The Kenyan science fiction filmmaker brings her imaginative storytelling to Africa Utopia

“Why does African art have to be important?” asks Wanuri Kahiu. “There is this quiet assumption that imagination is a luxury in Africa. Imagination is not a luxury. It’s an extension of humanity." The award-winning Kenyan filmmaker and writer recalls countless times when people have asked her why she makes science fiction films when there are “much more important issues in Africa” to write about. She has been working to challenge the idea that African art must always address big societal issue. “Why does work that black people make have to say something? There was no space to have fun, we had to be political beings. Why not make something about things that inspire us or annoy us? That’s the space that we fight for in Afrobubblegum.”

Kahiu is co-founder Afrobubblegum, a media company that celebrates, creates and commission “fun, fierce and frivolous African art”. The platform has become a genre that describes likeminded artists across Africa and the diaspora who are now beginning to refer to themselves as Afrobubblegumists. It's not a new genre though, says Kahiu, it’s just that there was never a word for it before: “We’ve always been joyous people. So there are historical artists who are also Afrobubblegum.”

That’s not to say Kahiu dismisses the importance of creating art with a message. This year she gained a controversial reputation for her latest film Rafiki, a LGBT love story about two teenage girls that has screened at festivals around the world (it became the first Kenyan film to ever be selected for Cannes) but is banned from her home country. “The Kenyan classification board have elected themselves as morality police. There is a growing suppression of voices that even mention the LGBT community. This is very concerning. The more power the classification board gets the more that suppression will leak into other areas. I believe in freedom of expression.”

“There isn’t a single African narrative, but I do believe in a Pan-African spirit”

Her sense of responsibility as an artist isn’t tied to any agenda except that of spreading positive images of Africa and its people. Her work presents vibrant people enjoying life and she hopes that where success is visible it becomes more possible. She believes that fun is also political. “We need to see successful, thriving images from the continent. Other people must see us as that, and we must see ourselves as that. Then we’ll start reaching out to more thriving people.”

Kahiu’s not only a trailblazer with her films (including the successful 2009 short Pumzi) but also as a public speaker (she’s a seasoned TED fellow). This week, she steps up as the keynote for Africa Utopia at London’s Southbank Centre. On her agenda will be a discussion about Pan-Africanism, which is one of the themes of this year’s festival. “There isn’t a single African narrative, but I do believe in a Pan-African spirit. For me, the joy of creation is connection. You can travel without leaving your seat and laugh in the way other people laugh. We see how we each celebrate life, and showing that is more powerful than creating images of how we overcome obstacles – that can just create distance and apathy.”

Wanuri Kahiu is the keynote speaker at the Africa Utopia festival and will be speaking at 11.30am on Saturday 21July at the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room. Africa Utopia 2018 runs until 22 July

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Published on 19/07/2018