The Thinking Actress
Zimbabwean Danai Gurira is not just an actress. She’s also a playwright. She earned critical acclaim for her stories on stage which examine the lives of other African women. “The idea of telling African women’s stories was [me] responding to a call I felt needed to be done, that I had to do in the course of my life,” she told us earlier this year.
Her Off-Broadway play, In the Continuum, told the story of two women coming to terms with a HIV diagnosis. The haunting production debuted when Gurira was still an MFA student at New York University. It won three coveted awards including the Helen Hayes Award for Best Lead Actress.
Gurira has also made waves on the big and small screen. She is the anti-zombie vigilante, Michonne, on the American hit series The Walking Dead. The show has been renewed for a fifth season. The actress has also lent her talents to six films. Her latest film role was in last year’s Mother of George, which followed Nigerian newlyweds struggling with infertility. Her performance won her a Black Reel Award for Best Actress.
Gurira’s 2009 play, Eclipsed, which tells a story of women in a rebel commander’s harem during the end of the Liberian Civil War, premieres at the Soweto Theater in Johannesburg on August 14. The production will be directed by South African actress Warona Seane.
The Solo Artist
Wangechi Mutu knew early on that she was different. The Kenyan artist has seen sweeping success in the international art world and is represented by galleries in New York, Los Angeles and London. But the path to a steady career in contemparary art did not come easy. After high school in Wales, Mutu came to a realization.
“It occurred to me that there was not going to be an opportunity for me to pursue my art in a serious way in Nairobi…I knew that pursuing art was going to be seen as a joke. I was raised in Kenya, I knew how people perceive artists and art,” she admits.
“My dream was [to] get to a place, an environment [where] I could dig in to this thing and really learn, grow and be the best artist I can be.” Mutu got her wish when she earned a coveted spot at the Yale School of Art for graduate studies in Sculpture. But her family didn’t see it that way at first.
“I had to pursue the application to go to school almost independently, it was not something anyone was supporting me in because nobody understood why I was doing it, no one quite understood how it was going to benefit me, them, [or] anyone.”
She credits her mother for giving her the tenacity she needed to succeed as an artist. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want my mom to spend the next 10 years working as hard as she she did when we were kids’. She had done for us enough. And I remember thinking that my commitment to [this] was pouring that in my work. I said ‘I’ll make it so she can finally rest a little bit.’”
Mutu’s work is an intriguing mix of mediums and colors but the exploration is always the same.
“I have been for years, even before I left to go to high school in Wales, interested in the female body as a subject in really the kinds of existential, intimate, profound ways as a woman…there’s a wide breadth of ideas and interests that bring me back to the female body for better or worse.”
Mutu is currently preparing for her second solo show at the Victoria Miro Gallery in London this October. The series, Nguva na Nyoka, means Sirens and Serpents in kikuyu, a Kenyan dialect. The exhibition reimagines the sirens, or water women, of East Africa.
The Practical Sculptor
When it comes to the Ghanaian art scene, Constance Swaniker is more than a pioneer. The sculptor began one of the first commercial art firms in her country more than a decade ago.
Thinking back, she says, her entry into the art world would not have been possible without her mother’s foresight.
“It was my mom who discovered that I was always just quietly sitting in the corner and just sketching away. I struggled with Maths and all that [so] she set my direction into the art world,” she says.
Her mother, who ran a private school in Botswana, saw her potential early on. She encouraged her daughter to consider the Fine Arts when she was still in high school. So, Swaniker studied
for her O Levels in Art and then trained in her craft, Sculpture, at university.
Since 2000, she has been at the helm of her own bespoke art business. When she started, all those years ago, Swaniker says they were the only business of their kind. Fast-forward to the present and they are doing extremely well.
“We are the market leaders in what we do,” she says. Riding on the coat-tails of the recent Ghanaian construction boom, Swaniker’s business creates practical art pieces for the home, from embellished wrought-iron gates to creative balustrades.
“I love working with my hands. Sculpture allows you to [do that]…it’s more three dimensional,” she says. Remembering how her practical experience, early on, guided her as an artist and entrepreneur, Swaniker has taken on the training of young Ghanaians wanting to be artists through her business. Swaniker has also had solo exhibitions as an artist.
About The Word
Over the years, Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owour has had many careers. But, at last, her work matches her passion. Her debut novel is called Dust. Released late last year, it took her seven years to complete.
“I am a former nerd, an IT nerd. One of the very first kinds,” she says. Adhiambo Owour slowly broke away from the corporate space. Eventually, becoming a screenwriter and then running the annual Zanzibar International Film Festival until 2005. That same year, her short story, The Knife Grinder’s Tale, was made into a short film. Two years earlier, her short story, Weight of Whispers, about a well-to-do Rwandan refugee trying to make peace with his new life in Kenya, won the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing.
“I have always been passionate about the word and I could disappear in stories,” she explains.
“I have had to go through a lot of life’s happenings. I’ve reached the pinnacle of so many places but I was so miserable. It took a very long time to come to peace with the things I’ve always wanted.”
The very long wait led her to Dust, which debuted to rave reviews.
“I took a long time, a very long time. Even after I won the Caine Prize, it was almost a fluke. I was quite amused by it. It took a long time to embrace Yvonne, the writer. I certainly wasn’t ready,” she says of the writing process. Adhiambo Owour, in an interview with writer Michael Halmshaw last year, said that it was really about a “dysfunctional family in the Kenyan desert, trying to make sense of life, death, and meaning. And Kenyan politics, of course”.
Being a writer with a political opinion, though, was a surprise for many of her readers. “People say, you? I say, no! In my pink dress and curly hair ‘I am not a political person at all! It wasn’t me, it was the muse!’,” she said between ripples of laughter. Adhiambo Owour is currently working on her second novel in Brisbane. She has written a bulk of it already and is steadying her pace for the end of it.
By Moky Makura
In her teens, Shirley Frimpong-Manso rewrote from memory the entire script for the Ghanaian playwright Martin Owusu’s The Story Ananse Told, because her school drama group couldn’t find a copy anywhere. She really wanted to direct and perform it – and she did.
Since then, 37-year-old Frimpong-Manso has been producing, directing and writing her own work for television and film in Ghana. In the 10 years since Sparrow Productions, the company she started along with her partner whilst studying at the prestigious NAFTI Film School in Ghana, she has produced nine movies and three television series telling Ghanaian stories. This is no mean feat as any moviemaker will tell you. A rare mix of business savvy, creativity and an indomitable spirit is why she is rated one of Ghana’s top content producers.
“Literature, storytelling and performing make me feel alive. I never thought it would make me money,” she says. It does. Her business employs 22 full-time staff and when in production, as many as 100. The secret of her success is in her powerful storytelling skills, leveraging local music, clothing and locations as well as her uncanny ability to raise finance, which has resulted in award-winning movies like The Perfect Picture, A Sting In The Tale and Contract.
“I want to tell progressive African stories honestly,” she says passionately, speaking from the Black Film Festival in New York where her movie Devil In The Detail was showing alongside work from UK and US directors.
“We need positive stories that encourage our youth – particularly our girls.”
By Ufrieda Ho
As far as successful women in music go, Zolani Mahola (right in picture) and Kyla-Rose Smith, the singers of South African band Freshlyground are up there. It has been four years since they and their band teamed with Colombian superstar Shakira for the breakout 2010 World Cup hit Waka Waka – It’s Time for Africa.
The band’s drummer Peter Cohen recalls how the band was in New York in early 2010, just four months before South Africa’s 2010 World Cup moment. Three floors down, producer John Hill was working on the remix of the Cameroonian original of Waka Waka for the World Cup.
“He happened to pop in, liked what he heard from us and said he’d be back in a few hours to see what we could come up with to add to Waka Waka,” says Cohen.
He says there was a toss-up in sentiment among band members of whether to pursue their own artistic direction at the time or slot in as the “sideshow” to the Shakira phenomenon. “It would have been better if it was Freshlyground, featuring Shakira and not the other way around for South Africa’s own World Cup, but at the same time we realized World Cup anthems always go to big international names,” he says.
Riding the wave paid off in increased global exposure and traction for the band.
He adds: “Waka Waka is still a calling card for us. People still recognize us for that hit. Of course at the same time it can be a double-edged sword, because you don’t want to be known just for that one song.”
Four years on, Cohen says they could have pushed a little harder for a bigger slice of the deal if they understood better the business dynamics of big global collaboration. This forms the basis of his advice for others who may come face to face with such high-exposure deals – know your market, know what you’re in for and know what you’ll get out.
True to Freshlyground form, the nine-person band that’s been together for 12 years now, tour the world together, and they’re constantly working on solo projects too. It works for them and makes them South African exports that make waves of their own.
No Biz Like Shoe Biz
Afua Dabanka’s life as a shoe designer was slowly served up in small doses and eventually led her to an epiphany. The Ghanaian was inspired by the colorful fabrics women of her country wore. But the beautiful outfits were always let down by the shoes.
“The shoes were just off, they were always off. I really wanted to make shoes that actually match the Kente we are wearing and not these random silver sandals which just looked terrible.”
Before shoes became her trade, Dabanka was a banker. However, over the last eight years, she has taken her passion for shoes and, bit by bit, built her flagship shoe brand, Mosaique.
“I always wanted to do something with shoes,” she says. But growing up with African parents in Germany, working at a shoe store was never an option. Instead, she moved to London and finished her Economics degree. But, when she got there, she found the lure of the fashion world even stronger.
She finally gave in and took a short course in shoe design at the London College of Fashion. “When I got out, I [decided] this is what I am going to do,” she recalls. She raised the money herself, leaving her full-time position at an investment bank and became a contractor. Every penny she made, Dabanka put in her business.
Mosaique launched three years ago and has seen quick success. Her shoes have already walked through the red carpets of Cannes and danced at Formula 1 parties in Monaco. Dabanka is currently working on a ‘Made in Ghana’ sandal collection which will launch in Rome.
The Soweto Rock Star
An odd set of circumstances led PJ Powers, otherwise known as Thandeka, to a Soweto stage in 1982. It changed her life.
Back then, she says, “We were such a divided country, we were completely divided.” The divisions were entrenched. Far beyond how and where people lived and worked, it extended to the music they heard on their local radio stations. So when Powers heard that her band, Hotline, had topped the charts of Radio Zulu, in Soweto, with their hit You’re So Good To Me, she had to see it for herself.
Managing to enter the township without a permit, Hotline opened their set with a Diana Ross cover. The nearly 30,000 black concert goers seemed confused, perhaps, wondering why an all-white band was playing I’m Coming Out at a township concert. But once the first bars of You’re So Good To Me began playing, they finally put a face to the music they had heard on the radio.
The concert, a big success, offered Powers a different kind of stardom. She was christened Thandeka by her new fans, a name that is also on her passport. “I felt an unconditional love. I felt that I had landed,” she says.
Powers began attacking the political establishment of the day through her music. She went to Zimbabwe and headlined with Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba, Maxi Priest and Manu Dibango. Each of them, like Powers, didn’t agree with the apartheid government. Returning home, she was banned from popular media for a year because of her dissent.
Powers, now 50, has had a lasting and successful career innovating the Afro-rock genre with each album. She sang at President Mandela’s inauguration and later the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. “I look [back] and think that I must be lucky. I have really lived in South Africa [and] I have experienced my country to [the] full”, she says.
PJ Powers released a book on her life thus far Here I am in August.
The book, she says, is dedicated to the people of her country.
The Jazz Vocalist
Sibongile Khumalo’s father, a professor of music, dedicated his life to the art. Perhaps this is why she carries with her an irrepressible love for the craft that is clear in every one of her performances.
Growing up in Soweto, Khumalo’s father guided her early path into music. Under his supervision she pursued the violin, singing, drama and dance. She continued her studies in Music at the University of Zululand and, in 1993, was named Standard Bank’s Best Young Artist at the Grahamstown Arts Festival. More recently, in 2009, she was honored with an honorary doctorate in Music from Rhodes University also in Grahamstown. Last year, she produced the music for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Africa Cup Of Nations. She was honored, once more, with doctorate degrees from the University of Zululand and the University of South Africa in 2013.
Although Khumalo embraces a wide variety of genres, she has made a name for herself as the South African jazz goddess. Her music combines her distinctive vocals with the improvisation of jazz and a calculated African rhythm.
Khumalo sings with a gentle voracity.
Top Of The Pops
By Farai Gundan
the Fast-rising pop singer Tinashe is a 21-year-old singer-songwriter taking America by storm. Born in Lexington, Kentucky, and raised in Los Angeles, her full name is Tinashe Jorgenson Kachingwe. Her Zimbabwean dad was instrumental in her early start in entertainment – starting with baby modeling, then movie and television appearances alongside mega Hollywood actors such as Tom Hanks (The Polar Express) and Charlie Sheen (Two And A Half Men) before she turned to music. Thereafter, she took a hiatus from acting.
Tinashe spent two years as the lead singer of the all-girl group, The Stunners, where they toured with and opened up for then-teen sensation, Justin Bieber on his My World Tour. The five-girl group had a huge teen following. The group later disbanded in 2004.
Now signed to RCA, and several mixtapes later; In Case We Die, a 15-track collection of new music followed by sophomore project, Reverie and Black Water in 2013, Tinashe has been in and out of New York, working on studio sessions for her debut solo album Aquarius expected to be released in September. Tinashe has been compared to Rihanna.
The Songstress And Eve
Angelique Kidjo is perhaps one of Africa’s most prized musical exports. Her early hit, Agolo, earned her first Grammy nomination in 1995. The single’s music video also catapulted her into the international spotlight, solidifying her reputation for electric performances and artsy music videos.
Kidjo is Beninoise. She left her native Benin in the early 1980s to pursue a stable career as a vocalist, something she could not do due to the political upheaval in her country. She moved to Paris and enrolled at a reputable jazz institute. As she worked odd jobs to pay for school, Kidjo also moonlighted as a back-up singer in local bands. Eventually, she joined Van’t Hof’s Pili Pili band as lead vocalist. Pili Pili’s fame carried Kidjo to wide acclaim and by the late 1980s, the singer was one of the most popular performers in Paris.
Soon, she was discovered and has since built a career around her diverse musical tastes and energy as a performer. She has six Grammy nominations and has won the award twice.Kidjo’s latest album, Eve, was released earlier this year and is dedicated to the women of Africa.
Africa’s Black Swan
South African Ballerina, Kitty Phetla, is a stunning figure. The tall and slender Johannesburg native dances with striking passion and precision.
The 30-year-old recently returned from a Russian tour where she was the only black dancer on stage.
“I was as foreign to the Russians as all of Russia was to me. From the first steps off the plane to our first performances in St. Petersburg, to the backwaters of central Russia, everyone looked at me strangely,” she says.
But Phetla was unwavering in her mission. She went to Russia for a single purpose.
“I arrived at the birthplace of my dreams where I was the first black ballerina in history to perform The Dying Swan…a ballet first presented in St. Petersburg in 1905.” She enjoyed the experience despite how foreign the world around her felt because the stage made her feel welcome. “I was hoping to change minds and win friends with a powerful performance.”
In addition to touring the length and breadth of Russia, Phetla has toured the world with the Joburg Ballet. She calls it ‘ballet diplomacy’.
“As an African ballet ambassador, I believe that art of dance acts as a tool to strengthen the ties and friendships between nations. Ballet diplomacy works towards defining dance as a universal language that breaks down borders and boundaries and unites different cultures, languages and backgrounds.”
Phetla is also a dance teacher, model and radio show host.
The Beautiful Dreamer
Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar acceptance speech saw her stunned and humbled. “My dreams are valid”, she exclaimed. And for Africa’s young women wanting to triumphantly raise a golden statuette of their own some day, the dreams, too, were validated that night.
The Kenyan actress got her big break just three weeks before she graduated from the Yale School of Drama. But Nyong’o was a born thespian. She began early, in amateur productions, taking on Shakespeare with the Phoenix Players in Nairobi.
Her family was extremely supportive. Former acting coach, Ian Mbugua of the Phoenix Players remembers a young Lupita playing the lead in the tragic, Romeo and Juliet. “She was brought by her father Professor Anyang’ Nyong’o who had obviously seen her talent. [He] and his wife Dorothy were very supportive of the theater and used to bring young Lupita to productions,” he recalls.
Nyong’o has pursued her love of film for years now. Shortly after high school, she moved to the United States and studied film at Hampshire College. After graduation, she made a start at production and worked on set for big name films like The Constant Gardener with Ralph Fiennes, Mira Nair’s The Namesake and Stabile’s Where God Left His Shoes. She was last seen in Non-Stop with Liam Neeson. In May, award-winning Nigerian author, Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie, confirmed that Nyong’o had optioned her latest book, Americanah, for film rights.
The Traveling Jeweler
Ever since her mother gifted Isobel Acquah her first set, the Ghanaian jewelry designer wanted to create her own. Acquah spent her childhood in Austria and later settled in London working as a legal consultant at a major investment bank.
She has since left the day job, working only on a contract basis, so she can concentrate on her luxury jewelry brand, Joansu, which launched in 2011. But the journey began a lot differently. In 2009, Acquah was interested in creating pieces for herself. So, she decided to enroll in an intensive jewelry design workshop with her mother who was visiting from Vienna.
“I started with one or two pieces that I would wear on my own,” she says. It was only when she began showing her pieces to her friends and colleagues and from their feedback, Acquah claims, she “realized the joy of actually doing it”.
Joansu is hinged on a single ethos – travel. Acquah has always been an explorer and she wanted her jewelry to reflect the many places she had been. This is reflected in how she sells her creations. Joansu has a flagship showroom in London and also retails at Accra’s Christie Brown. Acquah says from the beginning, she wanted to create a ‘boutique’ brand.
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