Art As Survival

The Importance of South by South Narratives

There is something rather abnormal about the way we approach and perceive elitism, prestige and inheritance. This is just part of the challenge that fine artists and creative people face in these times of consumerist social relations, shaped as they are by beliefs in private property as well as capitalist ‘free-markets’. In order to gain a better understanding of the forces that are reflective of South-South narratives, we must also acknowledge the recently signed Africa Free Trade Area deal and what it means for the ‘free flow’ of African creative output.

We must not just celebrate it but also ask hard questions such as, will it open up more Artists to access more sales and appreciation or will it further contribute to the exploitation of the creative communities?

What are the policies that will ensure that communities and professional Artists are not subjected to further financial exclusion, oppression and a new Scramble for Africa from unscrupulous and affluent members of society?

Southern Africa, South America, the Arab world as well as other non-European societies have produced some of the greatest Artists in the world.

Many of the most celebrated artists of the western world have been significantly influenced by the people of the South, in particular creative writers, musicians as well as visual artists. This has not gone unnoticed by arts scholars, practitioners and critics globally. However influential the people of the South and East have been on western civilization, today some of the largest and greatest collections of Africa’s as well as the rest of the worlds creative-intellectual property is collected in the West.

In the museums private collections and famous galleries of the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States of America, Portugal, Spain, France and Italy, we can find artworks from as ancient as Pre-Dynastic Egypt/Kemet and Middle Kingdom Nubia and some as recent as 16th Century Benin and  17th century Ethiopia/Abyssinia.

This phenomenon, among other mitigating factors, has created an impression that Africans in particular do not value art. This is part of a deliberately constructed false narrative which has been perpetuated by racist prodiling.

We may be known and even pride ourselves as being a generally culturally inclined people, but have our governments, educational and business institutions invested in the understanding and appreciation of fine arts?

This question may be broadly addressed to the macro-economic influencers and policy makers, but it is also indirectly challenging we the brothers, sisters and communities from which our artists emerge to engage more meaningfully with our Artistic community members. The question is also posed to the Creators themselves.

Have they had sufficient opportunity to forge alliances, communion and intercultural relations that make access to their work a priority in their society?

The art world is a complex environment; it exists at the confluence of society, personal as well as social freedoms and spirituality, business interests as well as intra-cultural domains. While art is a language that potentially unites people, not everyone has automatic access to it, at least not the kind of art that appears in galleries as well as private collections. The African gallery is an interesting experiment in how complicated this confluence really is. For example, a globally celebrated Artist from Durban or Cape Town may visit Bulawayo, Mutare or Harare, the galleries may do their best to submit press releases and other forms of promotional material on the media, hoping to entice not just the usual art lovers, but to induce even those who may appear oblivious or even ignorant of the ideological importance of viewing, appreciating and owning art, yet year in and year out, the people who will come and meet the artists would be the same faces. This happens in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town. Notice that I have not mentioned other provinces or city centres. I have mentioned those in which the most visible commercial enterprising is taking place. This is what we have inherited as Africans as well as other peoples of the South. The most effective way of ensuring that arts develop a growing audience, and that South-South relations between Artists and communities are improved, is to make revolution. How that can be done depends wholly on how neo-colonially saturated creative, distributive and trading routes are reconfigured. An artist that is born on the outskirts of the commercial business district in any country has to somehow become a labourer, selling his body or physical energy in the competitive job-markets in order to support him/herself and his or her real work. She has to also find ways to convince family, friends and sceptics that she is also part of a positive contribution to society, just as important as an herbalist, a doctor or a musician. But this transformation of society’s perception and reception of art requires a further readjustment of the status quo. While relationships between Artists and the ruling ‘elites’ are not always cordial, this does not condone the kind of negligence that many former liberation movements/governments display towards Artists. It is often a case of only seeking out Artists whenever it fits a particular agenda, often during electioneering as well as national crises.

There is often a lot of friction between the honest and politically conscious artists and the rulers. This clearly reminds us that the highly western educated members of society are not the obvious buyers of fine local arts and crafts. In many of the affluent Black folk’s homes, one finds copies of Eurocentric art or the cheapest painting or scupture they can find on the streets even though they can afford to support many great Artists. In order to transform the relations between arts producers in the global South, there needs to be a transformation in class relations. This demystification of the capitalist class systems, patronage, racisms and consumerist habits of Africa’s educated fools is the prerequisite to establishment of narratives which are broader in outlook. It requires a great unlearning, the sort of Decolonisation of the Mind, that Ngugi Wa Thiongo once wrote about, albeit regarding literature as well as language planning. We also have to investigate and promote the various intersections between music, literature, performance and visual arts. The Global South as already mentioned before, has produced a plethora of world famous Artists, they are written about in pricey art-house magazines, journals and hefty coffee-table books, yet these publications are often out of reach for a large section of the population. Even the so called Black Middle-Class appears largely out of touch with our own Black creative genius. While this may be a generalisation, it is based on the experience of many years of unequal distribution of wealth and knowledge.

Writing in the 57th edition of a publication called The Afropolitan, under the title Collecting Art: Redressing The Balance, James Sey observes: “Many great black artists in South Africa’s history, especially in the twentieth century, were unfairly ignored or denied access to the education, social and artistic networks and institutional support that would have seen them become as successful and well-known as their privileged white counterparts.”

And here is what Danisile Ncube, one of the Zimbabwean Artists who has worked and taught in South Africa had to say on Southern African Artist’s challenges: “We still have a lot in common as our backgrounds on socio-political levels are the same, we come from the cold, so the forces that control the markets and arts are the same. There is a problem of Mass Production. Artists suffer from various similar ills, the prices of materials as well as Artists not being able to find themselves, their individual as well as social voice. There is also the challenge of operating in a state of economic droughts.” Ncube also opines that the economic downturn also paradoxically opens an opportunity for Arts collectors. This is a topic that requires its own essay. Suffice to conclude that, it is also very important for Artists to have sufficiently populated spaces wherein they can air their views in addition to being able to share their passion with peers as well as larger society.

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