Unpacking Africa’s Intangible Heritage: Aesthetic Africa

I have a sculpture in my living room. A wooden, beautifully defined totem pole-like pair of eagles grappling with a nice portion of wriggly fish. I knew when I first saw it on a dusty street five years ago, car-less and on a budget, that I would do whatever was necessary within legal and financially sound limitations, to make it a part of my home. I am finally convinced. Art is more than just art for art’s sake. It has economic, social, historical and communo-beneficial behavioral change components.

I grew up in a home with no paintings on the wall, although my father was a competitive ballroom dancer and my mother enjoyed making her own clothes, my first contact with any form of art was at school. Even then it should be noted that the Botswana’s government aided secondary schools offer what they term ‘Art, and Design and Technology’, and if my recollection does not fail me, during my school days the classes were certainly not structured but rather more of ‘well this is the play hour for the artsy students, take Plaster of Paris, mould something and hope for a favorable grade’.

As a Motswana I come from a culture embodied in the oral form. Performance is as native to us as the dirt we stand on. This is supported by the variety  of traditional instruments we play, the fact that the bridal party always for instance choreographs a lengthy dance sequence at weddings, and the popularity of traditional poetry, to name but a few.  A culture in which shows such as Russell Simmons Def Poetry or Brave New Voices have emerged themselves in,   to fill an instinctive desire to commune.

Even though performance arts tend to be more accessible to the masses than perhaps specific objects that have especially in the past remained in the preserve of those wealthy enough to purchase them, where Botswana poetry is concerned, the few folks interested in the art-form have begun to question its authenticity, because of the blatant borrowing from, and mimicry of international styles and accents, or garb and content. More like Google meets a suppressed need for expression.

Don’t get me wrong, we also have a sporadically thriving fashion scene; we have the ever-so- often farmer’s market with its man made goods, the occasional gallery showing, the University of Botswana (the main university), which still has no fine arts faculty but is introducing a creative writing degree. There are signs that for us, there is an emerging artistic landscape which however needs to be nurtured and molded with everyone playing their part – as mentors or critics, funders or lovers. The choice is ours either we resolutely support the arts, sometimes in spite of rather than because of, or we resign ourselves to forever being labeled boRrasekanta*.

Beyond the economic value art can simply be for social inquiry or entertainment, or even as a means of expressing imagination. There is a need to redefine African art beyond its tourist related, export focused, and exotic based mould. There is a tendency locally to shy away from discourse around the arts, which coupled with the small buying market, creates the idea that art is not sustainable. Vocabulary specific to art merely makes it convenient for communication, as a sort of industry specific shorthand, but it should never be wielded as a way of keeping anyone out.  If you expose yourself to art in all its diverse forms, with an open mind and still decide it does not spark anything in you, fine. However do not let fear dictate what experiences you have or do not have in this world.

Curiosity is as much a part of the process, as the ability to immediately identify (with) an expression of art. Yet as long as we allow the only examples we have of those practicing art to be non Batswana, by admonishing those who show an interest in it, we will continue to hold steadfast to the belief that (serious/good) art can only be foreign. Art is not a foreign concept; the oldest art objects in the world – a series of small drilled snail shells – were discovered in a cave in South Africa. There is a clear disconnect at least in my part of the world with the appreciation of art as though it were strictly the domain of the educated and cultured high society, ‘dilo tsa makgowa’ belonging to those from over the seas and distinctly not of our shores.

As I write this I am lying down on my living room carpet looking up at my eagles, and they seem to tell a different story.  Art is alive; but it is also mine because it transforms not only the environments it is placed in, but also the people who encounter those objects and each other. It would be a pity for Batswana, and I’m sure many other Africans, to be denied this simply because healthcare, community development and education are much more immediate priorities. Art is anything but exclusionary; it takes the shape of whatever vessel it comes into contact with. Communities that wish to reflect the best and the worst of themselves in order to change behaviors, historians who learn much about our past based on the stories left behind on cave walls and tongues, and the clinically depressed woman down the road who at age fifty has just ‘discovered’ the therapeutic effects of writing poetry, they know the far reaching personal effects of art.

*the masculine term denoting an artistic bum – which assumes no good can come of giving your heart to art.

Tjawangwa Dema is a BLF Guest Author and is a Botswana based spoken word artist. She’s the Chairperson of the Writers Association of Botswana and the Managing Director of SAUTI Arts and Performance Management. She’s a blogger and some of her writings can be found at:www.tjdema.blogspot.com

Guest Author

I am a guest contributor but also an avid reader of this blog.

One Response to Unpacking Africa’s Intangible Heritage: Aesthetic Africa

  1. Thank you for this article Tjawangwa. I really enjoyed reading it; it’s a breath of fresh air. I loved this self affirmation that “As a Motswana I come from a culture embodied in the oral form. Performance is as native to us as the dirt we stand on.” And I would go further to extend it to say that as Africans we are a talking and moving nation. Its always something that has bothered me that often than not we don’t see value in protecting our own, but are always quick to emulate foreign cultures. It really got me thinking. Thank you, very well written!

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