By Andrew Mulenga
Ismail Mahomed, Director of South Africa's annual National Arts Festival, recently hit the proverbial hammer so hard on the nail's head that the echo of his opinion is food for thought not just in SA but is one of generic importance across the African continent, well, at least to nations with a semblence of democracy, Zambia inclusive. This is also considering the Visual Arts Council will be voting for their leadership at the AGM a few weeks from now and also the presidential elections are scheduled for the final quarter of this year.
"The arts are hardly ever the subject of an elections campaign. So, it is quite likely that even artists will go to the polling stations to cast their vote without even pondering what their vote could mean for the sustainability of their own livelihoods," writes Mahomed in his personal capacity in an article published last month on Artslink, a South African culture and entertainment news wire.
Mahomed observes that voting for a government that is arts-sensitised can have a significantly positive and distinctly competitive impact on the health and quality of how an arts sector functions, grows and contributes to the economy. He writes that the health of an arts organisation and its creative industries is a defining element of a community’s image and a key facet of its economy and that the arts are also an important resource through which a community educates its younger generations.
"A commitment to support the arts must be non-negotiable thing that every artist should expect from the political party or candidate for whom they intend voting. It is the responsibility of artists and arts-sensitised voters to ensure that a strong and vibrant arts sector is supported by election candidates who will advocate for local government funding for the arts" reads the article in part.
He argues that politicians and political parties who do not recognise the arts as a wise investment for any community will not promote programmes that contribute to the cultural tourism sector.
Most, if not all of Mahomed's concerns apply to Zambia too. But in the run-up to elections, there still seems to be no political party that appears to have a specific or cumulative plan for the creative industry or at least the creative society. How pleasant it would be to see politicians visit art galleries, theatre houses or even live concerts and assure artistes of a progressive plan for the arts, even half-truths will do, such as promising artists (as per Unesco recommendation) that they will allocate one per cent of the building budget for public structures to the purchase of locally produced artworks. When push comes to shove, the issuing of half-truths is almost considered standard practice during every election, judging from the recent past.
But maybe Zambian artists are not doing enough to be heard or seen. Do politicians even know that artists exist? Are artists too silent and invisible? Maybe so, after all, unlike the Henry Tayalis and Akwila Simpasas, the leading visual artists of the independence era whose works were politically assertive, the Zambian artist of today does not seem to have any political opinion whatsoever. They appear to have assumed a role of producing work merely for decorative purposes. This assumption is not restricted to visual artists. Nevertheless, even their kin, the actors and musicians, do not seem to be expressive politically. In theatre, not since Benne Banda and late Augustine Lungu's Samangika in the early 2000s have we seen any thought-provoking play. The play was set during elections in a newly democratised state. It portrayed how the benefits of democracy eluded an electorate, particularly the poor. It is compelling portrayal of how leaders forget their promises and the electorate loses faith in the electoral process. In music too, not since late Kalindula supremo PK Chishala's Common Man a song that, as the title suggests talks about the struggles of the common man and appeals to leadership to lend an ear to the cries of the poor whom without their vote, the leaders will not be in power.
Nevertheless, to avoid continuing to jeer Zambian artistes or label them scaredy-cats with regards having a political outlook or voice, it would probably be wise to again return to Mahomed's counsel.
"When artists and those who earn their salaries from arts organisations vote for political candidates and political parties who do not care for the arts they can expect local government councillors who will not spend any money on acquiring artistic assets for their city’s collection. Neither will these councillors work towards growing art in public spaces." he continues.
He observes that politicians who are arts sensitised will safe guard the artist’s rights to freedom of expression and creativity. Artists who go to the ballot box should make it a point to vote for political candidates and parties who will not limit their freedom of expression or creativity. Mahomed however does become more uncompromising towards the end of his article.
"If a political party makes it harder to access the arts, vote against it. If the party has no policy about how it will grow and support the arts economy, vote against it. If the party fails to give greater recognition that the arts are a vibrant part of the economy, vote against it." he declares.
Mahomed is an accomplished playwright with more than twenty years of experience in the performing arts sector he holds several awards for theatrical excellence.
As earlier suggested, Mahomed's strong-minded opinion is one of generic importance in any reasonable democracy and can be applied to Zambia. There is much in it that the local creative community as well as elected officials who do not seem to have the poltical will to support the arts may want to take into consideration, it is not too late.
What is continuously worrying however, is that with every regime change, the political will to support the arts, has been on a downward trajectory since Zambia's independence. For the visual arts its tempting to reminisce with a brief history of the National Art Collection as provided through a speech by Cynthia Zukas during the opening of an exhibition a few years ago: "At independence the newly-formed Department of Cultural Services under its first director Mutumwena Yeta had the vision and enthusiasm to start building a National Art Collection. He had the full support and encouragement of president Kaunda." read the speech in part "… after 1972 or '73 the purchasing grant got less and less, and the committee (Art Centre Foundation) sometimes had to plead with the Department to get at least something each year, so very few new works could be bought".