Creation and appreciation of the arts remain a privilege

Michael Barry, Aidah Nalubowa, Pauline Bullen and Angelo Kakande join Ruth Simbao (not pictured) in discussing the way forward for decolonising the creative industry.

With the onset of the National Arts Festival in a town with a strong economic divide, it’s important to consider what seperates and excludes some people from creating and appreciating the arts.

Decolonisation is not a simple process, but is multi-faceted. “It is a worldwide hegemonic process that has been going on for centuries,” says panelist, Michael Barry. “It’s like a hydra, [even] if you chop off [the] economic arm of colonisation there’s [also] the cultural arm [and] the spiritual arm, it is something that is not going to just go away overnight.”

Barry was joined by Angelo Kakende, Pauline Bullen and Aidah Nalubowa in a panel chaired by Ruth Simbao. The discussants interrogated “the extreme importance for us in the South African art scene to engage with, collaborate with, learn with, unlearn with [and] have conversations with artists, writers and performers from other contexts …on the African continent,” said Simbao.

Nalubowa, a performance artist as well as a member of the Ugandan Activists 4 life, asserted that we need to find practical ways of decolonising the arts. Attempts at creating an artistic realm free from the hegemony of the West are often met with shallow recognition. As Barry phrases it, we ‘pay lip service’ to marginalised groups, offering empty promises of recognition and empowerment. Barry, an artist and photographer, further suggests that the ongoing hegemony of the West on a global scale, has been responsible for the “annihilation of indigenous cultures.”

The discussion provided a great platform to address issues of language and education which is significant in light of student protests against the use of colonial languages as the medium of instruction in most educational institutions as well as the patriarchal structure of universities and institutional racism. We need to “bring in art into the instruction [of students], because in a way, it helps people understand …and relate,” says Nalubowa.

Art, like any other colonial institution, marginalises groups of people. Nalubowa suggests that a practical move towards decolonisation of the arts would be “creating open spaces, [and] inviting people.” Kakande, a Ugandan artist, lecturer and human rights lawyer, states that “contemporary art is a product of colonial education.” Kakande questions the extent to which public art can really be considered public, if groups are excluded from experiencing it. This is because art primarily caters for and is made accessible to able-bodied persons.  Kakande uses his interactions with the blind, as well as the deaf and blind as an example of how the arts can marginalise groups. Kakande further asserts that this is a result of “this colonial legacy of having such a restricted audience.”

“A person with disabilities is not part of the audience for Ugandan art.” Using this as a point of departure, Kakande explains “the process of turning these art forms into such a form that can be accessed by the blind.”  Kakande did this by starting the process of “brailling public art, specifically, public monuments.”

Art can be used as a tool for activism. Bullen expressed the value of “[bringing] the university into the community and the community into the university.” Bullen used her students of a predominately female university in Zimbabwe as an example. “By committing to feminism through art, they were able to work with a particular artist and create a quilt with these images about how they felt about being women, about being Zimbabwean women,” said Bullen.

But art is not a passive object that should be rescued from subjugation by the West. Artists have the power to use “their work as a missile with particular messages about colonisation and decolonisation,” says Bullen.  Art is a means of interrogation of the social issues that plague communities globally. It also has the potential to give voice to marginalised groups in society.

Arguably one of the biggest issues facing the movement towards a decolonised space is the need for western recognition. “The moment someone from the West recognises [an artist], the moment they endorse this person, we now realise, ‘wow, this person is talented,’ but we’ve been with them a very long time,” says Nalubowa. Barry further emphasised this by using the Standard Bank Artist of the Year award, much to the chagrin of many members of the audience.

The discussion was critical and engaging and managed to captivate the attention of the audience, even going more than twenty minutes over its allocated time. Decolonisation is an important conversation that needs to be had, despite its complexities. It is a long, tedious process which requires patience.  The standards imposed by colonialism need to be revised rather than being normalised. While there is concern that this decolonisation process may require the narrative of violence perpetuated by the colonisers, such as the issue of the burning of paintings in UCT earlier this year, this may be required. While Festivals such as the National Arts Fest do provide artists with the platform for recognition, there is still the perpetuation of colonialism embedded in it.

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