Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Presentation to the Protest Art International Festival (PAIF),Civil Society, Protest Arts and Culture: Past, Present and Future in Africa and Beyond’

Civil Society, Protest Arts and Culture: Past, Present and Future in Africa and Beyond’
Sub-Title: The New and Urgent Necessity of a Creative, relevant and organic form of Protest Art in Africa and Beyond.
Presentation to the Protest Art International Festival (PAIF), Monomotapa Crowne Plaza, Harare, Zimbabwe, October 27 2011.

By Takura Zhangazha, Executive Director,
Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe.
Website address www.vmcz.co.zw; email: director@vmcz.co.zw; facebook username; TakuraZ; personal email: kuurayiwa@gmail.com;

The Organisers of the 2011 Protest Art International Festival,
The Board Chairperson of Savanna Trust,
Representatives of the Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture,
Representatives from the National Arts Council,
Artists Groups and Artists Organisations,
Journalists and Media Organisations,
Civil Society Representatives,
Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Ladies and Gentlemen, Artistes, Comrades and Friends,
Let me begin by expressing my profound gratitude to the organizers of this important festival for inviting me to give a presentation despite the fact that I am not a Minister of Government or a representative of a state body established either by an Act of Parliament or a statutory instrument. As the programme suggests, I am the Executive Director of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ), which is a media self regulatory body that has been in existence since 2007. Its primary function is to promote the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and access to information through implementing and promoting media self regulation. This is done through the VMCZ Media Code of Conduct as well as a Media Complaints Committee.  Since it is the general trend amongst contemporary artistes to be internet savvy, details of our work as well as our constitution can be found on our website www.vmcz.co.zw

In my correspondence with the organizers of PAIF, I was informed that this year’s theme is ‘Civil Society, Protest  Arts and Culture, Past Present and Future in Africa and Beyond’  I will try to address the same theme in my presentation, with a deliberate focus on art and artists in relation to cultural hegemony, democratization and struggles for identity as well as social and economic justice.

The nature of art is such that it is generally an enacted, written, drawn and even lyrically composed re-representation of society and societal issues in a manner that is creative, relevant and organic. The definition of creativity, like that of beauty generally tends to be in the eye of the beholder, that of relevance is straightforward though at times it can be politicized, and that of being organic is perhaps the most important. This is because the term organic, generally derived from a great Italian thinker, Antonio Gramsci, refers to the sum total of the individual or social activist who is firmly rooted in democratic  ideological grounding and understands the counter-hegemonic imperative of his or her work. And in this definition, I have added another fairly complex and often misunderstood term, that of hegemony, which refers to,  if one were to use Gramsci’s poignant analysis, the maintenance of cultural domination of one group over another through systematic cultural production of the state and its societal meaning while inducing continued subservience of the dominated group. Counter hegemony would therefore refer to a resistance(and in Gramsci's instance, 'socialist' ) cultural struggle against singular dominance of society by a group that is not there to serve the democratic interests of the entirety of the society. 

Because the name of this festival is Protest Arts International Festival, its very name suggests a ‘struggle’ against cultural and other forms of undemocratic dominance. Based on my interactions with the organizers, I understand that this struggle is a struggle that is rooted in the pursuit of democracy, human rights, the rule of law and social and economic justice. It is also safe to surmise that this festival, is therefore a meeting of minds (from civil society, the arts, Africa and Beyond) that are conscious of the challenges of a world in which a contrary hegemonic agendas to a democratic one exists, and a world in which we must consistently seek to challenge these contrary dictatorial hegemonic agendas via important artistic forums and festivals such as this one.  

It is therefore important that from the start we delineate why exactly it is we, or anyone else for that matter, are engaged in protest art. This is because protest, cannot be protest for its own sake. It must be grounded in meaning that reflects the aspirations, realities and contexts of people’s everyday lives. And when I refer to context I am no limiting my argument to the political contexts alone but the broad economic, social, gender and youth spectrum of all of our respective societies.

Furthermore, protest art eventually ends up influencing political processes in so far it is reflective of the concerns of a population, and in the process influences policy makers, public opinion as well as collective national, continental or even, in the aftermath of even the Occupy Wall Street Movements and the demonstrations by our African colleagues in Tunisia and Eygpt, global futures. 

In this sense therefore, we must be clear in our minds that in seeking to undertake protest art in its various forms (music, painting, drama, media products, the internet) we must be representing a creative, relevant and organic art form in order to influence the arrival of our societies to full democracies that are people centered and social welfarist. 

This is particularly so in Africa, where the protest art form is not necessarily a new development, but one that when it has emerged, tends to be hijacked by elitist political processes. I argue this way in the sense that the evolution of protest art is as old as the emergence of colonialism on our continent,  via all of the tales told by our forebears’ at the rural fire hearth through to our urbanization processes where via our burial societies, dancing clubs, choirs, drama groups we learnt new methods of how to use art as a means of resistance. This was in terms of either literal, subtle and abstract protest art.

This protest art  was not however purely African, because as you might be aware, there is no longer, if there ever was, any such thing as purely African art. Due to the same processes of colonialism and the expansion of globalization,  African art forms have been borrowed from as much as they have also borrowed from others across the world. They have negotiated new forms of representation, interacted with new forms of technology, for example, they have tried to catch up with Hollywood, Bollywood and dominant genres of music such as the digitalized versions of Rhythms and Blues.  This mutation of the African Art form was and is as welcome as it is inevitable , but all the same, we now have to negotiate for the retention of components that are uniquely African from an informed perspective. 

This negotiation must begin from understanding the three tenets I have outlined in my introduction, creativity, relevance and organic linkages. 

To be specific, by creativity I mean that the art form must not subject itself to self censorship either by way of fear of controversial ideas, politics or falling out of favour with business or with donors. This creativity is that which resides and defines the talent of the artist, that makes her/him particularly unique in the manner of their work. Sometimes this creativity comes with its own specific ideological and historical baggage, but all the same it must reflect the true fulcrum expression of the artists creative intentions. I can give examples of the creative artists that I have come across either by way of reading, watching of listening to their works but  it is adequate that we speak as generally and without passing contested judgment on the works of artistes here present who have their own role models.
By relevance, please take it to mean that the protest artist must serve to motivate public knowledge and engagement on any of their particular artistic concerns and in the broader societal pursuit of freedom of expression and access to information is in its widest possible democratic definition. This is to say, whereas relevance is determined by particularly topical issues in any given society, for example and in Zimbabwe’s case the policy of indigenization of the economy, the artist must not seek relevance that is inimical to the enjoyment of freedom of expression by deliberately becoming a part of what can potentially be a propaganda apparatus intended to stifle further public debate and knowledge on any particular societal matter or issue.
Whereas art and being an artist should be recognized as a profession and indeed be duly remunerated at commercial rates and by professional standards, it is imperative that the artistes understand that one of the fundamental predication of their work is the public enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and access to information. Once this is understood and a voluntary agreement by artists and for artists on codes of conduct are established then can there be latitude for the artist to participate in assisting particular organizations, political or otherwise  carry forward their messages for commercial payment. If we do not recognize the principle that our work in protest art is based on the need to maximize the public enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression as well as that of access to information, then we are not relevant or creative. Without such a premise, the artist is irrelevant to the societal good, because they begin to serve more the needs of she who pays the piper and who therefore also calls the tune.

The third and final point, is that of the organic artist and in part organic art. This necessary characteristic which must be viewed in Gramscian terms is that which reflects a necessary consciousness of the unfairness of the current global media and artistic hegemony that seeks to tell more one side of the story than a story based on commitment to the truth, recognition of diversity  or to the principle of freedom of expression as outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To be particular and relevant, I must emphasize that it is increasingly Africa that is the victim of this hegemonic intention, wherein, the very welcome expansion of information communication technologies may easily be a tool to re-invent the African in the image of the other as opposed to sharing a collective understanding of our equal global humanity.   

The organic protest artist must be conscious of this reality and actively seek to create a counter-hegemony that is characterized  by a commitment to universal democratic principle, a understanding of art as one of the last vestiges of common identity of many African peoples, an understanding of the utility of the continually expanding ICTs in promoting African art in all of its forms and the realization that the art, artist are agents of progressive,  democratic, social and economic justice, cultural diversity and broad societal transformation. Without these people-centered values, art would cease to either be creative, relevant or organic.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Comrades and Friends, Thank you for this time you have afforded me.