In this article, Elliot Ross of Africa is a Country, dissects the ‘Rebranding Africa’ edition of Vogue Italia. The author attacks the concept of outside intervention as a defining characteristic of Africa before dealing with some of the more troubling assumptions made by the magazine. It is a fantastic read.
This article was originally published on June 6th, 2012 on the website Africa is a Country.
By Elliot Ross, 8th June 2012
Everybody’s trying to rebrand Africa, and it isn’t going so well. Vogue Italia’s latest issue — boosted by great billowing gusts of editorial hot air from both the New York Times and the Guardian — is called “Rebranding Africa”, and as you’d expect the whole thing is an embarrassing and insulting shambles. The images are okay, but otherwise it feels like something a middle-schooler cobbled together for a class project. And then got a “D” for it.
First: you’re re-branding the continent of Africa — as one does — so who do you pick as your cover star? Well, it was the obvious choice. What self-inflating fashion magazine wouldn’t lead their Africa edition with a picture of a South Korean diplomat sitting behind a desk in Manhattan? That’s right, people. The new face of Africa is none other than UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. There are so many way to read this choice. An obvious take is that Vogue Italia, despite their claims of “rebranding” Africa must have decided Africans can’t govern themselves and need UN intervention.
The interview with Ban is very curious reading indeed. Apparently, the man is just world class at regurgitating very precise development statistics. It reads like an annual report of a large multinational NGO. Either that, or what we’re reading is a mashed up press release or a stilted email exchange dressed up as a conversation that actually took place (the latter is most likely the case). He drones endlessly on about the Millennium Development Goals, which is exactly what you’d expect him to do, but is also precisely the opposite of the kind of thing which invites the readers of Vogue Italia to think of Africa in a new way. With Ban Ki-Moon as its new face, Africa is (a) boring and uncool, and (b) a stubborn problem to be managed by foreign technocrats. No change there.
So why is he on the cover? We have absolutely no idea. The man dresses like any other boring technocrat. The Guardian said the Vogue Italia coverage showed that the effort to rebrand the continent “wasn’t just a token effort” and that it made us (in the West, naturally) sit up and take notice. How? To us, all that this shows is that the addled people at Vogue Italia are incredibly unimaginative, and quite weird when it comes to its coverage of the unfamiliar — that is, the dark continent/country of Africa.
One guy they could have picked instead for the cover is Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, whose moribund interview with chief editor Franca Sozzani really ought to be somehow preserved in formaldehyde and wheeled out at journalism school graduations as a chilling example of just how bad journalism can get. Much of the copy is taken up with Sozzani’s worrying whether they can photograph Goodluck the Vogue way.
The “interview” is really long passages of Sozzani generously offering her explanation to Jonathan of exactly what is wrong with Nigeria:
All the richest Nigerians spend their money abroad because there a no shops here, no hotels with a chic African flair, no hip restaurants or clubs. Why not build an African Rodeo Drive in Lagos or Abuja, with boutiques carrying both imported and Nigerian goods?
Finally, there’s a single lonely quote from Jonathan in there, in which he agrees with the long speech Sozzani has made. It’s not often we feel sorry for Goodluck Jonathan, but seriously, poor chap. It’s also not sure when they did the interview. There’s no word of #OccupyNigeria, which showed Jonathan up to be insensitive and dithering.
You also get the sense that the next time Vogue Italia “do” Africa, Nigeria’s notoriously corrupt and terrifyingly incompetent oil minister will probably be the new cover star, as Sozzani drools mindlessly over one of Nigeria’s most detested politicians:
We are joined by the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke, a gorgeous and elegant woman – who also happens to be a princess – dressed in traditional robes, with a Master’s from Cambridge and the distinction of being the first woman to run Nigeria’s most important ministry.
Actually they did already. In the same issue.
Sozzani’s representation of Nigeria’s complex social and political situation is as astute as you’d expect it to be, and thanks to the internet, she gets called out big-style by a Nigerian called “Rachel”, whose comment on the website is by far the best piece of writing in the entire magazine, print or online:
This is possibly this worst piece of journalism on Nigeria I have EVER read. I cannot tell you how angry people are reading this. It is a shallow piece of vanity which glosses over the complexities of the tensions in Nigeria. When you say ‘Muslim’s ultimatum to the Christians’ – do you mean that all the Muslims who make up half of the 158 million people living in Nigeria have a vendetta against Christians? WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT???? It was Boko Haram’s ultimatum – you can’t just say ‘Muslims’ throwing in millions of people into a sentence who have felt just as much violence and suffering as Christians in Nigeria. It isn’t just Christians who have died during the violence but many Muslims. Sweeping statements like this fuel tensions between Christians and Muslims but of course that is perfect for the American audience who probably believe every Muslim is part of Al Q’aeda.
Your dramatic entrance to Nigeria was completely unnecessary. There are thousands of expats who have lived here for years in complete safety. It is reports like this that do nothing for the country. Do not flatter yourself to believe that you would be of ANY value to a terrorist. You would probably annoy the hell out of them. WHY did the editors think it would be important for readers to hear what you think what should be done in Nigeria? You were talking to the President of the country who is dealing with increasing rates of poverty and a decline in security and you are telling him to build an African Rodeo Drive? Oh yes, please build it so the 5% of the super wealthy population that can actually afford to buy from these sort of shops will no longer travel. The rest of the population can look on with their begging bowls in envy.
And also – the Petroleum Minister is probably one of the most corrupt people in Nigeria who has only added to the poverty, and therefore the security problems in the country. Don’t you know ANYTHING about the fuel subsidy scandal here? Do you know how many people are calling for her resignation? I feel so disappointed. I dread to think what the issue is like. I agree with you on one thing, it is important that people see beyond the famine and death in Africa and see the potential it has to grow but the potential has to be found in communities who are doing what they can to get out of poverty whether it be telecommunications to do banking, solar energy to power their small businesses or community initiatives to support women. What use is a Banana fricking Republic?
Sozzani responded with this rather snippy outburst:
@Rachel: It’s been a long timesince I last received such an idiot comment on my website. When I say Muslims, I never thought that the entire population of muslims is against Catholics as I live part of my life in Morocco and all my friends there are Muslims. I think that you took the negative side of the article and I’m sorry to say that is you who is against your own country, not me, as if we give work to women and we build up new shops and hotels, even for the 5% of the population, it can attract tourism and give job to local people. Is this nothing for you? Is it so unnecessary that I go to see them and try to help them?Iif so, I’m sorry for you, you don’t love your country and don’t want to help it. I don’t care and I go on my own way and certainly you won’t stop me. Just for yuor info, all the people – young designers, tailors and those producing fashion – are very happy and selling well thanks to me. This is the most important thing for me. [sic]
Blimey. It’s a close one, but I think overall we’re with Rachel on this.
Other than that there’s a short piece on El Anatsui which wrongly says he works in Ghana and then miraculously manages to rebrand (why not?) his transcendent genius as yet more developmental gobbledygook:
Forerunner of a big part of the continent’s contemporary art, with his artwork he has shown how a possible solution for his country is that of believing in the concept of recycling as a source of creativity and richness.
Some bearable features on African footballers in Italy and Didier Drogba, they discover Nollywoodagain (The New York Times has done so too recently), the formerly disgraced Kenyan TV journalistJeff Koinange (whose style is something to behold), that country’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Swedish-Ethiopian chef Marcus Samuelson (there are other top African chefs Vogue Italia), a picture of the Rwandan Ambassador to Britain handing his credentials to Queen Elizabeth II who is dressed in what resembles a nightgown, more Presidents, and a few models.
And then there’s Tommy Hilfiger, who gets some great free advertising with an African alibi as the magazine reproduces yet another long, unreadable press release. An unattributed quote explains how the mostly boring fashion scenster Hilfiger is basically the new Jesus Christ:
When Tommy Hilfiger came to the village for the first time, no one knew who he was. But when locals realized how famous he was in the rest to the world, they were very impressed: they were satisfied that if someone so important, rich and privileged could be interested in them and spend time with them, they themselves counted more than what they had been led to believe. They began to have more faith in the possibility of change.
Well, Africa, consider yourself rebranded.