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People Who Think Together Dance Together: A Manifesto

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In 2018, ARAC was invited by EDUCULT, an Austrian institute of cultural policy and cultural management, invited ARAC to submit a chapter for the book Cultural Policy and Arts Education: A first African-European Exchange (forthcoming). This publication was based on the proceedings of a two-day meeting EDUCULT organised at the Bundesakademie für kulturelle Bildung in Wolfenbüttel (DE) that was attended by delegates from Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Germany and Austria. 

ARAC were not invited to participate in this meeting, but its organisers were aware of us and our activities, and belatedly invited us to share our perspectives on its themes.

For this publication, we submitted a copy of the interview that Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa gave to START Journal on behalf of ARAC following our inaugural meeting in Namulanda in July 2015, and we also prepared the following text, which reflects upon how the project developed over the subsequent 3 years.

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People who think together

What you are looking at here is a poster that was created in an impromptu silkscreen workshop that took place during the third colloquium of the Africa Cluster of the Another Roadmap School in Maseru, Lesotho in January 2018. The poster was made using a prototype for a ‘Silkscreen-in-a-Box’ kit that was designed and built by our Johannesburg Working Group.

For the past two years, our colleagues in Johannesburg have been investigating the work of the Medu Art Ensemble, which was formed in 1977 by a group of cultural workers who had fled apartheid South Africa for Botswana. Medu’s members, who self-identified as cultural workers rather than artists, used a diverse range of forms and media to create awareness of the struggle against apartheid and to sustain and to amplify that struggle. In 1984 the Medu Art Ensemble begun to develop a ‘Silkscreen-in-a-Box’ kit that could be smuggled into South Africa and used by anti-apartheid activists in the townships who had little or no training in printmaking. Unfortunately the kit never got beyond the prototype phase because in 1985 the South African Defence Force raided Medu's offices in Gaborone, killing 12 of its members and bringing the Medu Art Ensemble's activities to an end.

The  Another Roadmap School - Africa Cluster argues that the story of the Medu Art Ensemble is a vital and significant example of what culture production and cultural mediation have achieved in Africa in recent history. It is one of many important case studies that we seek to recover in our work and to reactivate in art education in the present.

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The second thing to mention about this poster is its main text or title: People who think together dance together. This statement emerged somewhat casually as the title of an event organised by an Africa Cluster member who had insisted from the outset that the programme for our colloquia had to include a dance party. Our colloquium, so their argument went, could not just comprise presentations of research, feedback sessions and and sessions to plan how we could take what we were learning back to our communities and constituencies. As an integral part of this work, this person maintained, we also had to dance together. Over time the statement - People who think together dance together - has acquired a meaning and a value that we did not initially foresee: we have come to recognise it as a concise indication of the potential inherent in radical and emancipatory approaches to culture, education and knowledge in post-independence Africa.To give you an example: our survey has been neither exhaustive nor scientific, but we are, as a group, yet to find an indigenous African language possessing words that translate directly to the English words 'art' and ‘design’. Anytime that these words are required, we observe people in Africa to use their European equivalents. Now, this obviously does not mean that indigenous Africans are not creative, that they are not producing and exchanging symbolic meanings. It just means that in most indigenous African cultures, such practices have a very different social, cultural and economic distribution.

It also means that if we are to genuinely understand and to meaningfully engage with cultural production and cultural mediation in Africa today, the use and validity of European terms such as ‘art’ and ‘design’ have to be problematised. Our colonial inheritance of separating of certain practices and bodies of knowledge into ‘disciplines’ must be dissected and then set aside. As the Africa Cluster, we have come to believe that it is the only way, epistemically, that we will ever be able to start to understand and appreciate African cultural production over the long durée, and to create just and sophisticated accounts of how cultural and knowledge-producing practices on this continent have evolved, endured, and indeed continue to drive the discourses of the present.

One consequence of this is that we as the Africa Cluster take ‘symbolic creative work’ - a term we prefer over 'the arts' - extremely seriously as a form of knowledge production. And by this we do not mean that each such a work encapsulates and encodes a concisely formulated message - rather, that making, doing and participating in such work is a form of knowledge production - a way of doing the thinking. And very often it is also a way of doing the thinking collectively. So even though the sentence People who think together dance together might sound quite light, it is now effectively part of the Africa Cluster's manifesto, and an entry point into a set of ideas that, in our contexts, we believe need urgently to be addressed.

Over the past three years we have only just begun to interrogate this epistemological territory, which has been formed by the political and social upheavals that the peoples of the African continent have undergone, particularly since the mid-19th century. Mapping and excavating this territory has the potential, we believe, to create new spaces for the consideration and appreciation of cultural practices that elude the framework of  Eurocentric cultural vocabularies and thus contribute to important shifts in pedagogical practices, and in forms of social and cultural organisation.

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Thirty years after structural adjustment wreaked havoc on the continents’ economies, neoliberal capital’s grip on formal education in Africa is decidedly firm. Against a background of rising authoritarianism and crippling cuts in what was only ever modest public funding, the commodification and marketisation of education is leading to the erosion of spaces of critical thought and practice, and concerted attempts to erase ‘the possibility of thinking otherwise’. (1) For the school and university employees among us who are committed to arts education’s capacity for the production and accessing of critical knowledges, this represents a crisis.   

There can hardly be a more poorly resourced academic discipline than arts education in Africa today. There are very few departments of art education, there are almost no professorships, there are virtually no research institutes, and there are very few publications.(2) NGOs - most notably western NGOs with so-called ‘development’ mandates, also western universities - have stepped in to offer workshops and short courses to aspiring artists in both the formal and informal sectors. However, although well meant, these efforts are all too often poorly conceived, ill-informed, lacking in criticality and devoid of local accountability. There are - and will always be - vibrant and vital grassroots initiatives, but they tend to operate under conditions of extreme precarity, reliant on the vagaries of project funding and thus forced to devote far too extensive time and energy to filling out forms and accounting to funders. This means that such initiatives are unable to focus their energies on documenting and systematising the knowledges that they produce, on building their institutions, on strengthening their networks and on publicising their insights and achievements. Because therefore, of this widespread lack of research and documentation in arts education in Africa, important theoretical and practical innovations frequently go unrecorded and unrecognised beyond their immediate locality, and far too little valuable knowledge is disseminated in the present or archived for the future.

As a result, as art education has evolved into a global discourse over the past two decades, Africa has remained one of the regions least likely to see its concepts of ‘art’ and ‘art education’ reflected in supranational policy documents such as UNESCO’s Road Map for Art Education (2006). And yet, because of the chronic lack of investment in arts education at a continental level, this is the region whose educational and cultural policies are often most reliant upon documents of this kind. Consequently Africa is one of the regions most vulnerable to these so-called 'universal' documents' deficiencies and abuses.

A chronic shortage of good quality, affordable and locally accessible resource materials means that the curricula for arts education in Africa’s schools and universities remains overwhelmingly Eurocentric. Not only can this result in teaching of profoundly questionable relevance to students, but it can also instil and reinforce corrosive and unwarranted feelings of cultural inferiority.

One of the reasons for convening the Africa Cluster was a shared belief that Africa’s students, teachers and policy makers should no longer have to rely on research and on concepts that have little or no relevance or connection to their local contexts. We came together to address this need, and to try to fill in some of the gaps.

It is a formidable task, and we are, after all, a small group of people with extremely limited time and money. But in the past three years, we have made inroads. The funding we have received from ProHelvetia Johannesburg, from the Mercator Foundation Switzerland and the Allianz Foundation have enabled us to carve out pockets of time to undertake some of this vital work with our students and with our peers. And what has catalysed and sustained these efforts is that this project has enabled us to meet - something that, for economic reasons, it is almost impossible for art educators within Africa to do. By coming together regularly to talk about what we teach, how we teach, how we learn, what we think learning is and what we think knowledge might be, we are slowly building a base of Africa-specific knowledge and identifying extraordinary and unexpected connections between our respective contexts. In addition to producing and sharing knowledge, the Africa Cluster is thus enabling us to pool resources and to develop alliances that are enabling us significantly to expand the arts educational possibilities in our locales both inside and outside the academy.

 

The Africa Cluster has been an extraordinary gift and an extraordinary journey from which we are all learning, and from which, as a result, those that we teach are learning too. We greatly hope that we shall be able to secure the support we need to continue and to amplify our efforts in the years to come.

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Footnotes

(1) 

Sara Motta, ‘Pedagogies of Possibility: In, against and beyond the Imperial Patriarchal Subjectivities of Higher Education’ in Stephen Cowden & Gurnam Singh (eds)  Acts of Knowing: Critical Pedagogy In, Against and Beyond the University, London: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, 2013, p. 90.

(2) 

We have so far identified one journal special issue published in recent years (Critical Interventions: Journal of African Art History and Visual Culture, Special Issue on Arts Education in Africa,  8:1, 2014) and one analysis of the history of art education in Morocco (Hamid Irbouh, Art in the Service of Colonialism: French Art Education in Morocco 1912-1956, 2013). Artists and Art Education in Africa, a volume based on the proceedings of a symposium that took place in London in 1995, is still being prepared for publication more than 20 years after the symposium took place. Doctoral theses such as Firoze H.Somjee Rajan's ‘Learning to be indigenous or being taught to be Kenyan: The ethnography of teaching art and material culture in Kenya’ (1996), Rhoda Elgar’s ‘Creativity, Community and Selfhood: Psychosocial Intervention and Making Art in Cape Town’ (2005) and Attwell Mamvuto’s’ Visual Expression Among Contemporary Artists: Implications For Art Education’ (2013) remain unpublished. One notable recent exception is Nicole Lauré Al-Samarai’s 2014 study, Creating Spaces: Non-formal Art/s Education and Vocational Training for Artists in Africa between Cultural Policies and Cultural Funding, which was a study commissioned by the Goethe Institut Johannesburg. (Free to download in English, French and German from: https://medienarchiv.zhdk.ch/entries/85cea527-dde4-437b-befe-b511a833d20e)

 


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