What is the African Aesthetic?

On a recent shoot which took me to Ghana, having already filmed in several countries on the continent before, I found myself fixated by the vibrant colours of the country – from bright green palm trees bearing coconuts, multi-coloured high- rise apartment buildings, lush green forests, breathtaking mountain ranges, valleys and the unashamedly textured traditional apparel contemporised by the people wearing it.

I asked myself: what makes up the African aesthetic?

On our continent we have a lot of depth and layers created through the density of the living dynamics; our abodes, businesses and office structures all contain elements of the old and modern, built in close proximity and at times amalgamated, creating a beautiful visual juxtaposition.

The continent has an abundance of history still evident in its architectural structures that date back centuries to the African colonial era and pre-historic days. These structures give a frame to both a periodic texture as well as a contemporary look and feel.

There are specific aesthetical motivations that influence this, like the quality of light and the general colour spectrum that inform the environment. But what is an African grade? Does it exist? I don’t believe it’s a supersaturated blown out picture, neither do I believe it is a completely de-saturated or washed out image.

As a filmmaker one understands how scripts – whether commercial or long form – require a specific treatment that complements the overall tone of the material. I believe, however, that we need to maintain an African aesthetic in our films that contains colour. I think grades applied to African films that extract the colour completely bring films for today’s audiences into the fictitious realm. Filmmakers can motivate these choices either for metaphorical or tonal amplification.

Therefore there is no wrong grade choice and removing colour doesn’t necessarily make the film less African. That said I strongly feel that colour is an African trademark, which allows our films to have their own identity. With narratives that are within the world of realism or borrow realistic conventions one should consider the ingredients of the African aesthetic and exploit them. Great commercials that have been able to do this are Guinness ‘Sapeurs’, which was filmed in South Africa; Puma’s ‘Journey of Football’ which was shot in Ghana; ‘Orange Babies’, also filmed in South Africa; and feature films such as Timbuktu (Mali) and Beasts of No Nation (Ghana).

It’s important that audiences domestically and internationally engage in the world of the story. Colour is embedded in the anatomy of African culture and its identity, this shouldn’t be lost in the way we colour our commercials and films.