Africa, but Not as We Know It ; A Great Nine-Month Festival of African Arts - Painting, Sculpture, Music, Drama, Film, Literature - Will Help to Demolish a Few Cultural Cliches, Says ROBERT HANKS

Article excerpt

"A scar on the conscience of the world" - Tony Blair. "I bless the rains down in Africa" - no, hang on, that's "Africa" by Toto, and it isn't strictly relevant. You get the point, though: Africa is a basket- case of a continent, where people alternately starve and hack each other with machetes, and only handouts from nice Westerners can save them from themselves. However often it is pointed out that this is a cliche - so that, after a while, pointing it out becomes a sort of second-order cliche - the cliche survives.

Africa 05 is the newest and most determined attempt to put paid to the cliches. It's a nine-month festival of African culture taking place across London, in venues ranging from the mighty South Bank Centre to the tiny Hackney Museum. You name it, they've got it: painting, music, film, literature. By the end, nobody should have any excuse for any lazy stereotyping about Africa, or any stereotypes at all.

The festival kicks off in earnest next month, with the opening at the Hayward Gallery of Africa Remix, the largest exhibition of contemporary African art ever seen in Europe. The project is so big that it has taken the combined might of four major galleries to put it on. It has already been seen at Dusseldorf's Museum Kunst Palast, and after the Hayward it travels on to the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo.

Simon Njami, the show's curator, says: "The aim was to show contemporary African art from within, because for too long a time Africa has been depicted by foreigners from outside." He is fed up with Europeans who spend a few weeks in Africa and come back thinking they know the place.

Africa Remix's origins can be traced back to the Pompidou's 1989 exhibition, Magiciens de la terre, which put mainstream European and American artists alongside craftsmen and "traditional" artists from around the world: "So you would have Louise Bourgeois, and then from Africa you would have coffin- makers," Njami says. In one way, the show was a breakthrough, treating African artists as equals and bringing some individual artists to the attention of the West for the first time. But Njami "felt a bit pissed off, because it was a way to lock Africa in a certain vision, a certain exoticism... as if Africa was a continent where nothing happened for centuries."

In fact, the opposite is true: Africa is a continent where nothing stays still. "Somebody walking in London in the last century," Njami says, "wouldn't be lost today. Somebody walking in Paris a hundred years ago wouldn't be lost today. Somebody walking in Cairo 10 years ago would be lost today."

Ever since Magiciens de la terre, Njami has been arguing about Africanness with that show's curator, Jean-Hubert Martin - although the arguments have been friendly enough for Martin to be one of Njami's team of co-curators for Africa Remix. This time around, Njami has concentrated on the continent's urban, modern, cosmopolitan aspect.

At even a cursory glance, it is obvious that these artists know their way around the contemporary art scene in London, New York and Paris. For instance, Jane Alexander's sculptures of human-animal hybrids - originally designed for the British officers' mess in Cape Town - would rub shoulders very comfortably with the Chapman brothers' genital-faced children.

Most of the artists have spent time abroad. Some were born outside Africa, or live outside Africa now. Some of the pieces comment on this: Loulou Cherinet has contributed a video of African men in Stockholm, where she is based, talking with increasing lack of self-consciousness about their affairs with white women. Njami himself was born in Geneva and educated in Paris, but throughout his life has travelled back and forth to Cameroon.

His critical involvement in promoting African art developed from a search for ways of reflecting his identity: "I was a normal Parisian kid," he says, "but still through television, through the news, through the museums and galleries, I saw nothing that reflected part of me. …