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Talking African Writing in London

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Africa Writes, the Royal African Society’s annual literature festival, dwelt on Afrofuturism and where black British artists see themselves in the burgeoning new aesthetic.

June fries itself to an end; London is sticky with the combustible residue of unseasonable heat, lager, and irrational, tabloid-whipped World Cup optimism. It’s too absurd to be an African summer; temperatures above 30 degrees are tearfully embraced, red-raw and half-naked, by the English, with a stunned but gleeful alacrity at the entrance of a jolly, party-starting relative believed long-dead.

A hundred and fourteen years earlier, the Sierra Leonean writer A.B.C. Merriman-Labor, astonished to discover the religious void in the heart of the greatest metropolis on earth, sends a letter home from London in which he decides, with horror and affection, that “the Britons are barbarians and heathens”.

This motif of seeing – by Africans of the British and of British Africans of themselves – is one of the more urgent themes of 2018’s Africa Writes event, the Royal African Society’s annual literature festival. Merriman-Labor’s biographer for An African in Imperial London, Danell Jones, is discussing ‘African Literary Figures in Georgian & Edwardian London’ at the British Library with Ade Solanke, author of the play Phillis in London (about the visit to London in 1773 of the “prodigy, poet, celebrity and slave” Phillis Wheatley), and the writer S.I. Martin, who “works with museums, archives and the education sector to bring diverse histories to wider audiences”.

It’s a crackling and challenging panel, with evocative and haunting subjects as its focus. “Forgotten voices have important things to teach us,” says Jones, echoing Solanke’s entreaty for writers to “exhume these stories” and Martin’s to “not enshrine, but internalize”.

Now no longer forgotten, these are ardent tales, tragic and cautionary. Merriman-Labor’s dazzling deconstruction of the contradictions of Edwardian London – its wretched penury cowering at the feet of its titanic opulence – was published in 1909, for which he achieved a degree of literary eminence, but he was to die in poverty at the age of 41, in a state-run hospital for the poor, his legal and artistic careers eviscerated by racism.

“Forgotten voices have important things to teach us,” – Danell Jones

Wheatley’s patron in Boston – her ‘owner’ (Wheatley had been abducted in Senegambia at the age of seven) – orchestrates the publication of her poetry in London, and she is “plunged into English high society”, but Wheatley dies shortly after her emancipation, at just 31, too poor to publish the second volume of poems that may have saved her. Both Merriman-Labor and Wheatley have vexing facets to their personalities. Is the former an arriviste, as starry-eyed as any narcissistic creative, with fame and adoration beckoning on the horizon of his mind’s eye? Is the latter a malleable apologist, in her poetry, for cultural and religious imperialism? These human beings are complicated; they are impressive. But they are not always likeable.

Which begs the question: how does a writer ‘exhume these stories’ with both compassion and honesty? How can these voices be reanimated, without committing further violations upon their memory, since we can never know how they ever really felt? Even if, as Solanke quotes from William Faulkner, “the past is never dead – it’s not even past”?

Read more: An Awesome, Awkward, African Night

“You know, I’m against that whole redemptive arc of black literature,” says Martin. “Yes, there has to be redemption, but that comes from the reader, through self-examination, rather than the character.”

Solanke agrees. “I don’t want simple people,” she says. “Phillis is problematic. I came close several times to abandoning her story. She wasn’t the Phillis I expected. But it’s actually been transformative for me as a writer. It’s the drama of facts – and then the drama of imagination.”

In An African in Imperial London, Jones places Merriman-Labor at a political march in London which he may or may not have attended – she has no supporting evidence either way, but argues that the artist is at liberty to fabricate experiences if they support a rational truth. “I can’t prove that he was there,” she says. “But to me, it made sense in the larger story.”

Merriman-Labor is mesmerized by London’s transport technology – “Overhead and Underfoot, Overground and Underground, Terrestrial and Celestial” – which shuttles me across the city for a second Africa Writes event at Rich Mix in East London. What would Merriman-Labor – or Wheatley – have made of the phone-scrolling throngs queuing for a salt-beef bagel on nearby Brick Lane, or the homeless man outside the restaurant gifting his incredulous dog a polystyrene tray overflowing with chips and ketchup? This is the gristle of the city, the marrow of poetry.

Rachel Long, Theresa Lola and Hibaq Osman, three members of Octavia, “a poetry collective for women of color founded in response to the lack of inclusivity and representation in literature and academia,” are sparing a few minutes to chat before rushing back to rehearsals for the evening’s show. It’s a credit to the Africa Writes programming that the events pull the festival’s central threads long and taught through centuries, across genres. And it’s striking that this collective of young female artists eschews the use of social media to promote its shows. Long, Octavia’s founder member, calls these platforms “unsafe spaces for women of color,” after a successful past event attracted a batch of abusive comments on its Facebook page.

“For me it was just like, how dare you?” she says. “How could you dampen something that was that beautiful?” The event later that evening is indeed exquisite and irresistible, both in execution and atmosphere – the boundaries of performance poetry are stretched and explored across several sets of poems which are by turns funny, tragic and uplifting.

“I feel like because so much of what we do is almost in secret,” says Osman, “that when we’re on stage, it becomes more intimate than other things I’ve been a part of. Everyone’s a bit more likely to take in the words in a way that maybe they weren’t expecting.”

It’s a night about woke female power, and the vibranium-hard Afrofuturism of the black creative economy – a widening path to artistic and financial success that was so cruelly curtailed for trailblazers like Wheatley and Merriman-Labor. Where do these black British artists see themselves in this burgeoning new aesthetic?

“What I think is so beautiful about Afrofuturism is this merging of different cultures,” says Lola. “I feel like before there used to be isolated identities. Afrofuturism will be this space where everything is embraced.”

‘An African in Imperial London’ is out now and published by Hurst Publishers. Ade Solanke’s new play ‘The Court Must Have a Queen’ runs through to September 2 at Hampton Court Palace in the UK.

– By Alastair Hagger

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IN PICTURES | The glass ceiling is what she makes it

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One of the most commercially successful artists in Kenya, Nani Croze, has lived a life few could dare to imagine, and introduced a new expression supported by her art, philanthropy and entrepreneurship.


The journey to the Kitengela Glass estate begins like any other from Nairobi. Traffic is often heavy and there is frustration on the roads. But as you pass through the last of it, a different world unfurls. The road is murram (gravelly) and a new settlement is unfolding around it, overlooked by a new railroad track for the high-speed train to Mombasa, recent signs of development consuming the old Maasai plains.

But no less than a mile away, cushioned by the narrow gorges of the Nairobi National Park, is the entry into a wonderland where the life and work of German-born artist Nani Croze has concentrated for over the last 40 years. It is an eccentric paradise with a lush covering of indigenous trees and shrubs, canopies over stunning and colorfully outrageous architecture that announce the artist in her territory.

However, her life in Kenya was a gift of fate. Croze first came to East Africa with her first husband, the animal behaviourist, Harvey Croze, and their children at the end of the 1960s.

“I came to Africa in 1968 to study elephants in the Serengeti and four years later, the study was finished and we decided to go back across the continent back to Europe. I filled a VW van with my three kids, safely in the back, and we got as far as the Kenyan border. The car broke down and we stayed…and that was that,” she tells me in the aviary area outside her house as birdsong echoes around generous foliage.

Glass work by artist Nani Croze. Picture: Supplied

Mother Nani, or ‘Mama’ to the community of artisans and their families that also call Kitengela Glass home, is a matriarch in this setting. Her hair is pinned up in a loose bun revealing tanned cheeks and piercing blue eyes.

A formidable painter and muralist, Croze is an artist of many mediums. However, a little-known fact is her life in science. As a young woman, she convinced the Nobel Prize-winning biologist and founding father of the science of animal behavior, Konrad Lorenz, to work under him. Her earlier works depict this scientific knowledge in lively wildlife motifs.

Nonetheless, she is perhaps most known, these days, for her work with glass. Her estate is testament to this; colored glass panels of all shapes and sizes line the structures at the entry of her world. The winding walkway is flanked by sculptures accented with thick glass. The outdoor seating is dalle-de-verre.

The workshop and furnace are open for passersby to see. Its products, ever-present at every corner of the estate, also decorate the balustrades of the estate’s gallery, roof to her personal studio, intentionally constructed around a formidable mogumo (African fig) tree, a souvenir from the early days. She found it growing on the barren plains of what would become estate when she arrived in 1979, a genus local legend claims can never die.

By this then, a single mother of three, Croze stumbled in to the glass arts out of economic necessity.  She had purchased the land from the Maasai community of the area and was, at the time, a working muralist.


Glass work by artist Nani Croze. Picture: Supplied

“My architect [told me] ‘you can’t pay school fees with murals, you better start something new, what about stained glass?’” she recalls.

An influx of Christian missions meant that stained glass windows were crucial for finishing new churches and, as an art, they were more profitable. This has since expanded to a wide-range of recycled glass products from blown glass to beads, mosaics, murals, sculpture and, of course, dalle de verre. However, the stained glass studio, the first on the estate, still remains, busy and peopled, tucked away in a quiet corner of the gallery building.

Croze, perhaps one of the most commercially successful artists in Kenya, is often credited for introducing this new craft to the region. She herself is self-taught and along with her son, Anslem, trained by glass-blowers in the South of France and Holland, built the first furnace in East Africa. He eventually took over the glass-blowing side of the business and now runs his own studio next door along with an eponymous retail brand in Nairobi selling decorative glass vessels, furniture and lighting.

In her own right, Nani is responsible for training the first Kenyan glass artisans, initially in stained glass and then in glass-blowing and mosaics.

“We started together, my first [assistant] was a man called Omondi. We started on stained glass-making and how it works and it’s quite a process but once you’re in it, like all my guys here… you get quite good at it. It’s a traditional and weary process but once you have [the finished window] you have something beautiful that can never be undone,” she says.

Of the things that cannot be undone is Croze’s legacy not only within the community of the estate and the industry she has created around it but in the lives of many in East Africa.

Kitengela Glass is home to more than 50 artisans and their families, many of whom have gone on to build independent careers in and outside of glass art. An example is Edith Nyambura, formerly the resident mosaic artist, who began her career at Kitengela and eventually wrote a book about her work in 2010.

There is also the young Patrick Kibe, colloquially known as ‘Mr. Dudu’ (Mr. Insect in Kiswahili), who arrived as a student at the estate almost a decade ago and is now carving his own niche, creating figures and sculptures of indigenous flora and fauna from recycled materials.


Glass work by artist Nani Croze. Picture: Supplied

Then there is the school Croze founded, not far from the estate, often billed as the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa. Her motivation was to introduce to the country the creative education she had received as a young girl in Germany, which she regretted that her own children did not have attending local schools.

“We have such terrible schools in Kenya that are so bad for children! A child should grow up free, they should have music, art, new movement and environment,” she laments.

The Rudolf Steiner School started with a class of 10 in Nairobi’s leafy Karen suburb, popularly known as the setting of Out of Africa, Karen Blixen’s pre-colonial odyssey.

“It took its time. We had a very good worldwide sponsorship, especially from Germany. We’ve had our ups and downs but now we have two in Karen and the other one in Kitale [in western Kenya].”

In addition to her contributions in education, she is also a key campaigner for young artists across Kenya. She is the founder of the annual Kenya Arts Diary, a weekly calendar and catalog of up-and-coming contemporary artists in the country.

The ninth edition was released in November with an exuberant exhibition at the Nairobi Museum and since its founding has been produced by a group of passionate volunteers. Every year, she picks up two artists featured in the diary and invites them to a residency at the estate. The inspiration for the project, she says, was her father, the acclaimed German woodcut artist HAP Grieshaber, who also took a similar interest in his students.

“He would always help his students. Art is very expensive most people can’t buy it so you either make it yourself or you make sure it happens. The diary is just a venue to make sure people buy it and see it every week,” she notes.

Although the next issue of the arts diary will be her last, Croze remains ever passionate about her adopted home and community and hopes to continue giving back to it while she is still alive.

“I was the first mzungu [Caucasian] in Maasailand…we had a really good relationship and we still have with the Maasai community but my Ma is still not very good, I must say. I feel very much a part of the community,” she says.


Glass work by artist Nani Croze. Picture: Supplied

Croze is a focal point at the Nairobi National Museum, from the dalle-de-verre mural that welcomes museum-goers at the main exhibition hall, to her mosaic path that snakes through the museum gardens to the goliath metal and glass sculptures that mark the way through the complex. She remains one of the few living artists in Kenya to have such a permanent and public showing.

Even away from the whimsical glass oasis that she has built, echoes of her are littered across Nairobi. Her commissioned murals on major commercial buildings such as the American Embassy in the city’s diplomatic district. She was the first to color the walls of the newly-established United Nations Environmental Programme, UNEP, in 1972. Her art is also at the Times Tower in the heart of the old city, home to the tax authority. There are also pieces dotted across the region, a recent commission at a call center in Eldoret, in western Kenya, and the windows at the Serena Hotel in Kigali.

“I just want to make sure that it all keeps going.  There are always problems here and there, all the time, but I want to keep it going,” she says.

Croze, true to her word, is still going with plans for a vocational school to train a larger population of recycled glass artisans in the nearby township of Tuala. Plans are also underway for a devotional school to replace her personal chapel that was lost in a land dispute and, of course, more commissions while she is still able to work on them.On the future of the world around her, a life’s work, she is surprisingly indifferent. “I leave it to the Gods,” she ruminate

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IN PICTURES | The ugly dress that made this designer

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Gracia Bampile’s dislike for African print made her turn it around into a full-time obsession.

It all began with a pink dress – a present she received a week before her seventh birthday from her parents. Gracia Bampile put it away excited for the day she would wear it. 

She recalls going to school and telling everyone about her new outfit. The enthusiasm, however, was short-lived. She changed her mind about her gift the moment she wore it and took a closer look at it. 

“I remember thinking I would rather not celebrate my birthday. I was traumatized… The dress was just horrendous.”

The material felt like plastic, it was ugly, it was not the right fit, and even for a seven-year-old, she knew the design did not make the cut.

“I felt like I was wearing a granny dress. My birthday was just ruined by that dress,” Bampile recollects.

 “I got so angry with my parents that I couldn’t let go. That’s how my passion for fashion started. I didn’t want to feel like that again.”

That was her epiphany, the start of a fashion journey, disliking African print as a result of a bitter experience. She thought it was too bright and stayed as far from it as she could.

 Today, Bampile is a fashion entrepreneur setting the standard for African print. She is the founder of Haute Afrika, a contemporary brand that prides itself in affordability and class.

She was born in a small town called Goma in the east coast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 1991 – on the border line of the DRC and Rwanda. At the age of six, Bampile and her family left the DRC, leaving her seamstress-grandmother behind. They moved to East Africa and lived in Uganda for about seven years, then Kenya, then arrived in South Africa when she was 19. They left due to the conflict in the DRC that still rages on.

“My granny was a tailor. At some point, she stopped making clothes. My gran didn’t teach me to sew on purpose… [Yet], on holidays, we would go visit her in Rwanda and I would be her assistant,” says Bampile.

Just two years later, her aging grandmother saw her resourcefulness and promoted Bampile to crafting complete garments.

That is how her style evolved, through her grandmother’s experience in sewing. She was big on quality and passed it down to the next generation. 

“That is something that is seen in Haute Afrika’s designs today. My garments are not constructed to sell, we are big on quality and our sewing is impeccable,” says Bampile.

Her complicated relationship with African fashion changed, the more she interacted with patterns and the creation of garments.

“When I got to the age of 15, I thought maybe it’s not the African print [that’s the problem], it was probably the way it was presented to me. I went on a journey of rediscovering African print and design. My love for it was revived,” she says.

When she was a teenager, African print was not readily available. Her mind-set then was not to be a designer, she simply wanted to look good and got her clothes made by a tailor.

By 2012, when Bampile was 21, African print was rising in popularity – people started wearing it and it was easily accessible.

This was also a time when Bampile was in varsity and experimenting with African patterns. She says people would stop her and ask about her garments, and the idea of Haute Afrika began simmering in her mind.

“It started as an African fashion blog; I started an Instagram account, opened a Facebook page and reposted other people’s designs because I didn’t have my own stuff. I never saw this as an actual thing, it was just for fun,” she says.

“Clearly, it’s not the material or the tradition or the culture [that’s the problem], it’s just the way it was presented. And that’s what I’m big on – presenting African print as your normal everyday wear.

“I want to you to be able to wear this dress to church, work, a birthday party, a baby-shower or to a wedding.”

In her new collection, she aims to simplify African print as much as possible. There is less extravagance and the ordinary bright colors persist, to attract the everyday person who wants to represent Africa.

The brand was launched in 2016 after she started taking it seriously as a profession. She went back to her grandmother for design advice. She started doing research and did a short course in fashion to enhance her credentials.

Importing material from Nigeria, Congo, Ghana and Turkey, Bampile intends to expand her reach to other parts of the globe.

“The next step for the brand actually scares me. Sometimes I feel like my dreams are crazy. The name haute itself means height/high in French, so in fashion, haute couture means high fashion, but for me it’s Haute Afrika because this is Africa, I want Africa to have a brand that is big on its own and emphasize quality.

“This means taking Africa out of Africa. European brands are coming into Africa, but why aren’t African brands going out?” she says.

Haute Afrika mostly sells online, to clients outside South Africa. She says her biggest clients are in Europe and America. Her most recent buyer was from Indonesia.

Speaking about her progress in the industry, Bampile adds: “I previewed my stuff at the Free State Fashion Week and it was super-awesome.

“The reaction was just unbelievable. Some designers take years to showcase at a fashion week and I took two.

“Last year, I was really surprised. I did 10 weddings – three white and the other seven were traditional. I couldn’t believe people trusted me with their weddings when they haven’t seen [enough of] my work.”

In 2018, she scaled up, doing about 15 weddings.

“I am also proud of myself this year because I have more people buying Haute Afrika for everyday wear,” she says.

The requests from her clients have also diversified.

“A gentleman came in and he wanted a transformation of his wardrobe. We made 10 pants for him. That’s what he’s probably going to wear next year. I’m also proud of the fact that I’m not only attracting people that have events, but also the everyday person, which is what I wanted to do with my collection.”

Bampile employs two full-time and two part-time workers at her studio in Sandton, miles away from that first garment that wrecked her seventh birthday but made her whole life. 


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Percelle Ascott, the Zimbabwe-born actor, who’s on a roll on Netflix

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His beginnings were in a two-bedroom apartment in a South London estate he shared with his mother, aunt and cousins.

That’s all Zimbabwe-born Percelle Ascott had, besides a childhood filled with beautiful memories.

“I remember riding my bike everywhere, playing football and making treehouses. All the kids who grew up on my estate knew each other, and it was probably where my love for acting grew from.

“I had a wild imagination for all the things I didn’t have. I would make something out of nothing.”

Such mental calisthenics obviously helped. Today, the 25-year-old Ascott is a British actor with a plum role on the Netflix sci-fi romance series The Innocents.

His family moved to London when he was three. His recollections are a mixed bag – struggles and triumphs, and a mother who is his role model and motivation.

“I’m sure every family has struggles, especially financially, when you live in London, but I was blessed to have a hard-working mum and aunt who always provided for me and my cousins,” he says.

There are an estimated 700,000 Zimbabweans in the United Kingdom (UK). Most jokingly call the UK ‘Harare North’.

Ascott didn’t need much coercion to take to acting; his first stint was at the age of 11, in a school play.

“I played Mowgli in Jungle Book. My mum told me how I would recite everyone’s lines if they forgot them. But it wasn’t until I went to secondary school where I came across an exceptional drama teacher who instilled so much confidence in me.”

He dreams to be a part of some exceptional storytelling.

“We only remember the stories that shaped us, shaped our perspective on the way we view the world. I hope I can create meaningful real characters people can relate to; [they] can laugh with me, cry with me and go through a journey together.

 “I remember watching the film Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington and couldn’t help but think about Denzel’s character. The journey his character goes through is so powerful given the timing of the film. At the start, he has this ignorance toward HIV/AIDS which is shaped differently when he meets Tom and becomes his lawyer fighting his case. I’m sure it must’ve informed the opinion of audiences who had the same perspective on HIV/AIDS.”

Ascott’s new role in The Innocents has been since June 2018. 

“The casting was a lengthy process that required me to do a few rounds plus chemistry tapes with different actresses, but I guess that’s what it takes when you’re trying to find Harry and June [the lead protagonists]. Their romance being so crucial to the story, that energy between them being something that just has to fit,” he says.

 Ascott proudly represents a country many wish they didn’t come from.

“Since the launch of the show on Netflix, I’ve had a huge number of fellow Zimbabweans reach out to me. I find that special because it’s not something a kid from Zimbabwe has as their career trajectory, to be a lead on a Netflix show.”

In the future, he plans to lead film projects in Zimbabwe.

“There are more and more projects being funded in Africa as a whole. South Africa has a fast-established industry growing there. Why not Zimbabwe? I told my dad already we’re going to build a film studio in Zimbabwe one day. There are so many stories from Zimbabwe because of its vast history. Let’s show the world what the real Zimbabwe looks like…”

Other than acting, Ascott produces, writes and directs films. He is also co-owner of The Wall of Comedy, a platform on social media with a following of eight million people.

For young African aspiring actors, he also has some advice.

“Hard work, determination, and perseverance. Ultimately, I would say love. A love of what you do. A love of why you do it and to always use that as a compass for the choices you make.”

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