By Ogova Ondego
Published October 2, 2009
The British Dance Edition 2004, an annual showcase of contemporary dance in Britain, invites two emerging East African dancer/choreographers to observe their event with a view to initiating dance exchange thereafter. Obtaining travel visa for the artists is hell on earth: the Kenyan is denied the visa despite the fact that the preceding years he has travelled several times to Europe to dance and to collaborate with counterparts there. There is no explanation given. In fact, his passport is held at the British High Commission until after the festival is over. But it is suspected that his status as a single male, with no family ties and owning no property or business to commit him to his home country presents him as a risk to the visa granting authorities.
In another example, several East African artists are invited to perform at the Mundial festival in the Netherlands. Among them is a troupe of Rwandese drummers. Visas are issued without a hitch and all the artists travel to Europe. But after the festival, almost half of the 15-man troupe of drummers cannot be located for their return trip home; they disappear in Europe much to the embarrassment of the promoters causing the Netherlands Embassy to place stricter conditions on subsequent artist invitations to their country.
Those two anecdotes were given by Joy Mboya, the director of the the Go-Down Arts Centre in Nairobi during the 4th World Summit on Arts and Culture in Johannesburg, South Africa (September 22-25, 2009). The panel she sat on discussed “Inter-cultural Dialogue through the arts: Models of Good Practice” that not only examined the buzz phrase “intercultural dialogue” but also presented case studies of good practice.
Referring to the disappearance of the Rwandese dancers in Holland, Mboya posed, “What went wrong here?”
Having diagnosed the disease as; non-recognition of the artist, Mboya went on to to suggest the antidote: “If intercultural dialogue is to be pursued, good practice would be to create conditions for the rights and status of artists to be recognised; to facilitate their free movement across borders; to remove obstacles of repression and censorship arising from fear; to create conditions for their social support; and to provide opportunities for skills, training, and capacity-building of the creative and cultural practitioners.”
But before going on to provide examples of “good practice”, Mboya attempted to trace the development of creativity in eastern Africa. She said “a political climate that censored and punished critical viewpoints” and “when the arts became instrumental for developmental funding, in the 1970s and 1980s had had a negative effect on East African creativity”.
While creativity had gone into hibernation as “authentic voice was silenced”, Mboya said, “the development message became the priority.”
Thus for almost two decades “the unique role that the artist plays to view life with open-minded curiosity, to explore the strange and the different, to chart new creative visions and forms by experimenting, did not receive the chance to be acted out till the mid 1990s when the region began to see sparks of artistic creativity re-emerge as artists began to make work for its experiential value,” Mboya explained, attributing this to what she called a “more open political space and the availability of funding to nurture the rise of independent arts organisations and the creative capacity of artist.”
While the arts would appear especially suited to build bridges across cultures, Mboya noted, it is debatable whether artistic creativity should be used in this way. “Good practice must first prioritise the unshackling of the creative spirit, and allow it to evolve and engage with issues organically and unconditionally,” said Mboya who prefers arts management to practising the architecture she trained in.
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Importantly, in the last decade in East Africa, Using Pablo Picasso and Eric Clapton to illustrate the point that artists have over the centuries received inspiration and been influenced by cultures besides their own, Mboya said the former’s encounter with African masks had given new direction to his already fertile visual imagination while Clapton’s dialogue with African-American blues music had contributed to the development his unique guitar style. Similarly, she argued, “intercultural dialogue at the artist level of sharing and collaboration on regional and international scale has had the positive effect of serving the immediate and self focused interest of the East African artist to enrich and renew their practice, to find and flex their creative muscle once more.”
Referring to the definition of the conditions requisite for intercultural dialogue, as given in the ERICarts research survey, Sharing Diversity–“Intercultural dialogue takes place in an environment where individuals and groups are guaranteed safety and dignity, equality of opportunity and participation where different views can be voiced openly without fear and where there are shared spaces for cultural exchanges.”Mboya stressed that the environment in which an artist works must be secured or “made safe”. “One fundamental way to achieve this is to give recognition to the rights and status of the artist and to facilitate their entry into full civic life.”
Mboya said an “interesting developments of contemporary art–dance, literature, poetry and the visual arts”in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda. Practitioners in all of these countries are almost all youthful, urban-raised individuals. They are finding their own creative identity and expression through exploration of dance, accomplished through intercultural exchanges. They deconstruct acrobatics as practised locally as well as traditional dance forms. These struggling artists, living independently outside their nuclear family set ups, in crowded lower middle-class suburbs, may hold in them the germ of contemporary African identity. Their national history is not a yoke that holds them back from shaping who they want to be, although it would most likely enrich them to know of it.
For these young Africans, Mboya said, intercultural dialogue,in the present situation which South African Prof Njabulo Ndebele describes as a space where “the old references are lost” and “new references have not yet been created” may present an opportunity for them to help Africa to re-invent itself. These African Artists may well be at the vanguard of this re framing of African Cultures.
“Good practice, in this instance, must especially be manifested by Africans themselves to feel empowered to select ideas and influences from a global platter that they may remold, recreate and re frame on their own terms,” Mboya concluded to much appreciative applause.