Africa, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Trade & Investment, Trade and poverty: Facts beyond theory

Q&A: Africans Won’t Just Be on Receiving End of Arts and Culture

Christi van der Westhuizen interviews MIKE VAN GRAAN, playwright and activist

CAPE TOWN, Oct 15 2009 (IPS) - Global initiatives have in recent years stressed the contribution that arts and culture can make to development. This has led African and European artists, bureaucrats and policy makers to increasingly confront the unequal relations in North-South cultural and artistic exchanges.

Mike van Graan: Without markets, the creative industries can't boost development. Credit:

Mike van Graan: Without markets, the creative industries can't boost development. Credit:

One such initiative is the Arterial Network founded on Gorée Island, Senegal, in 2007. This informal grouping represents artists, institutions and funders and has the aim of growing African arts and culture in civil society and to enhance the sustainability of the creative industries. The latter are sectors that create unique property, content and design, including aesthetic experiences and objects.

Award-winning South African playwright and activist Mike van Graan was involved in the founding of the network and also served as programme director for the recent Fourth World Summit on Arts and Culture held in Johannesburg, South Africa (Sep. 22-25), where the issue of unequal North-South exchanges was on the agenda.

The triennial summit, which took place in Africa for the first time, is organised by the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies which represents quasi-governmental bodies that fund the arts in poor and wealthy countries across the globe.

IPS: There has been a strong move in recent years to link what are called the cultural or creative industries with development. Where is the impetus for this coming from and why? MIKE VAN GRAAN: In the post-colonial era, much emphasis was placed on development models created in the West and imposed on newly independent societies, only for these development models to fail spectacularly as they did not take cognisance of the cultures (values, beliefs, worldviews, traditions and lifestyles) of the supposed beneficiaries of development.

This led to the emergence of a more progressive practice that emphasised the “cultural dimension of development”. In recent years, research has shown that the creative industries in the North have been major streams of income and, given this experience, the creative industries are now being seen as a kind of panacea to give a new boost to the “cultural dimension of development”.

I’m ambivalent about this, not least since creative industries require markets with disposable income for sustainability. With poverty and underdevelopment in Africa, it is a case of the chicken and the egg – what comes first: creative industries to boost development or something else to create the markets for creative goods and services?

IPS: Moves have also been afoot to harness the arts in an increasingly complex world where cultural diversity is sometimes negatively regarded as the cause of conflict. MG: Trade in cultural goods and services at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) led some countries in the North – notably Canada and France – to declare that these needed to be removed from the free trade impetus of the WTO as cultural goods from a strong economy like the U.S. would simply flood their markets and kill off their creative industries.

Since values, worldviews and ideas are embedded in cultural goods such as movies, television programmes and music — unlike other products such as cars, clothes and toothpaste — it was argued that this unregulated trade in cultural goods would lead to the homogenisation of world thought.

Hence the need for “cultural diversity” by allowing countries to invest in and protect their cultural industries against unbridled market forces. Yet, of course, in developing countries, there is a suspicion of “cultural diversity” as it was the premise of divide-and-rule colonial and apartheid strategies.

Also, the emphasis on cultural diversity to deal with trade in cultural goods and services, which is essentially a Northern “problem”, is actually creating a potential problem in that cultural differences are exactly the site of struggle that is symptomatic of global, regional and national structural inequities and power relations.

The arts can benefit from the emphasis being placed on the need to grow creative industries to encourage global cultural diversity; on the other hand, they are compromised when their value is recognised only in terms of their economic benefits or their strategic utilitarian use for political goals like social cohesion and intercultural dialogue.

IPS: Don’t African artists run exactly this risk of being conscripted into creating “safe art”? MG: In many ways, the “agenda” and international cultural discourses are set in the North, with Africans having to play catch up. Or our governments are conscripted to sign agreements in support of one or other bloc but these agreements are rarely implemented, for example the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.

It is in this context that the Arterial Network has emerged to define the interests and priorities of African artists with regard to these initiatives and to establish how we may best take advantage of these discourses at national, regional and international levels.

By artists organising and asserting their interests, we hope to advance a democratic and participatory agenda.

IPS: How has dependence on donor money affected the arts in Africa?

MG: In some countries, the arts have only functioned and survived because of donor money. So, while there is dependence, artists have been able to practise freedom of expression precisely because they are not dependent on their own governments’ funding.

However, there are pros and cons to such dependency. This is something that the Arterial Network plans to address by looking at the sustainability of African creative practice.

IPS: Which initiatives have been undertaken to this end? MG: One of them is to debate these matters with donors so that we start from a basis of mutual respect as opposed to avoiding talking about the elephant in the room.

Hence the recent debates (at the World Summit and at a seminar of the European Union National Institutes for Culture in Johannesburg) about North-South cultural exchange and the unequal power relations inherent in the North’s provision of the primary resources for such exchange and collaboration.

Another is to establish an independent African Fund for Arts and Culture, governed by Africans, which will support artistic production and distribution across national boundaries and constraints.

Republish | | Print |

michael miloro