If the Image is the Problem, the Image is the Answer too


Matthias de Groof, Marjolijn Dijkman, Nav Haq and Annette Schemmel

Annette Schemmel: Before we start this conversation, I’d like to ask you to briefly introduce yourselves.

Matthias de Groof: I’m a scholar in cinema studies mainly researching African cinema. My current focus in my PhD is the work of Jean-Pierre Bekolo, a contemporary Cameroonian filmmaker. I keep changing the title; currently it is “Deep Focus. The films of Jean-Pierre Bekolo in the context of African cinema.” Besides my research I’m making films too, mainly in collaboration with African artists. 

Nav Haq: I’m a curator at the MuHKA in Antwerp. I have by no means a specialisation in the African Continent, but most recently I developed an exhibition about science fiction works by artists that are set within the African continent, entitled “Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction”. More broadly, a lot of my research is on internationalisation within the contemporary art world. I am considering internationalism as a “mise en scène”, a particular kind of construct that most probably comes out of the Western World. This research has guided a lot of my work to date and most recently manifested itself in this particular project. http://www.arnolfini.org.uk/whatson/exhibitions/details/1300

Marjolijn Dijkman: I co-edited the magazine at hand, but actually I’m also participating as an artist, so my position is doubled. I am interested in science fiction itself, based on a related project I conducted five years ago. Ever since, I’ve been interested in the use of science fiction, and the way it functions within society, or in the ways it tells something about how society thinks about the future or the present.

Annette: I am a freelance curator from Berlin, currently working on a PhD on contemporary art in Cameroon. I am going to moderate this conversation. Marjolijn, why don’t you kick off with some reasons why we set up this talk?

Marjolijn: There is a particular project I would like to start with, ̋Wandering Through the Future”. It was developed for the Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates in 2006, before the economic crisis kicked in. I found a lot of huge billboards everywhere in Dubai saying “Welcome to the City of the Future!”, “Welcome to the City of Tomorrow!”, “History Rising”. I got interested in the way real estate companies were referring to science fiction scenarios that I knew from the movies. They used this language to promote a future that is supposed to be positive whereas I only knew pessimistic science fiction. So I didn’t really see how one could commercially match the two.

Then I started to analyse the science fictions of the bigger film productions. So I made a “timeline of the future” with as many films as I could find (ca. 150) and put them on the date where they stage themselves, starting with 2008 and ending in 802,701. That was the latest date that I could find. I mainly came across films from industrialised countries. They seemed to be generating this imagery. I figured out that those films that project into the far future are old films from the ‘60s and ‘70s, like Barbarella going fun-cruising in a spaceship in 40.000 AD. The latest films are much more pessimistic and project into the near future, so the future shrunk. That’s what relates to Dubai’s real estate; because science fiction became a kind of built reality. That was my starting point. Also, I should add that in Sharjah, science fiction is “informally censored”. So, people there actually don’t know science fiction so well, but they get confronted with its language by these billboards. Another part of this project was a video that brings together in chronological order scenes from selected science fiction movies that show people wandering in future landscapes. So as an ensemble this piece gives almost a historical overview of what science fiction has been.

In 2010, we did a workshop in the Maison de la Jeunesse in Douala with Lionel Manga, a local writer and critic. We thought it would be interesting in the year of the Cinquantenaire to imagine the celebrations of 100 years of independence. We showed my video and then started a discussion with a group of 15-19 year olds about these future scenarios from mainstream science fiction. Their responses were striking because the young people felt that they could not identify in any way with what they called a “white man’s vision of the future”. It simply didn’t relate to their lives! The whole discussion got stuck when they refused to imagine even a personal future beyond next week: “We are not in a situation to waste time on that!”. We ended up talking about the present instead of the future. This experience explains our interest for African science fiction and ultimately for Bekolo’s “Les Saignantes”.

Matthias: For this film Jean-Pierre Bekolo chooses a setting in 2025, in the future, differently from common narratives on Africa that are set in the past. Bekolo states (and here he agrees with you): “Talking about Africa in the present is already difficult, but talking about Africa in the future is impossible!”. You know, Hegel wrote, “Africa is a land of children concealed in the darkness of the night….” In the 19th century there was all this rhetoric about Africa not being part of “history”. Africa was supposed to enter into “history” by receiving “civilization” and even “culture”, since it was considered deprived of any culture. The same holds true for museums where Africa was being presented as our contemporary past, or as our “contemporary ancestors”, as the anthropologist Adolf Bastian puts it.

In other words, thinking about Africa in the future and stimulating the imagination about Africa is really difficult, and that is Bekolo’s challenge! His film coincides with a new wave of Afro-optimism at the turn of the century. But although “Les Saignantes” is set in the future, it is as if nothing had changed. We’re faced with a continuation of the status quo or with its exaggeration a total inurement to a miserable situation of regression and degradation. This future is a dystopian future, and that is why the film is also a cautionary film. It says basically: If we continue to do what we do now, this is our future like today, but even worse! There are a few science fiction elements: special cell phones and the way a car is started by voice, but only these minor visual details will give you a clue that we are in 2025 and not in 2005. Generally, the film doesn’t share Western aesthetics of science fiction with flying cars etc. Instead, we’re faced with what Mbembe would call a “deathscape”, the place where death reigns. There is no longer any difference between the living and the dead. And the film is entirely set at night, a fact that reinforces these morbid aesthetics of what Bekolo calls a “dying universe”.

The protagonist of “Les Saignantes” is a female prostitute. Her client is a high political official, and he dies during intercourse. To get rid of the corpse she and her friend go to a butcher. You see meat flying around and the butcher cannibalising a piece of the corpse. The girls then use the official’s funeral to get access to the realm of political power and to ultimately destabilise the phallocentrism of power. The film finishes with them getting their money and access to power, but nothing has changed. All this is intermingled with the “Mevoungou”, an ancestral ritual that exalts and celebrates the power of women.

Beyond this, I’d like to address the idea of choice. Right after the independence of many African countries in the 60s, the Afro-Futurisms referred to ideas about a new, promising future. Now all that remains of those ideas are ruins and scattered dreams. As Kobena Mercer points out, many African films address the necessity of having an attitude of attentiveness towards that trauma of a failed dream. Now, in my opinion, “Les Saignantes” deals with the impossibility of a “second burial of the past”. We are in a future, in which this attitude of attentiveness towards the past has become impossible. In order for the present to fully realize itself, it needs this relationship with the past to exorcise the haunting ghosts of the past. If such a relationship is impossible, the present cannot fully realize itself. So the film warns of a future, in which it is no longer possible to make choices or to imagine a future.

Annette: Who is Bekolo addressing with this film? He is speaking from an African diaspora position, isn’t he? Who is his audience?

Matthias: Well, he constantly shifts between a diasporic position and an African position. So, interestingly, in his installation “Une africaine dans l’espace” that was shown at Quai Branly in Paris in 2007, he shows a space ship; a kind of meteorite that brings together diasporic Africans in a Pan-African ideology of return to the mother continent.

So it’s actually transforming the idea of the brain-drain into a brain-gain, similar to George Clinton and the Universe with their song “Mothership Connection” (1977). He uses science fiction language here. But generally, his films are made for Cameroonians, starting from the imagination of his own people, because he thinks there is a lack of such films. There is no assertion of existence through cinematic art in Cameroon that could function as a social and cultural mirror. In his own words: “If the image is the problem, the solution is the image too!”

Marjolijn: How was the film perceived in Cameroon?

Matthias: I don’t think it got screened very often there. That is the main problem. It has not found many distribution possibilities within Cameroon itself. Unfortunately, Bekolo could not make use of the Nollywood distribution system either, even if “Les Saignantes” shares some of its aesthetics. His film, rather, belongs to an auteur genre. Before making this film, Bekolo asked for an audience with the Minister of Culture. He was asked to pay for the meeting, a condition that he couldn’t accept. When he went back to the popular “quartier” and told the story to his friends, a girl said: “I have the telephone number of these guys!” That’s how Bekolo came up with the idea to make this film about the latent power of women, who are connected with high officials.

Annette: Well, funnily enough, the current Minister of Culture is a woman… Nav, did you know Bekolo’s Saignantes?

Nav: I knew of it, but I had never seen it.

Annette: Could you tell how you came up with the subject for the exhibition Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction?

Nav: I think I realised quite intuitively that there was a curious trend in artistic practice to make science fiction works that were set in the African Continent; “Kempinski” by Neïl Beloufa, Omer Fast’s “Nostalgia” films, the mainstream movie “District 9”, and even techno music such as the releases by the group Africa Hitech. I was curious to know why now, all of a sudden, all these artists were working in this way and seemingly independently of one another. The artists in the exhibition are pretty much half from the African continent and half from the European continent. It felt like a kind of “longitudinal” tendency, and I don’t think that’s an accident really.

Maybe it’s relevant to state that historically speaking, science fiction was a means of visualising difference and fear of “the other”, as in all the allegories of communism represented in American Films during the Cold War era, for example. But a lot of the artworks I selected address the genre of science fiction without emulating its classic tropes necessarily. They become science fiction by folding or collapsing different tenses into each other; they fold the present into the future and the present into the past through quite simple iterations or reiterations of tense. So, Neïl Beloufa, for example, describes “Kempinski” as an “ethnographic science fiction documentary”, an interesting convolution. He invites people to talk about the future in the present tense and that makes it a science fiction of sorts.

Or “Icarus 13” by Kiluanji Kia Henda, which creates a narrative about the first Angolan space mission to the sun in a series of eight photographs. All of the images show actual sites in Luanda: there is this monument to the first President, António Agostinho Neto that Kiluanji imagines as being the space rocket that goes to the sun. It’s based on an African joke about the former President of Mozambique, who had these quite pretentious ambitions of travelling to the sun, and people would tell him: “That’s completely ridiculous, you would just burn up!”. He answered, “Well, we’ll go at night-time.” And there are three really interesting films by João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva. They’ve actually made a lot of films in various African nations. All their films are silent, only around two minutes long and shown on 16 millimetre. On the surface, they don’t really look like science fiction at all, but these slow motion films of sometimes quite banal things have something magical about them. The artists speak of a sort of alien theory, like seeing something on Earth for the very first time, just like with their film The Blind Man Eating a Papaya.

We also exhibited this project by Pawel Althamer called “Common Task – Mali” from 2008. It has a strange ethnographic quality. He travelled with his neighbours from Warsaw to Mali in order to meet the Dogon people. We exhibited some photographs taken by one of Althamer’s neighbours, Mr. Niedzwiecki. They almost look like a group of guys on a stag weekend with their golden suits! They look like alien invaders in the landscape, and there’s something quite curious about choosing the Dogon people as hosts because they’re fabled for their own extraterrestrial beliefs as well. It reminded me a bit of the quote in the anti-colonial film from 1953 by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, “Les Statues Meurent Aussi”, which states, “We are the Martians of Africa.”

Matthias: This reminds me of the experimental films by ethnographer- filmmaker Jean-Rouch, in which the camera becomes a catalyst for the interaction between people. You can transpose this onto science fiction; you can make ethnography about how people react to people disguised within the aesthetics of science fiction. Instead of just the camera, it’s science fiction itself that becomes a catalyst.

Nav: Yes. Then there is “Pumzi” by Wanuri Kahiu. It’s 21 minutes long, but it is intended to be a precursor to an actual full-length feature film that she wants to make. It’s quite impressively made considering the budget. Also, she’s the only woman artist in the show.

I was just wondering about that because the science fiction world is quite a male community, isn’t it?

Nav: It’s a very boyish, whimsical thing, yes, definitely.

Annette: Do you think there is a difference in the way filmmakers access science fiction aesthetics and the way artists use it?

Nav: I think it’s totally different. It’s partly to do with the means that people have available.

Matthias: Well, I think from Kubrick onwards there is a shift in the ways science fiction is made within the film world, from the commercial science fiction to the more artistic, independent science fiction…

Marjolijn: Maybe artists tend to challenge the genre as such? A lot of mainstream science fiction films subscribe to one clear plot; they’re always critical about technological or political advancements and assuming that it’s all getting worse. It’s never getting better somehow. And I think if artists use science fiction they deal instead with a distance in time, maybe not so much with the idea of proceeding towards catastrophe.

Nav: Yeah, I agree. It’s a different kind of suspension of disbelief as well somehow, but artistic science fiction is not even always about the future actually. Works such as those by Neïl Beloufa and Gusmão & Paiva are actually about a break from “history“.

Matthias: Could you explain that “break from history”?

Nav: Well, I think that “history” has always been part of a colonial exercise. The coloniser has the authorisation to legitimise something, and is able to position it inside or outside of “history”. Also, “history”
is in a sense a huge intellectual and representational burden for the African continent. People like Sarkozy continue to reiterate the Hegelian thinking that Africa hasn’t entered “history” and so on.
1 (And in reverse, there is a similar thing with the future. You can make a strong case that, in economic terms, the future is already being colonised by capitalism.) Historically speaking, the next step in terms of ideological patronage after colonialism is “universalism”. I personally don’t believe in the idea of the universal, and I think some of these works do question this idea too, in an emancipatory way. Both African and the European practitioners express the desire for a new kind of representation of the African continent, which is also something that has emerged independently to the North American Afro-Futurism of the 70s or to the idea of an Afrocentrism.

So you see a break with the unilateral idea of history in the industrialised countries in this artistic science fiction?

Nav: In some cases, yes.

Matthias: But isn’t the idea of science fiction – beginning with George Méliès’ “Le voyage dans la lune” (1902) – an idea of expansion, of transgression of boundaries, of conquest? The Other is equated with the alien and thus gets dehumanised. (In the case of Resnais and Marker, the Self becomes the alien). The Other may be super powerful, but at the same time very vulnerable, for example, to diseases and those kinds of things. I wonder which artworks from your show break with that notion of the Other as the alien, including the “exoticisation” of the Other? Aren’t some of these films perpetuating this idea? To give an example, in Blomkamp’s film racial difference gets replaced by difference in species of the aliens. So, Otherness gets “naturalised” into something that is not human anymore, notwithstanding similarities, such as emotionality.

Nav: Well, I definitely agree with that, but then he’s a filmmaker, and I would differentiate his work from what the artists are doing. Neïl Beloufa or Gusmão & Paiva are doing something different…

Matthias: …like deconstructing the hegemonic view on Africa?

Nav: Yes.

Marjolijn: But I keep wondering if some of those artists aren’t just using an African setting – be it landscape or cityscape – as a ‘theatre stage’ for their scenario? And this African setting is chosen because it is considered particularly different, like in the case of Pawel Althamer?
In Bekolo’s film, on the other hand, I see a hands-on engagement with a specific local situation: He applies science fiction as an emancipatory way out of this situation, as a social mobiliser, an empowerment for his people.

Matthias: Well, in another film of Bekolo, in “Le Complot d’Aristote” you have a Cameroonian audience sitting in the cinema watching a film that you don’t get to see; you only see its flickering in the faces of the spectators. The sound track suggests that it’s an ethnographic film about Africa. It could be an African film, a Calabasse film, which adopts this kind of ethnographic European gaze for the sake of the market, or it could be just a traditional European ethnographic film. Suddenly, someone in the audience says, “They project Africans like some aliens from another planet, extraterrestrials without ET’s space technology!” This viewer obviously identifies with the people on the screen, but he says, “This is not our world!”. So, to this audience their supposed representation through ethnography is as strange as aliens in a science fiction film. 

Annette: I think that’s a nice point to end with for now. It sums up many of the things that we addressed so far. Thank you!


A conversation about the current appropriation of science fiction in African settings and/or for African audiences brings the issue to a close. Drawing on the expertise of Annette Schemmel (DE), Matthias de Groof (BE), Marjolijn Dijkman (NL), and Nav Haq (UK), we link a recent exhibition in Britain on this subject to the filmmaking of Cameroonian Jean Pierre Bekolo.

The magazine “JAMAN” (Bamum for “German”) spotlights encounters between Cameroon and the “West” for more than a hundred years. The artworks, the poetic and scientific texts, and the cartoons that have been specially produced for this issue challenge cherished notions of cultural authenticity.

„JAMAN“ is the first of a series of special editions published by the European art organization Enough Room for Space in collaboration with the Cameroonian artist journal DiARTgonale.

Digital: JAMAN – DiARTgonale Special Edition #1
Download: JAMAN – DiARTgonale Special Edition