Tedx salon: Art for Africa
I had been waiting anxiously for the Tedx Johannesburg Salon. The thought of spending a saturday exploring the topic of Art for Africa with some of the continent’s greatest minds was just too good to be true. The line up was well curated and I was genuinely keen for the conference and all the impactful conversations I anticipated.
However, my high spirits were slightly deflated upon getting here. It strikes me as odd and angers me that white people are STILL dominating spaces in a country where more than 80% of the population is black. And yes, I am pulling the race card again. Until such a time that the conditions of our existence do not necessitate the race card, it will remain pulled and raised proudly.
It is frustrating that a conversation on Art for Africa (this and many other important conversations in the country) is constantly dominated by those who have access and money. Firstly, I am also part of the problem because my proximity to the conference venue covered me with privilege which blinded me from questioning who this conference was being curated for. If I had questioned this, I would not have been surprised to arrive on the Saturday morning and see, almost exclusively, white bodies.
I was quickly reminded that this obsession with Africa in the arts is absurd. Specifically because the spaces that consume this art continue to be exclusionary & elitist.
The globalised art market is nothing but a colonial market that has found a way to enrich the same people under the pretence of a more inclusive platform for ‘different types of art”.
Here’s a bit of context. I love art, but I can’t afford to purchase it….I consume it nonetheless through visiting spaces that are full of creativity and creation. I love that it can be used for so many different purposes. I’ve looked at a painting and instantly felt happy and joyful, but more importantly, I’ve looked at pieces that have challenged me and caused me to reflect on my actions and the world around me. This is where I think the power of art lies: it’s power to subvert, conscientise and disrupt authoritative power.
Art for Africa to me, literally means that….art created by Africans for Africans. This means that when a 17 year old me is introduced to her first piece of fine art painting, it should not be Vincent Van Gogh, because although he is incredible in his own right, he was telling his stories in his context through his soul. We all like to think that art should be universal and that it should speak to everyone equally, but this is absurd. The message and emotion and feelings will be different based on perception.
Art for Africa cannot exist in a vacuum. It will be historical and most of the time it will be political, because this is where we find ourselves as Africans. The issues of colonialism, neo-liberalism, economic freedom, poverty and oppression will therefore manifest in our art…and this makes sense. But so will the stories of love and laughter and courage, kindness and ubuntu.
The irony of talking about post colonial art to a group of white folk is too much to handle. Art spaces & conversations are still inaccessible to the nation. This is another aspect which frustrates me about the spaces we use to communicate and share art in. I have no hope for museums as spaces which can transform people's attitudes. These spaces are far removed from reality. As artist Lerato Shadi put it; “white gallery walls are a sign of exclusion and elitism”.
We need to start thinking creatively about disrupting this fixed mindset that the worth of a piece of art is determined by some surveyor in Paris or Berlin. That the only real art is one that you find in your local white walled box of oppression. This is why I love and follow Banksy. He has always understood the idea of ‘art for the people’…..choosing street art as a medium of conversation and engaging with public spaces in a way that makes his art accessible.
What irks me is that the west tends to commodify struggles….packaging & selling them as “art”. Art for Africa is seen as interesting today because it fits into some narrow narrative of ‘Africa rising” or whatever the caption is today.
Jim Chuchu of the Nest Collective; a multidisciplinary arts collaborative in Nairobi, explained his vision for Art for Africa so beautifully:
“…..every time we create in Kenya, the country shifts and the kids are watching….” He was referring to how powerful art can be in shifting mindsets and creating possibilities where none existed before.
I guess what I really want is for everyone who wants to be part of the conversation to be able to engage. I want people to experience the discomfort, joy and confusion of seeing a piece of work that is beautifully created. I want our nations’ talent…that of our brothers and sisters, to be enjoyed by us, the people. I want us to think and question and challenge artists as we inspire them and they inspire us. I want the language of art to be simple and accessible. I want Art for Africa.