’s name combines Sacko’s first name, Mory, with that of Yasuke, the only African samurai in Japanese history.

After a decade working in Parisian restaurants, Sacko began to question what his own identity looked like on a plate.

France has a storied culinary tradition, and he wanted to record West African food in the same way. He tried to re-create his mother’s Malian mafe, a beef dish slowly cooked in a peanut sauce, with chilies, tomatoes and other vegetables. Counterintuitively, it didn’t quite taste like his own until he added a decidedly un-African ingredient: miso.

Sacko eschews the term “fusion.” “I prefer to have something more sensitive,” he said, “like ‘a conversation between the cultures.’”

— By Lynsey Chutel

Grace Wales Bonner

With her namesake fashion label, the designer has a mission: usher a proudly African aesthetic to the runway.

In person, British fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner has a quiet presence about her. But in practice, the radical ambitions behind the luxury house she started in 2014 have generated serious noise.

“The aim with Wales Bonner is to bring Afro-Atlantic spirit into the idea of European luxury and elevate Black representation within fashion,” the 33-year-old said last month. “To create a fashion house that represents a broader cultural perspective and connects the dots, in part as a reaction to how Black culture has been represented in fashion history.”

Fashion is famously an industry that struggles with structural change, adept at mining Black culture for its runways without installing Black talent into meaningful positions of power in either its design studios or its boardrooms.

Wales Bonner, who has a white English mother and a Black Jamaican father and describes herself as “mixed race,” has been steadily challenging that status quo since she graduated from the famed London design school Central Saint Martins in 2014.

From her earliest years, she has married European couture traditions with inspiration from across the African diaspora: Her menswear melds the formality of Savile Row with motifs such as Rastafarian-striped crochets or cowrie shells, while sprinkling in hat tips to figures like American writer James Baldwin, the St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott and Burkinabe photographer Sanlé Sory, who inspired her spring collection last year. Every collection — which now also includes womenswear and accessories — is underpinned by archival research so exhaustive and meticulous that Wales Bonner considers it an “artistic practice unto itself” she said. In high school, she added, she wanted to be a historian.

Using her own mixed heritage as a point of departure, Wales Bonner traces the far-reaching branches of the African diaspora across space and time through clothes. Take her most recent show in June, inspired by long-distance runners, where models including Ethiopian athletes Tamirat Tola and Yomif Kejelcha walked the runway to live performances by musicians from Ethiopia. Wales Bonner is adept at using canny collaborations to build a sense of power through community, whether she’s designing shirts for the Jamaican national soccer teams or producing a capsule collection of T-shirts with American artist Kerry James Marshall, whose approach to centralizing and refocusing Black figures within the Western art canon “really influenced my own ideas about fashion and beauty,” Wales Bonner said.

Together with designers including Virgil Abloh and Ibrahim Kamara, Wales Bonner has made significant strides toward her original mission: to elevate Blackness within high fashion and usher a proudly African aesthetic to the runway. This year, she began showing collections in Paris, the creative and commercial epicenter of luxury fashion, and her name has been floated for high-profile roles at some of the biggest French fashion houses. But her focus now, she said, is on growing her own brand and making it “an important institution, redefining what ‘heritage’ in luxury can mean in the 21st century.”

“It’s about engaging with the system but also bringing other elements to it,” she said. “I don’t see what I do as being an outsider. You can have more influence being part of something and disrupting from within.”

— By Elizabeth Paton

Lesley Lokko

As architecture curator of this year’s Venice Biennale, Lokko sent the message: Creativity is decidedly not the prerogative of the Global North.

Venice may be an ancient city of traditional splendor. But visitors to its Architecture Biennale this year are invited into “The Laboratory of the Future.” For the first time in the exhibition’s 40-year history, the focus is on Africa and the Black diaspora. And its curator is Ghanaian Scottish architect, academic and novelist Lesley Lokko — also the Architecture Biennale’s first curator of African descent.

Lokko, 59, is the founder of the African Futures Institute, an architecture institution in Accra, Ghana, that brings together teaching, research and public events. She has taught in South Africa, Britain and the United States, pushing Western establishments toward new thinking about Africa, racial and cultural identity, and their relationship to physical space. At the heart of her curation of the Biennale, Lokko said in an interview from Venice last month, was a question: What does it mean to be a meaningful agent of change in the 21st century?

“There is a narrative of lack that continues to dominate perspectives of the Global South. Imagination and creativity are perceived as a prerogative of the Global North,” Lokko said. “But Africa’s unique context, which is both hugely challenging but also richly creative, makes it a powerful place from which to examine the issues that will dominate the next century, from climate and societal change to new forms of governance.”

In 2021, only one-third of the Architecture Biennale’s participants were from outside Europe and the U.S. In 2023, more than half of the 89 exhibitors are from Africa or its diaspora. The show features established names such as Sumayya Vally of South Africa and Pritzker Prize winner Diébédo Francis Kéré of Burkina Faso, as well as emerging talents such as Mariam Issoufou Kamara of the Niger-based atelier masomi; Rwandan architect Christian Benimana, of MASS Design Group; and spoken word poet Rhael “LionHeart” Cape, whose video installation opens the exhibition with a giant screen that flashes through calls for action on current housing, displacement and migration crises.

A common thread among many of the Biennale participants, Lokko said, is the ability to “shape-shift” and adapt to different cultures and contexts while stretching conventional definitions of architecture. One exhibit she highlighted was from Looty, an anonymous collective that presents 3D scans of artworks taken from colonized nations by major Western museums. The works have been made into non-fungible tokens, or “digital restitutions,” which then make it easier for anyone to study or even acquire.

The act of shape-shifting also applies to Lokko.

“Scotland was shiver. Ghana was sweat,” she told The New York Times earlier this year of her childhood split between Dundee and Accra. Raised by a Ghanaian surgeon father before being sent to an English boarding school in her teens, she originally thought she would be a novelist (she has since written 13 books). Writers Nadine Gordimer and Toni Morrison, she said, first made her aware that “the world in front of me wasn’t the only world available.”

Life as an architect, however, gave her a chance to ground herself after a childhood spent shuttling between cultures; now, she calls teaching “her happy place.” She’s excited by the prospect of a more progressive future for architecture, where change doesn’t come solely from the West or the North.

“Creativity born out of necessity has incredible value,” she said. “Now the world needs to recognize it.”

— By Elizabeth Paton

Toheeb Jimoh

His Nigerian heritage has shaped two of the British actor’s most prominent roles: Sam Obisanya on “Ted Lasso” and Tunde on “The Power.”

Like Sam Obisanya, the Nigerian soccer player he played on “Ted Lasso,” Toheeb Jimoh has spent his life straddling two worlds. Sam’s journey on the Apple TV+ show revolved around him acclimating to a new culture after relocating from his home country to play for the fictional soccer team AFC Richmond in London.

Jimoh’s odyssey has been a bit more complicated. Born in London, the actor spent his early years in Nigeria, where he was often teased about his origins: Classmates would call him “London boy,” even though young Jimoh had no memory of the city. Then, at 7, he moved back to Britain and, suddenly, “my Nigerianess was the thing that set me apart from other people,” he said in a recent Zoom interview. “It felt like if I wanted to fit in, that was the thing that I needed to get rid of.” Consequently, “my accent changed, and I kind of had to reject my culture a little bit just to acclimatize.”

Jimoh, 26, has since embraced his heritage, his understanding of his West African culture informing roles like Sam, as well as Tunde, a Nigerian video journalist Jimoh played earlier this year on Amazon Prime’s “The Power.”

His breakout role as Sam — rewritten from Ghanaian to Nigerian after Jimoh was cast — “gave me a different sense of power on set.” Jimoh consulted on questions such as what the Nigerian restaurant Sam opens in Season 3 should look like. In 2022, he was nominated for an Emmy for the role. “For me, the important thing was just having a bit of authorship in how Nigerian stories are told,” he said.

Today, Jimoh said, people are “demanding more from storytellers,” including acknowledging that Africans and members of the diaspora are not a monolith. He is in increasingly good company: Ncuti Gatwa (“Sex Education”), Michaela Coel (“I May Destroy You”) and Samuel Adewunmi (“The Last Tree”), among others, have played wildly different characters in recent years, all grounded in the diaspora.

Jimoh, though, is quick to add that he hopes Nigerians and other members of the diaspora will be afforded the same range of roles as actors from Western countries. “As much as I want to play Nigerians and be a voice and spokesperson for Nigerian people, that’s not all of who I am,” he said. “I’m also a Black British kid.” Jimoh recently completed a glowingly reviewed run as Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet” at the Almeida Theatre in London, a “challenging and rewarding experience” that allowed him to put his own stamp on a classically British role.

“I hope I’ll get to have the same types of careers as all the other people I’ve grown up watching,” he said.

— By Precious Adesina

Nkuli Mlangeni-Berg

Her colorful, geometric textiles have roots in the native craftsmanship of Peru and her own Indigenous background in South Africa.

Seven years ago, Nkuli Mlangeni-Berg, a South African textile designer, traveled to South America to research fabrics and discovered echoes of her homeland. In Lima, Peru, she met Mario Quispe, an Indigenous artisan who shared the weaving techniques of his Quechua culture. The weft and warp of his handloom created geometric patterns that mirrored the colorful ones adorning the homes of the Ndebele people, from whom Mlangeni-Berg is descended.

Mlangeni-Berg returned to South Africa, determined to continue their cross-cultural conversation. She trekked across southern Africa, until her search for handwoven textiles took her to a town on the edge of South Africa’s Karoo desert, where, like Quispe, a group of women held onto the techniques of their ancestors.

She brought their work to the Ninevites, a collaborative studio she founded in 2012 that produces rugs, throws, pillows, art and ceramics. Artisans in Peru and South Africa weave together mohair, alpaca and sheep wool to realize the studio’s designs. One of their earliest works, the Sankara Rug, was voted the most beautiful object in South Africa in 2017 by Design Indaba, a global gathering hosted in South Africa each year.

Mlangeni-Berg, 41, was raised in Kagiso, outside Johannesburg. She often traveled north to Hammanskraal, where her great-grandmother worked as a traditional healer in her Ndebele community. “Textiles played a very big part in every single ceremony that we had at home,” Mlangeni-Berg said. “When you’re born, you’re given a blanket,” she said. “When you turn a certain age, when you come of age and you’re given a blanket, and when you die your casket is wrapped with a blanket.”

Her designs draw on the geometry of her Ndebele culture, the beading and cloth of her Swati heritage and the innovation of her parents’ generation, who adorned their apartheid-era houses with homemade grass mats, and tailored their hand-me-down clothes. “Design back at home, it’s so much about making the best of what you have,” Mlangeni-Berg said.

After marrying, Mlangeni-Berg moved to Sweden in 2020, where she continues her textile research in a masters program. She’s especially drawn to how African American art movements of the 20th century sought connection to Africa. “I am very curious about what connects us as a people beyond the struggle,” she said.

Although she has been embraced internationally — Monocle Design Awards recognized her as 2021’s “Best New Talent” — Mlangeni-Berg’s focus remains on Africa for new collaborations. The Ninevites created two rugs for Swedish décor brand Svenskt Tenn with Algerian artist Walid Bouchouchi. And Mlangeni-Berg’s patterns are featured on the cover of the novel “Glory,” by Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo.

Reflecting on her transcontinental journey and practice, she said: “I think we need to heal ourselves and decolonialize all these ideas that we grew up thinking and feeling and all these things that we had to subscribe to as Black people and as Black artists.”

— By Lynsey Chutel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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