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‘Facing East: Chinese Urbanism in Africa’ (2015) curated by Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggevan at the Storefront for Art and Architecture (all photos by Qi Lin)

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.

Installation view of ‘Facing East: Chinese Urbanism in Africa’ (click to enlarge)

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.”

Installation view of ‘Facing East: Chinese Urbanism in 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.

Installation view of ‘Facing East: Chinese Urbanism in Africa’

Facing East: Chinese Urbanism in Africa continues at Storefront for Art and Architecture (97 Kenmare Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through August 1. 

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Ysabelle Cheung

Ysabelle Cheung is a writer and editor based in Hong Kong. Her arts writing can found in ArtAsiaPacific, ArtReview, Artforum and Hyperallergic. You can follow her at @ysabellecheung...

2 replies on “A Journalist and an Architect Investigate China’s Sway Over Africa”

  1. I see why Africans are not concerned about Chinese- Yellowman Colonialism ..after 600 hundred years of Caucazoid Neanderthals raping them and sucking their blood I guess they feel the Chinks cant be any worse.. Plus the black man is unsinkable..if we can survive white terrorism and blood sucking for 600 years we can survive ANYTHING.. plus we can always pimp slap the Chinaman when he gets out of line.. Whitey and the Chinanman should know that the black man will only tolerate their insults and disrespect for a time, eventually we will put them in their place! You can take dat to bank!.. they may have money , but they do not have have the God given attributes and natural talents of the black man…some thing money just cant buy, they should know this and tread carefully as they traverse the sacred lands of Mother Africa!

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