Culture gets muddied by the art of politics

2011-01-08 11:30

Over the past three weeks, Dakar, Senegal, was the place to be if you love music, film, literature, photography, fashion, architecture, dance, theatre and art because the third World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures rolled into the city.

The festival has been able to ­attract some of the biggest stars in the world, including Stanley Clarke, Anqelique Kidjo, Wyclef Jean, Danny Glover, Marcus Miller, Rebecca ­Malope, Randy Weston, Linton ­Kwesi Johnson, Busta Rhymes and others.

But those who expected the festival in Senegal to show off the 33 years of progress since the last one in ­Lagos had to accept that it failed to live up to expectations.

Once word got around that the festival was actually going to take place, many hurriedly made plans to be in Senegal as there was a sense that this would be one of the most significant cultural events of our times.

But it soon became apparent that the organisers were relying on hype to draw people to Senegal and were less concerned about matching the event with their publicity.

Here’s a bizarre example. Brazil was supposed to be the country of ­focus. However, except for a few ­performances by Brazilian artists (and not even the country’s biggest stars), Brazil’s participation was no different from that of other countries.

It begs the question why the organisers would create the unnecessary expectation that Brazil would be ­given a large stage to showcase its rich tapestry of arts and culture when no effort would be made to match the rhetoric with reality.

One of the problems was the number of no-shows.

A scheduled lecture by Chinua Achebe on Goree Island had many festival-goers on the ferry from the mainland to the former slave colony only to discover that Achebe was not there.

There was no explanation offered and a panel of five just proceeded to discuss a completely different topic.

As if that was not enough, a few days later fashion designer Oswald Boateng was headlined to lead a ­discussion on fashion. Again, there was no Oswald Boateng.

In many ways, not much seems to have improved between the previous festival in Lagos in 1977 – when poor organisation dampened the spirit of the many big-name stars who had turned up to celebrate black arts and culture – and the current event.

But the writing was already on the wall when the festival had to be postponed in 2009 because the organisers had failed to secure the participation of artists.

It seems that President Abdoulaye Wade’s ambition of an African Renaissance – perhaps best summed up by the gigantic 49m bronze statue erected at the African Renaissance Monument – in part fuelled the ­revival of this festival.

As a result, it was impossible to ­escape the feeling that the grand ­political gesture would not translate into a coherent artistic and cultural experience.

In my mind, nothing best sums up this gulf between politics and culture than what happened when President Wade and his entourage waltzed on to the Renaissance Stage in the ­middle of Randy Weston’s complex African Sunrise Suite.

Wade clearly wanted to be acknowledged.

Eventually, the president took his seat, but not before the photographers were jettisoned from their vantage points by his security detail.

After sitting quietly through the performance of two more songs, one of Wade’s men abruptly stood and walked towards Randy Weston as the pianist was in the middle of a song.

The President of the Republic of Senegal wanted to take his leave, even if that meant interrupting a ­performance by one of the finest ­pianists and composers of the past 50 years.

By the time he and his entourage disappeared, half the audience had used the unexpected presidential ­interruption to take their leave and so the jazz maestro had to play his last song to a skeleton audience.

This was an awkward moment, but the alliance between politicians and artists is always an uneasy one.

The lesson of the evening, and ­perhaps of the whole festival, was that if there is an African ­Renaissance to be celebrated, ­embraced and promoted, it cannot be based on a takeover of the arts by government.

Governments have a role to play in supporting arts and culture, but they cannot just willy-nilly bring their sense of importance to performances of art as this dilutes the integrity of the arts.

A sideshow of the festival was the arrival of many of the continent’s politicians, who clearly understand the power of cultural and artistic icons to influence the masses.

So arts and culture remains a highly contested area and one that politicians wish to get their hands on.

There were rumblings by artists at the festival that there had been too much government and too few ­artists in the organisation of the ­festival. Some of the leading names in Senegalese and indeed African art are to be found at the Village Des Arts, which is located near the Leopold Senghor Stadium in Dakar.

They are united in their view that the festival represents a huge missed opportunity because very little of their art has been showcased publicly to the festival audience.

The village is home to painters such as El Hadji Sy, Tita Mbaye, Mouhamadou Dia, and the famed sculptors Issa Diop and Guibril ­Andre Diop.

What is interesting about the views from the Village Des Arts is that some of the artists who live in the ­village took part in the first festival held in 1966.

These include Mamadou Wade, Omar Katta Diallo and Baye Mballo Kebe.

They have continued to work, and their success on the African and ­international stage has kept Senegal at the forefront of arts and culture.

There is no doubt that much could have been gained by giving artists with such a strong historical link to the festival an opportunity to interact with a new generation of artists.

Sadly, one of the things the third Festival of Black Arts and Cultures will be remembered for is that even though many big-name artists were invited, there was very little interaction between the artists.

So what went wrong at what had clearly been expected to be a high point in black arts and culture.

There were big performances and the stars were there, but there was poor communication, very little interaction and, certainly for such a small city, a sense of several parallel festivals taking place rather than one coherent event.

There is clearly a place for such a festival, given the hegemony of the Western world in entertainment, arts and culture, and the fact that we still have to deal with such strange categories like World Music.

But more has to be made of get-togethers of this scale for the third World ­Festival of Black Arts and Culture to have lived up to all the hype.

It has not been a wonderful showcase of what African artists have achieved in the 50 years since they first tasted political freedom.

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