The TRUE AFRICA 100 is our list of innovators, opinion-formers, game-changers, pioneers, dreamers and mavericks who we feel are shaping the Africa of today.

Ayana V. Jackson is an African-American artist and photographer based in Johannesburg, Paris and New York. She aims to ‘crystallise the experience of contemporary Africa and African diasporic societies’ through her artwork. She has exhibited at Gallery MOMO, Galerie Baudoin Lebon, Primo Marella Gallery, Galerie Sho Contemporary, the San Francisco Mexican Museum, Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Art and the Philadelphia African American Museum.

She received the 2014 New York Foundation for the Arts, Fellowship for Photography and grants from a number of institutions such as the French Institute who facilitated her participation in the 2009 Bamako Encounters, Biennale of African photography. Ayana is one of 26 artists exhibiting at the Studio Museum, New York from November 12 in the group show, A Constellation.

What attracted you to Johannesburg?

Joburg is a city in transition, busy becoming itself. Unlike New York, Paris, London or Tokyo for that matter, Joburg is really in its birthing phase, shedding its skin and becoming something new. The creative energy of the city is the result of the new generation that has its hand in the mud, actively shaping and creating a new society. I get the sense that I am experiencing something special, watching history being made and to be able to witness it, support it and to participate in it, is a blessing that I recognised immediately.

Did you ever feel like an outsider in Joburg?

I went through what I call my hazing phase. I had to wade through moments where I was being interacted with in a way that was a bit dismissive, where people would say things like, ‘I bet you didn’t expect to see skyscrapers in Joburg’, or ‘I bet you didn’t expect to be invited to a luxurious home in Africa’, or ‘I bet you thought we’d be whistling in trees’, not knowing anything about my life, my history or my relationship with Africa.

I am very much situated in my position as a black American and don’t purport to be African.

I consider myself to be quite educated and I also come from a Pan-Africanist family, which included my great-grandfather, who was a student of Marcus Garvey. My grandfather and his sister, who were born in 1912 and 1916, bought land in Ghana during their retirement years and my father spent quite a bit of time in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Ghana.

So the continent of Africa has been a part of my life and my family story for a very long time, despite the fact that I am very much situated in my position as a black American and don’t purport to be African. I have a sense of the diversity of the continent, of the 54 countries, that many of my compatriots do not have. I don’t believe that I have ever had that sense of arrogance that some Americans have about having to be saviours of the world, of the starving kids in Africa. There is a downwards gaze that much of the Western world has with respect to Africa because of the way the continent has been presented to us in the media. So it’s quite easy to go to Africa and feel superior and have no expectation that you would see eye to eye with the people.

Some people felt like they had to put me in my place, expecting me to be the ignorant American.

When I got to South Africa, I was not surprised that there was so much infrastructure. That being said, I didn’t expect South Africa to be so advanced, compared to many places in the United States, when it comes to mobile phone technology. But I had to sit through the hazing and the over-performance, where some people felt like they had to put me in my place, expecting me to be the ignorant American. I studied sociology and even though I didn’t go into every conversation as an experiment, I chose, very early on, not to react when I felt that I was being unfairly judged. My disposition was to just allow it to happen, knowing that I would come out stronger on the other side of it.

Who is your African of the year?

Monna Mokoena, the owner of my gallery in Joburg, Gallery MOMO. He is a black man from Soweto, who is the only black dealer functioning at that level in the country. Talk about hazing, he has had to face – and overcome – serious obstacles in the South African art world. He has been knocked down so many times and he has always found a way to get back up. He has chosen to lead his programme without focusing exclusively on race, the history of apartheid or black-white issues. There is a certain amount of grace in the way he is navigating those issues.

There are cards that one can pull, namely the one we call the black card, that he never does. He wants his gallery, his programme and his reputation to be about art.

Yes, there is a strain that is about cultivating the black middle-class with regard to art and creating a new class of black collectors and yes, I am lucky that I have a significant amount of black collectors who buy my art and he has a strong relationship with his community. But ultimately, he is about fine art; he is about contemporary art; and I appreciate that, for him, it’s also international and cross-generational. Watching him stay the course over the last seven years, has been inspiring.

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