Writing Art History Since 2002

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ARTsouthAFRICA spoke to Mike van Graan, the Executive Director of the Cape Town-based African Arts Institute (AFAI), whose mission is to help develop leadership for Africa’s creative sector and to build regional markets for African artists and their creative works. He shares his views on Arts and Culture across the continent, and the importance of collaboration and trust.
Photo courtesy of Mike van Graan
Mike van Graan was the founding Secretary General of Arterial Network, a pan-African network of artists, cultural activists, creative enterprises, and others engaged in the African creative sector and its contribution to human rights, democracy, and development. He served as a Technical Expert on UNESCO’s 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.  He is the Associate Playwright of Artscape, a state-subsidised theatre in South Africa, and has garnered a number of awards for his plays that interrogate the post-apartheid condition. As Secretary General of the National Arts Coalition, Van Graan served as a Special Advisor on cultural policy to the first minister responsible for arts and culture after the 1994 elections.
Mike van Graan on Africa’s challenges 
The first step is to develop leadership for Africa’s creative sector. So many people think that the primary challenge on the continent for the arts is funding, but I think that the primary challenge is leadership. If you have great leadership, you can come up with the vision and the strategies that will then attract funding. 
…on the African Arts Institute (AFAI)
What we (the African Arts Institute) try to do is develop South African markets for African artists and their creative goods and services. We do things like show movies made by African film makers on a monthly basis, we bring African performers down to the National Arts Festival, we introduce African literature to local markets by bringing writers to the Franshoek Literary Festival, and so on. We talk about African visual arts. We haven’t done too much of that this year, but we are getting people to do slideshows on who the latest people are in Kenya or Senegal or whatever in terms of the visual arts. 
… on African perspectives
So much of what we tend to embrace comes form the global north, depending on what their conditions are. We take them on because of a lack of resources, because their themes come to us with resources attached to them, and therefore we embrace them, generally uncritically. What we’re trying to do is say, “Let’s come up with some self-respect, or at least an African perspective on these themes, let’s whether they actually mean anything for us at all.” By not being players on the global stage (with regard to our films, our literature, etc), we are not there projecting our ideas and our values. 
… on Arts and Culture across the continent
Many of our governments have this kind of anti-colonial ethos because of the history of colonialism on our continent, but, just the same, there’s a complete lack of recognition about the way colonialism works now, which is through the exercise of soft power, through the spread of ideas, the use of language. This is why the Goethe-Institut, the British Council, and the French Institute in particular are pretty major players in terms of projecting their cultural values and their ideas within our spaces. At the same time, if it weren’t for those organisations, many arts and culture practitioners in Africa wouldn’t be able to survive. It’s one of those catch-22 things, those of those very big ambivalences. It’s why we, as the Arterial Network, came into being; in order to engage with them and begin to influence their policies so that, as opposed to them formulating policies which are then introduced to us and we simply embrace them and take them on, we can develop a awareness of their policies and critically engage with them.
… on conferences
Although conferencing is tiring and it’s not necessarily the most exciting thing, it is important. If policies that affect us in Africa are being formulated elsewhere, we need to be there. 
.. on Africa’s lack of confidence
I think that it’s a kind of a metaphor for so much of what happens on this continent. We sign up to things because they come with resources, or it’s in the interests of wealthier countries to have us support them in their fight against each other or the U.S. or whatever, and, once we’ve signed up, we don’t know what it actually means for us, or how we can leverage those documents to change the conditions for artists, or to hold accountable those folk from the global north who have signed up to those documents. I think lot of the time we go and make up the numbers, but then we sit there with closed mouths because we don’t really know and we aren’t confident enough. 
… on audiences
Everything you want should be in the public domain. It’s not about people coming to an exhibition or going to a theatre; art must be where people are.
… on collaboration and trust
It’s about building partnerships and building trust. If people trust you and they recognise and accept your bona fides, then you can do a lot. In South Africa, people who are white are constantly questioned about their motives, and race always comes into it as a major thing, whereas, in Africa, that’s not an issue at all. It’s about, “Can you help us, can you serve us, and can we trust you?” and that’s the basis upon which a relationship happens. 
… on the gap between North and South Africa
We see the continent as a whole… Looking at the UNTAD report (the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), I always use this famous example of theirs that, in the African economy, less than 1% is the creative field. Africa’s share of the global creative economy is less than 1%! But, of that 1%, South Africa and North African countries are the major contributors, so there’s this huge gap between North Africa and South Africa in a way. 
… on Africa’s diversity
Look, I’ve always said the whole notion of ‘African this’ and ‘African that’ is just such a misnomer, because Africa is such a diverse place. Africa is not a country. And it works two ways. On the one hand there’s this notion about African solidarity and African-ness, and yet, on the other, there’s incredible competition within Africa and there’s incredible diversity… So it’s a very nuanced, varied continent. There are some trends and strands, but to come up with “the solution for Africa” is just a no-no. 
… on African art
Similarly then, what is “African Art”? It varies from country to country. Even from within our own country; what is South African art? It’s diverse, and that’s what needs to be celebrated…. and I think it’s more about art from Africa as opposed to African art. It might just be a matter of semantics. 
… on setting the agenda
It’s just about recognising that there is variety, and it’s also about who’s setting the agenda and who’s making the calls on what it is. Until now, it’s been the global north, or people from Africa based in the global north, or Western institutions that are making the definitions and doing the academic work around it.


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