Translation from French by Marie-Louise Rouget

Cultural policy is not a subject that generally attracts wide public, media or political attention. Yet successful and well-implemented cultural policies can be tools that transform not only physical urban spaces but also social realities. Culture is not simply a colourful ‘add-on’ to the daily humdrum of life, but rather its lifeblood. Its transversal nature means that it has the potential to effect deep and sustainable change in the ways in which we develop the social, political, economic and ecological dimensions of our cities. In an era of political polarisation, religious intolerance and ecological crisis, cultural change takes on special significance.

The Arterial Network is a Pan-African, civil society network of artists, cultural activists, entrepreneurs, enterprises, NGOs, institutions and donors active in Africa’s creative and cultural sectors. It operates across the continent, focussing on supporting the arts through advocacy, capacity-building, market access, knowledge management and information dissemination. It recently launched an ambitious programme that aims to create social change through cultural action and cultural policy. Between May and July 2017, the Arterial African Creative Cities (AACC) programme activated four cities: Harare, Zimbabwe; Victoria, Seychelles; Nouakchott, Mauritania; and Pointe Noire, Congo Brazzaville, to develop a cultural policy or a strategy. To find out more about the flesh and blood of these city-wide projects, I spoke to five Arterial Network members who are working on the ground with the projects in each of the four cities.

In an era of political polarisation, religious intolerance and ecological crisis, cultural change takes on special significance

 

Dr Jenny Mbaye

Dr Jenny Mbaye

A full-time lecturer in Culture and Creative Industries at City University, London, Dr Mbaye is a member of Arterial Network’s Cultural Policy Task Group and has been integral in laying the groundwork for the AACC programme.

SS: Tell me more about the four African cities that were signed up for the programme – they are not ‘the usual suspects’ in terms of ‘cultural reputation’.

SS: What were some of the most surprising/exciting moments in this project so far?

JM: I can share a few snapshots. In Seychelles, during the launch, someone used an interactive tool during a workshop – the task was to write a letter to your friend that goes like this: ‘Dear friend, you should come to Seychelles because … and you will feel …’ The Seychelles is known world-over for its natural resources but not its arts and culture. It was a way of drawing out the cultural significance that residents felt was present. In Nouakchott I was able to facilitate the same exercise – and participants took it on and it became a whole project in itself. People talked about gastronomy, the landscape, the art and music. In Nouakchott there is little space for enjoyment and expression and the participants really appropriated and grasped this tool. One of the three keys of success for AACC (involvement/engagement, appropriation, and governance) has to do with the involvement of the participants – it was magic to see it happen, it’s about the city appropriating its culture.

SS: How might the AACC programme improve ordinary people’s access to arts and culture?

JM: The AACC project works on two levels. On the first it happens within a local territory (for example, the Festival Sur Niger in Segou, Mali; the Nsangu Ndji Ndji Festival in Pointe Noire; and the Assalamalekoum Festival in Nouakchott), which provides space for cultural expression, production and consumption. Locals can access this public good thanks to providers who diversify the offer of arts and culture within the city … There is a tradition of thinking about arts and culture as something elitist, a privilege – but it’s not. It allows for greater social awareness, open-mindedness, and provides the tools to express one’s values.

Read: Nyege Nyege 2017 Festival in Pictures

On the second level, the project aims to give visibility and recognition to actions that are already taking place. It is about shedding light on what is working and doing good, and to create cultural bridges, hence allowing cultural consumers from one territory to access another. For example, during the opening of the Seychelles launch there was a Pan-African exhibition welcoming artists from all over Africa. This allowed for cross-pollination between artists, festivals and projects, as well as opportunities for cultural exchange, collaboration, awareness of diversity and stimulating the potential for cultural consumption.

Pierre Claver Mabiala

From Pointe Noire, Pierre Claver Mabiala, chairperson of the Arterial Network Congo Brazzaville, shared some thoughts on the importance of cross-sectoral partnerships.

SS: How have arts and civil society intersected in the past, and how might AACC activate a change in this regard?

PCM: In Pointe-Noire, civil society leads cultural and artistic activities. They are gradually giving added value to the city through cultural, artistic and artisanal expression. The expression of culture and the arts impact directly on the life of the citizens because the city itself is very mixed. Many of the artistic and cultural proposals respond to the enhancement of the diversity of expressions and cultural identities. Pointe-Noire, Creative City is a way to amplify the work that has already been done by cultural actors, while calling on the contribution, the support and the accompaniment of the local authorities.
SS: Can you tell me something distinctive and unique about the arts and culture scene in Pointe-Noire that might surprise our readers?

PCM: It must be said that the cultural richness of the city of Pointe-Noire stems from its cosmopolitan atmosphere. It is a space where several identities from different corners of the world intersect and there is freedom for all communities and organisations to express themselves culturally and artistically. The portrait of cultural and artistic life is shown differently through different disciplines and each in their own way. We have benefitted from a rich common history that takes into account all the diversity around differing identities across the urban area. We have many live performances of all sizes across numerous cultural spaces in different city districts that are considered temples to the mixing and dialogue of cultures. We have spaces that offer multitudes of diverse food options, bringing together African cuisine, music and distinctive fashion (demonstrated by local sapeurs) in order to demonstrate this sense of truly living together.

Butholezwe Nyathi

Butholezwe Nyathi, chairperson of the Arterial Network Zimbabwe (ANZ), talked about the connections between arts, culture and social cohesion, and how the AACC links to other strong visions for Africa’s development such as Agenda 2063.

BN: One of the tenets of Agenda 2063 is for African states to embrace and manage urbanization … [at the same time] Agenda 2063 has clear pronouncements regarding the respect and protection of African values and ethos – the acknowledgement and use of indigenous knowledge systems to support the development agenda. In the context of globalisation and informed by the general trend of structural and operational marginalization of indigenous cultural heritage, creative practitioners and institutions such as ANZ have a duty to influence a new growth trajectory that gives prominence to the cultural fabric of cities within the complex nexus of sustainable development enablers.

Read: Religious fundamentalism and the erasure of African cultures, religions and traditions

SS: Arterial’s president Mamou Daffé has stated, “Culture and art contribute to social cohesion to a large degree.” Are there any particular examples of this that you could share from Zimbabwe?

BN: The essence of social cohesion is predicated on cordial human relations – inter and intra. Building cordial relations demands constant human interaction … Culture interrogated allows people to understand themselves and their own worldviews, vis-a-vis cosmological underpinnings. Understanding and tolerating human behaviour is what builds social cohesion. My organisation, Amagugu International Heritage Centre, through our participatory cultural activities, has taken the liberty of highlighting common attributes across different tribes in Zimbabwe as part of efforts to celebrate the beauty of the human race.

Understanding and tolerating human behaviour is what builds social cohesion

Limam Kane

From Nouakchott, Mauritania, chairperson of the Arterial Network Mauritania, Limam Kane, illustrated the meaning of the project for the cultural life of the city.

LK: In reality, the creative spaces are almost empty and they are silent, so much so that the Nouakchottois have forgotten the young history of the city, which reflects the whole of Mauritania with its diversity of cultures and communities. The city’s symbolic places continue to disappear one by one into its inhabitants’ fog of ignorance. Our programme proposes to rehabilitate certain historical places across Nouakchott through artistic interventions in order to trace a route: from art in the street to the Maison des Cultures (cultural centre). This Maison des Cultures will be the first ecological, cultural space in Mauritania – a place specifically dedicated to creativity and artistic production. Our programme is a healthy response to the needs of the citizens who are deprived of leisure activities that would allow them to flourish, express and share, while also offering opportunities for access to and the renewal of newer trades, such as craft and street wear.

Nouakchott

 

SS: What are some of the key aspects of Nouakchott’s cultural identity? What are some of the key challenges to creative expression in the city, and indeed the country?

LK: Nouakchott is a city that is full of potential. The plurality of cultural identities is visible across the faces in the street, and in the myriad languages that are spoken, such as Peul, Wolof, Soninke and Hassaniya. There are numerous facets to this diversity, such as the lag between generations in terms of dress style and linguistic expression.

On the one hand, the new generation is inventing vocabulary every day, increasingly mixing modern African and traditional styles. They speak a language that is peculiar to older generations as it combines all of the local languages, as well as English and French, often in a single sentence. On the other hand, the generation of the elders are more conservative and refuse to open up to modern culture, which tends to be more assertive. Conflicts of belonging arise daily in confrontations with what is ‘other’.

The city is in a state of flux and exhibits many paradoxes, such as its lack of urbanisation, with dwellings that are constructed without regulation. We say that Nouakchott is like someone with chickenpox – it is contagious. There are very few leaders, and too many followers. In this climate, culture is suffering, and this is where the challenges for creative expression arise. It is necessary to cultivate the curiosity of the public and to encourage an education in art by involving the artists.

We say that Nouakchott is like someone with chickenpox – it is contagious

SS: Can you tell us something about the arts and culture scene in Nouakchott that might surprise our readers?

LK: Undoubtedly, I will say that rap is a distinctive scene. For a country with less than 4 million inhabitants, we have close to 3 000 rap groups, with an average of three members each, who are listened to by more than 70% of the population (mostly young people). These artists have become a gateway to the voting public, even for the president. Today, when politicians fail to mobilise support, they will call on certain local rappers, who have now been divided into two distinct categories: the sell-outs and the militants.

Fortunately, there are those who have understood the unifying force of this music as an effective weapon to give a voice to and look out for young people. Hip-hop and other forms of urban culture are an alternative to debauchery, and this drives our commitment to our programme to channel young people into the Maison des Cultures, which will be a democratic space for artistic expression.

George Camille

Lastly, I caught up with George Camille, chairman of Arterial Seychelles (ANS,) and we started talking about the links between tourism, environmental protection, art and culture in the Seychelles.

GC: The Seychelles is perceived as a ‘high end’ tourism destination but this is not the whole story. Previously, this was a place that, due to the price, a person would visit – or aspire to visit – only once in a lifetime, but now Seychelles attracts a more diverse population of visitors. Many of them are extremely responsive to art that not only responds to the natural beauty of the islands but also engages in social observation. There is a distinction, of course, between the natural environment and the created one, and art creates synergy across both. Artists in Seychelles are increasingly mindful of their responsibilities to create contemporary narratives that engage and challenge – the project will consolidate and extend this practice.

Artwatch Africa

SS: Increasing levels of inequality in most African cities is an under-examined phenomenon. How does social and economic inequality and class difference affect the production and dissemination of art in your city?

GC: We have extremely successful and, it must be said, fiscally comfortable artists in Seychelles, but they are in the minority. Most artists struggle to put food on the table and pay their bills. They are under constant pressure to create work that will appeal to tourists, often resulting in the neglect of themes and journeys, which are more personal and meaningful. With disenfranchisement from wealth comes alienation from exhibition spaces and general promotion. Arterial Network Seychelles has networked the vast majority of artists working today and makes excellent gallery space available to all. In addition, ANS promotes the creation of art that steps out of the comfort zone of the forest and/or beach scene, and which is both referential to itself and work made by contemporaries.

SS: In terms of public access to arts, how might the AACC challenge existing barriers that ordinary people might face to accessing arts and culture?

GC: Through plurality and democracy. The notion of an aesthetic hegemony is nonsense. The AACC essentially promotes the concept of an open agenda and the creation of the broadest possible spectrum of activity. Welcoming the public within the context of non-threatening spaces and activities is one of our priorities.

The notion of an aesthetic hegemony is nonsense

Follow the Arterial Network online (www.arterialnetwork.org or Arterial Network Facebook) to keep track of the development of these transformative agendas in arts and culture.

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