Afrofuturistism redefining African beauty
Nomad, a semi-regular night of art and music, hosted its most recent edition at a bar in Bole last weekend. The event has steadily attracted a growing number of people, walking a line between showcasing new DJs and producers playing innovative music along with familiar and popular genres. Lady Hash stands out among the DJ lineup at this African electronics edition of Nomad.
Her afrobeat based electronic music set list takes the listener across the continent, starting from South African tribal sounds to West African Beats and East African melodies. This spatial travel is hardly noticeable. The set is seamlessly blended, the transitions smooth and natural. But most of all, her energetic stage presence is unrivaled.
Lady Hash (or HananGirma) brings a strong visual experience to her music on stage, or at least to the DJ table. She’s dressed in a short black dress she designed and made herself. Her hair is braided and rolled into three sections. She is the first one dancing when the event starts. She finally puts on her headphones to begin her set.
Her energetic presence and carefully manicured appearance offer a look into what a real night out in Addis can be like.
Her job is to play music and make sure people enjoy the night but looking at her enjoying herself makes you want to feel the night from her perspective.
A lot of preparation goes into each set she designs and she’s been perfecting her craft since she began DJing two years ago. Afrohouse is still a subgenre that has yet to garner a mainstream audience and she is working towards that goal. She looks to other African DJs and producers to see how they fuse African sounds with electronic music.
Artists looking for inspiration and fresh resources have always paid attention to African aesthetics whether it is in music, art or fashion. The fusion of traditional African elements with more a contemporary artistic approach is what sustains innovative art making.
“It seems like our culture is stuck in the past and we can’t apply it in everyday life. We have to carry it into the future. If it is only found in the past how can I make it apply to me?” is the question HamdiyaSherif has been asking herself. Hamdiya is part of Arada 651, a fashion based art collective.
Hamdiya is careful to explain the distinction between culture and tradition. “Neither should be an obligation pushed on by the past. It should be a joy for us to continue it,” she says. But for culture to continue, it needs to keep up with what is modern. It is constantly morphing and transforming along with the people that influence it and are influenced by it.
She describes Arada 651 as a wonderland of expression, a way of redefining blackness and beauty.
Her partner Gouled Ahmed draws from the past to create unique style elements, popular on his instagram account. He uses the words subversive, empowering and representational to describe his own artistic practice. He mentions how Europeans have looked to Africa for inspiration only to appropriate African things. “Africa is futuristic. Unconventional ideas of beauty have always existed in Africa.”
Visual artist and illustrator Amanuel ‘Izzat’ Haile creates surrealist and futuristic characters using African visual elements like masks, tattoos and scars. His characters exist in a world different from the one we have known, so far. His highly detailed illustrations are heavy with symbolism. He blends science fiction, tribalism and surrealism to reimagine a new Africa. “The dominant narrative about Africa dwells in the past. It talks about oppression, about Africa’s problems.” So he responded with developing his afrofuturistic approach.
These artists are involved in different practices but their vision is the same. Their independent practice has led them to recognize each other’s talents and find points of collaboration. They are part of the afrofuturism movement in Addis Ababa and other African cities.
Many in this underground artistic movement recognize the pull the past has had on Ethiopians, especially in the past 30 years. The architecture of Axum and Lalibela are marvels constantly referred to as signals of Ethiopia’s great civilization and modernity. The history is glorious and contemporary individual practice pales in contrast. “I think we’re at a pivot point. We’re looking forward but we’re also looking backwards,” says Hamdiya.
Is Ethiopia the only one attempting to reckon with the past as the world leapsforward? Gouled is of the opinion that Ethiopians need to recognize they are also black and African. Being stuck between the past and the forces of eurocentrism are difficult for a continent that’s lost time and human capital due to slavery and colonization. “The more we accept western standards the further away we are from ourselves,” says Gouled. But globalization has largely been led by European and American forces and Africa has to forge its own way or risks losing its own identity.
Lady Hash looks at her art as a way of connecting with the rest of the continent. “I feel more African than Ethiopian. I play African music. Ethiopia is still part of Africa.” She is conscious of the fact that contemporary Ethiopian music rarely looks to neighboring countries for new audiences while other African artists collaborate across borders. As one of the few female DJs in the city she makes sure to use her platform to advocate for diversity. She says restrictive definitions of Ethiopian identity force women to be conservative or demure but her approach challenges that norm.
Afrofuturism allows Africans to build the future they want to see. These artists are working towards freedom of expression unbound by norms that police identity or desire. Moving towards the future sometimes requires breaking a few rules.
“I’m big on acceptance of people and different personalities,” says Izzat referring to the masks prominent in his illustrations. “I would like to live in a world where people are upfront. I prefer things being open to interpretation.”
Accepting the fluidity of identity itself is at the core of afrofuturism. Constructs like gender and ideals of beauty are challenged and pushed. What is beautiful? What is African? What does it mean to be African? Answers to these questions are reexamined and challenged. African beauty is re-formed and it is bold and daring. It is free expression and it is spectacle. Gouled’s self-portraits are culture bending, sculptural, ‘outsider’ works of confrontation – or invitation.
For Gouled and Hamdiya, their practice is about empowerment of women and other minorities by creating space for the marginalized. They dream of actions beyond scrutiny so long as these actions do no harm. They want to break the forces of patriarchy and mob mentality that often deter social progress in the name of conformity.
“Make it loud. We have it and we’re not ashamed of it. We have to embrace who we are. If I see someone wearing something and I love it I think about how to make it mine. At the root, our inspiration is the same. It’s about beauty, culture and extravagance. It’s about celebrating each other. We shouldn’t tell people this is what you should wear. What I wear or create is my way of celebrating my ancestry,” says Hamdiya.