Project Title: Chocolate Banana
Artists: Bill Kouélany & Goddy Leye
Date(s): January – February 2010
Location: Guangzhou, China
In August 2009, Guangzhou, China featured in international news with a gruesome story: during a police raid on illegal immigrants in what is referred to by local taxi drivers as “Chocolate City”, a neighbourhood that attracts thousands of African traders seeking business opportunities in the East, Emmanuel Okoro, a young man from Nigeria, jumped out of a building to avoid arrest. The incident highlighted complexities at the heart of an increasingly striking phenomenon: Africa-Asia trade relations taking place outside established government and multinational channels, resulting in economic and social networks that crisscross the globe.
Traders hailing from Nigeria (by far the largest number), Guinée, Mali, the two Congos, Cameroon and Liberia – to name but a few nationalities – comb through large-scale China-Africa commerce malls, scouting out deals on remaindered goods. Top brand blue jeans, shoes, purses and lingerie, television sets, laptops and cell phones are purchased at rock-bottom prices and resold for significant profit on markets and in stores from Cairo to Cape Town and Kinshasa.
Over the past ten years, tens (some say hundreds) of thousands of Africans have moved to Guangzhou. Some live there year-round, others come through on a regular basis. Many lack residency papers. Most face rising tides of racism. Yet many, too, speak of rich new lives and relationships. Innovative cultural practices, languages and fashions are emerging and, with them, new takes on the global village.
Together, Bill Kouélany and Goddy Leye traveled to Guangzhou in January-February 2010. There, they undertook a residency focused on economic, social and cultural exchanges born of commercial ties between Africa and China. Much of their time was spent in the part of the city variously known as “Little Africa” and (in an unpleasant twist) “Chocolate City”. Their sojourn gave rise to a video installation entitled “Chocolate Banana”, which they perfected during a second shorter SPARCK residency at the Art Bakery in April 2010 and showed for the first time in Dakar, as part of the “Off” programme of the 2010 Dakar Biennale. Next stop: Focus 10 at Art Basel, Europe’s premiere contemporary arts fair, and Brazzaville, with co-hosting of the piece by a consortium of non-profit and business actors.
Chocolate Banana explores grey-market transactions, cultures and languages in an off-the-books transnational arena – city streets and corners, dilapidated shopping malls, overcrowded apartments and squats – where African and Chinese traders, and occasionally artists, meet to do business. The set-up for the film – the way the installation is displayed – reflects Chocolate Banana’s thematic focus on the movement of bodies and goods within and between cities and continents. It is shown on small flat-screen LCD screens in the back of taxis. The model for this comes from Guangzhou, where such screens are present at the rear of most taxis, though the story they tell there (happy travelogues about the city) is quite different. Anyone who takes a Chocolate Banana taxi sees the film, in whole or in part depending on the length of the trip and/or the passenger’s interest. The video is ideally shown in five taxis travelling through whatever city Chocolate Banana is in at the time, and a sixth taxi parked at the exhibition venue, showing the film in loops at a standstill. A 4 page, A3 newspaper-style text-and-image flyer produced by the two artists is made available in large numbers (click here to download the flyer), in the taxis and a variety of other points throughout the city. In some cities, specific routes are plied by the taxis, making them easy to locate; in other cities, the taxi drivers’ cell phone numbers are publicised, so people can call for a pickup.