Entries for August 2009

Cultural Diversity: the solution to world peace or the source of all conflict?

So what can the post-apartheid “Rainbow Nation” teach the world about cultural diversity, about racial and cultural tolerance, about using the arts for intercultural dialogue?

 

This is one of the roundtable themes of the World Summit on Arts and Culture to be hosted in Johannesburg from 22-25 September.  I wonder what “the world” would have thought had they attended the Artspeak event in Johannesburg – a preliminary opportunity for the local creative sector to engage with the Summit’s themes - on Wednesday 19 August?

 

Would they have been shocked to hear about Sowetans – international symbols of anti-apartheid resistance – marching in protest against the building of a new mosque in their area?  They might have smiled when hearing about white South Africans having great difficulty with their new black neighbours who slaughter sheep as part of their cultural rituals.  Perhaps they would have been intrigued by the story of a “coloured” man who bought a house in which to live in Khayelitsha – a “black” township in Cape Town – only to be hounded out by the local community as this was a “black” area.

 

These were some of the anecdotes emerging around the theme of the first Artspeak session - which echoes that of the second Summit keynote topic -: “Cultural diversity: essential for world peace or the root of all conflict?”

 

It wasn’t possible to talk about this theme in South Africa without the ongoing xenophobic violence against nationals from other African countries being raised as a concern.  One panellist suggested that the National Arts Council should fund a Mozambican cultural festival as a means for South Africans to learn about and to have greater respect for our neighbours.  An NAC board member reacted strongly saying that this would never happen, that board members would vote against such a proposal as “charity begins at home”, and that the NAC’s responsibility was towards South African artists.

 

In other parts of the world, governments are throwing money at (some) “immigrant communities” to integrate them into mainstream society, and perhaps reduce the threat posed by such communities, particularly those from Muslim countries.  Others, in an attempt to build “multi-cultural societies”, make funding available through particular units of their arts councils or government departments to support the cultural and artistic practices of communities that may be on the margins of the dominant culture.  While this raises other issues about whether such “special funding” helps to integrate or perpetuates the “ghettoisation” of such communities (another roundtable topic at the Summit), it would appear that this issue is not even on the agenda of national South African public funding agencies when the reality of our contemporary society is that there are millions of people from other African countries living among us.

 

The National Arts Council Act stipulates that funding is only available to South African citizens.  But is it not ironic that we are hosting the World Summit on Arts and Culture on the theme “Meeting of Cultures: Creating meaning through the Arts”, and having won the bid to host the Summit, partly because of the esteem in which South Africa is held internationally for peacefully overcoming apartheid, yet we cannot fund African artists living in our country?

 

There is - yet again - a debate currently about the absence of “African” arts journalists with some of the debate revolving around who is an African, as the protagonist in the debate appears to equate “African” with “black”, while people of all colours in South Africa consider themselves to be African.   

 

But while this tired neo-pencil-test debate rages, perhaps the protagonists should be asked – does this bemoaning of the absence of “African” arts journalists also refer to arts journalists from other African countries living in South Africa?   For while there are one or two such “African” arts journalists working in our media, there can be little doubt that our own cultural and artistic practices will be greatly enriched by the insights, views and critical perspectives of more African arts journalists from beyond the Limpopo.

 

What does it mean to be “African” in South Africa at the moment when we are shooting Somalian shopkeepers and raiding their spaza shops?   Or throwing Zimbabweans out of moving trains?  Or burning Mozambicans?

 

Does “African” only mean pigmentation?  Geography?  What about values? Human rights?  Dignity? 

 

One speaker at the Artspeak event – someone with much experience in publishing and distributing African literature – bemoaned the role that South Africa plays on the continent, equating it with that of America globally.  She labelled South Africa the imperialists of the continent, reminding the audience that much of our country’s wealth – (which makes it possible to provide funding to the NAC?) – comes from our exploitation of African markets where South African companies are the dominant players.

 

South Africa won the bid to host the FIFA World Cup, partly as this would benefit the rest of the continent.  We won the bid to host the World Summit on Arts and Culture, at least in part, for the same reason.  Whether that actually happens or not, is moot.

 

Perhaps then, it is not so much about what the world can learn from the “Rainbow Nation”.  Perhaps it is more a case – as with our soccer team – of a humbler South Africa learning from Africa, and from the rest of the world?

 

 

 

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Towards an annual, rotating African Capital of Culture?

Towards an annual, rotating African Capital of Culture?

 

The Europeans have had it since 1985.  Cairo was the first annual Arab Capital of Culture in 1996.  The Americas started theirs in 2000.  So why not an annual Capital of Culture in Asia?  And of course, Africa?

 

Wikipedia states that “The European Capital of Culture is a city designated by the European Union for a period of one calendar year during which it is given a chance to showcase its cultural life and cultural development.  A number of European cities have used the City of Culture year to transform their cultural base and, in doing so, the way they are viewed internationally….A 2004 study by the European Culture Commission demonstrated that the choice of European Capital of Culture served as a catalyst for the cultural development and the transformation of the city.  Consequently, the beneficial socio-economic development and impact for the chosen city are now also considered in determining the chosen cities.”

 

The first city selected as the European Capital of Culture was Athens in 1985 (then labelled the European City of Culture), with Melina Mercouri, Greece’s Minister of Culture credited with having initiated the idea.  It was in 1999 that the EU renamed the programme the European Capital of Culture.

 

The benefits of being selected as the cultural capital have been so enormous in terms of tourism, cultural development, image-building, infrastructural growth, the attraction of skilled citizens to the city and sparking new enterprises, that many cities have bid for this prestigious appellation. 

 

In 2000, a number of European cities – 9 – were made “Cultural Capitals” and since then, it has not been uncommon for there to be at least two “European Capitals of Culture” each year.  Currently, the countries that will host the cultural capital have been chosen for the period 2014-2019 on a rotational basis so that cities within those countries are now competing and submitting bids to be selected as the cultural capital.  So, for example, the cultural capitals in 2014 will be in Sweden and Latvia, in 2015, Belgium and the Czech Republic and in Spain and Poland in 2016.

 

While the European Union decides on the annual cultural capital/s, the Arab ministers responsible for arts and culture annually make this award to a city in the region.  Initiated by UNESCO with Cairo as the first Arab Cultural Capital in 1996, other capitals have included Tunis, Beirut, Amman, Khartoum and Damascus, the aim being to promote and celebrate Arab culture and encourage regional cooperation.

 

 In the Americas (North, Central and South), an NGO – American Capital of Culture Organisation” – annually chooses a city to be the American Capital of Culture for a year.  It co-operates with the Organisation of American States (OAS), but the OAS is not directly involved in the selection process.

 

The aims of the American Capital Culture initiative – launched in 1997 with Merida in Mexico being the first designated capital in 2000 – are to facilitate regional integration and cooperation, to enable people in the region to get to know and respect each other and each other’s heritage and to promote American cities internationally.

 

Clearly, it is a model that works across the globe in facilitating development of the arts, in boosting the local economy, in building a city’s image and in leaving a legacy far beyond the year in which the city enjoys its “cultural capital” status.

 

Given the Millennium Development Goals and the Nairobi Plan of Action of Cultural Industries adopted by African Ministers of Culture in Algiers in October 2008, is it not highly appropriate and timeous to institute an annual, rotating African Capital of Culture?  The models that exist indicate that it could be run by the African Union, the African Ministers of Culture or by a civil society organisation working in collaboration with the multilateral political bodies.

 

Such an annual capital will facilitate networking on the continent, develop local markets for African goods and services, build expertise and cultural infrastructure, boost tourism and generally profile African cities internationally.

 

One of the roundtable discussions at the World Summit will engage with this as a theme.  Perhaps – hopefully – it will be at least one tangible legacy of the World Summit for Africa and its creative sector.

 

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Summit Views 2

So what can the post-apartheid “Rainbow Nation” teach the world about cultural diversity, about racial and cultural tolerance, about using the arts for intercultural dialogue?

 

This is one of the roundtable themes of the World Summit on Arts and Culture to be hosted in Johannesburg from 22-25 September.  I wonder what “the world” would have thought had they attended the Artspeak event in Johannesburg – a preliminary opportunity for the local creative sector to engage with the Summit’s themes - on Wednesday 19 August?

 

Would they have been shocked to hear about Sowetans – international symbols of anti-apartheid resistance – marching in protest against the building of a new mosque in their area?  They might have smiled when hearing about white South Africans having great difficulty with their new black neighbours who slaughter sheep as part of their cultural rituals.  Perhaps they would have been intrigued by the story of a “coloured” man who bought a house in which to live in Khayelitsha – a “black” township in Cape Town – only to be hounded out by the local community as this was a “black” area.

 

These were some of the anecdotes emerging around the theme of the first Artspeak session - which echoes that of the second Summit keynote topic -: “Cultural diversity: essential for world peace or the root of all conflict?”

 

It wasn’t possible to talk about this theme in South Africa without the ongoing xenophobic violence against nationals from other African countries being raised as a concern.  One panellist suggested that the National Arts Council should fund a Mozambican cultural festival as a means for South Africans to learn about and to have greater respect for our neighbours.  An NAC board member reacted strongly saying that this would never happen, that board members would vote against such a proposal as “charity begins at home”, and that the NAC’s responsibility was towards South African artists.

 

In other parts of the world, governments are throwing money at (some) “immigrant communities” to integrate them into mainstream society, and perhaps reduce the threat posed by such communities, particularly those from Muslim countries.  Others, in an attempt to build “multi-cultural societies”, make funding available through particular units of their arts councils or government departments to support the cultural and artistic practices of communities that may be on the margins of the dominant culture.  While this raises other issues about whether such “special funding” helps to integrate or perpetuates the “ghettoisation” of such communities (another roundtable topic at the Summit), it would appear that this issue is not even on the agenda of national South African public funding agencies when the reality of our contemporary society is that there are millions of people from other African countries living among us.

 

The National Arts Council Act stipulates that funding is only available to South African citizens.  But is it not ironic that we are hosting the World Summit on Arts and Culture on the theme “Meeting of Cultures: Creating meaning through the Arts”, and having won the bid to host the Summit, partly because of the esteem in which South Africa is held internationally for peacefully overcoming apartheid, yet we cannot fund African artists living in our country?

 

There is - yet again - a debate currently about the absence of “African” arts journalists with some of the debate revolving around who is an African, as the protagonist in the debate appears to equate “African” with “black”, while people of all colours in South Africa consider themselves to be African.   

 

But while this tired neo-pencil-test debate rages, perhaps the protagonists should be asked – does this bemoaning of the absence of “African” arts journalists also refer to arts journalists from other African countries living in South Africa?   For while there are one or two such “African” arts journalists working in our media, there can be little doubt that our own cultural and artistic practices will be greatly enriched by the insights, views and critical perspectives of more African arts journalists from beyond the Limpopo.

 

What does it mean to be “African” in South Africa at the moment when we are shooting Somalian shopkeepers and raiding their spaza shops?   Or throwing Zimbabweans out of moving trains?  Or burning Mozambicans?

 

Does “African” only mean pigmentation?  Geography?  What about values? Human rights?  Dignity? 

 

One speaker at the Artspeak event – someone with much experience in publishing and distributing African literature – bemoaned the role that South Africa plays on the continent, equating it with that of America globally.  She labelled South Africa the imperialists of the continent, reminding the audience that much of our country’s wealth – (which makes it possible to provide funding to the NAC?) – comes from our exploitation of African markets where South African companies are the dominant players.

 

South Africa won the bid to host the FIFA World Cup, partly as this would benefit the rest of the continent.  We won the bid to host the World Summit on Arts and Culture, at least in part, for the same reason.  Whether that actually happens or not, is moot.

 

Perhaps then, it is not so much about what the world can learn from the “Rainbow Nation”.  Perhaps it is more a case – as with our soccer team – of a humbler South Africa learning from Africa, and from the rest of the world?

So what can the post-apartheid “Rainbow Nation” teach the world about cultural diversity, about racial and cultural tolerance, about using the arts for intercultural dialogue?

 

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Summit Views 1

In a post-9/11 world, and with the Cold War and its ideological divides now assigned to the scrapheap of history, culture is the primary global faultline.

The World Summit on Arts and Culture – held every three years in a different country – will be held in a so-called developing country, and in Africa, for the first time.  The event provides a unique opportunity for policy makers, funding agencies, development organisations, artists’ networks, think tanks and multilateral cultural bodies to reflect on the state of the world and its implications for the arts over the ensuing few years.

Such a global gathering allows for key debates to be initiated, for visionary ideas to be launched and for networks to be consolidated so that the Summit is not be an end in itself, but a catalyst that will leave a lasting legacy for the global arts fraternity, and in this instance, for the African arts sector in particular.

South Africa has long been regarded as a microcosm of the world: a wealthy elite on the one hand and a huge underclass burdened by poverty on the other, with the inherent tensions within and between these further layered by racial and cultural conflicts.

It is an appropriate time and place for a global gathering on the theme of the Summit: Meeting of Cultures: Creating Meaning through the Arts, a theme that resonates across a world that is increasingly divided by values, beliefs, religion, traditions and history – in short, by culture. 

What do these cultural divides mean for the arts?

Music, theatre, dance, literature, film and the visual arts are seen by some policy makers and politicians as possible bridges between cultures, as safe, non-threatening points of entry into understanding “other” and as facilitators of “intercultural dialogue”.

Yet, the arts can also play a divisive role, reinforcing cultural faultlines as shown by the literature of Salman Rushdie or movies that spark protests by Christian groups or the drawings of a Danish cartoonist or exhibitions that depict religious icons as gay.  What effect will the political imperative and the need for social cohesion across cultural divides have on the arts if they are burdened with facilitating intercultural dialogue?  To help to make the world a safer place, are public authorities demanding “safe” art?

Many artists hate being – or feeling - conscripted for any cause, even ones they believe in.  If they are to use their creative skills for “the public good”, then they want to choose to do this, or not.  On the other hand, politicians, government officials, development agencies and public funding bodies often give the impression that when artists or arts projects are supported with public funds, it is legitimate to expect them to align their creative work with the “national interests”, as defined by those who inhabit political power at the time.  In an increasingly security-conscious world in which culture is one of the roots of global tensions, is it acceptable for artists to be “conscripted” in the cause of building intercultural communities at local, national and international levels?

What would this mean for South Africa?  What if the NAC makes available funds for artists to create art that rejects xenophobia and that affirms good relations with refugees from other African countries?  This would be considered in the interests of the greater public good.  But what if an artist decides to make an art work that calls for the country’s borders to be closed to foreigners in order for government first to address the needs of impoverished South Africans?  Should the artist be prevented from receiving public funds to create this art because it is not consistent with “the national interests”?

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