Thursday, May 7, 2009

Why I think Afrika!Afrika! is awful.



For months Belgium has been covered with video’s, posters, flyers and other promotion for 'The magical circus adventure from the amazing continent' Afrika!Afrika!. Other countries all over the world will follow. The Afrika!Afrika! Circus has been touring the world for several years now and reached an audience of millions. I am actually happy that this problematic show has finally left my country.

The show has had some very positive media attention and has been presented as an example of open mindedness and diversity. But it is, from a social and cultural point of view, a scandal that Africa can be depicted this way in 2009. This show just confirms all over again the existing exoticism about Africa while pretending to be an example of nuance and political correctness.


The show pretends to bring you Africa as a continent of great richness and cultural traditions, sprawling of creativity. But it is totally problematic. The show doesn’t tell you anything, doesn’t even express any feelings except for the stereotype idea of ‘the happy dancing negro’. It doesn’t go any step further than Josephine Baker's banana-skirt-dance, generations ago. The worst is its pretence of authenticity because the dancers are ‘real’ Africans and the costumes are authentic. But the meaning of costumes, dances, songs, … is totally lost. Afrika!Afrika! just presents you a superficial image of smiling dancing black acrobats playing ‘Africa’.

Of course a circus doesn’t have to be anything else but spectacle, but this time Afrika!Afrika! presents itself as a positive force that tries to bring a better image of Africa.

After a first scene with dancing girls in straw skirts, a duo of basketball players comes on stage. They make impressive stunts with a basketball while hip hop beats blast out of the speakers. The fact that basketball and hip hop is presented next to tribal dances without any explanation proves that anything ‘black’ goes. It’s a ‘black thang’, thus African, thus whatever.

The acrobats are impressive and the life band is great. But the show doesn’t go any deeper and doesn’t tell us anything about Africa. It just keeps on showing stereotypes of black people all over the world.

Again, I didn’t expect anything more from a circus, but Afrika!Afrika! wants to be more than just that. Therefore it is a depressing circus attraction. The whole show doesn’t lead you to what it pretends on its website: not any insight or knowledge about Africa, not any understanding of African diversity.

I wonder how people would react if an African circus producer would bring a show called Europe!Europe! with smiling dancers from the Balkan to Scandinavia and Russia and acrobats disguised as cowboys from the Wild West, all brought together. Will it be a testimony of the great richness and cultural traditions of Europe? It may be a vibrant and esthetically great show, but pretending to be more would be scandalous. Not for Afrika!Afrika! it seems.

It looks like Europe only has three ways to describe Africa. Most of the time it is total silence. When a war, epidemic or famine breaks out the media will convince us of the impossible and tragic reality of Africa. And to compensate this bad news there will be once in a while great enthusiasm for a thing like Afrika!Afrika!.

The worst thing is that this show gets the support from some top diplomats within the UN. Not the least from Kofi Annan himself, whose comment is printed on the program booklet for every visitor. This way people who don’t know anything about Africa get the illusion that they are actually learning something about Africa (and black people?) through this populist show.

After I had seen the show I was very troubled but couldn't find the words to express it. I thought I may be just over sensitive about Africa and the way black people are depicted. Everybody seemed to love the show. Kofi Annan's words made it untouchable. But at the same time I knew there was something thoroughly wrong about this spectacle. Thanks to Jan Goosens, artistic director of the Royal Flemish Theater in Brussels (KVS), who wrote a column in De Morgen I could find the right inspiration and terms to express my dissapointment. I owe much to this column. For those who read Dutch please go and read his column.

For more info about the show go to their website: afrika!afrika!

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