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Sunday, 20 October 2013

Grassroots art projects wow donors at African Creative Economy Conference

By Andrew Mulenga

The just ended African Creative Economy Conference (ACEC 2013) took place in Cape Town last week intended to “focus attention on the continents creative industries, not just as economic drivers” but to also “highlight the potential contribution of the Creative Industries to the eradication of poverty and the building of democracy and human rights” in the words of Korkor Amarteifio the outgoing Chairperson of the Arterial Network, the continental network of creative practitioners that initiated the conference.

In addition, Erica Elk, the Executive director of the Cape Craft & Design Institute (CCDI), the organisation that volunteered to coordinate this year’s annual conference suggested that her organisation was committed to “broadening the scope and nature of the conversation because we truly believe the future of our country, continent and planet is dependent on us capturing and fulfilling creative energy”.

After giving a speech Kenyan singer-songwriter
Suzanna Owiyo entertains delegates at the
ACEC 2013 in Cape Town
No doubt the ‘conversation’ at the conference was broad. In fact the variety of conference speakers as well as presentations at the City Hall venue was so diverse that its sheer assortment was a masala that can only be compared to one found at the Eastern Food Bazaar, a few minutes’ walk down the road.

In the Eastern Food Bazaar, one can sample a whole variety of reasonably priced, but mouth-watering Asian cuisine from a Chicken Cheese Masala Dosa, sold at the Madras Dosa House, Potato Wada from Bombay Bites, Lamb Shawarma from Istanbul - Shawarma - Falafel or Veg Fried Rice from China Town all under one roof and when confused by the barrage of aromas and flavours in this frenzied corridor of open kitchens that joins Long Market Street to Darling Street it is confusing to make a choice.

Similarly throughout the ACEC 2013, delegates were served with such a perplexing choice of presentations by some of the continent's leading thinkers, academics, cultural producers, and experts in music, dance, theatre, visual arts, heritage and museums, design, fashion, craft, festivals and cultural events, film and literature. Also among the speakers were entrepreneurs, politicians and funders that have interest in expanding the creative economies across the continent.

Many of the presentations would end up being excessively technical with the speakers producing every manner of pie charts, histograms and statistics that were – wave after wave -- repetitively shelled on the delegates in an effort to illustrate Africa’s global economic position and configure this to how much is, can and should be spent on and earned from the arts.

Fortunately, some of the speakers, and particularly those who are artistes themselves were able to pull out the shrapnel of an ‘information-overload’ by sharing their inspirational success stories of projects that have been fruitful -- with very little or no support from private or public funding -- much to the amusement of the crowd, donors inclusive.

Key among these was Nigerian, Omoyemi Akerele, Creative and Managing Director, Lagos Fashion and Design Week. Also the founder of Style House, a fashion development agency that focuses on “giving everyone in the creative chain” an opportunity to benefit from the lucrative aspect of fashion. Akerele shared how she abandoned a successful career in International Economic Law to pursue her passion and later become the fashion editor for True Love West Africa magazine and as an African fashion ambassador later earned collaborations and nominations for panels such as International Herald Tribune Luxury Conference, British Council Creative Industries Expo and the Creative Enterprise Forum.

Suzanna Owiyo, an award-winning Kenyan singer-songwriter and musician who fuses western style pop with traditional African instruments shared how she is providing up-coming artistes with recording space at her studio in her native Kisumu. She is also the matron of a girls’ empowerment campaign called Because I’m A Girl. She supports several women and children’s charities through her Suzanne Oyiwo Trust. After her presentation, Oyiwo hypnotised the crowd with a soulful ballade while strumming on her acoustic guitar ala Tracey Chapman.

Didier Awadi from Senegal, an award-winning rapper and prominent figure in Francophone Africa’s highly lucrative hip-hop scene explained how his label, a film and music production house called Studio Sankara – after the iconic revolutionary figure, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso commonly referred to as Africa's Che Guevara – said he has over 50 full time employees, making him a champion of poverty reduction and job creation using the creative arts. In 2010 he launched Presidents of Africa a project that revisits Africa’s history using speeches from ‘founding fathers’ as material. It was interesting to note however, especially at a conference like this, that Awadi’s studio is named after an African leader who opposed foreign aid, declaring "he, who feeds you, controls you.” Sankara can also be remembered for lowering his salary to $450 a month as president and limiting his possessions to a car, four bicycles, three guitars, a fridge and a broken freezer.

Anyway, clearly the firm favourite was Siphiwe Ngwenya former member of South African hip-hop group Skwatta Kamp from the slums of Johannesburg. He introduced the Maboneng Township Art Experience – read about this project in the Saturday Post on the 26 October -- a modest initiative emerging from rejection that transforms ordinary homes into art galleries, casting to the winds the western style of contemporary art sales and presentation, stimulating the question of whether we have adopted the appropriate gallery system to suite our continent.

It was interesting however, when these poster boys and girls of grassroots creative entrepreneurship surrendered the stage for  a high powered panel of leading funding partners from the ‘developed world’ entitled Why We Invest in and Support the African Creative Sector.  There were representatives from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Doen Foundation, Pro Helvetia, the Goethe Institute, UNESCO and the EU. It was heard that the Nigerian-based British Council representative could not make it due to an immigration irregularity.

Listening to this distinguished panel it became evidently disappointing that Europe still sees Africa as one country and thinks one type of support strategy can cater for any nation from Cape to Cairo, even when they know too well that cultural policies, trade and political landscapes differ. An observation also highlighted in the Arterial Network’s seven-page Position Paper On Culture In An International and National Development Agenda where it states “…varied conditions within and between nations require a nuanced approach to development rather than a one-size-fits-all approach”.

It was also evident through the various presentations that “South Africa” is intentionally misidentified as “Southern Africa” which might explain why they [donor community] is shifting camp southwards.

Recently Zambia has seen the continued downsizing of European embassies and the shift of their operations further south. The British Council once a very active supporter of the arts in Zambia, hosting frequent exhibitions and cultural activities has long disappeared from our lips and has been replaced with Alliance Francaise its francophone equivalent that now runs a very lively and consistent arts and culture agenda at its base along Alick Nkhata Road in Lusaka. The British Council libraries that once benefited so many – the author included – were shut down years ago compounding the continuously disintegrating, carcass of a public library system it helped to supplement with up-to-date literature, magazines, academic material and information on scholarships.

In April this year the Dutch announced the shut-down of their embassy in Lusaka and foreign minister Uri Rosenthal also announced the closure of three other embassies on the continent as part of “an effort to modernise embassy services and re-focus the priorities for Dutch foreign policy.” The Dutch departure resulted in the donation to the Lechwe Art Trust of a respectable collection of contemporary works by Zambian artists that had been collected at the embassy over the years. But anyway, what do we do when foreign support, mainly funded by taxpayers’ money is pulled out – apart from consoling ourselves with the thoughts of Sankara highlighted earlier -- nothing.

A general characteristic that could be sensed in many of the presentations was that Europe seemed to be losing grip on Africa at a very crucial time when the continent seems to be experiencing a rebirth or renaissance as it were. The west is also losing grip at a time when China is all-over the continent albeit in the area of mineral extraction. One of the speakers nudged forward the notion that the west in many cases is accusing China of colonising Africa, a concept that he brushed off as absurd because whereas Europe came to Africa with a Bible and a gun and asked us [Africans] to switch our spiritual faith and give up our land, the Chinese are building roads, cities and railway lines, of course whether the Sino-African relationship is of mutual benefit remains debatable (read more about this relationship next Saturday).

Nevertheless, several highlights of the conference brought about open-ended debate, some of the issues will be published in subsequent articles here in the Saturday Post. But two concerns are worthy of noting in conclusion. One is that of dwindling commitment towards the arts in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the other is the limbo in which artists stand with regards the commodification of their vocation.

Stephen Chifunyise, a Zimbabwean UNESCO technical expert on cultural policy and Principal of the Zimbabwe Academy of Arts Education for Development (ZAAED) suggested that the regional and national leaders are not doing enough.

In his presentation he pointed out that the current shortcomings can be put into historical context, he explained that Africa’s creative industries first won formal recognition from the continent’s leaders in 1975. A year later, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), forerunner of today’s African Union (AU), launched the African Cultural Charter, which placed a particular emphasis on the need to improve training.  The charter was followed by a series of action plans, including the Nairobi Plan of Action for Cultural Industries in Africa, launched in 1992, this document remains the benchmark for blueprints of its type but it has triggered very little action.

He argued that SADC’s performance has been erratic when it comes to promoting and supporting the cultural and creative sector and was disappointed that the SADC Arts and Culture Festivals could not be sustained but he did not highlight what led to their failed continuity, even though he was on the organising committee of these events.

The SADC Music Festival held in Harare in 1995 was the first in the implementation of the idea and since then four other festivals namely the SADC Theatre Festival in Maputo, the SADC Dance Festival in Harare and the SADC Multi–discipline Arts Festival in Johannesburg were held.

In essence, “Through this event the people of the SADC would know each other's cultures and appreciate their common origin. The SADC Arts and Culture Festival were therefore expected to enable the community to regularly celebrate its rich cultural diversity. The event was also expected to foster the growth of cultural industries that would contribute to the economic development of the community.”

“Through Arts and Culture Festivals the world at large was expected to patronise and consume effectively the arts and culture of the region. These cultural events were expected to become major tourist attractions. It was expected that through the missions of the SADC member states in different parts of the world, a calendar of SADC Arts and Culture Festivals would be distributed to tour operators, cultural promoters and artistes organisations.”

Chifunyise concluded by emphasising that it was essential to share the lessons learned at ACEC 2013 as widely possible.

“Our ideas and our knowledge must become the drivers that change the way Africa treats its cultural and artistic sectors,” he said.
Nevertheless, the conference closed with the unsavoury taste of “conviction over profit”; the issue of commodification of the arts. If art is truly an act of the spirit and artists are doing it as a calling we should also bear in mind that artists do have to make a living out of their creativity, they must be rewarded.

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