Monday, 19 March 2018


The 2018 Paris Book Fair (Livre Paris) took place against the backdrop of demonstrations in Mayotte that echoed similar protests a year ago in French Guiana, putting the topics of literary activism and popular disaffection high on the agenda at the March 16-19 event.

Literary representatives from French Guiana at Livre Paris.
Writers from France’s overseas regions and departments, which include Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, spoke out about their role and contribution to French literature, highlighting the social and economic conditions in their territories.
Launching an anthology of short stories titled Guyane: Nou gon ké sa, Guyanese authors said they felt compelled to address on-going struggles.
“The demonstrations were for better security, healthcare, infrastructure, transportation, all of which affects everybody,” said Joël Roy, one of the contributors. “Writers aren’t separate from this.”
In March 2017, strikes and protests in Guiana blocked streets, caused the temporary closure of schools and some businesses, and delayed the launch of a rocket from the aerospace centre that is run by France and the European Space Agency.
Reports of the demonstrations filled the airwaves in mainland France, with some commentators making it seem as if the population was being unreasonable (“We can’t keep sending money there,” said one Parisian). But writers have been among those spotlighting the hypocrisy in government policy, where money can be found to launch rockets but not to improve access to healthcare or to control crime.
Tchisseka Lobelt, founder of Promolivres, French Guiana.
French President Emmanuel Macron eventually visited Guiana to address the concerns of the 250,000 residents, and to make a number of pledges; but there was no political representation at the launch of Nou gon ké sa in Paris, despite invitations having been extended, said Tchisséka Lobelt, who chaired the literary panel at the fair.
While the authors and activists present (such as Sylviane Vayaboury and France Nay) evoked the grievances and injustice that led to the protests, they aren’t just waiting around for political support, although this would be welcome.
Lobelt, for instance, is one of the movers behind promoting the literature of Guiana and providing a platform for writers. In 1996, she founded an association called Promolivres, which in turn created the Salon du Livre de Cayenne - a biennial book fair that had its 10th “edition” last November.
The Salon attracts participants from neighbouring countries such as Brazil and Suriname, and the 2017 “guest of honour” was Colombia.
For Lobelt, intra-regional literary cooperation is important, and she believes translation can help to pave the way for readers to know more about the literature of France’s overseas departments and regions.
A new anthology of stories by writers
from French Guiana.
“Translation is key, and we have to develop a real policy to get books translated from French and Creole into other regional languages and vice versa,” she told SWAN.
Anglophone Caribbean writers such as Guyana’s Pauline Melville and Jamaica’s Alecia McKenzie (founder of the Caribbean Translation Project, and SWAN’s editor) have been able to participate in the Cayenne book fair because of translation, Lobelt said. Both have been winners of the Prix Carbet des lycéens, a prize awarded by French high-school students in Guadeloupe, Guiana, Martinique and (now) London.
In addition, French writer Jean-François Tifiou, who has written an absorbing and well-researched book about the women prisoners sent to Guiana when it was a notorious French penal colony, is looking at getting his work translated into English and Spanish. Tifiou visited schools in the region to present De Quimper à Cayenne (From Quimper to Cayenne), and many readers believe that the book deserves to be more widely known.
“Even if we translated one book per year, that would already be something,” said Lobelt. “We can do a lot on our own, but we still need institutional help.”
At the Paris Book Fair, the French “Outre-Mer” Ministry emphasized support for writers and publishers from the overseas departments and regions, which are traditionally grouped at a special pavilion. The ministry cited the international stature and unique “witnessing” of writers such as Maryse Condé, Patrick Chamoiseau and Aimé Césaire, among others.
A visitor checks out some titles at Livre Paris.
“Literature from the overseas departments has a true specificity, far from clichés and stereotypes,” said an official brochure. “As Chantal Spitz (Tahiti) has declared: ‘My country is not a postcard’.”
This was certainly borne out by some of the debates at Livre Paris (which, uncomfortably, had Russia as the 2018 “guest of honour”).
More than anything, what was notable was that many writers and publishing professionals seemed determined to open the eyes of those who would perhaps prefer not to see certain social situations.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018


By Dimitri Keramitas

I Am Not a Witch is Rungano Nyoni’s provocatively titled first film, which had a Paris screening at the 2017 Amnesty International Human Rights Film Festival. It depicts the scarifying progress of a young girl accused of witchcraft in a rural African country, presumably in southern Africa, although this isn’t entirely clear; but the vagueness lends the film a fable-like quality.

The poster for I Am Not a Witch.
In the same way, we don’t know where the young girl Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) comes from, or why she appears out of nowhere. Local police, acting on the complaints of the community, put Shula into a camp of other witches - or would-be witches - which seems little more than a forced-labour group.

One can’t help thinking of Harry Potter, although I Am Not a Witch reminds us that throughout the history of the persecution of alleged witchcraft, it was overwhelmingly women who were accused. The film brings home the oddness of the Rowling franchise:  although written by a woman (her gender muffled if not masked by those famous two initials), the book’s hero is male, as are most of its main characters. In Nyoni’s film, all the alleged witches are female.

Shula is a child, but the others tend to be elderly, bringing home that other object of witch persecution - the aged, when they’re not in a protected family context. Instead of riding around on brooms and playing flying games, the African witches are tethered to ribbons wherever they go, so they won’t escape (otherwise they may turn into goats).

Furthermore, instead of being comfortably ensconced in a Hogwarts-like institution and making friends, Shula is trundled from place to place to work. She’s adopted by the older women, but still feels achingly alone. Eventually a father figure appears, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), a jovially corrupt government official who exploits the women’s labour. When Mr. Banda observes how Shula acquires some celebrity after using her supposedly clairvoyant abilities to discover a thief (who may or may not be guilty), he takes her under his wing. He protects and cozens her, but also uses her newfound celebrity. Here the film takes a turn to satire, which broadens its concerns but loosens its focus on Shula.

The loneliness of the outsider: a scene from the film.
All the actors in I Am Not a Witch are natural and convincing. Maggie Mulubwa as Shula has a stark presence, and is as assured as Quvenzhané Wallis, the young star of Beasts of  the Southern Wild. The other witches appear to be non-actors - like figures from a documentary rather than a fiction film.

If the movie is a bracing corrective to pop fictions about witchcraft, it also makes us think of the reality of people being accused of practising witchcraft. On the African continent and in India, this has become an improbable 21st-century outrage. Many women have been lynched or hounded from their homes because they were thought to have done supernatural harm to their alleged victims. This is in addition to a veritable melting-pot of the irrationally persecuted: albinos (whose body parts are supposed to have magical powers), so-called heretics (e.g. minority Muslim sects in Turkey and Indonesia) and so-called pagans (such as the Yazidi in Iraq).

I Am Not a Witch touches on these. There’s a harrowing scene where Mr. Banda’s trophy wife (also a witch) goes shopping at a supermart and is hassled by a crowd that looks like it might turn violent. The director also offers a glimpse of a couple of albino children. But she doesn’t follow up on these, and more importantly she doesn’t take the central story of Shula to its logical conclusion. “I am not a witch” turns out not to be a desperate plea or a defiant cry, but merely a young girl’s assertion of her selfhood. We expected more. Aside from easy satire of politics and pop culture, there’s an ostensibly tragic development which somehow makes tragedy seem facile.

Transporting the "witches" in I Am Not a Witch.
Nyoni’s direction is smooth, whether for panoramic shots of the African landscape or arresting close-ups of her characters. For a first film, there’s not a ragged sequence in it. This is something we miss at times, for the stumbling moments in a neophyte director’s work are often the cracks that let in genuine emotion. The lack here is underlined by the classical theme music that turns certain scenes into sentimental interludes.

In the end credits, we see that aside from the writer-director (who was born in Zambia, grew up in Wales and now lives in Portugal) and the principal cast, almost all of the technicians and other participants are of European origin. The sources of financing were also European. The production and distribution of the film - ditto. If what has been sold as an African work of film art is in fact overwhelmingly European, it’s no surprise if it’s been co-opted into a conventional, slick Western aesthetic and vision. Ultimately, I Am Not a Witch may be less an exploration of a social phenomenon in some parts of the world than a parable about itself.

Production: Arte Film Prize, BFI Film Fund, Clandestine Films, Film 4, Soda Pictures, unafilm. Distribution: Pyramide Distribution (France).

Dimitri Keramitas is a Paris-based writer and legal expert.

Friday, 9 February 2018


The name “Lucibela” conjures up an idea of beauty and light, and listeners may think the same of this Cabo Verdean artist’s music. 
The 13 tracks on her first album, Laço umbilical, reveal her extraordinary vocal technique, which “lies in her ability to explore the deep register of Brazil’s great sambistas while adding a thrilling vibrato”, according to one critic.
Born in 1986 on São Nicolau, one of the Barlavento islands lying to the north of the Cabo Verdean archipelago, Lucibela grew up in São Vincente (known for the Port of Mindelo and for being the birthplace of icon Cesaria Evora). Her music correspondingly reveals various influences.  
Lucibela says she has always loved bossa-nova, and this is clear from the album, but she grew up listening as well to Brazilian pop, rock and jazz - music she performed herself as a teenager in her first group, when she had to earn a living following her mother's death.
Her audience in the hotels and bars in Mindelo wanted to hear more “customary” music, however, and she became versed in that too. Her label Lusafrica, which produced Evora’s albums, says Lucibela learned the late singer’s repertoire, which she performed alongside her own.
Although she now lives in Portugal, Laço umbilical is meant to be the cord that links her to Cabo Verde. She sings about issues such as relationships, what it means to be a woman from the islands, and how if feels to be living far away.

From the traditional and upbeat “Chica di Nha Maninha” to the slow, poignant title track, the rich and diverse rhythms of her homeland are there in all the songs, but  Lucibela still manages to forge her own sound. Recommended.

Saturday, 27 January 2018


“Are there bookshops in Nigeria?” asked a French journalist of famous Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, igniting  a firestorm on social media following an event in Paris on Jan. 25.

Many outraged observers accused the journalist of racism and ignorance, while lauding Adichie’s response.

“I think it reflects very poorly on French people that you have to ask this question. Come on, it’s 2018,” Adichie replied, after the journalist qualified her question by saying French people knew little about Nigeria, apart from hearing about Boko Haram and violence.

Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
(Photo: V. Lebrun-Verguethen)
The exchange took place at a public event held at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the third government-sponsored Night of Ideas (Nuit des Idées), whose goal is to “celebrate the stream of ideas between countries, cultures, topics and generations”, according to the organizers.

Adichie, one of  Africa's leading authors, was the headliner or “Ambassador” of the “Night”, which comprised several discussions around France and in other countries.

As an international “icon of feminism”, and a bestselling writer, she was expected to speak about global issues affecting women, but her insightful comments on a range of topics got lost in the firestorm of protest that followed the “bookshop” question.

Many of those who posted about the interview had evidently seen it from secondary sources, and they spread information that the journalist had asked about “libraries” rather than “bookshops” (for which the French word is “librairies”). Summaries of the question and response were re-tweeted thousands of times.

Adichie, author of the novels Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun as well as the book-length essay We Should All be Feminists, later said on her Facebook page that she did not expect a French person to know almost everything about Nigeria.

“But to be asked to ‘tell French people that you have bookshops in Nigeria because they don’t know’ is to cater to a wilfully retrograde idea - that Africa is so apart, so pathologically ‘different,’ that a non-African cannot make reasonable assumptions about life there.

“I am a Nigerian writer whose early education was in Nigeria. It is reasonable to expect that Nigeria has at least one bookshop, since my books are read there,” she added.

Hundreds listen to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
at The Night of Ideas, Paris. (Photo: V. Lebrun-Verguethen)
“Bookshops are in decline all over the world. And that is worth discussing and mourning and hopefully changing. But the question ‘are there bookshops in Nigeria’ was not about that. It was about giving legitimacy to a deliberate, entitled, tiresome, sweeping, base ignorance about Africa. And I do not have the patience for that,” she posted.

“That said, the journalist Caroline Broué was intelligent, thoughtful and well-prepared. When she asked the question, I was taken aback because it was far below the intellectual register of her previous questions,” said Adichie in the Facebook post.

After the event, Broué told SWAN that her question was “badly formulated”, as she had been attempting irony,  trying to convey how little information is given about countries such as Nigeria. She was clearly embarrassed and surprised by the strong reaction.

For many in the diverse audience, the question was just proof of how white Europeans regard those of African origin. “This is not something you can ask, no matter what,” said one spectator following the interview. “It’s just stereotyping as usual.”

While most of the reports about the Nuit des Idées focused on this aspect, Adichie in fact spoke out on various subjects, including the role of literature, the treatment of refugees, and society’s expectations of girls and boys.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie listens,
as she's introduced at the Night of Ideas.
(Photo: V. Lebrun-Verguethen)
“I think words matter,” Adichie said, when asked about the impact of writing. “I think words can make change ... storytelling is very important.”

She said that telling the stories of refugees, for instance, could help to change perspectives. “The discourse on refugees, especially on this continent, it seems to me that it’s so dehumanising,” she told the audience, adding that everyone should try to put themselves in the place of “people who are seeking better lives, better homes”.

On the subject of “African literature”, Adichie said that although she sees herself in the tradition of writing from the continent, “it’s not so much the labels as the value we give to them”.

“Sometimes I’m asked if I’m an African writer, and when I’m in a bad mood, I say ‘no’,” she joked. “We tend to read African literature not as literature but as anthropology. African writers write books, they write literature.”

Regarding feminism, Adichie said she had a pragmatic approach. “For me, it’s really about how do we change things ... and sometimes it’s about incremental change,” she said.

“I think feminism is about men and women,” she added, describing her impressions of how society treats girls and boys. She said that watching her daughter at playgrounds, she saw that “little boys get more room to fail and to fall”.

Society shapes men just as it shapes women, according to Adichie, and the idea of masculinity needs to be changed. “Let the boy cry. Expect him to cry,” she said. Meanwhile, parents should raise girls to “reject likeability.”

“It’s girls that we raise to think they have to be liked,” the writer said. “Where is the damn anger?”

She described feminism as being “about equality” and said that In terms of gender, "we should look at people as people".

“I don’t want my well-being to depend on a man’s kindness. I want my well-being to depend on being a human in the world,” she declared.

Regarding racism in different parts of the world, she said countries should look in their own backyards. While many Europeans preferred to focus on racism in the United States, she said it was essential to discuss it wherever it occurred.

In France, for instance, she described “unpleasant experiences with immigration” where people of African origin are “treated with a kind of contempt”.

“All human beings really deserve equal dignity, and it shouldn’t depend on the passport that we carry,” Adichie said. - SWAN

UPDATE: Since the publication of this article, a new discussion has been raging about Adichie's comments on postolonial theory. In response to a question, she replied: "Postcolonial theory? I don't know what it means. I think it is something that professors made up because they needed to get jobs."


Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Wednesday, 24 January 2018


Hugh Masekela teaches the audience to sing a South African song during
the first International Jazz Day concert in 2012, at UNESCO headquarters,
Paris. An acclaimed musician and tireless human rights activist, Masekela
died on Jan. 23, at age 78, in Johannesburg. His best-known works include
"Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)", which became an anthem in the
 fight to end apartheid and free Mandela. (Photo: McKenzie/SWAN)

Friday, 29 December 2017


By Tobias Schlosser

On his seventh album, dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah shows that he still has a great deal of energy and anger, but also heaps of empathy and love.

The title of his complex and well-thought-out record Revolutionary Minds (Fane Phonics label) immediately makes clear that his main agenda is changing the world. He wants to see people liberating themselves from oppressing forces.

The cover of Revolutionary Minds.
As with his former records, Zephaniah does not focus on one specific issue of marginalisation and exclusion, but on a range of issues that include unequal educational opportunities, animal rights, women’s rights, indigenous rights, religious freedom, sexual abuse of children by religious authorities, political and artistic corruption, police arbitrariness, the state of whistle-blowers, past and possible future environmental catastrophes and so on (the list doesn’t end here).

Some might associate revolution with chaos, violence and inherently dangerous movements that could lead to totalitarian regimes. But this is not the revolution Zephaniah has in mind. The artist is turning the tables and making it perfectly clear that the most dangerous thing is not being a revolutionary. He demonstrates the danger of passivity in the song “In this World”: 

We live in a world where they say we communicate more, but the world stayed silent when the slave trade was making money, the world stayed silent when the Nazis started to kill trade unionists, people with disabilities, homosexuals, left-handed people and Jews, and now in the age of the global village and mass communications, the world is staying silent as the Palestinians are annihilated.

Benjamin Zephaniah and band (photo R. Ecclestone).
The same thought is brought up when actor Matt Damon reads the words of the American historian and activist Howard Zinn on the track “Revolutionary Minds”: “The problem is not civil disobedience, the problem is civil obedience”. Thus, no one can fail to understand that from Zephaniah’s point of view, being a revolutionary means uprightness and honesty. And with this righteousness the artist deeply disagrees with the current status quo, which, he asserts, comes from the “greed and short-sightedness” of politicians and economic leaders.

The heart of Revolutionary Minds consists of the longest, electronic, dub-wise track “In this World”. The poem is a mere enumeration of injustices in the world we inhabit:

We live in a world where one in four people live in a state of absolute poverty, 35,000 children die each day because they are born to poor parents, each year 24,000 people are killed and maimed by landmines, and when you hear the information rich telling you that the world is ‘wired’ and getting smaller, remember many people in the world have never made a phone call.

A serious Zephaniah (R. Ecclestone).
This counting and accounting goes on for more than six minutes, so after a while, listeners may start feeling uncomfortable. The strength of the poem is its descriptive power, a merciless and enduring confrontation with something that is there, but which nobody seems to have any interest in discussing. Nevertheless, the poem ends on a positive note: “We care, but we don’t fear”. The message is that not everything is lost, that there is still hope.

Fans may sometimes get the impression that they’re at a philosophy lecture, hearing a smart person creatively explain Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil, and learning that evil powers can emerge when everybody just plays by the rules of the current regime, focusing on what is right or wrong in the eyes of the leaders. Here, moral obligations – which might result in disagreement and resistance – are rejected by the individual. Are most people just too lazy or afraid to make an effort to achieve change?

This passivity might also be the reason that a certain president is currently in power; he is the subject of the poem “President”. Without revealing the name of the person, it is still clear whom Zephaniah has in mind when he vents his fury: “Dear Mister President [...] you suck presidentially. Just run, run as slowly as you can, and take your arms trade with you”.

Zephaniah’s anger seems equally a sign of deep sadness. In the poem “What Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us”, the artist reminds his listeners of the death of the young British man who was murdered in 1993. The case unveiled institutionalised racism in Britain and questioned the juridical practice of double jeopardy with regard to murder cases. With the current incidents of police violence in the United States, bringing up the case of Stephen Lawrence is like witnessing a never-ending tragic cycle. Almost 25 years later, his murder reminds us that we live in a world where freedom and justice are not rights that can be taken for granted.

With respect to musical influences, Revolutionary Minds is quite diverse, very electronic, very roots and very reggae-based. It is not easy to put Zephaniah’s artistic styles into one genre. However, it is not necessary to do so. The artist has other motivations, as he has already stated on his last record Naked: “Is it hip hop or is it reggae, who really care? As long as it’s loud, as long as it’s clear”. And it is clear.

Tobias Schlosser is a writer, researcher and expert drink-maker, based in Germany. 

You can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Monday, 4 December 2017


Fans of African art in France have been spoilt for choice this year, with an abundance of exhibitions around the country, particularly in the capital Paris.

Paintings from Ebony Curated gallery at AKAA.
During the spring, Art Paris Art Fair featured Africa as its “guest of honour”, with works from all over the continent, while the Louis Vuitton Foundation dedicated its vast space to art from South Africa and other countries in the region.

Paintings, sculptures and photographs have all been on view, with established and emerging artists showcased. The highlights of the year so far include the thrilling Also Known as Africa art and design fair (AKAA) and the highly praised exhibition of photographs by Malian icon Malick Sidibé, titled Mali Twist and running until Feb. 25, 2018.

AKAA presented its second annual fair in November with 140 artists from 28 countries participating. The three-day event, which attracted 15,000 visitors, received glowing reviews for its quality and cultural programme comprising talks, music, film screenings and dance.

“The fair is a great way to bring people together who love this art,” said Sorella Acosta, the owner of Spanish gallery “Out of Africa”.

AKAA founder Victoria Mann
AKAA is the brainchild of Victoria Mann, a French-American art lover and entrepreneur who studied modern African art before turning to the contemporary sphere.

“It’s a very exciting time for African art, which has seen a world-wide momentum,” Mann said. “But despite all the interest, the market is also very fragile. We’re thinking about the development globally and working with a select group of galleries every year.”

She told SWAN that the fair collaborated closely with “creators, thinkers and writers” to develop its cultural programme, which was directed by Senegalese curator Dalimata Diop. The AKAA selection committee also included Simon Njami, a writer, curator and artistic director of the Dakar Biennale’s 12th edition. Some 38 international galleries were chosen to take part in this year’s AKAA.

"Tears of Bananaman" by Jean-François Boclé.
“We believe in a sense of community and working hand in hand with participants for an exchange of perspectives that will make us go forward,” Mann said. “One of our key aims at Also Known as Africa is to create dialogue.”

The artworks certainly gave rise to discussion. One installation - created by Jean-François Boclé and presented by the Paris-based Caribbean gallery Maëlle - comprised bunches of bananas arranged in human form, for a reflection on the legacy of colonialism.

Titled The tears of Bananaman, the artwork had words or phrases carved into the fruit’s peel, in various languages: eat your liberty, come mis labios, tropicale moi. On the final day of the fair, the bananas were distributed to visitors, some of whom seemed bemused as they hesitatingly took bites. The irony was not lost on others - that the fair was taking place in a country that has a complicated and uneasy relationship with its former colonies and overseas territories.

Bananas were also a feature in paintings by South African artist Lady Skollie, whose pulsating works were displayed on the lower floor of the Carreau du Temple, a renovated 19th-century covered market where the fair was held. Skollie’s “Mating Dance” incorporated the yellow shapes, sending echoes of Josephine Baker’s legendary and controversial images while also provoking thoughts about history.

Artist Virginia Ryan, beside her artwork.
Artists who participated in the fair, such as Virginia Ryan of Italy, willingly agreed to be photographed with a bunch of bananas, for a seeming expansion of the artwork. Ryan was one of several artists “from other nationalities” at AKAA who have links to Africa. Her latest work investigates the “relationship between white and black, between contrast and contact,” according to the fair’s organizers.

“We’re not putting artists into a box and saying you have to be from a certain place,” Mann said. “AKAA allows for interpretation. Participants can determine themselves what is Africa and what it means.”

The artists from the continent addressed a range of topics, such as inequality and apartheid, as in the case of South African painter Robyn Denny. She put on an exhibition titled “Indigo - Passage to Healing” with performance artist Mamela Nyamza.

The show (curated by Beathur Mgoza Baker and hosted by Candice Berman of the Johannesburg-based Berman Contemporary gallery) consisted of Denny’s large-scale paintings and Nyamza’s live dance performance.

“Through our collaboration, we talk about the dark history that many people don’t want to talk about,” said Denny, who used crushed indigo and acrylic for her work, creating striking hues. “There’s nothing we can’t say to each other.”

Artists Robyn Denny, James Barnor and Mamela Nyamza.
Healing, in fact, was a theme of this year’s AKAA, which posed the question: can art heal us?

“When we turn our gaze away, artists heal and revive our inherited memories, giving us back our history,” said the organizers.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of AKAA was that very few objects could be considered a “pretense” for "real" art, unlike in many contemporary fairs. Whether it was the sculptures of Senegalese artist Ousmane Sow - who died last year and to whom the fair paid homage – or the pictures of Ghanaian pioneering photographer James Barnor, nearly all the works evoked history and narratives.

“One thing the artists here have in common is that they are story-tellers, and we all respond to a good story,” said Mann.


Across town, the same could be said of Malick Sidibé, whose work captures an era in the Malian capital Bamako and tells stories of the young people, families, and couples who invited him to their soirées and into their lives.

Malick Sidibe: Nuit de Noël, 1963. Gelatin Silver Print.
Collection Fondation Cartier pour l'art Contemporain
On show at the innovative Fondation Cartier in Paris, the photographs in Mali Twist highlight the diversity of Sidibé’s output from 1960 to 1980, including some world-renowned images: Nuit de Noël (Christmas Night) and Fans of James Brown. They pull viewers back to by-gone parties and to picnics along the Niger River.

For art lovers who appreciate music, Mali Twist has its own original playlist as well, selected by U.S.-based writer and professor Manthia Diawara and curator André Magnin. 

As if that’s not enough, visitors can also view the sardonic portraits of city life by Congolese painter JP Mika, whose art “reveals the influence of Sidibé’s work on an entire generation of artists”, as Magnin puts it.

The next edition of AKAA takes place Nov. 8 to 11, 2018. You can follow SWAN on Twitter @mckenzie_ale.

Artist JP Mika in front of one of his paintings at Mali Twist.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017


By Dimitri Keramitas

Screened at the recent Amnesty International Human Rights Film Festival in Paris, Christian Sonderegger’s Coby explores the experience of a 23-year-old girl who transitions into a strapping young man.

Of course, the topic is well-worn by now. What makes this documentary fresh is what the director bluntly calls its “feel-good” aspect - it has a happy ending that’s a sharp departure from the lurid or adversarial, and is not made up by a Hollywood team of scriptwriters. It also demonstrates how gender transitioning can involve not just the individual, but an entire family, which has to change how it views a child or sibling.

A poster for the documentary Coby.
This brilliant film is, however, too complicated to remain within feel-good confines. There are uncomfortable and mysterious elements, some of them discreetly (or coyly) unrevealed by the filmmaker, others perhaps unintended.

The movie is about an individual - Coby - in the furthest reaches of the U.S. Middle West. What is a French director doing making a documentary here? One hint is that Coby’s mother Ellen says a few words in fluent-sounding French to the (off-screen) director, and makes an ironic remark about how the French have an excessive need to understand everything. Perhaps she’d visited France, and met the young director? This isn’t addressed in the film but at the screening Sonderegger revealed that Ellen is actually his “biological mother”, that she’d had him during a sojourn in France and put him up for adoption. That makes him the half-brother of Coby, the subject of his film, and accounts for the sympathy and easy intimacy of the sequences with her/him.

Coby has a dual structure. We see Coby as he is now, with his post-transition name Jake. He works as a paramedic in his rural Ohio town, and lives with his partner Sara (and two adorable dogs). The director has a wonderful eye for nature, whether the harsh snowy winters or the flowery summer season. He also captures the working-class lives of the village residents without condescension.

The other narrative strand is a series of YouTube diary sequences that Coby made when he was still a she named Suzanne, when the physical-physiological transition finally caught up with the psychological one.

Coby is the same person as Jake, but in the end not really. Coby is several years younger (in the YouTube footage), and looks like a teenager. (The documentary makes us realize how in a sense we’re all transitioning age-wise.) He also seems unstable, a molten stew of desires, anxieties and other feelings, pushed along by the determination to become physically, inside and out, what his self-image is. Jake, on the other hand, is a well-adjusted guy. Coby is more interesting - it’s no mystery why the film is titled after that name, rather than “Jake”. The director is masterly at interweaving the segments, creating a counterpoint at once dissonant and harmonious. But credit must go to Coby for the videos’ creation and performance (in addition it was Coby who asked his French half-brother to make the documentary).

Director Christian Sonderegger.
The other characters in the documentary are vividly depicted. Sara, Coby’s partner, has the spunky character of Harry Potter’s Hermione. She’s the one who pushes him into concrete transitional action once he determines it’s the right path. She also defends Coby in public when others react to him in a bemused manner. Coby’s parents are also memorable in their own way. Ellen has a large personality, sometimes on the obstreperous side, but always human. Coby’s father Willard comes off as decent and intelligent, almost a sitcom caricature of the caring liberal dad.

The family represents a bit of a puzzle, or at least something mysterious. Coby’s parents are intelligent, articulate, and educated. They’re also well-off in a way that’s at odds with the rustic setting. Ellen lived in France as a younger woman, and she says she lived a “crazy life with all sorts of people”. Coby refers to how they made “lots of money” (unlike him). We learn that they home-schooled their children and didn’t expose them to television, isolating them (as Coby’s father admits) from mainstream culture. Who are these people really? The family history is probably a movie unto itself, so maybe it’s better not to get sidetracked from the central story, which belongs to their daughter-turned-son.

Appearing with the director at the Amnesty France screening was a young woman who identified as intersexual. She made a valid point that those who examine gender issues tend to pathologize them, to examine them with the idea that they are not just phenomena but effects for which we need to isolate the cause. Ellen argues along the same lines, saying that her son’s situation “just is”, that it isn’t because of his past or his family. If we’d been privy to the full story maybe we’d agree with Coby’s parents that his family was the right thing to have happened for his development. But not fully examining the family history seems to undercut this thesis.

Aside from the YouTube clips, the director includes still photos from Coby’s childhood as a little girl. She doesn’t seem to be particularly tomboyish, but apparently she had a tempestuous, rebellious streak (which in adulthood has become puckish charm). More disturbing is the number of photos of the child Suzanne in the nude. There are families who take such photos of their baby or toddler children in a totally innocuous way, and presumably Coby’s family was no different. It’s a question of culture, and possibly the home-schooling / no-TV household had a very natural slant. But again we are left with the feeling that this documentary, compelling and comprehensive as it seems, is the tip of a submerged iceberg. Coby’s story has a happy end, but a murky beginning, one the director leaves opaque.

Production: Ciaofilms/Willow Films

Dimitri Keramitas is an award-winning writer and legal expert based in Paris. The Amnesty International France Human Rights Film Festival is an annual event. Please see SWAN’s earlier article for details about the movies screened.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017


The new director-general of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, called for unity and humanism, as she takes over the troubled educational, scientific and cultural agency.

“The period in which we’re living faces numerous global challenges: massive degradation of the environment, obscurantism, terrorism, questions about the contribution of science, deliberate attacks on cultural diversity, the oppression of women, massive displacements of populations,” Azoulay said at her investiture ceremony on Nov. 13 in Paris.

Audrey Azoulay (Photo: UNESCO/Alix)
“Our inability to prevent these tragedies can be explained by a common blindness: the lack of knowledge, the denial of universal values, and the absence of a global and humanist response,” said Azoulay, a former culture minister of France.

She said that UNESCO is more “necessary” than ever and stressed that the organisation “can and must participate in a world order based on multilateralism and humanist values”.

At her swearing-in ceremony, an ambassador of one of UNESCO’s 195 member states told her: “May the Force be with you”. The “Star Wars” quotation evokes the difficulties that lie ahead for Azoulay, in the quest to strengthen UNESCO financially and heal internal rifts.

Without a magical lightsaber, she will have to rely on her experience, diplomatic skills and the backing of member states, many of whom expressed support and encouragement after her election, although they did not all vote for her.

“I would like to assure you of the support of the Africa Group as you carry out your work,” said Zimbabwe’s Ambassador Rudo Mabel Chitiga, on behalf of UNESCO’s 48 African member countries. “We are very happy to note that you have roots in Africa ... we therefore welcome you as a sister.”

Azoulay at a press conference.
Azoulay, 45 years old and of Moroccan descent, was a minister of culture and communication in the government of François Hollande and has worked in various related sectors.

She was first nominated by UNESCO’s 58-member Executive Board on Oct. 13, with 30 states voting in her favour, against 28 for Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari of Quatar. There had been nine candidates at the beginning of the race in March, including three women.

UNESCO’s General Conference – the second of the organisation’s two decision-making bodies – voted on Azoulay’s nomination Nov. 10, with 131 states in favour and 19 against (some of the organization’s member states were not eligible to vote). Her investiture ceremony took place a day before the two-week Conference ended, on Nov. 14.

Throughout the process, some delegates said Azoulay had shown keen awareness of UNESCO’s precarious situation, especially as the United States and Israel have announced their withdrawal from the organization.

It’s expected that she will use her multicultural background and youthful “dynamism” to bring diverse parties together.

Audrey Azoulay and Irina Bokova (Photo: SWAN/McK.)
“I grew up in France with the chance of coming from elsewhere, like millions of French people,” Azoulay said at her investiture. “France and Morocco, Europe and Africa, North and South. Morocco has this special asset in today's world – an asset that is enshrined in its most important text, its constitutional text – to be based on multiple roots. The preamble of its Constitution clearly affirms the attachment to Berber, Jewish, Arab-Muslim, Andalusian and African civilizations.”

She pledged to uphold UNESCO’s mandate of working for peace through the advancement of culture, education for all, and science.

Azoulay takes office Nov. 15. She is the second woman to lead the organization, succeeding Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, who was director-general from 2009. 

For a more complete article, see INPS news agency. You can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale