{he}ART of Africa... Stretching the canvas between the UK & Africa!

October 11, 2016

 

"With every experience, you alone are painting your own canvas; thought by thought, choice by choice" Oprah Winfrey.
 

Banksy... Willi Dorner... Gogo Mahlangu... IYASA... What do their styles have in common? Absolutely nothing. That's the beauty of art!! It's personal and gives you an insight into an individual and their very unique experience of this world. No-one's view of life is the same as anyone else's because we see it through our own lens. If you took someone from every continent and asked them to draw a tree, you'd probably have a set of very different trees, coloured by the cultural influences of that person.
 

I posted an update a few months ago about the incredible Zimbabwean artist, Ishumael Mhike, who was paralysed in a vicious robbery in South Africa where he worked as a successful artist. He lost everything including his will to live. There are few more powerful illustrations of art portraying life than of this man's fight to rebuild after such a drastic change in circumstances. Poetically, he now creates beautiful art by recycling rubbish he finds, from cans to scrap metal and wire.

 

Right now, the world is missing out on the rich tapestry of experiences, stories and cultural illustrations of Africa captured in carvings, on canvas or in sculptures by under exposed or under nurtured artists there. Artists like Barry Lungu (whose fantastic work you can see as the cover image), Tashinga, Ishmael Singo and Arlington Muzondo (see below), a sculptor who is currently working in the driveway of people in our neighbourhood in Zimbabwe. The challenge extends beyond just the connectivity between Africa and the rest of the world. It's about mindset too & and positioning of art and artists as a valid and respected career path.

 

Take me for example. I grew up and was educated in Zimbabwe. I was fortunate enough to attend a well renowned private school which offered a pretty impressive extracurricular timetable...apart from the Rounders business. Rounders I could have lived without. Even with an ethos accommodating and (for an all girls, Catholic school) progressive enough to allow me to introduce cricket to the school including training at a boys' school (yes, BOYS!), the curriculum and messaging were very much geared towards traditional career paths.  I was pretty artistic (if I do say so myself!); I wrote, I painted, I sketched and I wasn't too shabby with the performance arts. I even won the odd award for my art and writing.

Despite all that, I cannot remember a single conversation about any career paths that involved art, nor can I think of a single course or institution that was mentioned for development or elevation of my skill to the next level. I had no visibility of any institutions or resources available in arts. I didn't know about any art categories or styles beyond the standard ones, the same with artists. It wasn't viewed as anything that was worth investing in because it's not as if it would lead to a "real" job, right?
 

Do not confine your children to your own learning for they were born in another time” Chinese proverb
 

I've discovered through my research that my story is far from unique as far as the perception of the arts in Africa. I've consulted several artists and been blown away by the sensational art I've seen. Equally, I'm dismayed and frustrated by the lack of exposure of this particular African phenomenon. Gogo Mahlangu is an inspiration! At 80, she's doing so much for the profile of African art and artists in her collaborations with BMW, British Airways and uber stars like John Legend but it's time to step it up.
 

I'm working on {he}ART of Africa, an Africa & UK collaborative Art project through my grass roots social enterprise, Positive Afritude. The project covers all art including sculpting, carving, painting, sketching etc. and performance art. Initially, I'll focus on Zimbabwe because I have the solid contacts to make the model work, build success stories and generate momentum. The goal is to showcase the immense talent in Africa and bring together virtually and in person, artists, students, teachers, galleries, buyers etc. to share knowledge and ideally, facilitate trade in ideas & products. Ironically, my dad's a headmaster (headteacher) and one of the teachers at his school was an expat from the UK whose wife happened to be an artist. My parents paid for me to have sessions with her, and she gave me tips on technique etc., so the UK/Zimbabwe exchange started back then when she gave me my first insight into alternative techniques in my art.

The objective is to take that collaboration to a much bigger level and hold multimedia exhibitions featuring video messages and live video interaction with artists (where infrastructure allows); the events will also include performance art (music, dance) to create an immersive African art experience and environment. Being Zimbabwean (and a wannabe artist), this is all deeply personal to me.
 

Anyone who's been to Africa knows that there are so many skilled artists and craftspeople who rely on sales of their products, many on roadsides or in markets at tourist hot spots. You can see the love and skill in each piece in spite of the hardship many are facing. Social media is starting to create a digital route to market for some, but the majority of artists I spoke to, mothers and grandmothers predominantly, travel insane distances just to make the money to look after their families. A Young Urban Artists Needs Assessment report funded by the British Council in Zimbabwe found that "In Zimbabwe creative spaces have been shown to empower marginalised groups, especially young women". Investment in art is an investment in the future of that under invested demographic, young women.
 

I set up Positive Afritude while I was on maternity leave to provide an online market place for these African products and hopefully, with my Zim based sister and mum, cut out the need for these often treacherous journeys. The economy in Zimbabwe has been crippled; the knock on effect that has had on the tourism industry which supports the arts means people are left quite stranded financially. Disposable income is limited within Zimbabwe because of unprecedented unemployment and hyperinflation thanks to gross mismanagement of the economy by an unapologetic government. I'm hoping{he}ART of Africa will not just be game changing in its own right, but bring additional benefits that will feed into other projects and create the buzz around the online marketplace that will benefit all the people relying on it.


So what's the plan?  The project has a few objectives. The Big 5 (see what I did there? Africa...Big 5... LOL!) are to: 
 

1. Showcase artists who like Gogo Mahlangu, can compete on world stages just by serving up their skills and culture. The plan is to deliver exposure and profile for them and enable a greater cultural awareness through art;

2. Provide an income generation stream for artists and equip them with the knowhow to manage their talent for business benefit;

3. Establish credentials of art as a career option through working with the ministry of education, schools, arts councils etc.;

4. Provide a forum/space for students to learn from and be inspired by artists and tutors through artist profiles, seminars and workshops conducted virtually and in person in partnership with art institutions e.g. inspire Africa's answer to Banksy;

5. Connect businesses/galleries/learning institutions etc. especially those with UK and Africa presence, to artists and enable a knowledge and skills exchange e.g. digital skills sessions offered through consultancy; business modelling; techniques etc. 
 

A proportion of proceeds from exhibitions will be donated to grassroots charities working on the ground with people in African communities in education, maternal health & welfare, youth arts engagement, economic empowerment, gender equality or innovation and infrastructure.
 

We need to open the routes to economic independence without limiting the definition of or pathways to success. Not everyone will be a doctor or lawyer or nurse or teacher, and that's ok. Just ask Whatsapp Founder and CEO Jan Koum. Rather than stifling natural talent, let's open up ways for people to work out of poverty. Why should you care if you're not African? Because less money going to Africa in aid means more staying where it came from. It means greater stability on the continent which opens up opportunities for investment in according to the International Monetary Fund, what will be the world’s second-fastest-growing region in the period to 2020. Also, the world is one big global community now, so it's impossible to think or act like anything but a global citizen of humanity.
 

I've already had some great conversations but I still need more people on board to really make this work. If you're an artist, an organisation with a space that can be turned into a unique gallery, a tutor, a college/university, or anyone with an idea or suggestion or anything that could feed into or support the success of {he}ART of Africa, I'd love to hear from you. Please get in touch! Sponsors of exhibitions are also very welcome so again, do get in touch if this is something that you'd like to support or get involved in.

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