The Masiyaleti Mbewe ‘skyscraper’ is ready to create art on every floor

If I could be given – and this is me now daydreaming – a skyscraper [I would] just be allowed to create art on every floor.

It’s been a little over a year since writer, photographer and activist, Masiyaleti Mbewe, held her debut solo exhibition, The Afrofuturist Village.

I may not have been present at the Goethe Institute in Windhoek, where this exhibition took place, but from my virtual viewing of, and learning about it, I sensed an immersive experience, rigorously executed project, with an underlying vision of radical inclusion. There were video installations, braille and sign language interpretations, and then, of course, the very vibrant photographs of people across the spectrums of sexuality, body shape and type.

Masiyaleti is currently conceptualizing the projects’ next iteration, and in this interview, we talked about The Afrofuturist Village as a converging point for the ideas and motivations that lie at the heart of her art-activist work: futurism, queer activism, pan-Africanism, African spirituality, and more.

Q) You’re a Zambian raised in Botswana and currently living in Namibia. You’ve also travelled a bit across Africa. This situation of straddling geographical spaces on the continent must have informed the pan-African outlook of your lifework, somehow?

Well, growing up in Botswana as a Zambian was very alienating because I’m speaking Setswana in a Zambian accent and then when I go to Zambia I’m speaking Nyanja in a Tswana accent. And then I have this way of speaking English that is like a twang; like, where did it even come from? It’s this weird way of existing, which is very alienating in relation to space. And thus, space, occupying space, feeling alienated… all of these things have become a huge part of my work. It deeply influences my Pan-African futurism, which, by the way, is not really a term I want to claim like ‘oh, I coined it’. I’m not really interested in that; it’s a bit gate-keepy. I identify more as a queer futurist at the present moment because my aim is to queer everything, and Afrofuturism is one of the things that I would like to queer.

Q) A close reading of your work suggests that all of it – writing, feminist activism, queer activism – is all in the service of pan-African futurism. Could you respond to this reading of your work, and also say a bit about this preoccupation with the idea of pan-African futurism?

I don’t really think it’s a preoccupation. I just thought we’re presenting an idea, a different way of thinking that sort of is divergent from the epistemological state of Afrofuturism at the present moment. All things, all concepts, can be problematised and can be critiqued even by the people who are within that movement, in order to make it better. For me, it’s important to be inclusive, so I think the idea is more about uniting on a microcosmic level as Africans and to begin there to include Africanness, whatever that is, into Afrofuturism.

So, for me, it’s not necessarily throwing away Afrofuturism. No. It was just basically like saying, this is what this portion of my work aims to do, which I found important at the time. But afterwards I thought, I’m a post futurist; because I was critiquing the state of Afrofuturism, and seeing it spike in the mainstream was really cool. But I was just thinking, okay so what are we doing when everyone loses interest in this? It’s a part of our everyday life for some of us, which is not to say that if you’re capitalising on this now, you’re a terrible person – not at all. It’s more about the realistic things I can present in the artwork – especially the photography. What are the things I can put in there and be like ‘yo! I’m creating a post future?’

Q) To follow up on that: there’s been recent pushback by Africans against the term ‘Afrofuturism.’ Less than a year ago, South African writer Mohale Mashigo wrote about how ‘Afrofuturism is not for Africans living in Africa’; Jonathan Dotse is moving ‘towards a more traditional African perspective on futurism,’ and then there are your own objections to the idea of Afrofuturism, which include heteronormativity and the galactic setting. Could you speak a bit about this phenomenon of trying to “detangle that identity,” as you’ve put it, and how it could (re)shape how we engage with and think about the idea of futurism on this continent?

I did read the short essay that Mohale Mashigo wrote about Afrofuturism not being for Africans living in Africa. I think I already touched on that a little bit; about how we’re having different experiences. Coining our own terms is really important, and I thus think what Mohale touched on is very important, but I’m also not going to negate the fact that Afrofuturism gave me a home. It really gave me a gateway to a lot of people who I didn’t even know existed, whom I could learn from, regardless of where they were.

They were Black and they had this idea, a shared idea that I thought I was the only person who did when I was 18 in my room asking, ‘what about the future, guys? Why isn’t this thing like this, why isn’t that like that?’ I was always having those thoughts. My trajectory has been pan-African futurism, then it was post-futurism and now it’s queer futurism, which incorporates all of those things for me. So I don’t think the term is the problem.

Q) Are there any other fresh insights that have come from reflecting on The Afrofuturist Village over the last few months?

There are a lot of fresh insights in that there are some things that I’d do differently. But that’s neither here nor there because I have the chance now to expand. The concept is basically there, as well as the blueprint. Now, I just want to keep that going until I get to a point where there’s a digital archive of this Village to which people can contribute. Also, I did say to writer Martha Mukaiwa, from The Namibian newspaper, that it takes an Afrofuturist village to raise a child. That was cute. But then, I also think there eventually needs to be an Afrofuturist metropolis and beyond that, an Afrofuturist universe. So that’s what I’m working on. That’s what I’m trying to do.

Q) You know, I was actually curious about the choice to settle for the “village” and “rural” as the location of your Afrofuture. Was the choice symbolic of anything?

When I was a teenager, I lived in this neighbourhood in Botswana that was called Goalestown, a very magical space. It felt very isolated from everything else and was so peaceful. That’s what I imagine village life to be. Isolated from all of this nonsense. For me, “village” was also talking about how much space we’re also occupying right now, which is very small, and not really inclusive. It has to keep growing. But it’s a magical space, still; it’s peaceful for us. All of these ideas build on each other.

I think in the next exhibition and every other one, there is always going to be a cleansing, there is always going to be a clearing of the space

Q) There was also a traditional healer present at the exhibition – “to cleanse the space”, as you put it – because you were exhibiting at the German Goethe Institute in Windhoek and thought that was important as “Namibia and Germany have this strained relationship due to the Herero genocide…”  What role does your belief in traditional African spirituality play in your work?

Our traditional healing has been very much denigrated by Western ideas of connecting on a spiritual level. I want(ed) to return. On the night, I was petrified; I didn’t know how people were going to take it. We slaughtered a chicken. It was a lot. And a lot of people were like: dafuq? But I think it was important because Goethe, as much as they were providing funding and all of that stuff, is still a German institution.

We needed to cleanse the space because, you know, Black people had been on the receiving end of so much trauma at the hands of German people back in the day – and even today, if we’re speaking about how racism is still a thing. I thought, let’s cleanse this space because this is where none of that shit happens. This is our space. We don’t have to think about that stuff, because we’re together here.

We are with our ancestors here, as Africans, and as global Black people. It was, and it still is, very important for me. I think in the next exhibition and every other one, there is always going to be a cleansing, there is always going to be a clearing of the space; just creating positive spaces for Black people to occupy without fear. Always.

On reconnecting, I think really just being aware that we had those rituals, and we still do and that we can go back. Isn’t that time travel?

Q) Still on spirituality, you’ve also spoken about the pertinence of “reconnecting to our spiritual past” and also “reconnecting with ancestors” as Black people. How relevant do you think these ideas are, to the realization of a viable future for Black people, collectively?

I think we lost a great deal as Black people. A lot of our spirituality and our beliefs were taken from us with all the violence of colonialism. So, on reconnecting, I think really just being aware that we had those rituals, and we still do and that we can go back. Isn’t that time travel? Isn’t that futurism? So for me, it’s about acknowledging who we are, where we came from and what we’re trying to build as a people. I think spirituality is very important to all of that and we should reconnect. Truly reconnect. Still, if it’s something that you’re uncomfortable with, don’t do it; that’s also fine. Because it’s really about being a safe, nonjudgmental space, ultimately.

Q) You’re currently conceptualizing the projects’ next iteration. Are there any things about this offshoot you could share?

At this stage, I’m looking for collaborators and funding to create this. I am also currently expanding and making it more accessible and more inclusive. I just know that whenever it happens, it’s going to be bigger and better.

Q) It’s really fascinating to imagine what an extension of such a project would be like. This brought the notion of ‘radical inclusion’ to my mind. What do you think that should look and feel like, and how are you thinking of projecting that in the forthcoming iteration of the project?

I want to let go of being this person curating Black identities and whatnot. I want it to be like: include yourselves. Bring yourselves into this place. It’s our safe space. Come home. This is for us, by us. So eventually, I’d want it to occupy digital space and occupy physical space. If I could be given – and this is me now daydreaming – a skyscraper and just be allowed to create art on every floor … and if other artists and creators came and left their mark, it’d be like a museum of Afrofuturism – constantly expanding. It keeps growing and growing and growing until it engulfs our whole world. Can you imagine that? Mmm, one day I’ll open the museum of Afrofuturism.

Q) You are said to be working on a novel and a collection of short stories. How are those coming along?

I’m constantly writing. Right now, I’m mainly working on my thesis which is a comparative analysis of Afrofuturism, magical realism and speculative fiction in two bodies of work. So, the novel and the anthology, one day, one day …

Q) There’s this challenge you threw at the audience who visited your exhibition, and I’d like to throw it back at you: What role do you imagine yourself playing in this futuristic African village?

My role would be just suggesting stuff. And letting everyone else’s ideas run wild. And from those ideas, we create these things together, out of which we build things in this future.

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This interview by Moshood comes from a partnership between Let’s Be Brief and People’s Stories Project (PSP) – part of the British Council’s arts programming across Africa // Photography: Masiyaleti Mbewe

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