Models of good practice for Africa
By Joy Mboya, GoDown Artscentre, Nairobi - (presentation at the World Summit on Arts & Culture, sept 2009)
Prior to this World Summit we received regular email commentaries titled Summit Views from the Program Director, Mike van Graan, and these raised themes and issues to be debated here. One of these commentaries focused on the topic of intercultural dialogue in relation to the arts. The article raised many questions, that all have a bearing on the question of good practice in intercultural dialogue. But because in the time allowed, it will not be possible to consider all the questions, I shall focus on first on two that are of interest because of their relevance and implications for good practice in the East African context. However, as I reflected and tried to digest the theme, a third question, not captured in the article also emerged. I will discuss this too.
The first question that piqued my interest was ‐ Are the arts the “best way” to facilitate dialogue across cultures? Our direct experience in East Africa of the use of arts as vehicles and instruments for a cause makes us pause a little on this question.
In Kenya certainly, and likely also true in the wider East Africa region, at least two important factors stifled the flourishing of the creative arts in the 70s and 80s. (The situation is not quite the same today; one may say it has improved). One factor was a political climate that censored and punished critical viewpoints, and the other was the negative effect on East African creativity when the arts became instrumental for development funding. This latter point is still an issue today.
To explain the effect of these two factors, in a rather simplified and generalized way, one may say that creativity went into hibernation, as authentic voice was silenced, and the development message became the priority. The unique role that the artist plays, to view life with openminded curiosity, to explore the strange and the different, to chart new creative visions and forms by experimenting, did not, for two full decades, receive the chance to be acted out. It was not until the mid 90s that the region began to see sparks of artistic creativity re‐emerge, as artists began to make work for its experiential value. A number of different factors (that cannot be examined in depth here) occasioned the change, among them, a more open political space, the re‐installation of the regional economic bloc known as the East African Community, and the availability of funding to nurture the rise of independent arts organizations and the creative capacity of artists. Thus where instrumentalization of the arts is concerned, we tread carefully. While the arts would appear especially suited to build bridges across cultures, in our situation, it is debatable whether, for its own good, artistic creativity should be used in this way. Good practice must first prioritize the un‐shackling of the creative spirit, and allow it to evolve and engage with issues organically and unconditionally.
Importantly, in the last decade in East Africa, intercultural dialogue at the artist‐to‐artist level of sharing and collaboration, on regional and international scale, has had the positive effect of serving the immediate and self‐focused interest of the artist to enrich and renew their practice, to find and flex their creative muscle once more. This is, of course, not a unique occurrence. Indeed artists over centuries have received inspiration and been influenced by cultures besides their own. For example, Picasso’s encounter with African masks gave new direction to his already fertile visual imagination, while popular musician Eric Clapton’s dialogue with African‐American blues music has contributed to the development his unique guitar style.
The second question, concerns the environment within which intercultural dialogue can take place. The definition of the conditions requisite for intercultural dialogue, as given in the ERICARTS report
Sharing Diversity reads as follows: “Intercultural dialogue takes place in an environment where individuals and groups are guaranteed safety and dignity, equality of opportunity and participation, where different views can be voiced openly without fear and where there are ‘shared spaces’ for cultural exchanges”.
In my view, it is first and foremost for the artist that the environment must be secured, or ‘made safe’. One fundamental way to achieve this, and which is long overdue, is to give recognition to the rights and status of the artist, and to facilitate their entry into full civic life. There are countless examples of the marginalization of African artists. Consider this one:
The British Dance Edition 2004, an annual showcase of contemporary dance in Britain invited two emerging East African dancer/choreographers to observe their event, one Kenyan, the other Tanzanian, with a view to the initiation of a Britain/East Africa dance exchange thereafter. Obtaining visa for the artists was hell on earth – the Kenyan was never issued a visa, despite the fact the in the preceding years he had traveled severally to Europe to dance and to collaborate with counterparts there. There was no explanation given – in fact, his passport was held at the High Commission, until after the festival was over. But we knew that his status as a single male, with no family ties, and owning no property or business to commit him to his home country, presented him as a risk to the visa people.
In another example, a somewhat reverse situation to the first, several East African artists, a few years ago, were invited to perform at the Mundial Festival, which takes place in the Netherlands. Among them was a troupe of Rwandese drummers. Visas were issued without a hitch, and all the artists were able to travel to Europe. But after the festival, almost half of the 15‐man troupe of drummers could not be located for their return trip home. They disappeared in Europe, much to the embarrassment to the promoters, causing the Netherlands Embassy to place stricter conditions on subsequent artist invitations to their country. What went wrong here? Why was the prospect of life as an illegal immigrant in Europe more desirable than life as an artist back at home? I use these two examples to drive the point home that the artist in Africa essentially receives no recognition and her rights as an artist are none existent.
If intercultural dialogue is to be pursued, whether instrumentally through the arts, or not, good practice would be to create conditions for the rights and status of artists to be recognized; to facilitate their free movement across borders; to remove obstacles of repression and censorship, including self‐censorship arising from fear; to create conditions for their social support; to provide opportunities for skills training and capacity building – these being just some of the areas for attention.
The third question, the one not in the article, but which developed as I turned over the theme in my mind, is whether on the African continent, where the erosion and erasure of African cultures and African identities is frequently lamented, intercultural dialogue could lead perhaps toward a re‐framing our African identities? Let me illustrate.
In Kenya, there is lately interesting developments of contemporary art – dance, new literature and poetry, and the visual arts. The same is the case in Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda though in different degrees. Practitioners in all of these three countries, and in particular in dance, are almost all youthful urban raised individuals. They are finding their own creative identity and expression through exploration of western and African manifestations of contemporary dance, accomplished through intercultural exchanges. They deconstruct acrobatics as practiced locally, as well traditional dance forms. These struggling artists, living independently outside their nuclear family set‐ups, in crowded lower middle‐class suburbs, may hold in them, the germ of contemporary African identity. Their national history is not a yoke that holds them back, from shaping who they want to be, (although it would most likely enrich them to know of it). They are impressively peripatetic, networking widely as they collect and select at each encounter, what they will use in the forging of their identity.
For these young Africans, intercultural dialogue, in the present situation which Professor Ndebele described yesterday as a space where “the old references are lost” and “new references have not yet been created” may present an opportunity for them to help Africa to re‐invent itself. These African artists may well be at the vanguard of this re‐framing of African cultures.
Good practice, in this instance, must especially be manifested by Africans themselves, by not resisting contemporary realities, but allowing themselves to feel empowered to select ideas and influences from a global platter, that they may remold, recreate, and re‐frame on their own terms.