Author: Saki Mafundikwa
First published: Design and Culture (Berg Publishers)
In Sia: The Dream of the Python, director Dani Kouyaté crafts a gripping story of an emperor out of touch with his kingdom who relies on an inner circle of yes men who convince him that it is time for another sacrifice of a virgin in order to maintain his rule. A madman (Kerfa) forewarns him of his imminent demise. Rather than rely on cinematography, Kouyaté uses an exquisite wardrobe, brilliant acting and a drama like story-telling style. For Kouyaté, cinematography almost seems an afterthought. The focus is on the storytelling. He is a master storyteller in the ancient tradition of the “griot” – the keeper of the community’s myths and legends and the praise singer for those in power. He captures a time and place, the beauty, dignity of a people and, in the process, he crafts a timeless story about the human condition that is as pertinent today as it was in the seventh century. You feel like you’re looking at an idyllic Afrika that is a bridge between the traditional ways and modernity. Based on a seventh-century legend and set, filmed and produced in Burkina Faso, Sia speaks to the condition of design across Afrika, as well as this continent’s politics.
Cinema in Afrika remains (for the most part) an underdeveloped medium except in a few countries in West Afrika notably Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and, of course, Nigeria where there is the Nollywood phenomenon which churns out over 300 films a year. There is also a very successful film industry in South Afrika, while the Arab North and East Afrika also have film industries of note. In contrast, design is even less organized. Although there are some design associations at the national level (Zimbabwe has GRAZI: Graphic Arts Association of Zimbabwe, South Africa has think: South African Design Council, and so forth), design on the continent still struggles to gain legitimacy as a worthy profession.
On one level, the film could be considered a satire of what is happening in some Afrikan countries under authoritarian rule today. Sia’s Khaya Maghan, the out of touch despotic emperor, could easily be Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe – a once revered revolutionary leader whose continued grip on power has rendered him another Afrikan despot. The emperor’s “wise men” are Mugabe’s inner circle and his soldiers are like Mugabe’s feared secret agents the CIO (Central Intelligence Organization). The wise men’s success in deceiving the emperor into sacrificing the beautiful virgin Sia (purportedly for the “good” of the empire) are no different from the ministers’ success in convincing Mugabe to cling to power, destroying a beautiful country in the process; they ensure their own survival and continue feeding off the gravy train. The Zimbabwean masses are Sia – chosen to be sacrificed and like Sia, any attempt to resist their fate (including at the ballot box) are ruthlessly put down. For every despot in Afrika, there is always a Kerfa (the fearless madman who openly defies the emperor) and like him, they always end up paying the ultimate price. The list is long: Burkina Faso’s own Thomas Sankara, a twenty-something army captain and president whose fiery revolutionary rhetoric and disdain for corruption led to his murder. Others who also paid with their lives for their unwavering dedication to the emancipation of Afrikans are Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Steve Biko of South Afrika and Samora Machel of Mozambique
Acting as a latter-day griot, that is, the keeper of the community’s myths and legends, Kouyaté also uses cinema to build a bridge between traditional ways and modernity. Kouyaté, for instance, evokes the Afrikan past by clothing his soldiers in roughly tanned leather shirts, contrasting with the elaborately woven gowns of Kaya Maghan and his court. Using a percussive soundtrack of syncopated drum rhythms, he heightens the movie’s drama. using these traditional forms, watching the film feels like we are listening to the unfolding of a griot’s tale.
Nevertheless, Kouyaté ignores the basic principles necessary to make for a “good” film; instead he produces something more complexly evocative. Sia, for instance, is shot using harsh lighting, giving the feeling that we are watching a play on a stage. One could argue that, in using this stagy lighting, relying on elaborate costumes, and employing a sound track based on elementary percussive elements, Kouyaté was simply producing another cheap and quick film. But, working with these constraints, Kouyaté turns adversity into a strength: he helps us recall the power of the Afrikan vernacular.
Stylistically speaking, one could also say that Kouyaté’s simple and sparse film is a metaphor for Afrikan design today. Kouyaté’s fusion of modernity and tradition is also found in some of the best work by designers in the late twentieth century. Tibor Kalman, for instance, took design and turned it on its head by invoking the mantra : Rules are good, break them. Using vernacular forms from American culture, including vernacular typefaces and images from billboards, his work had a “folk-like” feel, taking its cues from folk and craft as well as commercial sensibilities.
Many Afrikan forms of expression – like music, crafts and dance–seem deceptively “simple” to the outsider; deeper meaning only becomes apparent after what’s codified becomes clear. This is especially true for design. Moreover, Tibor, like Kouyaté, understood that design is just a means and not an end, a language and not content. Too many filmmakers (and designers for that matter), especially in Hollywood, employ effects and cinematographic tricks to produce the most banal work devoid of a message. Kouyaté revives the Afrikan tradition of the griot or storyteller, giving us an important statement with implications for politics as well as design. If Afrikan design still struggles to gain legitimacy, it can use Kouyaté’s success as a model. Good designers, like good filmmakers, live by the maxim, less is more and are not given to the vagaries of trends. A good designer is, by definition, also a good griot.
The views expressed in this article are entirely the views of the author or authors and are not necessarily those of DWA or its associates.