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Exodus of African artists enriches world, but at a cost

Individuals escaping poverty or politics leave homelands bereft of some of their brightest minds.

June 08, 2007|Donna Bryson | Associated Press

LONDON — It's a story of frail human hopes pitted against harrowing dangers.

When West African composer Ze Manel collaborated on an opera about the young and the desperate of Africa seeking better lives in the West, he also was telling his own story -- and that of many African artists.

Some, like Manel, who is from Guinea-Bissau, leave because dictatorships and war stifle creative and political life. Others are pushed out because paintings and sculptures are luxuries many Africans can't afford.

Underfunded universities on the world's poorest continent can't offer the salaries on which a Western artist might depend between opera commissions. High illiteracy makes it tough for writers to find audiences.

"My home, I think, is where I have peace, where I can do my work," Manel, 49, said in a slight California drawl acquired after years of living in Oakland. "I was born and raised in Africa. But in Africa, I cannot have peace of mind to work."

The result is a flight of ideas, dynamism and idealism. Without its artists, a continent struggling to lift itself out of poverty and repression will also struggle to understand and renew itself.

But the exiles can also be among Africa's most influential emissaries, adding nuance to news reports of war and famine.

As they put its stories on U.S. and European bestseller lists, its rhythms on the world's airwaves and its motifs in international galleries, artists remind the world that Africa has the creative energy to match -- and perhaps one day conquer -- its crises.

During the apartheid era, South Africa's white government stripped artists such as Miriam Makeba of their passports. The efforts of Makeba and other exiles to focus world attention on the injustices of apartheid are credited with helping bring revolution. South Africa held its first all-race elections in 1994.

Makeba can sing again in South Africa. But gravel-voiced legend Thomas Mapfumo, who once sang out against the white rulers of Rhodesia, now decries the increasingly autocratic Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe and lives in self-imposed exile in Oregon.

Novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o, a critic of colonial rule and postcolonial government abuses, left Kenya in the early 1980s and now turns his inventive and perceptive eye on Africa from California.

South African artist Moshekwa Langa was never stripped of his passport. But like Makeba, he left his homeland, taking a scholarship to a prestigious Amsterdam art academy. Ten years later, the 31-year-old has an enviable career he believes would not have been possible had he stayed at the tip of Africa, far from the art centers of Paris and London.

Photographs he's showing at a solo exhibition in England this month are of rooms -- just rooms -- in the homes of relatives and friends in Bakenberg, his rural hometown in northeastern South Africa.

Langa took the pictures during a visit he had envisioned as a chance to catch up with old friends. Instead, he found many had abandoned Bakenberg for big cities in South Africa and elsewhere.

"It was very disturbing for me ... arriving and finding there was nothing to go back to other than empty rooms," he said.

Artistically, the result is work that evokes a powerful sense of longing. Personally, exile can mean dealing with being an eternal outsider.

A policeman once followed Langa home when he was out after midnight, convinced he was a burglar until he saw Langa put the key in his door.

Along with photos, Langa works in video and in installations of scribbled notebooks, discarded sacks, bubble wrap, coat hangers, cooking fat. It can be unsettling for anyone who expects African art -- or modern African life -- to begin and end with baskets and quaint villages.

Alain Mabanckou, who paints his pictures of modern Africa in prose, shares with Langa a grasp of its complexities. Mabanckou is a prizewinning novelist and poet born in the Republic of Congo, educated in France and now teaching literature at UCLA.

He is at work on the last of a trilogy of novels, wrapping up with an exploration of the sex industry. In 2005's "Verre Casse," or "Broken Glass," he argues that attention -- whether literary or political -- must be paid to the poorest of Africa's urban poor.

"Memoire de Porc-epic," or "Memoirs of a Porcupine," appeared last year and won the Prix Renaudot, among the most prominent of French book awards -- a French TV crew followed his first days at UCLA. The book is a call for Africans to take responsibility for their own lives, set in a traditional landscape of fables and witchcraft but with a thoroughly modern, ironic sensibility.

New York's Soft Skull Press released an English translation of "African Psycho" -- a nod to the Brett Easton Ellis novel "American Psycho" -- in February. In the 2003 novel, Mabanckou lambastes the cult of celebrity and manages to make a failed Raskolnikov at once pathetic and hilarious.

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