Wanuri Kahiu (R) on the set of Pumzi

Wanuri Kahiu is a brilliant filmmaker. Pumzi, her post-apocalyptic sci-fi short film, was screened at Sundance in 2010 to critical acclaim. In 2009, “From A Whisper”  won five out of 12 nominations at the African Movie Academy Awards held in Nigeria. 

In her TEDxEuston talk {watch video below}, Kahiu makes it clear that her sense of an ideal world for artistic creation is a world with “less labels.” To this ends, she begins her talk with a declaration: “My name is Wanuri Kahiu, and I’m a filmmaker. And I say I’m a filmmaker, not an African filmmaker, or an east African filmmaker, or a black female filmmaker or a Kenyan filmmaker. Because I’m a filmmaker. That’s what I am.”

It has become  fashionable to disavow “African” as a legitimate form of artistic identity. But are identities or “definitions” as Kahiu calls them, such bad things? Is “African” or “Kenyan” truly a prison house of political selfhood that constrains an artist?  Chinua Achebe was a self-proclaimed African writers and went on to write some of the most relatable, universal, and brilliant novels of the century. For Achebe and many in his ilk, tacking on an African identity to their art was enormously liberating and inspiring. 

Today it’s different. To claim that an African identity does nothing for ones art and sense of self is now considered hip and progressive. But that’s fine though. Generations find inspiration however and wherever they can. That an African identity galvanized the Achebes and the Ngugis of the world does not mean that it must inspire our own generation. After all, while the likes of Leopold Senghor drew considerable inspiration from their blackness, Christopher Okigbo claimed that blackness was a frame through which he just did not want to think about his work. Like the rage of blackness in the days of Negritude, maybe African identity is, for us today, a ghost from a past generation, slowly disappearing with the ending of an era.

But ghosts are ghosts because they refuse to stay dead. I’m often intrigued by the fact that  however much these artists disavow the category of “African,” it trails behind them and forms the basis on which they end up accounting for their work. Right after Kahiu makes the declaration about being just a filmmaker, she says: “For me being a storyteller has always been part of our tradition, and I’m gonna use Africa in the huge African sense of it and forgive me for that because like we said earlier Africa is not a country, but I’m gonna use, in a larger sense, the idea of being an African storyteller.” She goes on to explain that the narrative aspect of her work is tied to a certain idea of the African storyteller.

She has already said she is plain and simply a filmmaker, that she inhabits this pure identity of filmmaking untainted by ties to race, nation, and the continent. I’d have expected her to go on to speak of how she draws inspiration from an identity-less and un-labelled storyteller. She doesn’t and instead suggests that she finds it helpful to think of her work in relation to the category of “the African storyteller.” It’s funny but no matter what these artists declare, they get to a point beyond which it becomes quite absurd not to acknowledge an African identity of some kind. 

It seems to me that Kahiu and artists like herself are, at bottom, not truly against the label “African.” They are, instead, against a certain reductive, hollowed-out understanding of what it means to be an African artist—that one’s work is political (read: artistically inferior), that one’s work only applies to Africa and is therefore not translatable, that one has an ethical burden to produce work that address suffering and violence, that ones art is an anthropological object of study because it is an opening into the African reality.  That’s why I applaud writers like Taiye Selasi [even though there’s so much about her literary politics with which I don’t agree] who ceaselessly discourage critics and readers from these kinds of thinking.

I’m reminded of Chimamanda Adichie visit to Duke University last year. At some point she is asked The Question: “Do you think of yourself as a Nigerian writer, an American-Nigerian writer, an African writer?” She responds: “I think of myself as a writer, but I am all of those things and more. I’m African. I’m Nigerian. I’m Igbo. I’m black. I’m female.” What is brilliant about this response is the way it rejects any kind of absolute. Kahiu’s declaration—“I am a filmmmaker…not an African filmmaker,” is actually as reductive as defining herself solely as an African filmmaker. The reality is that she is much more than a filmmaker just as she is so much more than an African filmmaker. Notice that, for Adichie, the problem is not with political identities as such but with the tendency to make them reductive.

Adichie does have her own reservations about the term, “African writer.” At some point in the interview, she explains that the term is often burdened with a set of cookie-cutter expectations and values. But her solution is to opt for a multiplicity of identities—African, Nigerian, female, Igbo, black—rather than proposing the abolition of identities, which is at bottom another form of the single story. So I disagree with Kahiu. The slogan shouldn’t be “no more labels” but “let there be a multiplicity of labels.”

Watch the TEDxEuston Video: