By Andrew Mulenga
Paris-based cultural activist, dancer and marketing expert Prune Helfter-Noah says the so-called developed world is ignorant of Africa’s rich and diverse culture because the media simply does not report enough on it and that this situation is the biggest injustice of our times.
“Traveling, reading, watching documentaries, talking to people, I’ve come to realize that there is a whole economic and political reality of Africa that people like me, living in the rich world, are totally ignorant of, not because they knowingly decide to do so, but because this reality is simply not reported in the media nor taught at school,” says Prune who was Promotions Manager at the French Embassy in Japan (Office of Tourism) organizing workshops for French companies and regional tourism offices in Japan from 2003 to 2005, a country in which she lived for 10 years.
“To me, this situation is both the biggest injustice of our times and the least heard of. Altogether, Ive encountered many artists from Africa and the diaspora, be it in the field of visual or performing arts, who have an extremely creative way to reflect, through the weapon of art on this reality.”
It is this perceived anomaly that prompted her to establish the HOUSE OF AFRICAN ART (HAA!), a Japanese non-profit organization officially recognized in 2011 that intends to showcase the work of African contemporary artists in Japan. The project is currently seeking sponsors, private and public, from Japan and abroad, to open an exhibition and performance space in Tokyo.
“We want to be the bridge that makes possible a large network of organizations sharing the same interest, present a variety of African arts to Japan, to come together and build the first ‘African Cultural Embassy’ in the world,” she says “We will be mainly showcasing living artists from the continent and the diaspora, but also innovative projects put together by Japanese artists inspired by Africa. I am thinking, for example, of the clothes designer Yoshinari Nishio or the choreographer Kota Yamazaki.”
She says in Japan, more than in Europe, Africa is an unknown continent, mostly because of the geographical distance between them. And while some sporadic events are organized to help Japanese people familiarize themselves with African cultures they sometimes tend to focus too much on the so-called uniqueness and exoticness of Africa, and thus reinforce the general public prejudice about the continent.
“The idea of creating a modern and original art space came from the realization that, to be best heard in all their truth, African voices needed to tell their stories with their own words, and what better medium than art to do so?,” she explains “I think shedding light on the positive forces of Africa is vital if we are to change the image of a continent plagued with war and famine that the media have created. I also believe artists enjoy a little bit more freedom than scholars or journalists when it comes to putting into question the dominant discourse about the roots of the current socio-economic situation of many African countries.”
She adds that next year, the 5th edition of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD V) will be in session and it is the best place to lobby governments to support the arts.
“It (TICAD) was designed as a diplomatic platform for Japan to discuss economic issues with her African partners. Culture does not belong, as such, to the agenda of this meeting, so our objective is to advocate for a change in the agenda setting, so that TICAD can be used as a forum between Japan and African head of states to discuss the creation of an African Cultural Centre in Japan.”
Prune emphasises that Governments should not only support the arts because of the revenue expected by a dynamic creative sector, but also because investing on building the ‘soft power’ of a country can bring a long lasting return on investment, as is best exemplified by the US case, but also, to a lesser extent, by India or Japan in Asia, or Nigeria and South Africa in Africa.
“The artistic sector has multi-fold potentialities as it is not only a political weapon, but also a tool for people from different backgrounds and cultures to connect, and of course a source of revenue for an individual, a community, a country,” she says, also advising the Zambian government not to squander the opportunity of co-hosting next years United Nations World Tourism Organisations.“It is really important to think in advance of the type of tourism you want to promote, and the kind of image of your country you want to send to the world. And deciding what cultural policy you want to lead should also be a major element of this branding of the country,” says Prune. Apart from being a dancer with Ohashi Kakuya and Dancers (Contemporary Dance Company) in Tokyo, she is also has a hand in fashion and academia. She is Executive Director for Realitism, a multi-sector holding company with a turnover of €3M that handles the Strategic and operational management of Olympia Le-Tan Luxury Bags and Clothes as well as production and sale of art by French and African artists. In 2005, she was also Market Study Coordinator for Louis Vuitton (Luxury Brand) in Paris and Tokyo. She taught Economy and Politics of the European Union at the French Institute in Kyoto in 1999 and 2000 and Relations between France and African countries at Keio University (Shonan Fujisawa Campus), in Tokyo in 2011.