Reflections on Cultural Exchange in Africa 

 

Pan-African Creative Exchange (PACE)

Bolaji Alonge is the Rapporteur of the Pan-African Creative Exchange – PACE Entangled 2020 – held from 25 to 29 August. The arts festival was planned in Bloemfontein South Africa, but due to COVID-19 was moved to digital platforms Zoom and Airmeet. We present a few excerpts from the recently published report here, reflecting on cultural exchange in Africa and the diaspora.

The Pan-African Creative Exchange (PACE) an initiative of the Vrystaat Arts Festival, is a biennial arts market for African artists, developed for national and international presenters and producers, providing the highest quality inter-disciplinary arts product, theatre, dance, music, craft from Africa, to buyers, artists and the general public.

PACE was developed in response to recent data indicating that the creative industries in Africa contribute less than 1% to the global creative economy. As increased access to and participation in culture can be linked to an increase in human development, Africa must shift its focus to support more innovative cultural programs that can creatively transform its society. Culture has also been embedded in several of the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals, to further assist cultural visibility for Africa.

As the Rapporteur, what is your take on PACE Entangled 2020? 

Bolaji Alonge: In my view, PACE ENTANGLED aims to support African artists in their search for recognition, alliances, perspective, expert advice and feedback, friendship and fun in the process of creative exchange. As an independent Nigeria-based artist, I created my Eyes of a Lagos Boy brand, centered around my photography, entertainment and merchandising. It all started without any sponsor and is still running independently. Sometimes, I think I am being driven by my passion to tell a story through my art and other times, I think I need to feed myself and my family. Since 2016, I have developed my website and many other projects.

The issue of finances in the arts which has not been forthcoming for many artists has been a subject of great concern. From my observation from showcasing my arts through photo exhibitions, pop-ups, journalism and featuring on TV shows, the audience and people that appreciate the arts is growing and this is encouraging. However, it can still be said that the collection of arts, abstract or not, theatre-going and the ability to digest some of the messages thrown at us require a certain degree of education, making it seem like an elitist venture.

Pan-African Creative Exchange (PACE) Countries represented this year

Nothing compares to witnessing events or festivals live and in person, but a year as 2020 has made the world review ways of doing things. PACE Entangled has achieved success in making it happen, despite a few technical hitches which are expected. The PACE team brought artists from all around the continent and the diaspora to rub minds, connect, see one another’s works, and different collaborations have been born since then.

Throughout the festival, over 3,040 unique viewers from at least 33 different countries attended the event. This a feat in any case, but of course the main question is what happens next? Monitoring the outcome of the event will inform the organizers and participants on the impact of the approach followed. For now, nobody knows what the future will bring.

Due to COVID-19, the cultural sector as a whole has been hit a heavy blow. In many countries events are still not permitted, or only allowed under strict conditions. This situation has already endangered numerous independent cultural spaces and organizations, as well as the very possibility for artists to present their work and generate income.

If the digital space remains the only “safe zone” in the near future, this could have negative consequences – across continents. Another expected impact of the health crisis is a further contraction of the economy. This, in turn, will probably lead to pressures to reduce public funding for the arts. In this situation, it is necessary to look inwards, to build local art communities that are auto sufficient and linked to each other digitally. Looking more deeply into efficient self-funding, cooperative and collaborative models might be considered for future editions of PACE. On the other hand, there is a need to call for more, not less, public funding of the arts and art education, which are important drivers of growth and protection of cultural heritage.

Indeed, more collaboration between African artists is the way forward. Collaboration between artists is key – when like-minds work together, there are chances the result is spectacular. The ability to work with other artists since a tree cannot make a forest is paramount in the arts. In a year that has been seen as unfavorable to the arts and artists, the internet has played a big role for those who can make the quick switch.

Will African cultural actors gain equal access to global digital initiatives? Knowing that Facebook is opening offices on the continent and that other global players offer platforms for the promotion of African music and arts (YouTube, Boomplay, Saatchi, for example), there are most definitely opportunities. The question is whether full integration into the global model of art management, that also defines finance streams not controlled by Africans is truly the best and only option.

Do you think that Africa must shift its focus to support more innovative cultural programs that can creatively transform its society?

This objective is of utmost importance. In the future, PACE may have to engage some official bodies from different African countries or look for some best practices of public-private engagement in innovative cultural programs. PACE could bring in Africa’s regional bodies such as AU, ECOWAS and others to be a part of its programs, so the continent is not just perpetuating the colonial narratives of the arts when left in the hands of British Council, Goethe Institut, The French Cultural Centre and many of these Western bodies that are ironically at the forefront of sponsoring African arts.

Based on best practice and in collaboration with other platforms and associations of artists, it might be a great idea to call for specific policies to be implemented or to contribute towards advocacy, beyond the scope of the event itself.

As to the need to address the challenges presented by a world that is still neo-colonial in many aspects, it is fair to say that this presents a challenge both inside and outside Africa. The global economic system does not deliver for Africa and this has an undeniable impact on culture in Africa. While some of the donor countries take with one hand, they hand out support through development assistance with the other. Considering that tax evasion out of Africa, including by multinational companies, far exceeds support provided for “development”, one cannot help but wonder whether it is morally acceptable to count on this support as a main source of income, ensuring the continued existence of some cultural initiatives.

Not that it is bad for an artist to be appreciated or patronized by the people with money and genuine interest in their artistic story. But too many talks going round and round without concrete solutions, or having to go to the West to ask for money will not help the arts in Africa.

Artists are sometimes restricted to doing other jobs for money to support their arts or applying for grants, through processes laid down by local and international organizations (sometimes from the West through institutions tied to the same colonial powers that have shaped the way art is viewed today), which sometimes leads to recycling of a particular type of artist thereby blocking the chances of fresh, dynamic artists with new messages. There is a danger that the artists favored by the sponsors could mirror the messages that suits the narrative of the financier.

There is a need for more intra-African exchange. Many Africans are not aware of the richness of other cultural movements in other regions. The current boom of South, East and West-African music on the global scene is helping towards forging stronger bonds and projects. Initiatives such as AFRIMA also help to forge a cultural Pan-Africa. It is clear that the Facebook page and WhatsApp group of PACE supports continued exchange and communication between participants and stimulates coordination. Hopefully, the upcoming PACE festivals can contribute to putting more African performances on the map. It might also be considered to organize the festival in a different country or to work with satellite stations in several countries?

African diaspora – in the Caribbean, US, UK and other parts of the world – can continue to play a key role, both in terms of providing support as well as discovering a common past and future. Learning and building together is the way to go.

PACE Entangled 2020 has used innovative techniques to present a high number of relevant artists, bringing together institutions and cultural leaders from across the continent and beyond. Short biographies of the moderators and speakers of the panels are included because this information can be ever so useful for anybody who wants to get to know the key institutions in the pan-African cultural space.

The 2020 virtual edition was also a great experience for the rapporteur who worked on this report. “Just as the thousands of viewers, I learned a lot about art and cultural institutions in Africa, burning issues, challenges but also solutions, dreams and hopes and the wild imagination that is the fabric of our past, present and future.”

Read the full report of PACE Entangled here.

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