Ousmane Sembene’s death, at the age of 84, robs sub-Saharan Africa of a stylish voice on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged. Sembene’s keen ability to ridicule striving African elites, aping the very Europeans who still sought to control them, surely will stand as a classic statement on the peculiar situation facing the first generation of African leaders following the end of British and French colonialism. Sembene’s visual mastery of his traditional Senegal, combined with his profound sense of the collision between Africans and the contradictions of modernity, made him a singularÂ artist whose shoes no one can fill. Sembene’s sense of outrage, combined with an almost innocent romanticism about ordinary Africans, is no longer possible given the widespread cycnicism engendered by the failures of the African elite post-independence and the spread of global forces — notably consumerism and a muscular evangelical religiosity — that are hurling Africans into a hybridized world that touches even remote villages. African identity in Sembene’s world was pure, hard, tangible. His version of African-ness was rooted in the wisdom of the soil. His moral compass drew on the wisdom of the ages even as he presented his words and images in the idiom of contemporary culture. In a fitting tribute to him, Mali’s culture minister, Cheick Oumar Sissoko, told the French news agency, AF-P, “The man only worked in and for Africa” and “led Africa to understand its identity and build its cultural horizons.” Yet Sembene’s unitary conception of Africa — his exploration of the “essence” of his people — was built on a different contradiction than the exploitative, European-led modernity that he so gracefully opposed. For a moment, Sembene’s sense of the one-ness of African identity held sway; in the political realm, Pan-Africanism also had many admirers. Yet by now, the very paradox Sembene’s art can be viewed against the backdrop of a growing awareness and appreciation of African diversity, heterodoxy and indeed difference. Where is this unity that Sembene extolled, in a region encompassing Ethiopia to the East, Nigeria to the West and Botswana to the South? Imbued with Western notions of nationalism and racial identity, Sembene built his art on a belief in the commonality between all Africans. Yet this commonality was itself a fiction, and the increasing exposure of this fiction marginalized Sembene as an artist, yet opened the way for younger, fresher voices who have the courage to both posit African solidarity and at the same time explore highly-specific notions of African identity (in the manner of Chinua Achebe’s frank embrace of his own Igbo ethnicity).
Jun 11 2007
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