Snapshot of an urban Africa

Rashiq Fatar reviews Afropolis, a showcase of the media, art and narratives imbueing five African cities


Against the backdrop of rapid growth, urbanisation and globalisation across Africa, Afropolis: City, Media, Art  showcases  the evolving nature of 5 African cities through a showcase of media, art, and narratives; each exhibits of contemporary urban African life.

Born as an exhibition at the opening of the Rautenbauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne in  2012, and then translated into English, the book is produced with the support of the Goethe-Institut and edited by Kerstin Pinther, Larissa Förster and Christian Hanussek.

The book’s strength is in its conglomeration of representations of  the African metropolis through contemporary life rather than grand ambitions and visions. Each representation seeks to challenge perceptions of a modern African metropolis that is unlike the mega-cities of New York, Shanghai, London and others.

With a focus on five cities — Lagos, Nairobi, Kinshasa, Cairo and Johannesburg — the compendium makes good on its aim to expand our notion of urbanity and the city from the African perspective. While the lens of a mega-city may be a limiting entry point, the catalogue is not prescriptive in what  form and shape the African mega-city should take.

The juxtaposition of contributions, whether it be from scholars like Edgar Pieterse and AbdouMaliq Simone, artists and designers like Sabelo Mlangeni and David Adjaye or photographers like Uche Okpa-Iroha and Van Leo, presents the respective African cities in a more multi-faceted, layered fashion, drawing us away from traditional narratives of a struggling Africa in dire need of infrastructure.

The strength of the visual content is that it is not included as an interlude between written parts but gives a face to the challenges of infrastructure and transport alongside that of refugees, grassroots initiatives in media, contemporary art and photography.

For the South African reader it houses Johannesburg inside this compendium, which echoes Simone’s view that the city is “about as far away as one can get from the popular image of the African village” but, also, at once makes Johannesburg part of a broader African dialogue on cities often missing in similar discussions.

Afropolis finds a balance between being academic and insightful, while being youthful, and comical. Given its roots as an exhibition, it purposefully seeks not to achieve a flow and easy transition between topics and cities, but rather takes the reader on a journey of an exhibition of singular pieces but within a larger but less important mega-city narrative.

While it is certainly not a singular voice in driving a new dialogue about the evolution and development of the African metropolis, Afropolis is able to curate a snapshot in time, illuminating where this evolution may head and the actors in the media, art and academic world that may be driving it. Introducing other African cities through future editions could maintain the momentum of the dialogue and showcase even more from cities on a continent that will fill the front cover page of the coming decades.

Afropolis is published in South Africa by Jacana, and is available from
Rashiq Fataar is the founder and director of Our Future Cities, which includes Future Cape TownFuture Johannesburg, Future Lagos and Future London.



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