an article written by David Kaiza
on Arterial's creative Economy conference
5-6 December 2011 Nairobi, Kenia
The creative sectors in Africa put more money into the pockets of their citizens than the oil industry does
The meeting of artists and arts managers from across the African continent in Nairobi opened, like any such a multinational meeting might open anywhere in the world since 2009, with the tough reminder that today a cloud of economic uncertainty hangs over nearly all plans.
The global economic crisis permeates and corrodes confidence at a bank boardroom as it does in a hospital, and as experience in the global North has shown, arts and culture are often the first to face the spending axe. In Africa, where governments barely pay attention to the sector and the arts rely on donor funding, uncertainty about the future is even gloomier.
It was unsurprising that the Arterial Network, which connects the arts and cultural sector across the African continent, should have opened with statements expressing this dour mood.
Yet a mood is but one thing: the complex meaning of the Arts and where their place in the socio-economic scheme of things lies produces the mixed picture in which statistics show that what is generally referred to as the Creative Economy, has continued to grow despite the cut-backs; governments in Africa care more about oil, but the creative sectors put more money into the pockets of their citizens.
The Arterial Network, which is the largest and most ambitious network of the Arts in Africa, met in Nairobi Kenya from the 4th to 6th of December under the heading, Conference on the African Creative Economy. The conference drew 140 delegates from 32 countries on the continent along with participants from beyond.
The conference’s atmosphere was reflective of the creative energies that have over the last few years brought a spark of life to the cultural scene on the continent, from the breathtaking success of the Festival of Popular Arts and Amazigh Festival of Music in Morocco, perhaps the largest on the continent, to a glimpse of what the future will look like for African cities should the African Creative Cities project succeed in places like Accra, Ghana, which has started creating a network of cultural centres.
It focused on a range of issues from the economics of culture, the state of the cultural sector in the continent, copyrights, arts management, relationships with donors and the fast growing phenomenon of festivals which one participant said was now reaching the most remote corners of the continent; and as one would have expected, a whiff of Zimbabwean musician, Oliver Mutukuzi on the shores of Lake Malawi.
It focused also on questions about what directions are open to the continent in a time of reducing public funding.
Such an eclectic meeting in the good old economic days would have been a complex interlacing of topics. But the uncertain present lent uniformity of anxiety to the conference:
The times were eloquently summed up by the Director of the GoDown Arts Centre in Nairobi, Joy Mboya, who described the world today as experiencing what she called a “Euro-zone autumn, a Chinese financial summer, an Arab (African) spring” combining into an overall “wintry zeitgeist”.
Doubtless cutbacks and freezing of funds to the Arts in the industrialized West is the most significant, if not for the fact that Europe, for good and for worse, continues to the set trends in how the Arts are run, but because the amounts of support it offers to the arts sectors in poorer countries is most times the most important. The cutbacks have already led a number of organizations to drop the word “culture” from their funding programs and where funding continues, the worry is what the years ahead will bring.
Policy-wise, the economic crisis has not brought change for the art sectors in Africa for whom it is more of the same. Contributions from the majority of African governments to the Arts, with the exception of a few, were already at zero-point before the crisis struck. But business-wise, African artists are already feeling the chilly winds. Ticket sales are reducing, the increase in piracy as a public hard-pressed for money opt to buy pirated copies of music and films rather than the legitimate ones.
Coupled with tighter funding regimes from the cultural institutions from the rich north that for many on the continent’s cities formed the core of cultural activities, the crisis, outside of local policy, is real enough.
These tremors are making themselves felt in the debates surrounding the meaning of arts and culture and how they fit into the broader economies of exchange value. It would seem that in times of cut-backs in public expenditure, pressure exists for the Arts to translate directly the values of what they do into the language of hard economics, a language in keeping with the developmentalist ethos which not only oversimplifies the Arts, but perhaps also limits the meaning of development.
Hence, African players in the Arts are constantly worrying about what role they are seen to be playing, whether the Arts merely serenade the elite, take resources away from the pressing needs of socio-economic development or whether what they produce has contents relevant to perceived needs of their societies.
On top of these worries, the case remains that in the scheme of things Creative Economics, Africa lags behind the rest of the world. Music, publishing, new media and design are big generators of income. But these continue to be dominated by European, North American and the Japanese economy.
Participants at the conference noted wryly that while music would seem a pat, competitive advantage to Africa, the fact is that global trade in music is dominated 90 per cent by the rich West, which also takes up 80 per cent of the trade in published material, according to figures from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad).
At only 50 % dominance of New Media and design by the West, Africa might seem to be in with a chance. But Africa belongs in the seemingly inadequate definition of developing countries. Almost half of all trade in creative goods from developing countries originates from China, a larger portion of the rest shared among a string of countries in South East Asia.
Crisis; what crisis?
Government uncertainty about the value of creativity is matched by what Joy Mboya called “resilience” in the sector, growing, according to Unctad, by 14 per cent from 2003 to 2008.
If statistics alone were adequate measure of things, the crisis seems to have bypassed creative sectors.
Even in Africa, the resilience registers, meaning that the arguments by the Arts - that it contributes to economic growth and development - are not mere campaign rhetoric.
As an example, according to Tom Porter, the Director of the Lake of Stars Festival, a festival of music, in Malawi, the event was able to demonstrate that the economic gains of a few musicians playing to an audience in the evening for a few days stimulated expenditure, both local and international, more than 10 times the sum invested in the festival itself. With a minimum funding of about $75,000 in funding, the festival stimulated, in 2011, expenditure estimated at $1.6 million.
The powerful presence of the Nigerian film industry continues to be an inspiration for the continent. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Hollywood and the Indian film industry, despite, perhaps because of, finding creating ways of operating with low budgets, “Nollywood” is said to employ more Nigerians than the country’s oil industry.
The knowledge of what values the arts generate, is perhaps the main driver behind the commitment of artists and arts managers. As founder and Director of the Bayimba Festival held annually in Uganda, Faisal Kiwewa observed, it is equally important to look at the social and cultural values of the arts. It was an observation echoed by several speakers at the conference.
Mike van Graan, the Arterial Secretary General said that the ends of arts and culture should not be economic growth and development, but human rights and freedom.
This dramatic juxtaposition has the appearance of staking out extreme poles of philosophies for which way the arts ought to go, but none can be achieved unless the Arts are run well in the first place.
What value the Arts in Africa can contribute still needs public support in terms of copyright regulation, improvement in marketing and distribution, training and protection.