by Cale Waddacor. Thames & Hudson, October 2020. 272 p. ill. ISBN 9780500022825 (h/c), $39.95.
Reviewed November 2020
Jerrold Shiroma, University Archivist and Librarian for Special Collections, University of California, Merced Library, firstname.lastname@example.org
Street Art Africa, by Cale Waddacor, an authority on South African street art and author of Grafitti South Africa (Schiffer Publisher, 2014), is a lively introduction to the incredibly diverse and inventive scenes of graffiti and street art across the African continent. The book is arranged by general geographic regions (Eastern Africa, Central Africa, Northern Africa, Western Africa, and Southern Africa), and each of these sections feature overviews of the scenes within individual countries, as well as spotlights on individual artists and concepts.
The challenge in a book that chronicles the artistic practices of a multitude of individuals, crews, and local or regional scenes across an entire continent is to avoid generalizations. And while, to more casual onlookers, graffiti and street art might appear as interchangeable across locales, the fact is that one of the hallmarks of graffiti across its history has been how it shifts and morphs according to its environment. Graffiti and street artists have always populated their work with local flavors, politics, iconography, and visual references. Indeed, one of the many strengths of this book is how Waddacor highlights the versatility and variability of graffiti and street art across the African continent, paying equal measures of respect to the various cultural, political, and economic particulars of the various regions.
Throughout this book one is struck by how it differs from other surveys of graffiti and street art in how much the scenes across Africa act as spaces of protest and cultural empowerment. Whether that manifests in artists incorporating visual and color patterns specific to their respective regions, or, as in the case of artists such as el Seed of Tunisia or Woes97 in Ethiopia, it involves bringing the gestures and aesthetics of graffiti to bear upon non-western letterforms, one is struck by the depth and complexity of the art represented. This is all the more striking given the relative infancy of the graffiti and street art scenes in Africa, as well as with the wide unavailability of quality paint and supplies (something that western graffiti artists tend to take for granted).
Waddacor has assembled a refreshing collection of art and artists that provides a much-needed re-imagining of what is happening in the world of graffiti and street art, and is one that can serve as a touchstone for how graffiti and street art might be imagined going forward. This book is profusely illustrated with full color photographs, and while not a critical exploration of graffiti and street art in Africa, it nonetheless offers a wealth of information to students of contemporary African art, graffiti and street art in general, and global hip-hop culture. As such, this book is highly recommended for public and academic libraries serving a variety of populations.