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The arts

Stimulating societal development

by Stefan Rennicke
There are 850 million people in Africa, a continent full of contradictions. Western media reporting often focuses only on war and displacement, poverty, disease and death, but cultural heritage, creativity and exuberant vitality are also features of African life. In 2005, the German Commission for UNESCO teamed up with the Goethe Institut to establish the foundation Art in Africa. This long-term joint venture is designed to promote both artistic expression and intercultural dialogue. Since 2007, the foundation has been supporting and supervising various projects in cooperation with African partners. [ By Stefan Rennicke ]

In the first three projects jointly conducted by Art in Africa and UNESCO, the focus was on promoting indigenous literature and music in West Africa. In collaboration with the French NGO Culture et Dévéloppement, an initiative was launched to set up libraries in Senegal and Mali. First funds for the acquisition of African literature in vernacular languages as well as other products of local publishing companies had been made available as early as 2004. After the foundation became involved, similar projects were supported in Burkina Faso and Benin too.

This kind of activity matters very much. Many ­libraries in Africa depend on book donations. Most of the books they are given, moreover, are foreign publications, so there is no incentive for local publishers.

Apart from the library projects, support was also provided to the independent organisation Sustaining Musicians’ Cooperatives in Burkina Faso. It received technical equipment, such as modern recording systems. Assistance was granted for the creation of a national distribution network. Moreover, a head office was set up, which is now advising artists on organisational and legal matters. A project coordinator – in conjunction with the International Federation of Musicians, the ILO, Sustaining Musicians’ Cooperatives and UNESCO – selects experts to train cooperative staff in music management and marketing.

Another partner is Music Crossroads International, an initiative that has been working with Jeunesses Musicales International to promote young musical talent right across all genres in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania since 1995. Young women, in particular, are encouraged to take part. Music Crossroads organises around 40 music festivals, workshops and competitions a year for talented youngsters between the ages of 15 and 25. A manual entitled “Your rights! A musicians’ guide to music rights in Southern Africa” has been compiled, and a specialist lawyer has started instructing young artists about contract negotiations, the basics of copyright, use of music rights and other relevant issues.

No doubt, one of the gravest problems African communities face today is HIV/AIDS. Music Crossroads promotes musical talent aged between 15 and 25 but also addresses the HIV/AIDS issue. For example, the initiative runs relationship workshops in which young artists discuss and present the dangers of HIV/AIDS. The target group that the musicians address is particularly at risk. As role models, the musicians help sensitise their fans in performances. So far, more than 15,000 young musicians have taken part in performances, workshops and sessions and have already appeared before more than 100,000 people.

Legal advice and competitions

In 2009, Art in Africa and UNESCO started to support the Senior Ballet Programme of the Cape Town-based non-profit organisation Dance for All. This initiative gives young dancers from difficult social backgrounds an opportunity to follow their artistic calling without neglecting school. Actually, the programme provides additional assistance with schooling. There are four male and seven female dancers aged between 15 and 18 on the Senior Ballet Programme. The foundation foots the bill for transport to school and from school to the Dance for All centre. Apart from dance lessons, the youngsters also get lunch, help with homework – if required – and the opportunity to use computers and the Internet. They are taken home in the evening.

One of three projects supported in cooperation with the Goethe Institut is the short film competition “Latitude – Quest for the good life”. To take part, young African filmmakers must artistically tackle the issue of how Africans are hurting their continent today, and how they are helping it. The resulting films reflect young Africans’ perceptions of their continent, and highlight possible areas of change as well as areas where commitment is needed. Self-criticism is welcome, and model examples should encourage youngsters to assume responsibility for the development of their country.

Screenplay workshops

Entries for the competition were invited from all over Africa in March 2007. From the synopses submitted, regional juries selected 21 filmmakers whose ideas and biographies they found particularly impressive. These 21 young persons took part in a 12-day screenplay workshop which doubled as the final selection stage. 15 young filmmakers from ten African countries went forward to the final of the pan-African short film competition. On top of a production grant, they received support for writing screenplays, production and post-production as well as one-to-one tutoring according to skills and needs.

Art in Africa and the Goethe Institut have also collaborated in Cameroon on the projects “Hors les murs2” and K FACTORY. Hors les murs2 presents current works of Cercle Kapsiki, an artists’ collective, in public places. This way, the artists engage in dialogue with the residents of Douala. One of Cercle Kapsiki’s activities is “Humours de presse”, which is about cartoonists from local newspapers exhibiting their caricatures on political matters large-scale on the walls of local buildings.

K FACTORY is an open studio as well as artists’ residence and meeting place in Cameroon. The foundation helped to create a documentation centre about current art. Its programme of events for 2009 included the screening of films in which contemporary Cameroonian directors assess society.

Constitution of society

As all the projects listed above prove, art and culture are key to the constitution of any society or social group. Creative artists engage in the general discourse of their society, stimulating thought and debate. They involve various communities in dialogue or trigger interaction between them. Art and culture have an impact on social activities, rules and decision making in society. Accordingly, they play a central role in development, reaching beyond the realm of politics, law and business. To promote development, Art in Africa supports cultural and media actors locally through specific projects designed mostly to enable them to engage in artistic training and work.