In 1975, the African writer Chinua Achebe penned a livid, acerbic attack on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, writing: “Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?” Achebe’s diatribes (compiled in the essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’”) criticize not simply colonialism, but the residual hypocritical dialogue perpetrated by Western power. Forty years on, a new ‘arrogance’ continues to complicate the narrative of Africa as China encroaches — physically, socially, and economically — on its soil.
At the Storefront for Art and Architecture, a picture series accompanied by a projected short documentary make up a specific picture of alarmingly rapid urbanization and growth in Facing East: Chinese Urbanism in Africa. Curated and pieced together by the Dutch journalist Michiel Hulshof and architect Daan Roggeveen, the exhibition traverses the six cities which became the focus of the duo’s study into China’s development strategies. From Accra to Kigali, the pair found that Africa’s citizens were increasingly re-navigating their loyalties, goals, and lifestyles towards the way of the East.
In one of the multiple plaques, it is observed that since 2009 China has been the largest trading partner of Africa. In another, Hillary Clinton is quoted raising her voice, warning of a “new colonialism” that simultaneously faults the Chinese urban prototype and Africa’s glib acceptance of it. Repeatedly throughout the exhibition, Hulshof and Roggeveen show with direct quotes and captioned text that African citizens, especially those who are working class, see things differently — China has yet to reveal an oppressive influence internationally and in facing east, long-bitter ties with the US can be severed. So, then, why not?
This air of leaping forward is freeze-framed in the picture series, a merge of photojournalism and quietly observed moments. “Urbanisation can help reduce poverty” reads the headline off a Rwanda paper, perhaps revealing a trickier, one-dimensional agenda that is (always) evident in media. Elsewhere in the room, silvery hulks of residential buildings rise in the African landscape like post-modernist dreams, and smiling workers eerily mirror the red-cheeked farmers trademarked in Cultural Revolution propaganda posters. But perhaps the lateral, superficial comparison ends there. Undeniably, China’s influence (regardless of agenda) has cracked open previously inaccessible avenues for Africans. On opening night, Hulshof and Roggeveen engaged the audience in a panel discussion, opening with a picture of a sad-looking, obsolete Nokia. “It has radio, internet,” said Hulshof. “And it’s only 11 US dollars. Everyone can afford one. That is possibly the biggest influence China has had on Africa.”
Surprisingly, the takeaway from these images is that they reveal largely humorous glimpses of the Africa-China crossover, without being flippant. A typical Chinese tea ad, transplanted (it seems) from a Shenzhen alley, is affixed to a shopfront in Kenya: “Effective for: All types of heart problems, impotency, weak erection, liver and kidney problems, low sperm count, asthma.” Another pamphlet seeks to recruit students for a Chinese outsourcing company, excitedly proclaiming, “Interviews are currently taking place free of charge!!!”
The dialogue that Achebe marked as ‘arrogance’ is still ongoing, pushed by international powers that may claim to know better. However, Facing East does not internalize this discussion, choosing instead, at first glance, to be neutral. But the evidence is clear in Hulshof and Roggeveen’s compiled narration of contemporary Africa: although onlookers might regard the Africa-China relationship as suspicious, what the images reveal is that African citizens aren’t even questioning their ties to China but are instead just pushing forward, hungry for change.
Facing East: Chinese Urbanism in Africa continues at Storefront for Art and Architecture (97 Kenmare Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through August 1.