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In praise of cultural exchange

This year marks the 20-year anniversary of the South African liaison office for Pro Helvetia, the Swiss arts council. This anniversary coincides with their office anniversaries in Cairo (30 years) and New Delhi (20 years).

To celebrate this, Pro Helvetia is hosting a month-long programme in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban to showcase the fruits of intercultural exchange and transnational collaboration.

Mandated and funded by the Swiss Confederation, Pro Helvetia plays the auxiliary role of promoting cultural exchange between Switzerland and parts of the world that are outside of the Anglo-European and North American regions. This is done by nurturing long-term transnational partnerships, while supporting and promoting Swiss arts and culture. To do this, the organisation established international liaison offices in Johannesburg, Shanghai, Cairo and New Delhi, and another will be opening in South America soon.

Through these offices, the arts council offers artistic practitioners — choreographers, fine artists, musicians, authors, artists, researchers and curators — opportunities to cultivate their craft by providing a platform for research, outreach, exchange of knowledge with other artists and organic collaboration.

In 1998, a camp was set up in Cape Town to facilitate an international exchange of arts and culture between Switzerland and Southern Africa. The council believes arts and culture have the power to develop intercultural exchange, connect remote communities and expand the reach of artists. It is for this reason that collaboration is one of its major keystones.

Joseph Gaylard, the head of Pro Helvetia Johannesburg, says: “At a sort of macro level, I think that we live in [such] an increasingly connected world that it makes sense for people in the same field — whether in law, engineering, finance — to be working across different national contexts generally more and more. And because there’s a significant part of the arts that isn’t necessarily driven by emotional interest, there’s a need for external support. I think organisations like Pro Helvetia and art councils in general can play an important role in making those sorts of transnational collaborations possible in the arts.”

Gaylard highlights the manner in which Pro Helvetia has elected to function in the Southern Africa region.

“Only local people are employed in the international offices of the organisation, so the team here is entirely drawn from Southern Africa. I think that approach is based on an understanding that local people are best positioned to really work with relevant networks in the local context.

“In principle, we seek to respond to the needs and desires of local partners and seek to avoid imposing work that people may feel is irrelevant. We’re really seeking to develop over time nurtured partnerships with a mutual interest and benefit, where we can engage with each other at a sort of eye level. I think that’s been important in the way Pro Helvetia works.”

Although this solves the issue of being labelled parachute aid, playing the role of facilitator and funder is not without challenges. An important factor that the liaison offices have to be aware of is remembering to serve the artist before the organisation.

“We’re fundamentally interested in what the agendas of the artists are: What do they want to do? We follow them, rather than generating a picture of what we think people should be doing. It’s more about creating opportunities and places where people can meet and encounter each other in a real way. We’re trying to avoid situations where one is manufacturing transnational collaborations that will look nice but may not have any real substance and content,” Gaylard says.

Pro Helvetia does this through a number of programmes and funds. These facilitate new networks, research and residencies, of the artist’s or organisation’s choice.

“There isn’t a particular message that we’re wanting to project about the 20-year period. What we have thought to do is showcase a number of projects that are quite current, that have been developed over the last few years. We normally don’t ever commission artists to do work. They were developed in a kind of organic way and really derived from the agenda of those artists.”

Artists and participants from more than 20 cities in Africa and Switzerland are coming together in the three cities to showcase 20 years of interdisciplinary and transnational networking through presentations, symposia, music, visual arts, theatre and exhibitions. The national programme is made possible through partnerships with the likes of the Market Theatre and Market Photo Workshop, POOL curatorial collective, The Artivist, Fak’ugesi Digital Arts Festival, The Orbit jazz club and the Institute for Creative Arts Live Art Festival.

A production that speaks to the international connections that Pro Helvetia enables is Museum of Lungs, which is being staged at the Market Theatre this week, and in Cape Town next week. It’s a collaboration between Egyptian theatre director Laila Soliman, South African writer Stacy Hardy,South African composer Neo Muyanga and Egyptian composer Nancy Mounir, with Swiss scenographers and costume designers.

Another show opening this week is Swiss artist Denise Bertschi’s installation Neutrality as an Agent. Through the installation, Bertschi asks what role Switzerland plays in foreign affairs and how the country’s national identity of political neutrality is a strategy used to conceal uncomfortable histories and realities regarding its role in the global political landscape.

Says Gaylard: “The work is emblematic of another side of our work, which is that we have autonomy from the political sphere. It’s scratching the surface and looking at a slightly darker side of the history of the relationship between the two countries [South Africa and Switzerland] and making that visible in a way that is important [for] continuing the discussion. We have a certain level of independence that enables us to support this kind of work, which doesn’t necessarily paint Switzerland in a good light.”

Alongside the celebrations, the month-long programme aims to encourage its participants to reflect on the organisation’s highs and lows in order to stretch its reach across the entire continent and increase its efficiency in the years to come.

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Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.

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