More than half of the world's population now lives in cities, and the rapid growth of African metropolises reflects that trend. A Cologne exhibition documents that process with a focus on youth and artistry.
Nigerian capital Lagos now counts 15 million inhabitants
Car drivers honk, busses roar and merchants shout about the goods they're selling. It's everyday life at a bus station in Lagos, but the sounds of the Nigerian capital have now come to Cologne as part of the "Afropolis: City, Media, Art" exhibition hosted by the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum.
At Cologne's central library, Nigerian sound artist Emeka Ogboh has set up a speaker to bring Lagos and Cologne into acoustic dialogue.
"It's a melting pot of all kinds of sounds," Ogboh said. "In this bus park, you discover the multiculturalism and the economics of Lagos. It embodies what the city is all about."
Developing at lightning speed
The exhibition deals with the rapid pace of growth in the population of Africa's major cities, which can be up to four percent annually - the highest in the world, according to exhibition organizers. The cities of Cairo, Lagos, Nairobi, Kinshasa and Johannesburg are spotlighted in the exhibition.
"We found it fascinating to look at what happens when a place becomes a world city. It's interesting to see how these models differ from those in Europe or America, and that's what we wanted to examine with this show," said curator Kerstin Pinther, who developed the concept for the exhibition.
"Afropolis" features Nairobi as a place embodying extreme opposites. Wealthy districts have sprung up right next to impoverished neighborhoods filled with tin huts. The artist troupe Slum-TV uses a mix of comic strips and soap opera to show how Nairobi's slum residents make ends meet with illegal street sales.
The skyscaper stands out in Kinshasa
Neglected images of Africa
The exhibition hopes to highlight aspects of African culture that are often ignored in public portrayals of the continent.
"Researchers and others have helped foster an image of Africa and its art that is static, rural and bound up with tradition," Pinther explained. "As a counterpoint, we're trying to focus on elements of Africa that are very contemporary and urban, and that are shaped by a very youthful scene."
European artists play a role in the exhibition as well. Two Dutch artists completed a model of a popular inner city district in Cairo. If city planners get their way, the district will become a spot that's intended to be attractive to tourists. The artists' model, on the other hand, incorporates the wishes of the local residents, which diverge from the existing plans.
Poet Kgafela oa Magogodi from Johannesburg is well aware of the problems that gentrification presents, particularly after the influence of the soccer World Cup on his home city earlier this year.
"There is a sense in which many African countries attempt to perform to the world through their cities," Magogodi said. "But they don't care about performing to their people, which essentially means accommodating them and finding a place for them in the city."
Kgafela oa Magogodi says Africa should be less concerned with the world's opinion
A response to Merkel
The artists featured in "Afropolis" use photography, texts, films and even blogs to show how they've found their place in African metropolises. For Emeka Ogboh, the hallmark of the cities is multicultural cohabitation. That's why he's excited to see the reaction to his sound installation in Cologne.
"I found it interesting for the installation to be out here on the streets in Germany, especially in light of Angela Merkel's speech on integration, migration and multiculturalism," Ogboh said. Last month, Germany's chancellor commented that attempts to build a multicultural society in Germany had "utterly failed."
"I want to see how people will react to this strange sound out on the street, which could be likened to an immigrant coming into a new place."
On the other hand, Ogboh acknowledged that the acoustic landscapes he treasures in Lagos are just an annoyance for others. That's been the case for some passers-by in Cologne, who have already made their way to the library's doorman to complain.
"Afropolis" runs until March 13, 2011.
Author: Jan Bruck (gsw)
Editor: Kate Bowen