The artist’s social role

Babacar Diop reports from Dakar (Groupe 30 Afrique)

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Artists are marginalized in Africa, where they have been considered pariahs ever since they first started limiting themselves to producing art for art’s sake, an art that is only about contemplation and sensorial pleasure. But today’s fine artists now insist on their social role too. Just like singers who lend their voices, the artist’s paintbrush and the sculptor’s chisel can be used in the interests of the public.

Artist Séa Diallo confesses: « Artists often create just for the beauty of art. They paint their fantasies, without worrying about a thing ». Ismaïla Manga, a resident in the Dakar art village, echoes: « Just like all artists, I sometimes paint for the sake of it, producing art for art’s sake ». Is the artist a « solitary animal »? This old, highly individualistic conception of the artist took on its meaning in Western societies. In Africa, people live and only exist and fulfil themselves within the group. The African artist complies with the fetters of the community even if, like all artists, he or she retreats to the studio to work. Not only do African artists refuse the label « solitary », but they also embrace a social role, which is the sign of their contribution to the development of their society.
« Artists must see themselves as the descendants of our historians, as witnesses of their time, whilst never losing sight of the fact that they cannot make society’s history without its people. We are neither isolated nor privileged elements vis-à-vis anything. Artists have to be capable of rising to the challenge of saying that they will excel in their specific domains for the benefit of society. Each member of society should try to be the best to elevate his or her profession and to help the community develop ». Séa Diallo’s words echo artist and art school tutor Djamilatou Bikami’s feelings: « We have our own realities in Africa. Africans don’t know how to isolate themselves. They live in communities, in their families, their close circles, and in society. Solitude is only a temporary condition for the artist. It only lasts the time spent creating. As soon as their work is finished, artists join the group again. Africa, and Senegal in particular, don’t know solitude and individualism like in the West. What’s more, we see the social environment as a source of inspiration ».
Ibrahima Mbaye – otherwise known as Tita – tells the same story. According to this fine artist and art school tutor, « the African or the Senegalese artist lives in a lively milieu where people don’t accept you isolating yourself from the other members of society ». Tita Mbaye firmly believes that, « people who isolate themselves, who marginalize themselves in our country, are seen as mad. I cannot paint outside my environment ». It is precisely when surrounded that he « explodes and best expresses his feelings ». Working with found objects, his children and wives also contribute to his work. In the same spirit, Alpha Sow of the Dakar Arts Village believes that the artist needs more than anybody else to evolve within a community.
Our artists often keep their egos under control to create, their noses and senses glued to reality, to daily life, their critical gazes focused on man and society. In the same way that they bear messages and raise awareness, they set up or join associations to defend common causes. For example, they are interested in human rights. Like singers, artists have put their brushes at the service of international organisations such as Amnesty International or the UN High Commission for Refugees.
Séa Diallo and his colleagues at the Dakar Arts Village thus embrace a social role. They run art workshops, share their skills and know-how with the underprivileged and retarded or handicapped children, etc. They set up workshops to help out colleagues who fall on hard times or to back national initiatives. « Giving the best I can from what I know how to do best. Power, knowledge. We aren’t only interested in painting and selling our canvasses. We often work for the community. I have to be a role model. I must not get caught committing a reprehensible act as people will judge my peers in the same light as me, especially as the artist is both an element of contact and rejection. That’s why I want to set up a Solidarity Foundation that will be a kind of organised form of everything I have done so far in a haphazard way », says Séa Diallo. He has exhibited for the United Nations, raised human rights awareness, and painted a series about Rwanda and about the tragic events between Senegal and Mauritania in 1989. He and other artists have set up the association And’Art, which produces « Art for children ». Under the aegis of the Groupe d’Amitié et d’Essence pour la Culture (GAMEC), he has participated in collecting wheelchairs, clothes and books.
For his part, Ismaïla Manga makes no difference between the artist and other human beings: « all humans form the links of a chain. The artist is one link. And, at all times, there have always been artists who act as the witnesses of civilisations, even if these are the reflection of the people. The artist’s social role lies in his or her own vision of the surrounding world. » According to Djamilatou Bikami, this role is reflected in « themes such as Aids, the refugee question, the messages conveyed through works and social actions in favour of others ». For him, the artist is someone who gives all.
But the artist’s social role is limited by the economic realities of culture. Artists have to make a living from their work. How can people who find it hard to make ends meet invest in social causes? As Alpha Sow stresses, « There are needy artists who are social cases themselves ». As for reaching the Western art market, artists often have difficulties in getting visas.
Art works remain the privilege of the well-to-do. Given the general public’s lack of contact with art, Séa Diallo insists: « Artists have to strive to decompartmentalize their works. Art shouldn’t be reserved for just collectors and people who have the means to buy paintings ».

Babacar Diop works as a journalist for the daily newspaper « Le Soleil ». He has a Journalism degree (DSJ) and a M.A. in Information Science and Communications from the Information Science and Technology Studies Centre (CESTI), Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar. He also works as a consultant for the cultural intermediation network, « Groupe 30 Afrique ».///Article N° : 5581

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