Why art and creativity is a crucial part of (in)formal education

One of the African art ancestors, the late professor Es’kia Mphahlele, said: “The arts have been served by alternative institutions primarily because the state has never been interested in using schooling to promote creativity.”

This was the reality of art education for black South Africans during the apartheid years; suffice to say, little has changed — instead it has worsened. 

Instead of making creative subjects such as fine art, dance, music and theatre compulsory in our schools and part of extramurals in our communities as previously denied to us by apartheid, we have destroyed what little we had. Mphahlele advocated what he termed “alternative art education”, by which he meant an education that furnishes the creative minds with training outside the traditional systems such as the universities and colleges. 

Schools in South Africa offer a subject called arts and culture as part of the syllabus, but the content leaves much to be desired. It is taught largely by teachers not trained in the discipline and, as a product of such a syllabus myself, I can confess the subject does not do much to stretch and train the creative mind. Instead, I was privileged to be taught art and theatre by an art teacher, America Mailula, who himself was a trained artist back in the rural villages in late 1990s. 

My primary school arts education was special in that our work as little artists from the rural village of Makotopong gathered public exposure through a now defunct television programme called Mopani, which aired artworks by young artists from various parts of Limpopo immediately after the news bulletin. Most of my works were first exhibited on television during the course of 1998. 

Furthermore, Mailula took it upon himself to teach us applied drama that same year. This skill made it possible for 10-year-old pupils like myself to go to the city of Polokwane for the first time to perform at the children’s welfare day concert in 1998. In a way, I was trained both as a visual artist and actor from a young age.

Arts education has been difficult to entrench in public schools, but we should not lose hope as arts and cultural practitioners. Instead, we should look at pioneers such as Mphahlele whose advocate was to find and give expression to alternative education and the arts in the African context. 

One of the African art ancestors, the late professor Es’kia Mphahlele

People like Dr Khabi Mngoma, a maverick who was a veteran in music education, and Sipho Sepamla, who co-founded the Federated Union of Black Artists in 1978, set examples that the alternative art education is possible and achievable. It was difficult to run an arts academy in South Africa during apartheid. It still is today, because of lack of  funding and other factors. 

There are very few exceptions, among them the Alexandra Arts Academy under the direction of Mpho Molepo, the Artist Proof Studio in Johannesburg, which specialises in fine arts and printmaking; the Thohoyandou Arts and Culture Centre in Venda, the Sibikwa Arts Centre in Ekurhuleni and the Luthando Arts Academy in Sebokeng. 

These institutions have become important alternative arts education centres for people who cannot afford tertiary fees, or those who have not had the privilege of studying art in primary and high schools across the country. In the process they have managed to engage both immediate and distant communities for continued collaborations. 

In 1981, during his graduation address at the University of Witwatersrand, Mphahlele advocated that the university establish a community college in one of the urban areas but, to his disappointment, “The idea was allowed to evaporate as soon as it had been aired.”

The frustrations that underpin lack of arts education in our communities still exist to this day. In 2016, I partnered with a fellow artist, actor and drama teacher Moses Rasekele to establish the Creative Community Project. We would visit rural schools, using this mobile creative platform teaching visual art and applied drama to encourage and advocate for alternative education and the arts. We had a resounding success in two consecutive years, working with 10 primary and secondary schools in the Capricorn and Mopani district municipalities.

Several art and culture teachers raised their frustrations, with the biggest factor in lack of motivation being lack of training. One even confessed never to looking forward to the class. To our surprise as facilitators, the pupils encountered practical creative arts education for the first time during our workshops. We ended up arranging workshops for teachers about approaches to teaching basic arts education, which proved to be useful. However, our initiative did not survive, because of lack of funding, a phenomenon experienced by many centres that teach art in South Africa.

Arts education is critical, because it has the capacity to liberate learners from economic, social and political forces. It elevates those trained in creative orientation above low self-esteem and self-hate and introduces them to a much freer, solution-orientated mindset. 

Talking about education and community, Mphahlele observed that “Education should equip people to break down imposed barriers to self-fulfilment and self-realisation. Self-realisation can only be valid, however, if the needs of one’s community are observed by it.”

We need to look at how to make art education fashionable in our communities. What went wrong in the beginning of our democratic dispensation was the failure to secure a place for arts education on our syllabus and to ensure that well-trained teachers do their job of teaching the subject in schools. 

The government should ensure that the departments of education and arts and culture work together to promote the development of the arts from the foundation phase. The challenge, then, becomes the fact that art in South Africa is viewed only as a source of entertainment, instead of as a fundamental element that contributes to human development at all levels, including the mind, soul, spirit and body. 

Universities should partner with creative industries to establish outreach programmes that seek to make art across all disciplines accessible to everyone. At the moment, art is more like a product of alienation, perceived as the pleasure or delight of a few elites, if not the self-absorbed efforts of practitioners themselves. There is very little footprint recorded in art galleries and museums across the country; the same applies to our theatres. This is not as a result of people deliberately not wanting to see themselves at these cultural institutions, but because there is still a lack of education in appreciation of the arts. 

When Mphahlele concluded his essay on literary appreciation, in his book, Es’kia, he wrote: “One day, I hope our communication systems among African nations will reach maturity so that we may get to know one another better by direct lines. One of my major dreams is that, in search of the long-elusive African identity we can succeed in transforming our curricula, right from primary school through to tertiary programmes especially in the human or social sciences and humanities. A strong African content must take the place of the present Eurocentric education.”

This article was produced as part of a partnership between the M&G and the Goethe-Institut, focusing on sustainability and the arts

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