To have information is a fundamental right

On the way in the plane from Lagos to Bamako I read a short interview with the well known Nigerian writer Wole Soyinkna (1934). He was asked whether anything had changed in Nigeria the past ten years and gave a very pessimistic answer: no, not terms of health care, not in terms of the wide spread corruption and not in terms of the economical democratisation. He only gave one spark of hope for Nigeria: the development of art & culture in his country.  Soyinka didn’t say it in so many words; I soon came to realise that culture and art are regarded as an important tool for the development of society (economical, cultural, societal) in Africa. It can be used as a means to educate the people, to give them self esteem, to develop their creative potential and so on. And this makes me wonder: what is  actually the position of art in this entanglement of culture-development-economy? Or to put it in other words: seen from an European perspective of the so-called ‘autonomous and critical art practice’ it is kind of politically incorrect to make art into an instrument of education or social and economic development. I agree with that, but being here forces me to at least rethink this position. And there’s also this other problematic aspect that I’m very familiar with as an art critic because its pervades the discussion already for many years: the gap between local and global economies and communities. It’s mostly a discursive subject, we TALK about it a lot, but visiting Africa has turned this up side down: the theory-part is far away, but the effects of it on daily life are all the more pressing.

Having spend one day in Bamako now, Lagos seems far away. Whereas Lagos is an extreme busy and nervous city, were you tend to put on your survival mode at once, Bamako is much more aloof. We got a very warm welcome at  Soleil d’Afrique (www.soleildafrique.org), who put up a complete performance for us. Soleil d’Afrique was established about ten years ago as an artist association with financial support of amongst others the Prince Claus Foundation. This was also an outcome of the so-called RAIN network, established at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. The RAIN Artists’ Initiatives Network started out from the Rijksakademie at the end of the nineties. It was set up as a worldwide platform interconnecting artists’ initiatives that have been set up by alumni in Africa, Asia and Latin America. RAIN as such doesn’t exist anymore, but has become part of the program Arts Collaboratory (www.artscollaboratory.org) a programme for the support of visual artist-led initiatives in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and for the exchange between these and visual arts organisations in the Netherlands. The main focus of Soleil d’Afrique is to promote the exchange between artists in Mali and between Malawian artists and other countries. Although they have an exhibition space, they are not so much focused on providing an exhibition program, but on organising regular workshops and discussions, preferably with international guests and teachers. An example of this is FAIVA, Festival Africain d’ Images Virtuelles Artistiques, which apart from a professional exchange, wants to create an awareness among Malian artists of the use of new media.

Although these kind of programs are very important, the questions remains however whether artists will really change their habit of using mainly traditional techniques. As Nelson Oliver (artist of Soleil d’ Afrique) stated, the real problem is the conservative art market. apart from a small market for the famous African photographers, African collectors only want to buy paintings and sculptures, so going for the experimental stuff means not being able to sell anything in a climate where there is no funding for the arts whatsoever. Nevertheless a thriving scene of contemporary photography is developing in Lagos now and also in Mali there are some interesting contemporary photographers. This i think has everything to do with the democratizing power of the medium itself. Photography is a medium that lacks a fixed position in the arts in terms of high or low: it can be both. Artists can make use of it in a commercial and autonomous way so they can surpass the conservative collectors in their own country and try to find a more international platform.

There are also other interesting developments going on in Bamako. We visited the Centre de la Bande Dessinee in Bamako, a non-profit organisation set up in 2002 by the artists Massine Tounkara and Julien Batandeo, later joined by  Georges Foli and Papa Diawara. Their main focus is to promote cartoons and find a way to get the cartoon album acknowledged as an artistic expression. In Mali newspapers make use of cartoons a lot. It is a good way of telling stories to people who can’t, or don’t like to read the whole newspaper. But whereas the cartoon finds an easy distribution in the newspaper, selling or distributing albums is far more difficult. Printing is no problem, the public is also there somewhere, but getting it distributed is almost impossible. The artists therefore decided to concentrate on organising a yearly festival, and try to work on creating some kind of demand for the cartoon albums. They also do more commercial assignments for NGO’s who use the cartoons for educational purposes and health care issues. Their autonomous albums are also focussed on telling stories, but of course in much more expressive and personally engaged manner. In that sense ‘story-telling’ is a very important aspect for artists in Nigeria and Mali. Photographers as well as cartoonists are focussed on ‘telling the stories of everyday life’, societal issues go along with that in a very natural way. And so you could say that they are a part of the so-called ‘documentary turn’ without even knowing it, or perhaps maybe even having instigated it in some way or the other.

Centre de la Bande Dessinee

After having visited the textile designer Aida Duplessis (www.yeleen-design.com) the most impressive part of the day – and I think I can speak here for the whole group – was definitely the talk of and the discussion we had with ‘powerwomen’ Aminata Traore. Aminata Dramane Traoré (born 1942) is a Malian author, politician, and political activist. She served as the Minister of Culture and Tourism of Mali from 1997 to 2000. She is a prominent critic of globalization and the economic policies of the most developed nations. Specifically, she has voiced opposition to the Western countries’ subsidization of their own cotton farmers, which leaves West African countries at a disadvantage in competing for space in Western markets. Her latest book is ‘L’Afrique humiliée’ (Éditions Fayard, 2008), in which she criticises the neo-colonialist – and according to her – racist policy of Nicolas Sarkozy towards Africa. It almost impossible to summarize her talk and the discussion we had with her as a group, within the context of this blog. So I have filmed 15 minutes of our meeting with her, to give an impression of this incredible inspiring meeting. Have a look at: http://vimeo.com/10349685

Going back to what i first wrote in this blog: the gap between local population and global economic developments, what most struck me of Aminata Dramane’s talk is the need to inform local people what is going on in terms of the economic power structures and relations between the North and the South. ‘If Europe wants to be solidary with Africa, they should acknowledge that we are ready to develop our own economy. Now the people just consume, by consuming they think they are  taking part in the global prosperity. But they don’t, they are just consumers. Everything starts with knowledge, and being able to see the link between consumerism and the global economy. But this discussion hasn’t even been raised. To have information is a fundamental right.’

– Ingrid Commandeur

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