Bart Luirink is editor-in-chief of ZAM Africa Magazine.

Bart Luirink: Fishy art

September 2009 -

The question was whether I ever give a book by an African author as a gift? My colleague asked it in passing, adding that she never did. She could never get enough of African authors like Achebe, Adichie or Dow, but didn't want to be known for that. "People think you give a book like that because you feel some need to change how people think about Africa. Or because you want to make them aware of something important." I agreed with her: that was exactly the reason why I usually gave something by Philip Roth or J.M. Coetzee, because they aren't as intense, as a gift (but no, not Stieg Larsson: everybody already has him). Zakes Mda and Chika Unigwe were my private treasures. I'm not a missionary! Books from or about Africa are read for a reason, one that often has nothing to do with the beauty of the language or the composition of the story. To the same extent, a lot of well-intended junk has been sold as art in recent decades in order to help those making it. Take a look up in your attic: you'll probably find a few examples. Ugly as sin, but buying it made you feel good.

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Bart Luirink

Late last year the Johannesburg Art Gallery devoted an exposition to Thami Mnyele. The life story of the young author, who was killed in the mid-1980s by South African death squads, had once been a topic that I researched. Mnyele participated in a conference held in Amsterdam in 1983 about the role culture could play in the struggle for liberation. Just before his departure, his host took him at his own request to the Rijksmuseum. He wanted to see The Mother by Rembrandt. In the previous days he had fantasised about a sabbatical during which, far from his home land, he could devote his time to developing his artisanship. Back in Gaborone, where he lived in exile, the wrestling match that must have played through Mnyele's mind came to an end with the struggle as victor. He reported to an ANC military base in one of South Africa's neighbouring countries.

In the exposition, that wrestling match had been polished away, out of the history of the young and talented artist. What was more: Mnyele had opted for the ultimate engagement while others had detoured and devoted themselves to their artisanship, according to one of the display texts. Was the curator attempting to say that Mnyele's importance to South Africa was therefore greater than that of Gerald Sekoto, or Dumile Feni, who came into full bloom in Paris and New York? If so, he was short-changing not only Sekoto and Feni, whose influence on South African visual art may not be underestimated, but Mnyele as well, who had debated with himself with a fury, hesitating between the Mother and the Struggle, ultimately making a different choice than his professional colleagues.

In the early 1990s, the South African legal practitioner Albie Sachs stood on the barricades for open-minded art. The ANC member had had enough of the clenched fists and strong language that had bben characterising paintings and fighting songs. Sachs believed that now that his country had freed itself of apartheid, artists should also remove the corsets into which they had bound themselves - or been bound. Herald the beauty of Table Mountain, embrace the love in your work, do as you like, was what Sachs was basically saying. The importance of his call to the fore should not be underestimated. In exile Sachs had experienced how painters, poets and singers in other African countries paid lip service to post-colonial ideals. In essence they helped to construct the new state of unity, they fed their readers, listeners and watchers, reflecting and putting into words the aspirations of the struggle for independence. Useful? Undoubtedly. Boring? Absolutely. That South African artists understood what Sachs was saying is proven by the exposition that the lawyer himself organised after being appointed as judge with the Constitutional Court. In the reception area of the new hall of justice, the work of the fine fleur of South African visual arts is on display. For the record, Sekoto and Feni can be seen there as well.

In the meantime, signs can be seen of an artistic Renaissance in many African countries. A new generation of authors are attracting attention, especially in Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Galleries are being opened and in some countries, like Angola or Sudan, a domestic market is even growing for visual art. Festivals, galleries and fairs are multiplying as fast as rabbits. This is the result of economic growth, continental cultural networking between players in the artistic sector, international interaction and a trail-blazing role by innumerable African artists in the Diaspora. Above all, however, it is the result of the quality that characterises the artistic products available. There is certainly no lack of social involvement, but the difference with the past is that much of the work is the fruit of efforts by free, daring and difficult minds.

This gives rise to the question of whether we, as Westerners, can really handle so much candid beauty. When you step into a bookshop and take a really good look at the newest releases from or about Africa, you understand that we still have a long road ahead. Victim literature - call it viclit – is strongly overrepresented. The press release accompanying the Dutch translation of Long Road by African author Bruce Cerew, for example, includes the following: ‘At the age of twelve Ray decides to run away from his violent father, family and country of birth, to leave them behind and never come back. He ends up in Nigeria, where he believes he will find peace and quiet. When war erupts there as well, he is once again forced to flee for his life, ending up in Sierra Leone. He attempts to build a new life for himself there, but is again confronted with the atrocities of a beginning war and must flee for his life yet again. Ray flees with hundreds of others from the African shores, but few reach their destination. Many die in the scorched desert, others fall victim to sharks, in search of freedom and peace." And so it continues. Ray finally lands in a refugee centre in the Netherlands, where he is subjected to "physical deprivation" and "mental torture".

Sierra Leonean author Aminatta Forna sighed deeply when I asked her over a year ago to explain the success of viclit. During the Kwani! Litfest in Nairobi, we had just listened to Ishmael Beah, who had been transformed from a child soldier into an agent of change: "You can do it if you only want to". "The general public is screaming for it. Publishers want to publish other books, but Western readers are pining for a context filled with war, illness and hunger", Forna answered, irritated by the fact that many books from and about Africa are literally dreadful. But even the Kenyan public was lapping up Beah's well-rehearsed one-liners. The book being used to market a good cause. It need not be surprising that one of the organisations that works for the cause of child soldiers was also involved in promoting Cewes' Long Road. As puppetry is used in the struggle against aids and folk dancing against female circumcision.

There is nothing wrong with all that, as long as activities of this type are not confused with the actual practice of the profession of artist. For a growing number of members of that professional group have since discarded their robes of subservience. The creation of free and open societies, filled with critically-thinking individuals will certainly be served by that fact.