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Challenging Social Norms Through Body Art

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Imagine a pinup calendar that revisits history through color, and woven in a manner that depicts your past and future in an amusing way. Confused?

Well that is what the future looks like for South African performing artist Athi-Patra Ruga, known for his flamboyant performances and tapestries that challenge social norms.

Growing up in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, Ruga knew at a young age he would become an artist, taking lessons, after school, at Belgravia Art Centre. He then received a scholarship to the Gordon Flack Davidson Academy of Design in Johannesburg.

“I had always known my body would be a site for telling stories. I feel the drive to tell stories, [I] overcame my fears – about it never been done before,” he says.

When he cut his teeth in art, he dabbled in fashion designing, incorporating fashion and art into one.

“Fashion has the power to dictate our movements physically and socially, to [a] great consequence. I have never seen it as a huge leap as both those mediums are concerned with the body,” says Ruga.

His current body of work is Queens in Exile, addressing issues of belonging and identity. However, it is his piece on the queens of Azania that put him on the cultural map.

“I feel it sparked something in the audience that [binds] our generation together. Witnessing the betrayal to the constitution I was raised with and also rainbowism, a utopian construct, played out in the country that is economically the most unequal in the world,” says Ruga.

Ruga was the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year in 2015 and has done work for luxury fashion house Louis Vuitton. Believing the world is alive with possibilities, he held on to the hope he would one day travel the world.

“I had always dreamt of going to the south of France and now for the past five years, my husband and I have been going to Toulon for the Hyères festival,” says Ruga.

The Eastern Cape has produced some of South Africa’s great political leaders, from Nelson Mandela to Steve Biko, so it is little wonder Ruga’s work has strong historical references.

“History has the ability to arm us as a dispossessed youth, with knowledge that our forefathers went through the same things we are going through and we need that knowledge to arm us to find sophisticated ways of mobilizing for economic and cultural currency,” says Ruga.

He desensitizes “uncomfortable” topics using vibrant colors. His work is represented by the WHATIFTHEWORLD gallery in Cape Town, and in Paris, by InSitu Fabienne Leclerc.

There is also a lot of story-telling in his work which comes from his father being a journalist.

“I come from a family of people who enjoyed telling stories and I gravitate to that tradition of storytelling in my art,” says Ruga.

His industry is faced with numerous challenges, but Ruga chose early on in his career to not focus on the negative.

“I’m honestly not concerned with focusing on challenges, that’s not how I got here. It is the attitude that defines how I will overcome that is ultimate. Our education system is something we all need to face and improve as that leads one to art and in return empathy for others,” he says.

Ruga encourages upcoming artists to venture into different spheres such as photography, art and designing as they are lucrative.

He says there are more than enough role models across the continent one could look up to such as Nicholas Hlobo, a South African contemporary artist who creates sculptures and explores ethnicity, masculinity, and sexual identity. He too looks up to him.

Despite the global exposure and success at home, Ruga is convinced the best is yet to come.

“I always feel my big break hasn’t happened yet,” he says. That will be a story for another time.

Life

Kingdom Calling At The Bushfire Festival

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It’s an early morning in May and as the sun rises, red, orange and yellow hues bathe the swaying sugarcane fields of Malkerns, a small town in the landlocked southern African country of Swaziland.

Swaziland, renamed ‘the kingdom of eSwatini’ in April this year on its 50th birthday, awakens to the sounds of the rustling wind and chirping birds. Very soon, these natural notes will be replaced by the cacophony and camaraderie of thousands of guests jetting into the country for the annual Bushfire Festival, a three-day fiesta of art, culture, music and food in the last week of May.

It’s a busy time of the year for a kingdom that is one of the world’s last remaining monarchies.

Within the Bushfire Festival arena, djembe drums beat to the rhythm of the heartbeat of Africa. Revelers indulge in traditional feasts at the food markets as the musicians take center-stage.

The likes of South Africa’s Samthing Soweto, Brazil’s Flavia Coelho, Nigeria’s Yemi Alade and Mali’s Salif Keita are present, offering a profusion of sounds and melodies.

In the camping arena is a confluence of cultures, as over 29,000 guests who have traveled here to attend the festival make new friends and form unlikely collaborations.

Many stop to admire a hand-crafted grass hat worn by a young woman who has traveled from Lesotho. Anna Thai is originally from Memphis, Tennessee, in the United States.

“The people here are very relaxed and accepting of each other. There are so many from different countries, so many languages and so many different faces and I really enjoy the diversity of it,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.

What started as a cultural meet around a small amphitheater, where artistes performed in front of a crowd of no more than a hundred, is today one of Africa’s most talked-about festivals.

 

Swazi-born Jiggs Thorne. Photo by Karen Mwendera.

“We started off as kind of a charity running a business and very quickly learned that it needed to be a business running a charity.” – Jiggs Thorne

Swaziland-born Jiggs Thorne, the founder and director of the festival, always had a passion for the arts, but admits he had to learn the business aspect of the festival the hard way.

“The important thing is I never studied to become a festival director and that’s the thing with entrepreneurs, you are driven by passion; the kind of passion that gets you up and creates that drive you need to make something work. And you have to be incessant,” Thorne tells us.

Born in Manzini, he was inspired by his parents who owned a restaurant. He went on to pursue a degree in drama and politics at the University of Natal in South Africa.

In 1994, when he finished his degree, he decided to return to his home country and apply his passion for the arts. Thorne wanted to develop the local arts scene.

In 2000, he set up House On Fire, the eclectic venue where the festival is now held.

However, its business model wasn’t sustainable, and Thorne realized that if he didn’t act quickly, his dream would slowly fade away.

“Well, I was very much an artiste and I think I’ve become entrepreneurial along the way and we started off as kind of a charity running a business and very quickly learned that it needed to be a business running a charity,” he says.

The Bushfire Festival came into being.

“It was always about a positive light, warmth, about celebrating diversity,” he says.

A majority of the funding came from sponsorships, and partnerships – the festival is called MTN Bushfire.

With his brother Shelton, Thorne fine-tuned the business model to keep its mandate as a creative arts platform and business at the same time. As Thorne came from an arts background, he had to depend on others to make his dream work.

Read More: Setting Fire To Swaziland

“There needs to be integrity in the way in which you deal with people so I think that’s kind of paramount in this equation where you are dependent on others to make it happen,” says the 48-year-old father of two.

The festival grew beyond what Thorne had imagined, he says, contributing over E50 million ($3.7 million) to Swaziland’s economy.

“When the king travels overseas, people ask him about Bushfire, you know. So it’s quite a surreal thing that the concept that came up all those years ago in a sense has become owned by others,” laughs Thorne.

This year, the local newspapers, radio stations and social media were abuzz with news on the festival.

Thorne owes its success to his team and his parents who left the legacy for him and the family to build on.

“It was kind of the fire they started and it’s a light that we’ve been able to follow. They are the legacy, says Thorne, who runs the festival with his siblings and extended family.

“Entrepreneurship is something that you don’t really study, you learn, and it’s something that takes over, and it’s kind of all-encompassing,” he signs off.

After the curtains come down on the festival, it’s back to the idyllic sights and sounds of Swaziland, until next year, when the little town of Malkerns will fire up again.

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Entrepreneurs

Making of the July Forbes Africa cover with Gbenga Oyebode

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The July cover of the prestigious Forbes Africa magazine features Gbenga Oyebode, of Aluko and Oyebode, one of the largest integrated law firms in Nigeria with over 70 lawyers and three offices in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt. The Firm provides a comprehensive range of specialist legal services to a highly diversified clientele including top-tier Nigerian, international and multinational clients.

READ MORE: The Tall Lawyer, Investor And Philanthropist In A Power Suit

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The Champagne Culture of Lagos

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It’s 3AM on a sweltering Thursday in Lagos and Crossroads at the Eko Hotels & Suites is packed to the rafters. Nigeria’s leading Tex-Mex restaurant and bar, it’s an edgy, happening hotspot on any given weeknight.

By the time we arrive, the live band’s set is over and the in-house DJ is pumping up the volume. The venue is teeming with pub-lovers from all nationalities and races clinking glasses and mixing together under the strobe lights. Suddenly, the music stops and a 70s rendition of ‘happy birthday to you’ fills the smoky night air, followed swiftly by a clutch of waiters appearing with a cake they then present to an unsuspecting roisterer and her noisy friends.

The manager instantly offers free tequila shots to the group and with that, the DJ is back at the deck and the party continues. Tonight, there seems to be a special launch event for premium champagne brand Veuve Cliquot Rosé and true to Lagosian form, bottles, lit with sparklers, are expertly maneuvered through the crowd to revelers just warming up for a long, unforgettable evening. Crossroads adds a new world-spin to the non-conforming millennial habits of dinner at midnight and dancing until dawn.

Elsewhere in the city, similar scenes of revelry unfold.

READ MORE: The Party Animal In The Lab

Whether it’s a slew of gorgeous rooftop hotel bars on Adetokunbo Ademola Street, rock bars near Oniru, dance clubs just off Adeola Odeku or trendy pubs in Lekki, there are multiple quality experiences awaiting party animals in Lagos.

The Nigerian city is one of the world’s greatest party capitals and the gentrified Victoria Island is the hedonistic heartland of Lagos’ nightlife scene. It’s the second fastest-growing city in Africa, with a population of about 21 million, and with Victoria Island home to the highest concentration of high-net-worth-individuals anywhere in the world.

According to a recent McKinsey report, Africa has the world’s youngest population. More than 50% of its people are under 20 years old, compared with 28% in China. The 16 to 34 age group now accounts for roughly 55% of income. And with that comes an insatiable appetite for alcohol. In 2017, champagne consumption in the West African country was estimated to reach 1.1 million liters, according to a Euromonitor report.

“Champagne consumption is part of the culture in Lagos. It is not a Lagos party if there are no champagne bottles being popped. It has actually turned into a competition where clubbers try to out-pop each other,” says local pub promoter Paul Yusuf.

The Euromonitor report also uncovered that Nigeria had the fastest-growing rate of new champagne consumption in the world, second only to France, and ahead of rapidly growing Brazil and China, as well as established markets such as the United States and Australia. That accounts for about $50 million spent on bubbly and still rising each year. A surprising feat for a country where about 65% live on less than $1 a day.

“With increasing wealth inequality, it is such a shame that we throw large sums of money away on frivolous activities instead of helping each other to come out of poverty,” says Adekunle Omaye, an economist in Abuja.

Nigerians’ love of big spending has also attracted attention worldwide. According to The Guardian, Nigerian tourists in the United Kingdom (UK) are the fourth biggest foreign spenders, with an average spend of four times as much as UK shoppers, amounting to about £500 ($710) in each shop.

“I have seen people spend anywhere from about $50,000 on bottles per night,” says Richards Nnadi, owner of Escape Nightclub in Lagos. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

The impossibly trendy strip that is Adeola Odeku boasts a dazzling array of clubs. Escape was one of the first of many such upscale destinations offering music and food across three floors. And when you need to escape the dancing and music, head downstairs to EVE restaurant, operating from midnight until the crack of dawn.

Nnadi had been in the nightclub business for over 15 years managing and promoting several venues for clients before opening his own five years ago. Featuring an assortment of luxury vehicles, ranging from a Lamborghini Aventador to a Bentley Mulsanne, the parking lot of his club is akin to a luxury car showroom in London’s Hyde Park.

“I have been here long enough to see the transition that the nightlife scene has undergone. The nightclubs in Lagos previously consisted of people putting up small buildings. So Escape was the first operative nightclub on the island. We believed that there was so much growth coming in terms of expansion and people wanted to have bigger venues with more headroom to experience a proper nightclub scene,” says Nnadi.

After carving out a niche for years as a dominant player in Lagos’ pub world, there is now stiff competition from people who too share his vision for big spaces and unique experiences.

READ MORE: From Housekeeper To Life And Soul Of The Party

About 300 meters from Nnadi’s club, newly-opened Cubana is also vying for a piece of the action. The club is another upscale establishment attracting expatriates in the steamy metropolis. From the outside, unlike the shabbiness of most of the other buildings around, the club’s incandescent neon sign ‘The World is Yours’ illuminates the entire street, making it hard to miss in a market where customers are extremely fickle. The responsibility to grab the attention of these capricious customers lies with one of Nigeria’s leading communication companies, Robert Taylor.

“You must be very clear on your brand identity. What do you want your space to be known for? You should be able to tell the difference between your space and everywhere else. A majority of the Nigerian consumers have played in the nightlife space in different parts of the world, so you almost have to come in on an international scale in terms of quality,” says Bukky Karibi-Whyte, the founder of Robert Taylor.

Her firm has managed to position itself in the competitive lifestyle market representing some of the swankiest clubs in the city. Karibi-Whyte’s involvement in the Lagos nightclub scene was a natural evolution from managing luxury drink brands like Hennessy, Moët & Chandon, Belvedere, Veuve Cliquot and Dom Pérignon.

“With brands like these, you are always looking at activities where the brands are visible and that is usually in the night club or hotel space, and we kind of found ourselves in the night club space which gave us a lot of insight as to what our brands are doing and a lot of insight into what kind of consumers we have and what our competitors are doing. This has worked very well in managing those brands and managing other entities as well,” says Karibi-Whyte.

The after-work hours provide an important opportunity for networking.

“People are increasing their network and thereby increasing their net worth. There is something for everybody. I find that a lot of people are networking in the nightlife space and a lot of big deals are closed in this space too.”

And if you think opening a space with trendy furniture and music was all it took to gain access to this lucrative and unpredictable market, think again.

“People think nightlife is having people come and drink and go but there is so much more to it. There are a lot of emotions attached to nightlife between the business and consumers and that is what we put into consideration when we were building. So from the aesthetics and the feel and vibe and the energy are all things you need to consider,” says Nnadi.

Karibi-Whyte concurs.

“If you know Nigerians, we get extremely bored very easily. First of all the interior of the space is extremely important to me. How it looks, how it makes you feel, down to the colors they are playing on and how it affects the mood of the consumer.

“Customer service is extremely key and it has to be number one. Then you now have the content side of things, which is ‘do you have a great DJ?’ And what interesting thing is your space doing every month. Then you have things like the support of the drink brand the space is affiliated with.”

There is a constant reinvention of nightclub spaces, which is interesting for these drink brands. Brands are now finding new ways of reaching consumers in an increasingly fragmented market.

Festivals have become a key strategic consideration for these brands. Underpinning their success is the work of the DJ whose role is to provide the in-house content that turns a room into a melodic oasis.

The social media revolution spurred on largely by a mobile market of 142 million subscribers and a penetration rate of about 101% in Nigeria, has led to the perking up of Afrobeats, consequently leading to the proliferation of Nigerian artistes both locally and on a global scale. DJs play an important role in this movement due to their popularity in the nightclub scene and their ability to make stars overnight.

“If there is no DJ there is no night life and there is no music. You need a good DJ to have the right experience. DJs are the life of the party and that is really it. You can have a bar, waitresses and waiters, flashing lights and everything, but if there isn’t a DJ to control the mood of your customers and take them on a musical journey, it is not a party. You might as well sit at home and drink,” says Obinna Levi Ajuonuma Junior who goes by the moniker DJ Obi.

He has carved a niche as one of Lagos’ biggest and in-demand DJs. Recently, this reputation has earned him a Pepsi ambassadorship, amongst other accolades. DJ Obi however believes there is a lot more growth in the Nigerian pub scene in terms of creating an engaging user experience for clubbers.

“People don’t go out for the music, people go out because they may be bored at home and they do not want to use their generator or they just want to go out because everyone is going out. ‘Going out’ here is very pretentious and for a DJ, I am playing to create an experience for the people that are there, so there is a lot more that needs to be done,” says DJ Obi.

From rooftop venues such as the newly-refurbished Sky Lounge at Eko Hotels & Suites that have elevated the Lagos night to stratospheric heights, to the revelers who want to let off steam, one thing is for certain, Lagos never sleeps.

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