Public Space “Under Influence”: Rewriting in Progress in Africa

Public Space “Under Influence”: Rewriting in Progress in Africa

Monica Coralli
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2823-5.ch005
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This chapter explores the intersections between the notions of “urban interior design” and “public space” in West African cities. The artistic dynamics at work reshape the spaces by discussing their colonial imprint and the symbolism they have successively been charged with. As the nature of the projects is very diverse, both in terms of techniques and materials used and the objectives pursued, there is a clear desire to take greater account of the human dimension and to establish connections between local roots and the globalizing push. Through the analysis of some experiments carried out in Dakar, Cotonou, Porto-Novo, and Douala, the author identifies seven trends. The examples presented her relate to one or more of them. The projects combine the aesthetic approach with an ethical message: they translate into a citizen commitment to better, fairer, and more inclusive spaces.
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The common denominator of a large number of African cities in the old European colonial empires is the influence of colonial tutelage on models of spatial organization. It has continued to structure cities well after Independences and continue till this day to influence their expansion and densification. However, since Independences, the progressive questioning of this heritage has taken several forms. The spatial translations of this post-colonial (or de-colonial) desire to rethink so-called public spaces as places for the expression of contradictory narratives will be examined. The art of celebration and propaganda from central powers has given way to an art of denunciation and contestation at the heart of new struggles of the post-colonial era. In the background of these are the theories developed by several authors who call on Africa to wake up, to leave the colonial model and its derivations and declinations at all levels. Among them is Achille Mbembe's book, an activist essay with a very evocative title, Sortir de la grande nuit. Essai sur l’Afrique décolonisée (tr.: Getting out of the long night. Essay on decolonized Africa) which was published in 2010 during the ceremonies of the fiftieth anniversary of Independence. This title is taken from the metaphor used by Frantz Fanon in his book “Les damnés de la terre” (tr: The damned of the earth) (1961).

Wakanda never existed but this imaginary Kingdom of futuristic and high tech cities, born of the imagination of scriptwriter Stan Lee and modeled by director of “Black Panther” (2018), Ryan Coogler, in the 2018 Marvel Studios production, could be one of possible answers to a question to which we might never have an answer: what would the African continent and its agglomerations and (urban) spaces look like without colonial intervention? If it proves difficult to recognize oneself in a univocal formal response and a common identity advocated by certain currents of thought referring to the precept of reinventing Black Experience by merging science fiction, fantasy and real history, such as Afrofuturism and of which the Kingdom of Wakanda would be an illustration, what would other possible responses be like?

The set of “Black Panther” is not only interesting for its aesthetics, but also for the approach it implies, in particular the fact of ignoring the colonial contribution. Such an approach, without erasing colonial history, can undoubtedly make it possible to rewrite the inherited space by redefining it, to give shape, volume and even voice to spaces that fit more closely the populations that inhabit them. Thus, occupation by contestation can be transformed into a positive approach of reinvention, both of expression tools and paradigms.

Outside the field of science fiction, the movements advocating decolonization (and decolonialization) of thought have not yet found a real spatial anchor. Nevertheless, some projects use a related symbolic symbolism and can undoubtedly be considered as witnesses of this questioning of the city resulting from colonial planning, structured by the desire for domination.

One of the most fruitful reflections on the “reinvention of the African city” is undoubtedly the one led for almost ten years by the Togolese anthropologist architect Sénamè Koffi Agbodjinou who, in response to the “civilization approach” applied by the colonists in Africa, in reference to the classical model of Western society, proposes a Hubcity in Lomé (Fig.1). He revisits the traditional village, while using digital technology, “Low Hight Tech”, to create a new model of city. With the support of modest technologies that “everyone could appropriate” and with the exploitation of locally available resources, more responsible city dwellers could jointly launch projects developed in community to positively impact their living environment. Technology, not replacing the social but sublimating it, could produce a more ethical Smart city: everyone, depending on their investment, could earn “social points”, digital credits that would be collected on a platform, and would be part of a parallel economy, following a system of donations and counter-donations that would educate people to take care of their city. The inhabitants would thus be rich in the benefits that the city derives from their involvement.

Figure 1.

Lomé Hubcité, S. K. Agbodjinou

© Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou 2019

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