Representations of Africa in Oulu

In light of the recent international furore about the Swedish Minister of Culture’s eating the African cake moment and the current visit to Finland of the Vice President of South Africa, I thought I would share my collection of pictures of representations of Africa that I have taken in Oulu. I love Oulu. Really I do. This year, Oulu won the prize for Europe’s most intelligent city. It’s a lovely place. But this collection of photos shows that some of that intelligent thinking needs to be put into how Africa is represented too.

How this works: every time I have seen a publised image that represents Africa during my time in Oulu for the last 5 months, I have taken a photograph. This could have been an advert or sweet packaging, whatever it was, I look a photograph of it. I didn’t just take the “negative” ones, sieving the “positive” ones out. Just, every time I saw an image that was obviously using images of Africa, I took a photo.

This is a Finnish game that I found in the University of Oulu’s teaching faculty coffee shop. I’ve also seen this game sold in shops. Basically, all players start in Morocco and work their way down to (my hometown) Cape Town. You collect “diamonds” along the way and the biggest diamond is in Cape Town and the person who gets it is the winner. Basically it is a race through Africa. Sound familiar? If you know anything about Africa and colonialism you will know something about the “Scramble” or “Race” for Africa (If you don’t know or you want to be reminded you can click here). A child’s came that reproduces a horrible time of the world’s history? Hmmm. Would there be a game glorifying Auschwitz, Apartheid or September 11th? No. Most probably not.

So, the concept of the game is problematic. Furthermore, taking a closer look at the board, you see an Africa that is full of forests, animals and bandy-legged silly looking black figurines dancing around. Sigh.

I would suggest Finland builds a bonfire and burns this game and at the same time tries to get to the bottom of the thinking that allowed this game to be in circulation for so long.

This is a chocolate covered marshmallow treat that is like a South African “Sweetie Pie”. This type of sweet was invented in Denmark and is now made and sold all over Europe and beyond. The early 20th century style drawing of the two scantily clad African people kissing seems strange until you understand the story of the sweet a bit more and then it seems REALLY strange. While this sweet has been in existence of about 200 years it has recently (2001) been renamed. Why? Because before the renaming, this sweet was called “Negro kisses” in various languages. Due to public reactions to this name, producers changed the name to just “kisses”. Ah! now the picture of the kissing Africans makes sense. So, they changed the name because it was perceived as racist but kept the picture that harks back to the name they felt was racist. hmmmm. Everything changes, everything stays the same.

These are liquorice breath mints. I have no idea what this has to do with Africa.

I was thinking about the fact that I only really found pictures of Africa on edible products. Why are there no images of Africa or African people for other products like household tools or school stationery or whatever. It’s all on consumables. Maybe this is reflecting a deep unconscious sense that Africa is up for the taking, rich in resources and should be, in various ways, “consumed”.




The next section is on advertising printed posters:

 This poster says “The culture of Ambaland’s nation”. It was just a picture and  a title. It was a bit confusing. But what made this poster significant for me was that it was placed on the front door of the Natural History museum of the University of Oulu. There are no people in this museum, only stuffed animals.  You walk through this door to get to the museum. So, the first thing you see when going to the museum about  animals, is these two naughty looking African children. This draws together the idea of dead animals to look at and an underdeveloped Africa. Oh dear.



 Ah! The white guy in his twenties (front and centre) with the black kids (back and numerous). So so so many of these types of posters. Sies.









“Ah!” I said when I saw this picture. Finally… an African person who is represented as happy, beautiful, clean and in a position that a non-African model would also be in. But, then I thought again. This child is not represented as being in Africa. The super warm clothes, the bubbles, the white snowy background all point to an African child in Finland.  (Note: In Africa it gets cold, we wear warm hats and jackets and we have bubbles that kids and adults love to play with too). So, this child is portrayed as happy, healthy and beautiful BECAUSE they are in Finland.

This is a picture that I saw on the autobank that I drew money from the other day. It says, “Children in developing countries need your help. Donate 5 euros via this ITM and help in this way”. It then repeats this in Swedish (Finland’s other official language). We see a dirty, sad, ghostly teenage girl staring straight at the user of the cash machine (unfortunately the light from the building is masking her eyes a bit). She doesn’t beg, but her gaze implores you to act. You are not told where the money will go or what it will and won’t do for this person/s. Do you as the donor want those things to happen? The thought being put forward is that doing something small, no matter what it is, is better than doing nothing at all. Really? No, surely not.

So, contrasting this picture of an African girl with the picture of the African girl in the pink jacket is interesting. Both are African girls. Both images are being used to attack your eye and your pocket. Both are calling you to act, to do something. The importance in difference, for me, is their geography shown by the clothing and demeanor of the girls. The image from the banking machine may well have been taken in Europe but the viewer is lead to believe that this girl is in some random dark “developing country”.

And so, the Africa that is shown in Oulu is unfortunately a dirty, poor, needy Africa that is a place of hidden resources that are up for the taking and that really only with European aid can Africa be helped. This is not the resourceful, intelligent, fascinating, confusing, beautiful, dangerous, generous, hopeful Africa that I know which is sad because there is soo much more than is shown here.

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4 thoughts on “Representations of Africa in Oulu

  1. Anonymous says:

    Since you’re from South Africa, I take it that you are familiar with africans. Is the perception of Finns or other white people in most pars of Africa really more realistic than that of africans in Finland? What you listed are (old) commercial products, an exhibition poster, a commercial directed at Finns and a church charity drive directed at impoverished young african girls. I do not understand your logic, why would you compare an adventure game to the Holocaust? You also left out print and television media, so if this is your best effort then you should probably get out some more.

  2. Bee says:

    Thank you for your reply. I love getting feedback especially when it is as interesting as yours. So here are my thoughts:
    1. I do not know where you come from or who are as you have posted yourself as Annonymous, which you are totally allowed to do, but it does somewhat make the conversation a bit one sided because I don’t really know where you are “coming from”.
    2. I am from South Africa, and therefore am African, and what can I say about Africans’ perceptions of white people? Well, I can say that there are a very wide spectum of perceptions based on all sorts of socio cultural, historical and personal experiences. I have not spoken to all the Africans in Africa so I don’t know their perception of Finns. I know that before I came to Finland – I didn’t have an opinion about Finnish people because I had never encounted a Finnish person or anything of Finnish “culture”. I was only really aware of Sweden, Norway and Russia.
    3. You point out that these are old commercials and representations: yes. But this blog post is from May 2012, not right now, so yes, they would be old now.
    4.That game is still at the university and in shops. Last week I saw it being played in two totally different contexts (a special needs school and at a university). And also I think you are probably right about the comparision of a game about colonialism and Aushwitz not being a correct comparision… Colonialism was longer, employed physical as well as deeply structural violence and was much much bigger.
    5. You are right, this post does not reflect TV. I did not have a TV when I wrote this post. I now have a TV and have written about it here, if you want to read about my thoughts on that:

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for your reply, and excuse me if Í came out snarky in my first post. I do not wish to give the impression that I would troll you through anonymity, I simply think that being able to discuss through it gives a more relaxed athmosphere (I don’t know your name or email either). Your blog post gave me the impression that you would criticize the imagery of non-Finns used in advertising regardless of the context. If the commercials wouldn’t have minorities you would lament the monoracial and cultural image it gives, if they would have africans in a more african setting, you would bring up typecasting and racism. As it stands, you criticize africans being shown happy in a finnish setting becauce it supposedly tells that africans can only be happy in western, finnish setting/culture.

    The most relevant part of this blog post is the old boardgame Africa’s Star since you compare it to Colonialism and the Holocaust. Would you at least agree that a more correct comparison would be with Settlers of Cataan and Colonialism? While it does have come colonialistic tendencies, it’s heads above most other games that take place in Africa, or modern electronic games when it comes to portraying minorities. A simplified adventure game for youngsters a historically accurate narrative does not make. I’m not refusing the horrible effects of Colonialism, but your critique would be better directed at something more directly relevant like chocolate, diamonds, the sex slave industry and the IMF, all of which are still ongoing. Criticism at things like boardgames seems to me to only narrow the spectrum of harmless behaviour while allowing the more harmful behaviour to continue.

  4. Bee says:

    I also love a good discussion and hope that my replies don’t work to shut down the conversation but rather open it up. Your feedback has given me some food for thought, so thank you for that.

    For me, the story that I got from all these images combined was this “Africa is poor and backward, Africa is unhappy because it is poor and backward Africa needs Europe’s help to not be poor and therefor be happy”. That is partly Africa’s story but not mostly and it saddened me that Africa and Africans are portrayed in this way.

    As for that board game, I stand by what I said before. Settlers of Cataan is a “country-less” game. Africa’s Star draws on colonial history (a horrible time for many people) and has pejorative pictures of black people all over it.

    Personally I think that looking at or critiquing the normal and everyday is as valuable as critiquing the “chocolate, diamonds, the sex slave industry and the IMF”. If we look at our everyday life, what we see and don’t see, what is around us we will start to understand why we have such big issues in the chocolate, diamonds, the sex slave industry and the IMF.

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