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In July of 2007, during a speech at Cheikh Anta Diop University in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, then French president Nicolas Sarkozy infamously said: “The tragedy of Africa is that the African man has never really entered history.”
“The African peasant has known only the eternal renewal of time via the endless repetition of the same actions and the same words,” Sarkozy continued in front of a shocked audience. “In this mentality, where everything always starts over again, there is no place for human adventure nor for any idea of progress.”
Sarkozy’s remarks outraged African intellectuals who accused the French president of arrogance and ignorance rooted in colonialist thought. “This view of Africa’s distant past as a dark age without history is deeply connected with the legacy of slavery,” explained French historian François-Xavier Fauvelle in response to Sarkozy’s address. “It’s part of an ideology that developed in the western world from the 16th century onwards, when Christian western European powers began to trade slaves with Africa, and between Africa and the New World.”
Countering this pernicious erasure of Africa’s rich civilizations is the work of Ghanaian-Canadian artist Ekow Nimako, who explores the history of the continent’s glorious medieval kingdoms by crafting elaborate Afrofuturistic installations made of Lego bricks.
In Building Black: Civilizations, part of an ongoing series of Lego-made sculptures, Nimako imagines the legacies of past sub-Saharan civilizations into the distant future. The centerpiece of the project, “Kumbi Saleh 3020 CE” (2019), takes its name from the capital city of the ancient Ghana Empire. Constructed with 100,000 black Lego pieces, the 30-square-foot sculpture renders the lost trade capital into a futuristic, bustling metropolis with detailed references to the Islamic influences that shaped its architecture and history.
The “Civilizations” chapter of Nimako’s Building Black series was the subject of a 2019 solo exhibition at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada. The sprawling Kumbi Saleh piece is now housed in the museum’s collection. Previous chapters in the series — AMORPHIA and Mythos — respectively explored West African mask-making traditions and imagery drawn from west African proverbs.
Mythos included the monumental Cavalier Noir (2018), which features a seven-foot Black rider atop a Black unicorn. Conceptualized in collaboration with Canadian filmmaker Director X (Julien Christian Lutz), the piece “subverts the dominant imagination of public monuments and centers Black narratives,” Nimako says on his website.