A version of this article was previously published on The Three Es website.
Africa is bound to see big changes in 2020. Population growth, climate change, elections, economic prosperity, economic stagnancy: all of these factors have the power to produce creativity in writing, film, music, fashion and so much more. During these times, art becomes intrinsically tied to activism. Creatives on the continent have the power not only to comment on the narrative, but to change the narrative with their work.
On the 28th of January I attended a panel hosted by the Royal African Society, entitled: Africa in 2020: Art & Activism. The panel was chaired by Dr Jenny Mbaye (Lecturer, Policy Consultant) and consisted of Boitumelo ‘Tumy’ Motsoatsoe (Head of Programmes, Business and Arts, BASA, South Africa), Makhtar Fall AKA Xumman (Musician/Broadcaster, Senegal), Valerie Asiimwe Amani (Artist/Curator, Tanzania) and Ahmed El Attar (Theatre Director, Playwright and Cultural Manager, Egypt).
During this panel, these creatives tackled the question of art and activism in Africa, using their expertise to provide rich dialogue about commercialism, cultural policy, politics and, ultimately, the power of art.
Photo Credit: Kwasi Darko (Ghana) – ColabNowNow 2019 – “Aqui E Agora” – “Here and Now”
Boitumelo ‘Tumy’ Motsoatsoe
Motsoatsoe focuses on the sustainability of art. She is the Head of Programmes at BASA, which was started in 1997 by the Department of Arts and Culture to facilitate mutually beneficial relationships between business and the arts.
The relationship between art and economy is an uneasy one. Historically, the two have been enemies. Art is meant to act as a commentary on economics and politics. Naturally, we would like to hold it as something separate, unpolluted by things like ‘profit’ and ‘value’. Therefore, adding a financial incentive to art-making threatens to rob the artwork of its original meaning. The artist could lose sight of what’s important as they become tangled up in a world of bureaucracy.
Motsoatsoe nicely puts these fears at ease with the following declaration: “We’re not trying to turn artists into entrepreneurs, we are trying to get them to think about themselves in an entrepreneurial way. This will get them into positions of power so that they can make the necessary decisions for the people that they represent.” For Motsoatsoe, it appears that BASA is more focused on fostering a sense of shared values and community than it is about churning out entrepreneurs. The task of merging art and economy together is not shied away from, but taken on in the hopes of managing the two in a responsible manner. After all, as Motsoatsoe notes, the engagement of economics and culture is necessary for the artist’s survival.
This notion of ‘survival’ is continued. “Everyone has to be creative in Africa. We don’t have a choice,” Motsoatsoe states bluntly, “When you are living in abject poverty, there is no other way but to think about different ways of freeing yourself — your community — from that.” For Motsoatsoe, creativity is one of the many tools enabling one’s survival on the continent.
The question of who gets to make the decisions within the creative sector is a growing concern for Motsoatsoe. She explains that previously art was something that was “on the streets or in your homes”. However, due to the colonial project and Apartheid, now culture is mainly concentrated in large buildings in city centres. She fears that people are being locked out of the arts in this new economy. Part of the issue is the lack of diversity amongst the decision-makers in the cultural sector. She cites the Soweto Theatre in South Africa as an example. According to Motsoatsoe, the Sowetans were not consulted on the making of the Soweto Theatre, and consequently, it is used more as an events venue rather than an artistic space. Motsoatsoe argues that all genders, races, classes and age groups should be included in policy-making. After all, as Motsoatsoe implores “When the people making decisions are not diverse enough, they can’t make decisions that will resonate with the people they have in mind.” In particular, BASA highlights the importance of including young people in the consultation process as young people have the potential to truly challenge the canon.
Makhtar Fall AKA Xumman
Xumman gets his point across in a rather unorthodox manner. Rather than simply give a speech on culture, he has the audience echo the refrain ‘revolution’ after he raps each line in his song ‘Re-evolution’. He then draws attention to the power of language, discussing how tactics such as repetition can be used to generate emotion. He uses the example of the slave songs, explaining that slave masters were wary of this music’s potential to incite revolt and preserve memory. According to Xumman, “Hip-hop is the grandson of the slave song”. There is a large cross over between these musical tactics and political tactics. For instance, activists will often chant refrains during protests. Black speech writers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X have likewise made use of such linguistic techniques. For Xumann, hip-hop is particularly revolutionary because it has the potential to reach a large amount of people, and target the young population. Xumman uses the ‘Y’en a Marre’ movement as an example. This protest comprised of young people and rappers and eventually saw the ousting of President Abdoulaye Wade. Here, hip-hop acted as a way to communicate the wishes of the public back to political leaders.
Social media, however, has the power to confuse the message. Although it can be seen as a democratising force that gives everybody a platform, governments too can plague these spaces through paid promotions. Likewise, the power of hip-hop in this new field is waning. Xumman notes that the youth should not try to emulate the American rap artists they see on the Web. As he states, “I’ve never heard Lil Wayne talk about politics”. America’s focus on greed, wealth and materialism is not relatable to a Senegalese audience. Hip-hop must represent its people and their needs. Xumman repeats: “Hip-hop used to be the grandson of the slave song, the speech of Martin Luther King, of Malcolm X. Now hip-hop is about Me, Myself and I. I have this, I have that. The youth don’t understand the struggle. This music is empty of the fight.” Although the art of making music is still a productive hobby that can keep young people off the streets, Xumman fears that the message behind hip-hop is disappearing.
To combat this, 7 years ago, Xumman and his peers started ‘Journal Rappé’, where they rap the news. Instead of politicians using complicated words to explain topics, these Senegalese rappers wanted to make the news simple and digestible for audiences. For Xumman, artists have the responsibility to use their art to try to change mentalities and pass on something new to future generations.
Valerie Asiimwe Amani
Twitter & Instagram: @ardonaxela
Amani provides an excellent breakdown of the current cultural scene in Africa. Firstly, Ghana enacted the ‘Year of Return’ initiative, hosted the Afrochella music event and built a new arts pavilion which opened at the Venice Art Biennale. In the music scene, African artists are making a huge splash worldwide. Burna Boy — a Nigerian Afro-fusion artist — received a Grammy nomination for the 2020 Best World Music Album with ‘African Giant’. Sounds from afro beats and bongo flava have been also incorporated into tracks by renowned figures like Beyonce and Ed Sheeran, and other artists such as Wizkid, Sho Madjozi and Petite Noir are achieving global fame and are even inspiring bigger Western artists. In film, diversity is increasing; Shonisani Masutha became the first African actress to act in a Bollywood series, starring as Norah on ‘Mehek’. On the internet, platforms like instagram are breaking down some barriers for artists like Amani, enabling creatives to showcase their work worldwide. In fashion, more and more global brands are recognising or collaborating with African creators. For example, illustrator Karabo Poppy became the First South African Artist to collaborate with Nike on their iconic Air Force 1 Low sneakers. Vogue has been continuously publishing features on emerging and established fashion brands such as the Rwandan company ‘Haute Baso’. In the African art world, there has been a notable increase in African art buyers. Last year, the auction company, Sotheby’s, sold approximately $3 million worth of art during the Modern and Contemporary African Art auction in London. Moreover, artistic hubs are being established by young Africans in London as a way to create more safe spaces and provide tools and resources.
Although it is encouraging to see African art flourish on a global stage, Amani cautions against a complete celebration of its globalisation. As African art increases in popularity, there is a tendency to treat African culture as a singular object, with “commodification” flattening the “multinational and diverse traditions”. She uses Topshop, Louis Vuitton and Stella McCartney as examples of brands which have recently capitalised off the ‘African aesthetic’. Likewise, as Amani states, films such as ‘Black Panther’ and ‘The Lion King’ remake became box office successes by “riding on the high wave of ‘the African narrative’, yet at many times incorrectly representing it”.
Amani concludes: “It is clear that the global community is hungry for ‘the African narrative’” but it must be Africans who do the narrating. As Amani phrases it, this “global demand for ‘Africanness’” is working alongside a “continental resistance against Western hegemony”. She therefore calls for African artists to “protect our spaces and narratives, turning and commodifying our culture in our own ways”. She ends with a more positive sentiment, stating: “I believe that in the creative sphere we are shifting from mindset of what the world can do for Africa, to what Africa can do and has done for the world.”
Ahmed El Attar
Attar speaks about misconceptions about art and culture. He begins with the relationship between art and activism, ultimately refuting the idea that to be an artist is to also be an activist. He states that although art can be political and act as a form of activism, it does not then follow that the artists themselves are political activists. For Attar, if the artist identifies as a politician, then they “lose what really distinguishes them as an artist”.
Attar then discusses the relationship between art and entrepreneurship in the creative industries. Attar rightly notes that this is based on a Western economic model. This system misses the point of art due to the overemphasis on budget, profit and popularity. Attar states: “The value of art is not in how many people see it but in the effect it has on the few that do.”
Attar also tackles the question of art and development. While it is admirable that some artists do carry out charity work, Attar insists that this is not a requirement in order for artists to be considered charitable. Rather, the point of art is to inspire “hope in people to encourage them to go on”. If an artist’s work succeeds in providing this gift, then that is charity enough.
Finally, Attar scrutinises the concept of ‘growth’ in Africa. For Attar: “Growth is another Western myth that we have to live with to justify the support that the Western world is giving to dictators across Africa and across the world since colonisation.” He thinks this focus on the positive narrative of ‘growth’ derails conversations from prominent social issues. He boldly states: “We have to stop focusing only on what’s great — it’s not great. Africa is not great. There are a lot of massive problems with education, healthcare [and] wealth distribution.” He uses the example of Egypt to debunk the concept of ‘growth’: “Egypt has been growing at 6% for the last twenty years. We had a revolution in 2011. Why did we have a revolution? Because we were not growing. Only the economy has been growing — for certain people.”
Attar concludes: “So what do we do with all these misconceptions? We create spaces. Mental spaces, physical spaces. Festivals, organisations — places we can exchange and create, places shielded from oppressive regimes with free expression.” In a world where we are constantly being driven apart, Attar advises that, through art, we start to “bring people together.”