Text by Elena Feijoo
Photo by Paul Mpagi-Sepuya and Florent Meng
March 8, 2017 Verbatim
— Issue 2
Borders are funny things. Centuries are spent defining and redefining them, alas any can dissipate in the matter of a few moments. Missla Libsekal, founder of Another Africa, the (sometimes) online platform providing an alternate perspective on everything art, news, politics, and design from Africa and the diaspora, knows all about interacting with the borders that attempt to define us. An Ethiopian native that, at a young age, relocated to Vancouver, spoke with me about the current issues facing groups of people who are often defined by the physical and social borders created by mass media, and how Another Africa is boldly interjecting into that narrative.
So, what was your experience moving from Ethiopia to Canada?
You know, I don’t really remember that much, because I was four years old and we moved from Ethiopia to Swaziland. From age four to twelve we were in Swaziland, from the end of the 70s to the mid 80s, so we lived right next door to apartheid in full swing. Swaziland, though, was really a haven. Very much like “ We Are the World”, haha. I went to an international school, and so it was way more international than, sadly, Vancouver was later on. There were people from all over the world and it was very progressive. By the time we made it to Canada we were in high school and my sister and I were the only two black people in the school. Suddenly we became really aware of being black. We became “African”. People would ask us if we went to school on an elephant and if we spoke “African”, and it was so shocking. Having come from a very sophisticated environment in school to coming to a so called “first world” nation, to really encounter some of this…even as progressive as Canada really is, just a lot of ignorance.
Do you feel like this is still something that happens to individuals from Africa today? It seems like I hear stories from people being asked those same types of questions. How do you feel the experience has shifted from then to now for African immigrants, or has it?
I don’t know, you know. Some major things have changed in the world. News, media and the Internet so, opportunities to have more information, to be more informed are exponentially greater. At the same time, people are inundated with so much information. People are still sort of in their bubbles. The problem, I think, is mass media. It still speaks of African issues as problematic grand narratives, so most people get their information from mass media and major personalities and it’s not uncommon where you hear a political figure referring to Africa as a country. What I will say that’s really different is we’ve devised things like digital publishing and social media, so now you are starting to see people all over the continent and in the diaspora as well that are publishing their own stories and publishing their own images. Suddenly, people have a lot more opportunities to confront their own ignorance and prejudices. So I think that’s probably the biggest change. The world’s eyes have really switched over to Africa; it’s kind of like the last territories to reconquer. This is a population where most of the people are young, it’s going to become one the major workhorses of the planet, it’s still underdeveloped, unlike North America or Europe. Technology, fashion, or even the art world has turned its eyes towards Africa.
Do you see this shift of focus on Africa as a positive gaze or negative? Elements of both?
Yeah, I think things can’t be seen as a binary. At the end of the day, it really sort of depends on what your motivations are. The most important thing, besides the buzz and opportunities, is what ends up happening in people’s lives, and how that gets addressed. One of the challenges or realities that we’re seeing, for instance, is that when Europe was industrializing, there was no mass media. It wasn’t being televised in real time, and that information wasn’t being spread around the world. In Africa’s case, and in other continents where they’re going through rapid development over the next however many decades, it’s kind of a new phenomenon that the world watches and participates. We can formulate opinions about it.
So we agree that the advent of the Internet was a game changer on all fronts, granted accessibility but also real time critique. When I spoke with Teddy Goitom from Afripedia, we also spoke about derailing the mass media narrative, but I am also curious how Another Africa, understanding that people being able to write their own narratives is important, is addressing the issue of accessibility or lack thereof to the internet in some countries?
Whether it’s Teddy or it’s myself, there’s this big personal motivation to just do as much good as you can. This motivation is sometimes bigger than reality. I think as publishers you’re trying different strategies to try to engage people, or try to create a certain pace, to give people the flexibility. We try to figure out a balance to deal with how people are really engaging with digital publishing and then on the other side, there is absolutely a digital divide. One of the things that we are working on at the moment with another writer and curator is developing a series that started because we realized that the continent is very much divided based on colonial diversity of language and if you think about Europe, it makes sense. Not everyone is going to speak French or English, but it’s something that people sort of forget. So artists that are operating within francophone Africa typically have strong relationships with Europe, and there’s lots of publishing and support. Especially because these places were former colonies. There is still a very strong connection with cultural programming. You see a lot of French writing but very little in English or almost none. So we decided that this would be one sort of thing to look at, and then we also realized women struggled with visibility, so we combined these two starting points for a series on women starting with francophone Africa to do a publication or interview series with them. We decided to do short form interviews for the website and then do long form interviews to take into book form, coming into this whole idea of bringing something into the physical world, also making it analog, meaning it can actually be in schools and so forth. Address the digital divide. We also thought about the fact that historical texts are very hard to find. If there are books or publications, they are still stuck in physical format. There’s no consolidated distribution methods, so it’s very likely that if you did a google search, it wouldn’t come up. So, we are working in this space where there is material but is very difficult to access. With this increased interest in African matters, we decided to commission essays by either art historians or curators who the artists felt they have some sort of relationship with and they would feel comfortable with. So (these commissioned works) are going to be compiled into a book project. We are also planning to do workshops with artists starting in Tunisia. We have been assessing over the last couple of years what the issues are and how can we start working towards the vision that we imagine. Addressing things that we know are just really problems. When we started the series, we tried to write some kind of introductory text, and I read it and said “No. There are so many generalizations here. No statistical data to even back any of these things up. Let’s step back and do a series where we have a couple of questions and were gonna ask the people who have been working in this industry to speak about their own personal experiences and to address these questions…” and it was just really eye opening. The things people would say. It starts to become so meaningful, like, (we asked ourselves) why focus on women? As soon as you start to categorize something, there’s always a sort of pushback, we don’t want labels to confine us. We think, “is it helpful to create this category?” Sometimes you realize there is simply just a problem, you can name it or state it, for instance, lack of female visibility. Then suddenly, when all these people start speaking about their issues you think, yeah. When you listen and you create a safe space, it gives you a lot more courage and you think “This is what we should be doing”. For me, it’s become a very strong way to gain perspective. I would put it right up there as I would news. In some cases, I would say art is in a way more influential than the news. Because the news can just offer so much rhetoric.
How would you describe the alternative perspective that Another Africa offers to its readers?
I think that, through art, people have used strategies to introduce new kinds of environments. I had this wonderful conversation with this artist and he said, “Well, i’m like a mirror.” I like that notion, where suddenly your relation to things becomes clear to you. You decide what you would like to embrace and it allows you to make decisions, takes you out of your, wouldn’t say ignorance, but you become aware.
When I think about some of the things that feel quite important within Another Africa, it is the desire to not have an agenda behind the writing. I’m not there to tell people what to think. Neither are the writers. We are just simply there to give people the information to engage with, to reflect and to come to their own conclusions. In terms of something alternative, when I first started this project, there really weren’t that many other publications. The publications that were around at the time aren’t really around any longer. It was really new the way I was trying to do things at the very beginning. This idea of using visuals and doing interviews and including information about where something is located, having reference to a map…all of those things are very strategic, which no one was really doing. Now I think that I spend less time looking at what other people are doing and trying to do an indepth look at specific things, like an artist series, where it is a consolidation of learning over the last 5 years. When I go travel and I look at the way people are using the internet, and their accessibility, and realize that the publication is not really reaching them, am I ok with that? No. Not really. So what can I do? Let’s see how we can come back into the physical world. How do we support artists in terms of addressing this kind of divide where art feels so foreign. I feel like it’s really sort of grown beyond just publishing one article, there’s many things to do, that are operating, that are not particularly visible just by looking at the website.
You spoke a little bit about the space between your vision and the boundaries of a medium or tool, which to me seems like a really fruitful space. Can you talk more about coming back into real space, and reacting to the needs of a situation where we rethink again what to represent and how to represent it. That seems like a very interesting flexible space to occupy.
Absolutely. I think that is actually a very big thing. I think one of the thoughts I never let go of is “why bother?”. Why bother going through the effort of printing, what makes something worth while? There really has to be a strong importance. For me, it’s not really a question of volume or pumping stuff out, which the internet really does. So much of publishing is just to push it all out. You look at some sort of tabloid magazine and as soon as some celebrity instagrams something it’s somehow on their website. I like this idea of being restrained. To be more significant about what little it is we are able to do. I have a tendency to have big dreams or think about how we are going to solve these big problems. There’s this feeling of accumulating not only experience but frustrations, when the problems start to come to the surface, but you realize it’s not only you. So I think sometimes the website itself only gives a small sense of what it is that we’re doing. One of the other things that I think is so important but I haven’t figured out how to convey is all the amazing conversations that i’ve had with people that have contributed. Us working together, not only about how to write, not only how to be generous, but how to get into things. Especially, in the fact that resources are still quite limited.This sort of publishing has been really nourishing. Not only in terms of building relationships with people but just having really dynamic conversations, which has just been really remarkable. So there are all these things that are just not conveyed or not apparent through the face of the website.
How do you find the artists, collaborators, and creatives for Another Africa?
For the artists, i’ve spent so many days on the internet getting lost in random places where I really have no idea how I got there. I am sure you know, like when you have twenty browser windows open. I was constantly doing research, and then sometimes I think, depending on the type of work, you can access a lot easier maybe, but it depends on your knowledge about a specific medium or topic. Finding or writing about one thing is going to be a lot easier than writing about something else where you really have to do a lot of research. That also influences the way the editorial comes together. We’ve always said to the contributors and the writers that you need to be passionate about what it is you are doing. If you don’t have some kind of personal motivation yourself, then it’s going to be difficult. And I’ve always said for the different people that contribute, let’s have a frank discussion about what you are getting from contributing, because if you’re interested in establishing relationships than that’s great and I want to make sure you get those. if I can introduce you to somebody as a result, I absolutely will. Because of this, the editorial is not thematically driven but it’s based more on the interest of the contributors. And of course, we can use different digital tools to aggregate things like tagging. You can develop these pillars of content. It’s not totally random, but it is a bit more relationship based.
Are there any artists that you are really excited about right now?
That’s actually really hard for me. I realize that there are things I really like and that there are things that I just don’t like. Five years ago, that really stressed me out. It makes you feel like you have to be diplomatic. But what I realized is that not everything that is published is my taste, and i’m okay with that. I’m not trying to control a certain kind of feel, or a certain kind of zone of aesthetics. I realize that through this project one of the greatest treasures has really been the conversations i’ve had with artists. I think out of this whole artistic ecosystem, the artists are really the most generous. These relationships are really rich. It’s not just about the artistic practice or the work or product. It’s about the conversations, or the things that go around the ecosystem which have really been quite incredible.
How do you envision Another Africa in the future?
I think it really is at a stage where it only captures a small part of my vision. I’m still really intrigued and inspired by the idea of the library, and I think digital publishing really does not operate in this manner. Digital publishing is very much a waterfall; whatever content that’s new pushes everything else down. For me, I would just like to really keep building up on the writing, like writing about the progress of an artist over the course of their career. To be able to see that, whether it’s interviews or conversations, or an archive of work, for it to become really more like a practical resource. I think how it looks is one thing, that’s a question of having financial resources to redesign, and the challenge with the Internet is it is constantly changing. It’s quite an investment. People think it’s so easy, like you have a URL name and hosting and BOOM you’re done but no, actually it’s really not. Especially if you are trying to do something more than a Tumblr blog. I have a feeling Another Africa right now is just a snapshot of the foundation of what it could be. I think there is still so much to be done.