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Friday, 18 January 2013

‘Africa is not a country’, German funders told

By Andrew Mulenga

Safia Dickersbach, The Public Relations Director ARTFACTS.Net™ Ltd a U.K. based company and leading art database and arts market analyst for the modern and contemporary art world has described TURN, the new cultural support program initiated by the German Federal Cultural Foundation as rude, degrading and patronizing.

TURN is a sponsorship scheme whose aim is to develop “cultural cooperation between Germany and Africa” between the years 2013 and 2015. However, in a Press Statement following an open letter to the German Federal Cultural Foundation, Dickersbach argues that this laudable goal is gravely impaired by a disrespectful attitude towards the African side of this cultural exchange program as a consequence of political or cultural prejudices which influenced the project’s structures and funding requirements.

“…the funding guidelines of the program prevent any active participation of African art institutions and exclude the artists and art communities in African countries from independently applying for the funds. The funding guidelines tell the other side of a prospective cultural exchange in a roundabout way what in blunt words would be: Sorry, but we cannot trust you, the German art and culture institutions have to first discover you, choose you and then they have to be the lead partner in the exchange, because with bookkeeping we have to rely on the German side,” reads the statement in part.

Describing the treatment as “offensive”  and  annoying, Dickersbach states it was not the arts and culture communities on the African continent who asked for being included in some cultural exchange program with Germany, but it was the German Kulturstiftung's decision to say: “Now we are starting a new policy focus on Africa, we need it and we want it”. She observes that this approach signals a “lack of intercultural competence which is even more surprising coming from a board and its team of highly educated Western intellectuals with an academic background in all kind of studies including cultural sciences and even African studies.”

“For me - a native African born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and now living in a home of choice in Berlin, Germany - arts and culture exchange means showing some respect for your cooperation partners and dealing with them at eye level; these basic principles are completely ignored by the structure and funding requirements of TURN although you would expect them to be observed at least in an art-related program by such an institution like the German Federal Cultural Foundation.”

In her press statement, Dickersbach also indicates that the German funding set aside for the project is insufficient and that the amount would hardly cover the costs of two or three decent art shows in any average art institution in Berlin or elsewhere in Germany as she knows very well from my professional work in the art business.

“Furthermore the budget of 2 million EUR is totally insufficient to finance an artistic exchange program between Germany and the whole African continent. It would be fine to use such an amount for cultural relations with only a handful of African countries and to focus on specific regions or projects, but to take this budget and call it a "policy focus on Africa" is ridiculous in my opinion. Compared with the overall budget of the Federal Republic's state secretary for culture of over 1 billion EUR per year which includes the budget of the German Federal Cultural Foundation, the money which is designated for TURN is embarrassingly small change money,” ends the statement.

And in the open letter to the German Federal Cultural Foundation, she called for a review of the TURN – Africa program in which she also appeals to the African players to demand an input of their own.

 “It is very important that the arts and culture communities of the whole African continent learn about the deficiencies of the German Federal Cultural Foundation's TURN project so that they can eventually voice out their opinion about this program, take part in the debate and express clearly how they want to be treated in this cultural exchange with Germany,” reads the letter that was published on a purpose built blog entitled Africa Is Not A Country. “Their viewpoints, thoughts and perceptions have to be documented, unequivocally heard and quickly forwarded to the German Federal Cultural Foundation so that the responsible decision-makers in Germany very soon recognize the need to change their TURN - Africa program so that it better serves the interests of the arts and culture communities on the African continent.”

It turns out since publishing her letter a few weeks ago, it has received some kind of response and some minor changes have been made.

“So far only miniscule changes for the sake of political correctness have been made. The German Kulturstiftung had to concede that "Africa Is Not a Country" after my open letter had reminded them of this truth. So in response to the open letter's publication the German Kulturstiftung changed the terminology of the English version of its internet presentation where they are now not talking about German-African cultural relations any more, but about cultural relations between Germany and "African countries". But this rather ludicrous adjustment only shows that still more public awareness and debate are needed. Not only the terminology, but the content of the scheme and the actual essence of the funding requirements have to be changed.”

She charges that if the elite circles of the art world in Europe deal with an easy element of arts and culture policy like that, what does this reveal about the way the political decision-makers will act when it comes to shaping the really relevant policy actions for dealing with Africa in foreign policy, development aid and other questions of human survival?

And in personal communication with the author early this week, Dickersbach, shared a further reaction from the person in charge of the whole programme.

“After I had published my open letter with the critique of TURN, it was interesting to get to know the reaction of the German Federal Cultural Foundation and to learn about their explanations and viewpoints. Dr. Uta Schnell who runs the TURN program wrote to me that the German Federal Cultural Foundation “unfortunately is limited by statutory and administrative possibilities”, so that they could not “take into account all suggestions they might have desired,” she said.

She said at this point she is wondering whether those statutory and administrative restrictions themselves are a consequence of subtle prejudices and paternalistic attitudes which we (Africans) believed to have been buried for long in the past of European-African interconnections.

“Maybe not without reason Uta Schnell did not answer me any more when I asked her what exactly those “statutory and administrative” obstacles were and what changes they prevented which the German Federal Cultural Foundation would have desired to make. I did not yet experience such a case that a serious Western institution recognizes severe deficits in its program, but then gives in to unclear administrative regulations instead of immediately modifying the program and amending its faults,” said Dickersbach.  
Her organization Artfacts.Net is also well known for its innovative Artist Ranking System which measures the curatorial and institutional attention an artist receives and provides a ranking which is based upon each artist's relevance in the eyes of international curators. Its database consists of 25,263 exhibitors from 184 countries, 468,875 exhibitions globally, 360,334 artists biographies, 288,759 ranked artists, 25,372 works of art and 1,675 catalogues. In addition to this she owns a separate private agency since 1996 focusing on strategic and public relations advice in arts and culture.

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