Africa needs superheroes for its own stories

Creative director and visual artist Kordae Henry.


The 2019 Design Indaba was a joyous celebration of how sustainable design can create meaningful change in the world and solve real-world problems at their source. Changing how the rest of the world views Africa was, again, a strong narrative from the storytellers present at the event: the filmmakers and Afrofuturists.

A key theme was how to get Africans around the continent to view themselves as people of joy, creativity, imagination – and as deserving of heroes. Africa’s story has, for far too long, only been one of pain and suffering; and while those stories need to be told, it is also important to balance that aspect with joy, said award-winning Kenyan filmmaker, Wanuri Kahiu.

Kahiu is one of a new generation of African storytellers who are changing the narrative about the continent. She specifically co-founded Afrobubblegum, a media company that “supports, creates and commissions fun, fierce and frivolous African art.”

Creative director and artist, Kordae Jatafa Henry, along with Kahiu, both owned the stage at #DesignIndaba2019, held at the Artscape in Cape Town between 27 February and 1 March 2019, when they talked about breaking the boundaries of traditional filmmaking and envisioned an Afrofuturist Africa.

Henry, who identifies as Jamaican-British-American, grew up immersed in the counter-culture and today explores the ideas that infiltrate technology and culture in his music-films, which are described as “a remix of Afrofuturism and cyberpunk aesthetics.” His background is actually in architecture, as well as film, but he collaborates with artists across multiple industries. He intends to give Africa’s past, present and future a “new lens” through which to view and interpret itself.

In his film, Earth Mother, Sky Father: 2030, Henry offers up an Afrofuturistic utopia in this experimental work that presents a different narrative – one where Africa’s mineral wealth remains on the continent and is used to aid its own people and is treasured as part of their culture. He tells the story though a mix of interpretive dance and Afrocentric visuals.

Kahiu, in turn, believes strongly that we need hope and frivolity in Africa – and when she refused to change the “hopeful ending” to her film Rafiki (about same-sex relationships) to one of “remorse”, it was banned in Kenya. She has gone to the courts to overturn that ban.

She believes Africans need to see themselves as people of radical hope, as this is the legacy of their history and rich culture. Her latest film, Pumzi, is a sci-fi which advocates for nature, and while Kahiu was creating the film, she thought it would be an incredibly powerful story to tell of Africans as guardians of nature, with African women at the forefront of this battle.

Kahiu was named a TED Fellow in 2017 and a World Economic Forum Cultural Leader in 2018. She has written and directed six films to date. In 2008, she completed her first feature film, From A Whisper, based on real-life events surrounding the twin bombings of US Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998. The film was honoured at the Africa Movie Academy Awards, including winning the Best Director and Best Picture prizes, and it also picked up the Golden Dhow Award at the Zanzibar International Film Festival as well as Best Film at the Kalasha Awards (presented by the Kenya Film Commission). Shortly after, she completed a documentary about the life of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai, entitled For Our Land (2009), for M-Net’s Great Africans series.

Her short science fiction film, the original version of Pumzi (2009), was partially funded by Focus Features, the Goethe-Institut and the Changa Moto Fund in Kenya, and screened at Sundance in 2010. Pumzi won Best Short at the Cannes Independent Film Festival in May 2010, and took Silver at the Carthage Film Festival in 2010.

Fierce and fun

Kahiu spoke at length before the Design Indaba this year about changing the storytelling narrative in Africa to include joyful and hopeful stories. “Rafiki was really just an ode to love. I really wanted to tell a love story because, growing up, I had never seen images of us as Africans in love. Europeans were falling in love, Americans were falling in love, everyone else was falling in love, but Africans were not. I really wanted to add our experiences as Africans] of being in love, to cinema.

“I started to investigate stories from Africa about joy, because I believe that joy and hope are part of our culture, that joy is part of our tradition and part of who we are.”

As she looked at modern Africa and even further back, into the myths of the past, she realised that there were more stories of joy in African culture, than of remorse.

Her motivation in making films that have a hopeful and joyful message is to ensure that audience members view people of colour in their own neighbourhoods as people of “joyful radiance.” It is what drives her continuous study of African mythology, which also contains wondrous tales of African mermaids and dragons.

“To be able to glorify the ideas of these mythical beasts in Africa, prove more than the ideas of Africa’s suffering and pain, but rather the ideas of our exuberance and creativity,” Kahiu said.

Investigating myths

Both Kahiu and Henry spoke about the importance of myths in Africa in pointing to a different history of the continent, as well as a reimagined future. They believe past legends and myths can help remind Africans that they have a future more joyous than the recent past, where stories have been more painful and desperate than hopeful.

Black Panther cannot be the only example [of a story that celebrates African superheroes]. There are stories of joy to be told [in Africa] and they need to be told by us,” Kahiu reiterated.

Henry questions the lens we use to imagine tomorrow. He believes we should all be incorporating rituals and culture as essential parts of storytelling in the future. He told a story of how his father brought home old technology and transformed it into sculptures.

“My father created meaning in the things he was making.” This is the crux of what he believes: that we need to look beyond the functionality of our new technological world and investigate the purpose of that technology.

He explained that early on he realised that our modern devices have a deeper meaning. For example, most people are unaware of how these devices are manufactured, a process which often brings suffering to those who mine the essential minerals used in much of today’s technology – with much of these resources coming from Africa.

“I’m interested in the invisible. I want to figure out how to bring those stories to life. What if we could tell a new story of faith and hope of the technology of tomorrow?”

This is the essential theme of Henry’s futuristic film, Earth Mother, Sky Father: 2030, where he imagines that a future Africa will have control of its own wealth and a new energy, guided by spirits will watch over the land.

Like Kahiu, Henry is also using science fiction, Afrofuturism and black cinema to present “black bodies in future spaces” and to reimagine Africans as superheroes.

“Vision is only an idea until we can build futures that can evolve,” he concluded.


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