“Caesar could be Amin or Bokassa, Mobutu or Mugabe”

13 Sep

Out of Africa review with interview of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest production of “Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Tours the UK from 19th September – 27th October 2012

“A muscular, intelligent and deeply moving production”
, Sunday Times

Last night we caught the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Julius Caesar, set in the context of an unspecified pre-coup African nation.

I found this a thoroughly compelling production; the robust acting, the African context and the pace of the direction really brought out the emotional transitions of Shakespeare’s characters and allowed the audience to really understand the agony behind Shakespeare’s text.

Watching Shakespeare can be exhausting for the ear, however these actors presented the meaning of each word with such purpose that Shakespeare’s messages were not just understood, but could be related to. And interestingly, at times, the old English language flowed like a type of pidgin English, which sat comfortably in the African context.

Julius Caesar is a fast-moving thriller about a struggle for democracy.  Setting it in an unspecified African nation and exploring the implications of political assassination and the unpredictably of its aftermath has so much resonance with recent overthrows of dictators over Africa’s 60 year history and more recently the uprising in the ‘Arab Spring’.

Director Gregory Doran says “Caesar could be Amin or Bokassa, Mobutu or Mugabe”.

Director Gregory Doran goes on to say that his inspiration for setting Julius Caesar in an unspecified African country came from discoverings the Robben Island Shakespeare and learning of Nelson Mandela asserting that the play spoke in a particular way to his continent and as John Kani clearly puts it, Julius Caesar is quite simply “Shakespeare’s Africa play”.

Out of Africa Interview with Gbolahan Obisesan, Associate Director

After the show we spoke to the associate director, Gbolahan Obisesan, about the motivations behind the production, the challenges and the aspirations.

What are some of the key themes you would like people to take away from watching this play?

Initially, it would be the ideas Caesar has on how to run a society, a state, a country – and the decisions that have to made to achieve this. Then it is the consequences of having a dictator, of overthrowing a dictator – what is the new regime going to be, what does it represent and how will it serve the people?
It’s about the real conundrum that these decisions bring out.  Accepting the full extent of one’s actions.

What has been the biggest challenge in putting this play together?

The casting – who do you cast to play these really iconic roles – and thinking conscientiously about the interpretation of the Shakespeare text and if the context we have chosen serves the piece all the way through.

What are some of the unique aspects of your interpretation of this play?

What the text can say to us if it is set in an (unspecified) African country and presented by an all Black cast. This uniqueness opens new insights and is not just tokenistic.

When you think about this production and you smile, what are you thinking about?

The moment when the audience gets lost, moved and overwhelmed by the story and the level of emotion that the cast go through is thrilling.


“I go to Nigeria and I’m British, in Britain I’m Nigerian”

8 Jun

Belong by Bola Agbaje

Produced by Tiata Fahodzi and the Royal Court Theatre

Bola Agbaje has already made a name for herself. Winning a prestigious Olivier award for her first play, “Gone too Far!” she returns to the theatre with her current play, “Belong”, which manages to combine her first two loves – the theme of identity and the option of choice versus fate – all embroiled within Nigerian Politics. Melanie Scagliarini reports from Peckham’s Bussey Building’s opening night.

Combining a tale of the personal and the political, Belong walks a tightrope between tragedy and comedy, sharply woven together by what is becoming playwright, Bola Agbaje’s trademark of short dialogue and snappy scenes.

It is a gripping 90 minutes that has more than a passing resemblance to a Shakespearean tragedy than Agbaje’s previous work. Politics; the scheming, autocratic and corrupt Chief that rules with violence; the naïve politician who makes a public mistake at work and runs to another country to escape the shame; his wife with Nigerian grandparents, who considers herself steadfastly British; the sister who turns up uninvited and seeks to criticise everything the wife does in a typically Shakespearean habit of adding a character for pure comic relief. Played by Jocelyn Jee Esien – Bola intersperses perceptive physical acting that I defy all not to laugh at.

With the dialogue flowing well between characters and snappy scenes that flip between London and Nigeria, the audience is never bored. Perhaps some scenes are too short and the eternal move between the two countries does become a little tiring.  But Agbaje’s juxtaposition between seriousness and comedy more than makes up for it – with some moments that are pulled off with such great comic timing that you get the impression that the actors are genuinely laughing at the moment, not acting.

Msamati’s portrayal oozes both simmering resignation and despair at the women’s lack of understanding of him and his eternal search to belong – “I go to Nigeria and I’m British, here I’m Nigerian”, he says in one moment.

Bola admits that, whilst she is mainly speaking to Nigerian people in this play, it translates to all people. “The feeling of belonging is a common thing. You don’t have to be Nigerian or black to identify with the play.”

Belong is being performed as part of the Royal Court Theatre’s Theatre Local programme at the Bussey Building, Peckham until 23rd June 2012.
For more information and to book tickets, visit this linkhttp://www.royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/belong-local?gclid=CJHPpt21sLACFUIOfAodPXimVQ 
For information on other African arts events taking place this June and July, visit the Out of Africa newsletter at this link http://www.icontact-archive.com/WdJy8WXl01msnUgsRPiZW73nhtIO9Xjb?w=2

Shakespeare brought to you in IsiXhosa, Afrikaans, Swahili, Juba Arabic, Shona and Yoruba

3 Apr

Five productions from South Africa, Kenya, South Sudan, Zimbabwe and Nigeria come to the UK to perform in the prestigious “Globe to Globe” festival, taking place at the Shakespeare’s Globe in London, to each present one of Shakespeare’s plays in IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, SeSotho, Setswana, Afrikaans, Swahili, Juba Arabic, Shona and Yoruba respectively.


These ambitious productions are part of an unprecedented programme of multi-lingual Shakespeare productions. 37 international companies will present every one of Shakespeare’s plays in a different language over six weeks: Afrikaans,  Albanian, Arabic, Armenian, Bangla, Belarusian, British Sign Language, Cantonese, Dari, French, Georgian, German, Greek, Gujarati,  Hebrew, Hindi,IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, Italian, Japanese, Korean,  Lithuanian, Macedonian, Mandarin, Maori, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Shona, Serbian,  SeSotho, Setswana , Spanish (Argentine, Castilian and Mexican), Swahili, Turkish, Urdu,  Yoruba.

We speak to two of the directors; Wole Oguntokun of Renegade Theatre presenting “The Winter’s Tale” in Yoruba and Arne Pohlmeier of Two Gents Productions presenting “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” in Shona – to find out about their experience of being part of this audacious, exciting and unique theatre project.

How have you found the process of translating Shakespeare into Yoruba and Shona, respectively?

Arne Pohlmeier: We have previously worked with Shakespeare in the English original. Doing Two Gentlemen of Verona in Shona is consequently a real journey of discovery. On the one hand the translation makes sense of the play in new ways so that we end up seeing the characters and what they are saying in a new light. On the other hand, the Shona used in the translation is as far removed from the Shona that is spoken on the street as Shakespeare’s English is from the colloquial English we speak today. This has made us work extra hard on learning, understanding and presenting the language in a way that is muscular, fully embodied and clear to the audience.

Wole Oguntokun: It has been an experience unlike any other. In the casting process, we had to look for people who could speak both languages well (English and Yoruba). The rehearsals have broadened the minds of both the cast and crew members. It has been a bit like exercising muscles one never knew one had, a sometimes painful but mostly rewarding process. Shakespeare in English would not have been a mean task and in Yoruba, it’s sometimes like wading through thick undergrowth with a machete you have to sharpen from time to time.

What do you hope the audiences will take from the experience of watching a Shakespeare play in a language they don’t understand?

Arne Pohlmeier: Seeing a play in a language you don’t understand is exhilarating. It really allows you to watch what the actors are doing and to read every aspect of their performance – you cannot simply rely on what they are saying you have to let yourself be guided by how they are saying it. This is particularly exciting with Shakespeare because his plays are structured so intelligently and the intentions of what the characters are doing to each other in every moment is so powerful, that it communicates even before it is understood.

Wole Oguntokun: The richness of other cultures and traditions. Even though there will be some who won’t understand Yoruba, I hope our craftsmanship will still be able to pass the message, through actions, music and dance and that hidden rhythm that exists in every stage presentation.

What has been one of the biggest challenges in putting this play together?

Wole Oguntokun: One of our biggest challenges has been the translating process. In our initial readings, we had to translate Shakespeare’s English into contemporary English and then had to do the same to the Yoruba Translation. The original translation by Tade Ipadeola, a well-spoken man in his seventies was into very formal Yoruba and even though we have retained quite a bit of the formality of language, we, firstly, had to make the text, accessible to some of the younger members of the cast who spoke a more contemporary version of the Yoruba translation.

Arne Pohlmeier: Honouring the beauty and dexterity of the new Shona translation by Noel Marerwa.

What would be your single message of advice for someone starting a theatre production company in Africa?

Wole Oguntokun: Have faith; close your eyes and step off the cliff believing you won’t hit the ground.  That’s right. I said, “Have faith.”

You can catch these plays and others at the “Globe to Globe” festival taking place from 21st April – 9th June 2012.
****AMAZING Out of Africa SPECIAL OFFER****

Globe Theatre are offering their best seats in the house for £10, to the productions of “Venus and Adonis” in IsiZulu, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” in Swahili, “Cymbeline” in Juba Arabic, “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” in Shona and “The Winter’s Tale” in Yoruba – reduced from £35; a saving of £25.

To claim this discount, quote ‘Out of Africa arts £10 offer’ when booking by phone on 020 7401 9919 or ‘PCD10BEST’ when booking online at https://tickets.shakespearesglobe.com/selecteics.asp

Redefining African fashion at London Fashion Week

24 Feb

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Written by Eliza Anyangwe
Photography by Gem Hall Photography
In association with http://artslang.tumblr.com/

On 19th February, the Ubuntu International Project brought an African aesthetic to London Fashion Week.

For a continent so often defined by negative stereotypes, and its contribution to any art form (not least fashion) trivialised, if at all acknowledged, what Errol Hendrickse and Theo Omambala, the team behind Ubuntu, achieved was to create a space for African creativity at the heart of arguably the most creative show on the fashion calendar.

If the philosophy at the heart of the show, as stated by Hendrickse, is to create “a design aesthetic that has depth and meaning,” then these collections achieved that. And from all the raised phones, cameras and iPads clicking away incessantly, from the necks contorting to get a better glimpse of the garments and the excited whispers as each look came down the catwalk, there was no shortage of inspiration for many.

The show got off to a good start with Clinton Lotter‘s collection of dogtooth shift dresses, fitted jackets, pencil skirts and finger gloves in black and forest greens.  But soon I was more bemused than blown away; jewellery by Frankli Wild was by turn both fascinating, yet somewhat reminiscent of a crafts project.

For me, the stand out collection was by Jose Hendo, for the Ugandan designer’s innovative use of fabric – including barkcloth – the complex tailoring and the drama of each creation. I was also pleased to see a little playfulness from the designers behind Ayo van Elmar who stuck lit incense sticks into the kufi hats the models wore. With a nod to Katherine Hamnett’s use of the catwalk to raise awareness for political, economic and social issues, Jacqueline Shaw clad her models in t-shirts with slogans such as: “African grown and sewn,” highlighting the need for investment in Africa’s textile supply chain.

This was not a show laden with fashion that pushed technical and creative boundaries, but what Ubuntu at London Fashion Week was, was an opening for African designers onto the world. Conversely, it also offered a new lens through which Africa can be looked at.

The Ubuntu team are not intrepidly dipping their toe into fashion waters somewhere on the periphery of where the trend-makers are. They are boldly thrusting themselves and African designers into the mainstream fashion spotlight and are daring to challenge and redefine what the African aesthetic is at the same time.

Lost Kingdoms of Africa

25 Jan

Interview with Gus Casely-Hayford
Creator of the “Lost Kingdoms of Africa”

Ranked as the BBC’s highest-rated factual show ever, “Lost Kingdoms of Africa” comes out on DVD release on 6th February.

A powerful four-part documentary that casts new light on a long-neglected area of the world’s cultural heritage.  A narrative that reaches back in time to explore ancient tales, such as; the long-lost kingdom of Nubia, did the emperors of Ethiopia really descend from the Queen of Sheba, the mysterious ruins of Great Zimbabwe and the magnificent Benin bronzes.

Watching this series gave me the jolt I needed to get up and know more about Africa’s ancient past. As part of my first step to deepening my knowledge,  I spoke with the Creator and Presenter Gus Casely-Hayford to understand his motivation behind covering such a compelling topic and his experience of producing the programme. Please read our interview below.

Follow these links to get a copy of “Lost Kingdoms of Africa” on DVD and the accompanying book. Release date: 6th February 2012.

1.    What are some of the key themes you would like people to take away from watching this series?

I hope the series and the book give people an insight into the beauty of both contemporary Africa and it’s amazing past. I hope people find out more than they’d expect, that they are surprised and it debunks preconceptions. I want people to realise the depth, complexity and range of Africa’s History and relate to Africa as a place we can all feel connected to and learn from. I also hope that the programme inspires interest, investment and perhaps some tourism.

2.    “Lost Kingdoms of Africa”, is ranked as the BBC’s highest-rated factual show ever, what elements do you think makes it so popular (besides your amiable documentary style)?

I am delighted at the success of the series and happy to be back for a second series – and I hope to do more television that celebrates African culture in the future.  The success of the series is that telling these stories is long overdue. People really want to know more. We also worked extremely hard to ensure that the stories were told authentically, with a real weight of research and with integrity. I hope the book will find its own way to people’s hearts, as the TV series has.

3.    Were you surprised at how much of the physical history was still there to find?

Unlike other continents Archeological sites are only now being uncovered in Africa, and their real significance being realised. There is a whole wealth of knowledge and history to be uncovered; for instance there are mass graves being discovered with bones dating back 3,000 – 10,000 years and areas of land just littered with pottery. It’s not like Time Team where you spend all summer dusting down a metre square area and only find half a tea cup.

4.    When you think back about making this series name two things that make you smile or laugh out loud?

I laughed all the time whilst making this series. I am not a dancer, but was called up to dance a number of times, usually with very embarrassing results that had my crew and I in stitches. But I was also equally inept at fighting as I showed to the Nuba.

5.    Many people, myself included, have now been inspired to take this journey. Can you give us a top travel tip?

I must say that driving on African rural roads has been sometimes challenging, but was for the most part completely exhilarating – my favorite drive is the road up into the Ethiopian Highlands to visit Debra Damo. My recommendation would be to attend a service at Debra Damo, the sixth century mountaintop monastery, in northern Ethiopia. Once you get to the base of the mountain the only way to access it is by a hide rope that you have to use to climb the final thirty metres. The secret is to arrive the evening before a service, preferably a saint’s day and ask to stay in one of the disused dormitories – waking at dawn to hear the chanting and to see the sunrise, before squeezing in amongst the monks for the service, is one of the most magical things you can do.

6.    Name two new facts that you learnt during the process of making this documentary?

I finished my PhD twenty years ago and have dedicated my professional life to promoting African history and culture. But even with my experience I learned a great deal working on this series – things like Africa having the longest continuous Christian tradition, the largest earth-built buildings, or indeed the oldest tradition of pottery.

7.    What was one of the biggest challenges to making this documentary (and what have you learnt)?

The logistical consideration when travelling those huge distances on a tight timetable is enormous, and we could not have done it without local expertise and the best crews in the world.

8.    What single piece of advice would you give to aspiring Art Historians in Africa?

It might not be in a book in a library …

“Lost Kingdoms of Africa” is out on DVD release on 6th February, the book comes out on sale on 16th February and the 2nd series aires on BBC4 at 9pm on 30th January.

It’s there to be discovered, it’s accessible and it wants to be known.

If you want to be enlightened about Africa’s deep history; get a copy and tune in.

Book http://astore.amazon.co.uk/outofafr-21/detail/0593068130

“African craft should not be about charity”

5 Jan

Interview with Charlie Davies
Designer, SAHEL design

Ruched handbag in claret

Last week, I came across SAHEL design. The designs, the ethos of the designer and the means of production, instantly meant something to me.

For me here was a designer who was truly interested in creativity and artisanship. I was really moved by how her designs both preserve and evolve traditional skills. They are, at the same time, strikingly authentic and innovative.

I needed to know more about the designer, her work and her journey.

Here is my interview with the designer, Charlie Davies.

SAHEL design – www.saheldesign.com

“Sahel Design is about discovering, celebrating and reviving traditional craft techniques. It’s about learning from and respecting the people who make them. It’s seeing the continuation of skills into future generations by making them profitable today“, www.saheldesign.com



What are three of the main aims of SAHEL design?
– Preserving indigenous artistic traditions that are in danger of being lost.
– Creating a livelihood for artisans who are struggling to make a living from their work.
– Changing perceptions. African craft should not be about charity but about beauty, diversity and history.

What inspired you to start SAHEL design?
I wanted to create work for people that pays well, but is also meaningful to them. I also thrive on being creative.

What makes SAHEL design so special?
We do celebrate style and beautiful things, but ultimately we’re about loving people and using things, NOT the other way around; using people and loving things.

Charlie Davies talking with leatherworkers

Your work has a strong aesthetic signature, name three influencing factors to your work?
– My surroundings here in the Sahel are a continual inspiration: the texture of a grass hut, the curve of a pounding pot, the dignity of a broken calabash carefully sewn up.
– I am influenced by local people. Stories they tell become incarnated in my work. The swinging tassels on my bags are from traditional Fulani horse reins, testament to this region’s strong equestrian heritage.
– My background as a fashion editor in London helps me understand what works well. I love mixing rustic with urban, and contemporary with historical.

Fulani chevalier Barani horsemanship

What has been one of your biggest challenges as a designer (and what have you learnt)?
Working within the limitations of what is available locally has been a challenge for me, but I have learned that it’s much better to focus on what you have, not at what you don’t have. Don’t try to turn materials into something that they aren’t; keep it simple and play to their strengths.

Organic cotton cushion covers

Leather and Cotton Tote Bag

Where do you see SAHEL design in Five years time?
There will be a much broader collection of fashion and home accessories which are exporting worldwide as well as selling locally. The next line I’m working on is belts.

When you think about SAHEL design and you smile, what are you thinking about?
Salamata and Fatimata, the clever old ladies who make horse reins. They have such a wry sense of humour.

Making a set of tassled horse reins

Where did you train and gain your skills as a fashion designer?
I began making clothes and accessories when I was 11, and went on to graduate from Nottingham Trent University with a BA (Hons) degree in Fashion Design. I’m still learning through my obsession with making things. There’s a lot of trial and error.

Name three fashion designers you respect?
Alexander McQueen – a genius tailor who wasn’t afraid of being different.
Paul Smith – he is so good at combining classic with quirky.
Karl Lagerfeld – he pulsates with creativity and at 78 years old continues to be open to new ideas, interested and engaged with the world.

Where can people purchase products produced through SAHEL design?
At the moment we have two stockists in the UK, and in March there will be an online shop. Nuance in Ouagadougou sells the bags and we are hoping for more stockists worldwide this year.

Link to SAHEL design stockists

Two tone flat Tote Bag

And finally, what would be your single message of advice for fashion designers in Africa?
Authenticity is beautiful, so build on who you are. Don’t try to emulate others or be something that you’re not. You have a voice that is unique to you. Find it and work with it.

Charlie Davies

Charlie Davies is a fortunate artist, who has found a great  muse; Sahel in Burkina Faso: A small part of the world from which she directly draws her inspiration and can translate that inspiration into high-quailty commercially viable creative product.

There are a number of wonderful designers who are keeping traditional craft techniques of Africa alive, and making them relevant for the 21st Century. If you want to know more about them and also about Afro-infused fashion, then get to know:-


An African Election

23 Nov

Jarreth Merz‘s documentary “An African Election” comes out in cinemas across the UK on 25th November – http://dogwoof.com/films/an-african-election

With such a provocative title, we had to find out more!

Read on to find out what motivated Jarreth to make this documentary, some of the challenges, influences and motivations.

What motivated you to make this documentary?

The film started off as my personal journey to reconcile with my African heritage, which I had neglected over the years living in he West. I was keen on reconnecting with my roots and also wanted to know how the country in which I had spent my childhood had evolved. I left Ghana in 1980 and had never been back since. The elections became the vessel to undertake this journey by looking behind the scenes to understand contemporary politics in Ghana, which determine stability and progress of any nation but especially so in African countries. I realized that nobody had ever looked behind the scenes of an African election on film so I thought I should be the one to document it.  I was also tired of the preconceived ideas and perceptions of Africa!

What are some of the key themes you would like people to take away from watching this documentary?

I want people to be aware of the fact that true democracy lives in Africa and that we must talk about the success stories just as much as we tend to talk about the failures. We must not take democracy for granted, not even Ghana’s success story because democracy in Africa is still a fragile creature that needs constant nurturing. Democracy is a learning process.

The election was in 2008, and for some the issues could be deemed out dated, why is the film being released in 2011/2012?

It took us more than a year to edit the 220 hours of film that we filmed. Our goal was to make a comprehensive feature about the complexities involved in the election and time was of essence. We live in a rushed world where we tend to overlook the reality surrounding us and this keeps haunting us, so it was important for us to let the film develop and I felt the only deadline would be the impending 2012 elections, so actually the timing is perfect, especially considering the political atmosphere and climate in Africa, I mean look at Kenya, Libya, Egypt, it speaks for itself, no?!

You interviewed and had close up footage of some extremely prominent figures and heated situations, what was the process of gaining access and confidence?

We arrived well ahead of time in Ghana and made sure that we spent time with all political players so they could get used to us and that we could build trust. Our family has been in Ghana for centuries, which made it easier to call upon political players because they knew my parents and our family history, which is embedded in the Ashanti culture.

When you think of the process of making this documentary what are two things that make you smile?

I still cannot believe that we pulled it off given the tiny budget that was at our disposal, I am proud that we made the film look like a full blown feature documentary that can compete on a very challenging market. I also have to smile thinking of what I put my film crew through, they must have thought I was out of my mind, I want to thank them for not giving up on me!

What were two of the main challenges to making this documentary?

Finding the funds to make the film and logistics on the ground. Shooting in Africa requires good preparation and you always have to be prepared for the unpredictable. Gaining the trust of the people was critical to the success of the film and took a lot of patience.

What was your experience of accessing resources in Ghana, e.g. filming equipment, skilled professionals?

Ghana has wonderful professionals but it is an uphill battle for my colleagues there because their work is not seen as equal to other professions, it is at times taken for granted. Nonetheless they are there, all the talented filmmakers but they deserve more support from the government and their communities!

As a documentary maker – what do you feel is your role?

To tell stories that show the full picture into worlds you would never be able to access on your own. It is to open new doors and to widen our horizon. It comes with a great responsibility.

What are two of your favourite documentaries?

When We Were Kings and Glorious Exit

Who are two of your favourite documentary makers?

There are so many out there that deserve to be mentioned but let’s say that my brother Kevin Merz and Leon Gast belong to my top 10.

What were the first steps you took to becoming a documentary maker?

It started with understanding the power of reality versus fiction. A documentary is a glimpse of reality whereas fiction is a recreation of it. I love both but documentaries at their best will bring about awareness and possibly social change where needed.

What single piece of advice would you give an aspiring documentary maker?

Never take no as an answer!

%d bloggers like this: