Inflight Entertainment

Air Afrique revives the aspirational magazine of the iconic pan-African airline as a platform for contemporary Afro-diasporic arts and knowledge.

by Eric Otieno Sumba - Published on 11/12/2023
Air Afrique. COURTESY

If there was ever a time in history where the sky was quite literally the limit, the wave of African independence in the 1960s provides an intriguing case study. Aviation played a key role in the self-determination narratives that many African countries were invested in in their early years. Ghana, famously the first African country to regain Independence from the British in 1957, established Ghana Airways that same year, breaking away from the West African Airlines Association (1946-1958), a joint venture of the ‘colonial governments’ of ‘British West Africa’— Gold Coast, Nigeria, Gambia and Sierra Leone.

Air Afrique – Issue #1. COURTESY

As more and more countries ejected their respective colonizers, the demand for robust aviation networks grew. Just three years later, Air Afrique was founded as a joint subsidiary of Air France and Union Aéromaritime de Transport (UAT) to serve regional destinations that the two airlines had operated in West Africa. The founding of Air Afrique was a matter of extraordinary pan-African diplomacy. Despite France’s initial involvement, the 11 founding west African states—Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Mauritania, Niger, the Republic of the Congo and Senegal—bought Air Afrique out, making the company African-owned by 1963. Flights amongst member states began in 1961, and intercontinental flights to Europe, and soon after to the US and the middle east were introduced. Air Afrique’s inflight magazine Balafon chronicled this history-in the-making: Africans were airborne on an African Airline with African pilots and crew. It is easy to trivialise such triumphs until one considers how white and western-oriented aviation and the air travel industry still is today.

Air Afrique – Issue #1, Basile Boli, Pape Diouf and Mody Diop, at their arrival in Dakar following Marseille’s Champions League win, 1993. COURTESY
Air Afrique – Issue #1. Safi Faye, Faad’ja (1979) © Cinematique française/Zeïba Monod. COURTESY
Air Afrique – Issue #1. Jean-Claude Delafosse during a trip with Pope John Paul II, 10 May 1980. © Jean-Claude Delafosse. COURTESY

Air Afrique, the magazine, describes itself as “in line with the cultural aspirations of the airline that paved the way for our cultural endeavours and is the heir to its in-flight magazine Balafon.” True to form, Air Afrique exudes the sleek aesthetic of a premium inflight magazine. It comes in a rare square format which encourages indulgence with the generous photo spreads and archival material reproduced from the inheritance of the magazine’s namesake airline. If inflight magazines have always been aspirational, trend-setting and cutting-edge, Air Afrique capitalizes on those attributes, but cuts out the average inflight magazine’s overreliance on the editorial sales pitch.

The cover of Air Afrique magazine’s first issue, featuring the French rapper Tiakola (far right). The Air Afrique collective consists of founder and creative Director Lamine Diaoune, co-founders Djiby Kébé and Jeremy Konko, editor-in-chief Amandine Nana, editors Zhedy Nuentsa and Ahmadou-Bamba Thiam and graphic designer Axel Pelletanche. COURTESY

Where inflight magazines insist that several pages of eau de toilette and travel gimmick ads alongside bland self-marketing is what people need to see while airborne, Air Afrique proposes that the inflight magazine format can advance pan-African aspiration and contemporary Afro-diasporic arts and knowledge. Editor in chief Amandine Nana—recently appointed curator at Palais de Tokio, Paris—and team obviously had more material than the magazine could accommodate, which makes their considered editorial selection all the more evident.

Air Afrique – Issue #1. Safi Faye, Mossane (1996). COURTESY
Air Afrique – Issue #1. COURTESY

Not all of the content subscribes to the lofty glamour of the kind inflight magazines have come to be known for. As a publication dedicated to the Panafricanism of Air Afrique and Balafon, Air Afrique brings together a wide range of formats and stories from across generations and locations. One of the features is on Penda Diouf, a librarian in the northern parisian suburb of Saint Denis who has been working for years to make sure the collections of the local libraries reflect the demographics who visit by including books in other languages other than French. Another piece is a deep-dive interview with Columbia University professor and philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne, tracing his intellectual and biographical trajectory from Ndar (St. Louis) in Senegal, via France to the US. In and of themselves, these pieces, while focusing on extraordinary individuals of the African diaspora, illustrate a form of transnational intellectual panafricanism that goes beyond the placative nationalism of the mid 20th Century.

The first issue of the magazine, also features an in-depth feature on dancehall music in Martinique, a photographic and archival look at visual culture, sculptural urban forms and modernist architecture in Abidjan, and a visual essay on the Banyana Banyana, South African women’s answer to the men’s national football team Bafana Bafana, and a profile of legendary Senegalese filmmaker and “cinematic Griot” Safi Faye. Closer to home, there are interviews and profiles with former Air Afrique staff such as jet-setting executive Jean-Claude Delafosse, pioneering air hostess Fatou Sow, and captain Malick Tall.

Air Afrique – Issue #1. From the archive of Fatou Sow, Air-Afrique’s stewardess, pictured during her training in Abidjan, 1972. COURTESY

A thematic dossier by Mody Diop charts the eventful history of the airline across four decades. Artworks and image spreads round off the editorial contents in French and English.

Bottega Veneta, who supported the project are the only advertisers in the magazine, and take the back cover, and a couple of pages inside with a coherent advertising concept featuring a limited-edition series of woollen blankets desgined by the Sudanese-French Bottega Veneta studio designer, Abdel El Tayeb.

The editors of Air Afrique are definitely onto something. Msafiri, Selamta and Sawubona, the three inflight publications of Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and South African Airways may need to take note.

Read the first issue of Air Afrique

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Eric Otieno Sumba
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I am a decolonial scholar working at the intersections of social justice, politics, the economy, art & culture. I enjoy reading, dancing, cycling, and cappuccinos without sugar.