African Contemporary Art: Negotiating the Terms of Recognition

Interview of Vivian Paulissen with Achille Mbembe

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Africa Remix was an international success. The Johannesburg Art Fair is becoming a fixture in the international art circuit. Major academic interventions such as Sarah Nuttall’s Beautiful/Ugly are redefining the boundaries of African aesthetics. William Kentridge, Penny Siopis and countless individual African artists are making a name of their own in the world market. A silent revolution in contemporary art is in the making. Its ramifications extend to other domains such as literature, fashion, music, architecture and design. As jazz and cubism in the 20th century, it is to a large extent engineered by African forms.
Yet the terms of recognition of African contemporary art and cultural creativity are still contested. The latest controversy is about the role of Western cultural funding agencies in Africa and whether the support for arts and culture should be justified by the latter’s contribution to « development ». What, then, is the agenda of donors when supporting the arts in Africa? Is there a role for the arts in « poverty reduction » or in « conflict resolution »? Is « cultural cooperation » a two-way process or a surreptitious way by which donors impose their agendas on Africa? What do terms such as « cultural diplomacy » mean?
In this interview, Achille Mbembe research professor in history and politics at the university of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg, South Africa) responds to Vivian Paulissen, an expert and consultant in cultural funding policy based in Amsterdam.

Is there a space for respectful/mutual negotiation in the traditional donor-recipient relationship in which cultural funding agencies today operate?
I am not saying that it is a zero-sum game. Indeed there are very rare exceptions. The Prince Claus Fund is one of these. But overall such a space hardly exists. And considering the little amount of money involved, the damage is disproportionate.
In fact, relationships between Western cultural funding agencies and local « recipients » (individual artists and organizations) have never been so bad.
Over the last decade Western European financial contribution to the development of arts and culture in Africa has been steadily declining. The paradox is that as they put less and less money on the table, European agencies increased the severity of the conditions of accessing their meager subsidies. Instead of creating art, many artists in the Continent must spend a disproportionate amount of time, energy and resources filling useless application forms or desperately trying to respond to ever-changing fads and policies when they are not constantly checking the mood of ever-touchy and capricious Western consulates’ « cultural attachés » they hope to get support from.
Instead of spaces of mutuality, recognition and respect, donor agencies have established throughout the Continent countless networks of patrons-clients relationships. These relationships are not one-dimensional. They are characterized by deep levels of collusion and complicity, unequal transactions, at times mistrust, and in any case reciprocal instrumentalization. We can keep dressing up the unlimited power of the donors and the myriad forms of humiliation and indignity visited upon their « recipients » in the fancy language of « partnership », « empowerment » or even « international friendship ». These words won’t mask the brutality of the encounter between those who have money and resources but hardly any good or useful idea and those who have some good ideas but hardly any money.
The situation is made worse by five major local and global trends.
First, the neo-liberal drive to further marketize and privatize all forms of art and life has resulted in the endless commodification of culture as spectacle and entertainment. This is a very significant development. It comes at a time when global capitalism itself is moving into a phase in which the cultural forms of its outputs are critical elements of productive strategies. The capacity of art and culture to engage critically with the velocities of capital can no longer be taken for granted.
Second is the relentless pressure from African governments to consider art and culture as a kind of « social service » whose function is to cure the ailments of poverty and underdevelopment. Third is the hyper-technological enframing of the life-world and the growing implication of art and culture in global systems of militarization of consciousness – which raises deep concerns over the limits of freedom in the militarized landscape of our times. Fourth is the « humanitarian » impulse of most Western donor agencies – the vicious ideology that promotes a view of Africa as a tabula rasa,
a doomed and hopeless Continent waiting to be rescued and « saved » by the new army of Western good Samaritans.
And finally is the conflation of African art, culture and aesthetics with ethnicity or community or communalism. The dominant but false idea – shared by many Africans and many donors – is that the act of creativity is necessarily a collective act; that African artistic forms are not aesthetic objects per se but ciphers of a deeper level of the « real » that is fundamentally ethnographic and expressive of Africa’s ontological cultural difference or « authenticity ». It is this African « difference » and this African « authenticity » donors are keen to find, support and, if necessary, manufacture.
Taken altogether, the combined effects of these processes on the relations between « donors » and « recipients » and on African cultural creativity and autonomy have been devastating. Without a new ethics of recognition, solidarity and mutuality, the way most Western cultural funding (or for that matter development funding) agencies operate will become ever more destructive of the Continent’s capacity to culturally and artistically account for itself in the world.
Would a’trading model » with both parties equally involved be a successful alternative for cultural funding in Africa? How to establish that?
We have to reckon with the fact that culture has become a commodity that can be shaped by the media and bought and sold like any other in the market; a form of property over which it is possible to exercise monopoly rights.
In South Africa we have a structure called The Johannesburg Art Fair. Such initiatives should be encouraged. We need to develop a continental art market that is properly connected to the international network of cultural industries. Artists, writers, designers, musicians and composers, photographers and stylists should be able to make a decent living out of their work. Professional galleries should be encouraged and private banks and especially development banks should devise innovative mechanisms to extend credit and financial support to cultural consortia. That is partly how we will develop a credible cultural economy in the Continent.
But visual art cannot flourish in isolation. Creative synergies should be established with other disciplines – literature, cinema, dance, music, architecture and design, digital art, critical theory, art criticism. Without a cultural infrastructure made up of cultural media, journals, magazines and a tradition of serious reviews and without a major investment in critical theory, our artistic and production will remain in the domain of artisanship. And it will always be left to others to dictate the intellectual and political terms of its recognition in the international arena.
At the same time we cannot leave everything to the market. Further commodification and privatization of culture cannot go on unchecked. There are more rational and equitable ways in which art and culture as public goods can be supported. We have to design a matrix that can attend to a plurality of needs and not only those of states, banks, private dealers and the market. Community and culture continue to require some form of glue. Public art still holds the possibility of providing the necessary imaginary resources our cities need as they try to foster the sort of reciprocal relations between citizens – relations without which there is neither a vibrant public sphere nor civic life as such.
A growing number of funding organizations is initiated from, and located in, countries/regions where they work (like the Middle East, Arab Fund for Culture). What is your experience with this in Africa?
There is no African Fund for Culture. There are, here and there, private rich citizens or even private banks or companies collecting art or funding exhibitions. South Africa has the financial means to develop a powerful international cultural policy. But the country profoundly lacks imagination. Alone it could easily fund a major Biennale in the global South. Johannesburg could become a cultural and artistic Mecca. But in its mimicry of British colonial empiricism, the ruling elite believe that « art and culture » are about « heritage, tourism and indigenous knowledge systems ».
In the official, state-sanctioned discourse, culture is completely subsumed under the doxa of « development », « poverty eradication » and « racial redress ». Political considerations on who is black and who is not overshadow any intrinsic appreciation of the value of art as such.
For South Africa to fulfill its potential, the country needs to imagine itself as an « Afropolitan » nation, the avant-garde of a version of the African modern that is already in evidence in most contemporary African artistic and cultural forms. The country also needs to distance itself from an understanding of culture as pastness, a simple matter of customs and traditions, monuments and museums. We have to realize that culture is not yet another form of « service delivery ». It is the way human beings imagine and engage their own futures. Without this dimension of futurity and imagination, we can hardly write a name we can call ours or articulate a voice we can recognize as our own.
Where such funding organizations exist, are they different from other, Western donor organizations?
The fact is that power and money tend to speak the same language everywhere. Western donor agencies tend to collude with African governments in their attempt to instrumentalize art and restrict the meanings, power and significance of artistic and cultural critique.
They both argue that art and culture should be « relevant ». But their definition of « relevance » is thin and functionalist. In their eyes, good and « relevant » art and culture is art and culture that is colonized by the imperative of « development ». « Development » itself is conceived in the narrowest of terms, in purely materialistic terms. They both think that « to develop art and culture » (sic) is exactly the same as « to develop sustainable agriculture ».
We need to move away from this form of crass materialism and this empiricism of wants and needs in order to rehabilitate cultural and artistic critique as a public good in and of itself. The value of art cannot solely be measured on the basis of its contribution to material well-being. Nor is artistic creativity a luxury or an immoral pursuit that should be redeemed by its annexation and inscription in the official, state-sanctioned discourse of development and poverty reduction. We must resist this trivialization.
Artistic creativity, cultural and theoretical critique is an integral part of the immaterial and unquantifiable assets produced by a society. They are a constitutive dimension of our communities and nations wealth in the same way as our physical infrastructures. Their value by far exceeds the means by which it is counted or the price at which they could be sold. Their management and regulation should therefore pertain to a different order, one that takes seriously their « intangible » and « inalienable » nature and one that, as a result, is not dependent on purely quantitative measurements and indexes.
Nowadays public culture funds tend to focus on cultural cooperation with countries or regions, often defined by national government agendas. This has led to current « hot-lists » of countries and special interest in the arts of those countries. India, for instance, is one of the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) that are considered growing global economies. Another example is the growing interest that started some years ago on the arts of the Middle East. What do you think of the development of « cultural diplomacy » as a tool for political dialogue or trade?
I think that so-called cultural diplomacy is a miserable, comic fiction. What else can it mean when, as we are conducting it, border controls are being tightened; arbitrary restrictions are being imposed on mobility and we are witnessing the revival of a defensive, paranoid form of nationalism that is willing to resort to race vilification in order to regulate access to citizenship?
Who in his or her right mind do you want to believe in so-called cultural diplomacy directed at far-away places when, at home, we are bent on defending the supposed cultural integrity of the nation against supposed threats from asylum seekers, second-generation non-white citizens and all sorts of « intruders » perceived as a source of dangerous cultural pathologies?
In Western Europe today, both the liberal center and what is left of the reformist Left have unfortunately embraced this backward-looking paradigm and these regressive and paranoid definitions of national identity, belonging and difference. They have done so at a time when the old idea of national cultural identity for which they are so nostalgic is inexorably on its way out.
I therefore suggest that so-called cultural diplomacy starts at home. It has to be committed, straight from home, in theory and in practice, to foster forms of solidarity based on the recognition of our common humanity. Short of this ethical and practical commitment, all these so-called « hot-lists » will be but myriad versions of the good old « dog whistle politics » of yesteryear – the kind of politics that sells fake smiles abroad while, at home, it is engaged in the sordid business of racial vilification.
What is your experience with private and/or public funding?
When I was the Executive Director of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), I had to engage with public donors in France, Japan, the Netherlands, with UN agencies, and more importantly with Nordic countries. A lot depended on the intellectual and political caliber of the individuals and policy-makers I had to face. The most creative encounters were with those who believed that Africa’s fate was inextricably bound to the fate of the rest of the world. They agreed that to intervene creatively and efficiently in the Continent required a demanding, prolonged, meticulous exploration, analysis and critical thinking. With such interlocutors, we usually came up with inventive, cutting-edge programs.
Otherwise, the overall scene was quite depressing. One constantly had to deal with cynical bureaucrats, people who profoundly hated the Continent but had become addicted to it and to some of its perverse pleasures. They could hardly let go the addiction. They interacted with the Continent the way some people do when they are trapped in an abusive relationship. They did not believe in the catechism of « development » they were nevertheless preaching. Going through some of those meetings was like visiting for the first time an asile de fous – people who had failed everywhere else and who could never make an honorable career elsewhere except in Africa. They needed not think because for them, Africa is simple. In fact, there were very hostile to anything that looked like an idea.
Even more unsettling was the implicit assumption, especially in Nordic countries, that Africans could only speak as « victims ». In the course of expressing their solidarity with Africa’s past struggles, many Nordic countries have unfortunately encouraged the sense of victimhood some Africans intellectuals and politicians have been peddling all along – which they try to mask under the guise of anti-imperialism. They have tolerated mediocrity and encouraged lethal forms of populism and lumpen-radicalism to prevail in African social science discourse for instance. They poured – and I guess they still do – millions of dollars each year into sustaining hugely bureaucratic and inefficient organizations that should have been closed long ago and where countless middlemen enjoy diplomatic immunity and earn salaries equivalent to those in UN structures. This form of benevolent paternalism, of course, has deep unconscious racist undertones.
This having been said, I had a lot pleasure working with institutions such as The Prince Claus Fund and some US-based foundations. But I hear that in these neo-liberal times, even these progressive and somewhat avant-garde organizations are under tremendous pressure. Indeed, they have to justify their activities to bureaucrats and tax payers. Some have adopted a strong anti-intellectual bias and bought into romanticized but uncritical and debilitating forms of grassroots activism and populism. To a certain extent, they are all forced to pay lip service to the fiction of « development ».
This is all the more regrettable because what we need right now is a critical cultural politics that confronts the rhetoric of « development » and reveals the deeply reactionary nature of this project.
Another focus of international arts and culture funding is the « culture for development model ». Two polemic visions in funding the arts and culture are on the one hand a voice that says we have to reward the « arts for the arts »; and on the other hand the voice that says we support « arts for development ». What do you think about the « development » agendas, like the AIDS-theatre for example? Can development be a goal when funding the arts? What happens to the arts when artists are funded to bring a certain message across (like AIDS prevention)?
Most Western donor agencies have a simplistic notion of what « Africa » is and of what « development » is. They are unaware of – or pretend to be ignorant about – what recent critique of development as an ideology and as a practice has revealed. They want to operate as if such a critique had not been done.
The fact of the matter is that on the ground, where many of us live and work, the paradigm of « development » is functionally dead. This we can see in ordinary people’s everyday experiences and actions. But the « development machine » itself is still alive. It keeps disbursing fat salaries to experts, middlemen and consultants, good per diems to its native clients, auxiliaries and courtiers, and it keeps delivering untold tragedies to the poor and their communities. The « development machine » keeps running on. But it is running on empty. This emptiness is what worries me because it is productive of tremendous waste.
The other fact, nowadays, is that most Western donors consider Africa to be a zone of emergency, a fertile ground for humanitarian interventions. The future is not part of their theory of Africa – in the very rare cases such a theory exists. For them, Africa is not only a land of empiricism. It is also the land of a never-ending present, a serial accumulation of « instants » that never achieve the density and weight of human, historical time. It is the place where today and « now » matters more than « tomorrow », let alone the distant time of the future and of hope.
This is what the temporality of « development » has done to us – the fragmentation of time, the erasure of history-as-future and our mental incarceration in a never ending form of presentism and nihilism. This nihilistic impulse worries me too.
Under these circumstances, it seems to me, the function of art in Africa is precisely to free us from the shackles of development both as an ideology and as a practice. It is to subsume and transcend the instant; to open the vast horizons of the not-yet – what my friend Arjun Appadurai calls « the capacity to aspire ». Such too is, at least to me, the function of cultural criticism and of critical theory because art cannot thrive in the absence of a strong critical theory tradition.
In circumstances under which millions of poor people indeed struggle to make it from today to tomorrow, the work of theory and the work of art and the work of culture is to pave the way for a qualitative practice of the imagination – a practice without which we will have no name, no face and no voice in history. This struggle to write our name in history and to inscribe our voice and our face in a structure of time that is future-oriented – for me this is a profoundly human struggle. It is a struggle of a different kind than the struggle for mere livelihood, physical sustenance and biological reproduction.
I hate the idea that African life is simple bare life – the life of an empty stomach and a naked body waiting to be fed, clothed, healed or housed. It is a conception that is embedded in « development » ideology and practice. It radically goes against people’s own daily experience with the immaterial world of the spirit, especially as it manifests itself under conditions of extreme precariousness and radical uncertainty. This kind of metaphysical and ontological violence has long been a fundamental aspect of the fiction of development the West seeks to impose on those it has colonized. We must oppose it and resist such surreptitious forms of dehumanization.

Achille Mbembe is a research professor in history and politics at the University of the Witwatersrand and the author of On the Postcolony. Vivian Paulissen is a free-lance expert and consultant in cultural funding policy based in Amsterdam.
This interview is translated into French on and published here with the authorization of Achille Mbembe.
© Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism///Article N° : 9030


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