The Entrepreneurs Putting African Arts on the Global Map

Mosidi ModiseFeatures
Scene from the Award-winning film Inxeba

Scene from the award-winning film Inxeba, produced by Urucu Media. Courtesy of Urucu Media.

The continent of Africa accounts for 16% of the world’s population. Its 54 countries are home to some of the most diverse range of cultures, languages, and ethnicities in the world. That cultural diversity is finally starting to make its way around the rest of the globe, as we are seeing more and more creative contributions by Africans taking center stage.

In the past three years, many creatives from the continent are reaching new heights:

  • In 2019, South-African born artist Athi Patra Ruga was selected as one of 11 artists from around the world to reinvent the Lady Dior bag for their annual Dior Lady Art project.
  • Another visual artist from South Africa, Nelson Makamo, was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 2019, and people such as Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay as collectors of his artwork.
  • The Senegalese-born fashion designer and founder of clothing brand Tongoro, Sarah Diouf, has been given the nod by Beyonce, who´s worn several of her outfits, including in her music video for the song, Spirit.

While the stories of these internationally acclaimed artists and designers speak to the poignant moment that creatives from Africa find themselves in, there are many other emerging talents who are hungry to go global. For this to happen, there is a need for strong platforms on the continent that can serve as conduits for visibility.

The Org spoke to two firms who are working to give that visibility to talent in the arts in Africa, specifically when it comes to filmmaking and photography.

Urucu Media

Urucu, the word for the seed that indigenous people in Brazil crush to make art, was established by Brazilian-born Elias Ribeiro in 2015 after he moved to South Africa to study a masters in film, following a 10-year career in the industry in Europe. After meeting co-founder Cait Pansegrow, the dynamic duo set out to build a production company that has since produced several international award-winning films that challenge the status quo and push boundaries in filmmaking.

Alongside other credible film makers on the continent, Ribeiro established Realness Institute, a not-for-profit professional training institute for filmmakers on the continent that aims to expose them to best practices in script writing, cinematography and production, with the aim of making films that are of a high quality from the continent.

“We started Realness after acknowledging the need to develop an avenue to capacitate talent, as all the grant funders in Europe were saying they have appetite for content from Africa, but the capital was not coming for production as the projects weren’t developed enough,” said Ribeiro.

The primary output from their screenwriter´s residencies have been bespoke arthouse films made by African talent that have gone on to win many accolades at global film festivals.

Urucu Media has recently partnered with Netflix to launch an episodic lab that aims to find six writers from South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria, who will attend a writer's residency to come up with the next Netflix originals from Africa and will be launching the lab in 2021.

In 2017, Urucu made an Oscar submission from South Africa, with their film The Wound (Inxeba), for best foreign language film, which made the shortlist at the 90th Academy Awards. They are currently working on another Oscar campaign for best foreign language film, this time for a film submission from Lesotho titled, This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection. The film, starring the renowned South African actor Mary Twala- Mhlongo, has already received 21 awards at international film festivals, including the special jury award for Visionary Filmmaking at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Winning an Oscar for this film would be a historic moment for Lesotho, as it is the first film made in the country, in the native language Sesotho, by a Mosotho director.

Mary Twala Mhlongo

Mary Twala Mhlongo in a still from *Its Not a Burial But a Ressurection.* Courtesy of Urucu Media.

Oath Magazine

Stephanie Blomkamp has been lauded by fellow photographers as the hardest working hustler in the industry. She stands for all things photography, working as a practicing photographer, curator, and editor. Her personal photography work has been displayed at the Royal Academy of Art in London for the Summer exhibition and she has had multiple shows both in South Africa and Europe. Blomkamp is also the founder of Oath Magazine, a print publication and platform that facilitates a vital space for photographers across Africa.

Born in Johannesburg before immigrating to Canada, with a lot of travel in between, Blomkamp now calls Cape Town home and is making waves for the photography scene in South Africa. Upon returning to the country, she realised there is a big gap in the market for local photography and the hardships fellow photographers faced in finding an outlet to get their work seen.

“It boils down to visibility,” Blomkamp said. “In a tangible way, there are not enough platforms to get work out there, not enough presence at art fairs, no print publications dedicated specifically to the medium of photography from South Africa, not enough gallery representation for photographers.

“I believe in the power of print as a strong foundation for getting work seen and championed. It leads to things. It is necessary to curate and present the amazing work coming from here in a publication with an international standard, something collectable made with thought and love, and most importantly guided by a strong mission statement. Print is difficult, you have to have a propelling purpose to get through the rollercoaster ride of it.”

The inspiration to start Oath happened when Blomkamp couldn’t get her print fix in Cape Town. She looked for local publications on photography and couldn’t find any. She imported titles she liked, but it was costly and timely. After realizing what a challenge it was for the photographers around her to get their work from the sea of the internet and into print or exhibitions, she made a pledge to create her own publication dedicated to the art of photography. Oath is the manifestation of her long-term goals with photography here in South Africa and the rest of the continent.

“A young photographer reached out to me after a small exhibition I did here in Cape Town and asked to meet to pick my brain,” Blomkamp said. “Essentially, she wanted visibility for her own work to be seen both here and abroad and asked me how I had done it. For me as a print junkie the greatest springboard is print. It gives you a boost of confidence as an emerging voice to see your work in print, especially if it is bound in the same book as well-established photographers.”

Courtesy of Oath Magazine

Oath Magazine Issue I. Courtesy of Oath.

Photography as an art form has always had to struggle for its place in the world against other mediums. We are seeing a shift where photographers get to sell their work at a high premium; people are starting to learn about limited editions and photography exhibitions are getting bigger and bigger. The growing demand and curiosity about the photography scene in Africa is creating a great opportunity for the work that Oath curates to have a presence globally.

“I had an affluent art collector from Germany say he’d never had African photography on his radar before discovering Oath and he was blown away by the work presented in its pages,” Blomkamp said. “A few days after I launched Oath a young aspiring photographer from a township in Cape Town reached out to me wanting to find out how he can be part of the magazine. This is exactly my objective - I want the work to be a bridge between people from all walks of life. I have a profound belief in the photography scene in South Africa and beyond and as a founder I have to do everything to get the work out there.”

The process of getting Oath out into the world has been a journey of tenacity and resilience for Blomkamp. After launching in South Africa and running into distribution challenges, there came a time during the lockdown period where she knew she had to get it out globally. So Blomkamp based herself in London to do a print run there and figure out a way to get Oath into places she knew it belongs. Oath is now stocked at The Photographers Gallery, the Tate Modern Museum, and the Serpentine Gallery in London. Copies of Oath can now be bought in bespoke bookshops in Tokyo, Barcelona, and Milan, and the magazine was recently featured in Vogue Italia´s reading room section.

Blomkamp is currently in the process of producing volume two, the theme of which will be Love. In terms of her long-term aspirations for Oath, Blomkamp would like for the work to go beyond the printed publication and serve as a conduit towards overcoming some of the structural inadequacies that put photography in Africa on the backfoot.

“I am one person running on limited resources and can’t wait one day to have a team as passionate about photography as I am to man the helm of Oath and support the talents that need it,” Blomkamp said. “Oaths’ goals are straight and true, it exists to champion emerging voices, shine a light on overlooked archives, and celebrate the art of photography. In my mind, Oath is a 10-volume collectable endeavor, and in a few years if you collect them - you can see the evolution of contemporary photography in Africa.”

Photo by Kojo Anim courtesy of Oath Magazine

Photo by Kojo Anim. Courtesy of Oath Magazine.

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