The culture dilemma: Striking a balance for art in Africa

In order for South African arts to survive, it would need to keep innovating. (Supplied)

In order for South African arts to survive, it would need to keep innovating. (Supplied)

Subtitled, "Accessing opportunities in an expanding marketplace", the notion of a shrinking marketplace, or a marketplace not fulfilling its potential came to the fore as key organisations presented a piece of research just completed.

Organised by the Arts and Culture Trust, a development agency linked to the Arts Affinity initiative of Nedbank, the conference brought together individuals from organisations with a vested interest in the growth of the culture sector.

Delegates came from, among others, the Arterial Network, a Pan African network of artists, cultural activists, creative enterprises and others engaged in the African creative sector; the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (Vansa); the South African Music Rights Organisation (Samro) and the European Union National Institutes for Culture (Eunic).

The key research document presented was titled "Trade in Creative and Cultural Goods and Services in the context of European Union-South Africa Development of Creative Industries of South Africa". The document provided insight into current trade levels between the territories of the EU and South Africa and it is, no doubt, hoped that it will begin a dialogue between South Africa and the European Union about "how we might strengthen South Africa’s capacity for exporting its creative and cultural wealth in the future", to quote the research document presented at the conference.

Details revealed about the trade in creative and cultural goods between South Africa and the world will come as a surprise to anyone concerned with the distribution of South African cultural artifacts abroad. "The rise in imports was significantly influenced by a large rise in imports from China.
South African exports suffered primarily as a result of declining exports to the United States and the EU."

However, there is a good chance that “some of these imported products are being forwarded from South Africa to its trading partners [most likely in Africa]".

Other subjects explored at he conference included the role of government in the in the creative economy, a look at what developments exist in the making of cultural infrastructure in Johannesburg, Durban and Port Elizabeth and the impact that digital, social media and technology is having on cultural consumers in Africa.

Critic Gwen Ansell took away these five things from the conference.

1. The present – no longer the future – is digital

Almost every speaker, even in presentations not explicitly focused on the topic, underlined the importance of connectivity and digital marketing. Particularly for the small, volatile, project-based enterprises that dominate the creative sector, digital connectivity slays the demon of distance and can cut the need for expensive and quickly outdated fixed infrastructure. 

2. South Africa’s national government still doesn’t get it – but some cities have great ideas

The presentations of the department of trade and industry and the department of arts and culture were rapidly and thoroughly trashed by the Twitterati. To be fair, those presentations contained ample good intentions, but far too much silo thinking and too many re-hashes of stale, out-of-touch cliches. In particular, they reflected little understanding of the need for flexibility, rapid response and experimentation, or of the digital world in which even a township musician with a feature-phone now lives. New arts and culture department arrival Monica Newton’s thoughtful interventions and questions were the exception, and offered some hope; earlier presentations from Nigeria and Ghana showed that we aren’t unique in our struggles to get through to the bureaucrats.

However, presentations from South African city arts and culture planners were far more encouraging, even if much of their content reflected intentions rather than realisation. Ethekwini’s Nic Combrink and Nicky du Plessis offered short, frequently revised policy documents and described how the creative industries had equal status as one of seven planning sectors and could benefit from a 1% levy on council capital projects. Cape Town’s Zayd Minty showed how a city plan can build intelligently on the strong relational capital that characterises the creative industries, to rebuild a rich public life. Disappointingly, he didn’t say how these progressive concepts related to Cape Town police beating up itinerant musicians like Lunga Nono in the city centre.

3. Collaborate! Arts+science = innovation

Another of the pervasive sub-texts of the conference was that without collaboration  – between government department silos, business arts sponsors, arts organisations and more – very little development is possible for the creative industries. If only Cape Town’s Metro cops were talking to the culture directorate … Ethekwini’s Combrink and du Plessis showed one way to go; the KKNK’s Brett Pyper reflected that his festival’s "conversations about the ways people share public space" must be enhanced by Oudtshoorn’s decision to write arts and culture into the town’s integrated development plan. The National Arts Festival director Tony Lankester noted, had made partnerships and networking a key plank in its growth plan.

At another level, fruitful collaborations between the arts and other disciplines, particularly science and technology, popped up in several presentations, starting with UK-based John Newbigin’s keynote address. Sometimes these collaborations produced startling artworks; sometimes the iconoclastic thinking of artists pointed to solutions to technical problems. That’s a theme that warrants a conference to itself.

4. Always something new out of Africa, and cities are where it’s happening

It was speakers from Africa (Kenya’s Mark Kaigwa, Ghana’s Amarteorkor Amarteifio and Nigeria’s Peace Onyiam-Osigwe) who got the audience buzzing. Not only did they say something fresh about small-scale, roots-up cultural entrepreneurship, but they also set those observations and experiences within a framework of activism – both business and political. As one contrast (there were many), Newbigin offered a rather glib backward projection of capitalism as a universal verity, using a single slide of a Lascaux cave painting as an "early example of the creative economy" for which the assumed individual painter received "reward and transactional value".

Session chair Avril Joffe introduced the session on creative cities with the observation that "the terrain on which we need to play is the urban". The examples of vibrant South African arts policy and of initiatives in other African countries underlined this. But too often, because of the make-up of panels, "cities" became synonymous with their metropolitan (and in South Africa, often demographically unrepresentative) centres. One panellist, visual arts organiser Siphiwe Ngwenya – who creates art galleries in township homes – offered a unique discourse in which citizens on the geographical peripheries, far from those expensive centres, featured as makers and organisers rather than as the objects of arts development activities. Pyper outlined the problems of sustaining arts events in an impoverished rural town still overcoming historic divisions. We did not hear much else about townships or rural areas, or from people living in them.

5. We need to talk about ethics

We needed to talk about many things. The 2013 conference was, in many ways, worse than its 2012 predecessor in providing question and discussion space. Only on day two were attendees given yellow sticky notes to post comments on the venue windows, outside the sessions. The sessions themselves too often consisted of a parade of talking heads, followed by a cozy chat between those same talking heads around a table on stage. Some sessions had no question-time at all.

And so, although they were raised – often in Joffe’s sensitive introductions – a number of important contradictions and ethical questions embedded in a "cultural industries" discourse were never taken further. Here are three; there were several more:

  • If cultural creativity is a public good, how far is it acceptable – however hip and glossy the results – for the development of large areas of a city to be privatised, as has happened in Johannesburg’s Maboneng Precinct?
  • Can we talk about arts for sustainability, while simultaneously accepting a development paradigm in which fuel-dependent automation and job loss are not only inevitable, but something in which the arts, seeding fresh ideas for industry, collude?
  • How far should he who pays the piper call the tune? We heard of school drama projects inviting their sponsor, SAB, into classroomns. The liquor baron was there to distribute advice about responsible drinking – but the project afforded entry for a brand whose main business purpose is selling alcohol. Where does the line get drawn, and by who?

So, maybe next year? The event is well worth repeating – but think about some participative processes and don't waste the resource of a huge, diverse pool of attendees

To find out more about the research into trade in creative and cultural goods and services in the context of European Union-South African development of creative industries in South Africa visit: www.britishcouncil.org.zawww.vansa.co.za; and www.arterialnetwork.org

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