Here’s how the Nataal Presents: Africa Utopia salon at London’s Southbank Centre went down

Nataal marked our one-year anniversary by hosting our first London event - the Africa Utopia warm-up salon at the Southbank Centre on Friday 26 August. As the sun began to set across the Thames and golden light streamed into the fifth-floor, floor to ceiling windows, the sold out evening began with an introduction to Nataal by myself, and to this year’s Africa Utopia festival by the Southbank Centre’s senior programmer for contemporary culture, Hannah Azieb Pool.

She also did a reading from her new book Fashion Cities Africa, a project we both worked on for Brighton Museum’s current exhibition of the same name. The passage Pool chose is from the opening to the Nairobi chapter in which she recounts readying herself for diving into the city’s biggest mitumba market with local style bloggers 2ManySiblings: “Velma and Oliver are bobbing and weaving through the lanes, like fashion ninjas, stopping suddenly when a gem catches their eye: a denim jacket there, a vintage beaded purse there…”

Next up Nataal co-founder Alassane Sy introduced and screened his directorial debut, the short film Marabout. Shot in Dakar, the drama tells of the real struggles faced by street children and the influence that can be wielded over them by some spiritual leaders. The powerful yet ultimately liberating tale received a warm and engaged response from the audience during the lively Q&A.

Belinda Zhawi then took to the stage to share some of her poetry. The London-based writer and educator has performed across the UK at venues and events including Africa Writes, Bestival and the Barbican, been published in two anthologies and featured on Channel 4’s Random Acts series. She also hosts the monthly poetry night Born:Free and is preparing to become the 2016/17 Associate Poet for the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Her readings touched on subjects including class divisions, drug laws, mental health and Mugabe. “My work focuses on memories of living in rural and urban Zimbabwe and how this is shaping my life so far,” she says. Her two final readings, Reasons For Leaving and Dear Whinchat “explore the relationship I have with both the places I call home - London and Harare – and are an attempt to unpack the compromises made for me to be able to claim certain spaces as my home. Africa Utopia to me is very much rooted in understanding and appreciating the multiple narratives of Africa and giving them equal value in how we talk about them - from the diaspora and every nook and cranny of the African continent.”

Finally Bumi Thomas rounded off the salon with an intimate acoustic set. The Nigerian singer, songwriter and visual artist uses song to tell odes of transformation, displacement, joy and humanity through her unique, soulful sound. She’s previously performed everywhere from Ronnie Scott’s to the Royal Opera House and releases an new video soon. Tonight’s delights began with Crossroads, “an affirmation of growth and realisation that losing and rediscovering one’s essence is in some ways the rhythm of evolution.” Free As A Bird followed, “a song with an oneiric sensibility echoing freedom to be, create, exist, explore, love and live without constraints.” And Thomas ended on Self Portrait, which had everyone in the room singing along to the chorus: ‘Only you can tell your story / Paint a portrait of your truth.’ A song encouraging open dialogue about the cultural, sociological and economic progression of contemporary Africa, its sentiments continued to echo with us all as guests talked and mingled out into the hot summer night.

Photography Dexter Lander