Saturday, December 26, 2009

End of Aids denial era a chance to move forward

Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, photo credits: Mail and Guardian

Much has been written in the press recently about the death of South Africa’s former health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. Some of these reports pull no punches in highlighting the devastating role of the former health minister in buttressing former President Mbeki’s AIDS denialism. A recent Harvard University study found that the former President’s AIDS denialism was responsible for 350 000 deaths. In addition to this tragic loss of life, there were other less visible casualties. In particular, the polarised character of the politics of AIDS science during the Mbeki-era stymied open and constructive debate about how to tackle the pandemic.

The story of AIDS treatment in South Africa has been widely portrayed as a heroic David and Goliath struggle in which activists were pitted against the might of the state and the global pharmaceutical industry. But of course this is not the only way in which the AID treatment story in South Africa has been, or can be, narrated. Over the past decade, AIDS debates became highly polarised resulting in the emergence of sharply divided camps. During the height of these contestations over AIDS science it was very difficult to debate the merits of a range of issues including traditional healing, nutrition, diet, HIV prevention, ARV side-effects, and drug resistance, without risking being slotted into the pro-Mbeki AIDS dissident camp. Mere discussions of the relationship between HIV, nutrition and poverty provoked suspicion in some AIDS activist quarters. Even support for the government’s promotion of HIV prevention programmes was at times questioned by activists for diverting attention away from grassroots struggles for ARVs. In this highly charged political environment, there was little room for open debate and difference. Mark Gevisser’s empathetic biography of former President Mbeki, for example, was read by some AIDS activists as veering dangerously towards becoming an apologia for Mbeki’s brand of AIDS denialism. Didier Fassin’s (2008) even more empathetic reading of Mbeki’s “AIDS talk” in When Bodies Remember received a particularly hostile response from South African AIDS activists, health practitioners and academics.

The radical polarisation of AIDS positions and rhetorics was to be expected given the devastating reality of the AIDS crisis and the former President’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge the desperate need for antiretroviral therapy within the public health system. It was therefore perhaps hardly surprising that very clear lines were drawn and policed between various positions in AIDS debates during the Mbeki era. Of course similar polarising processes have surfaced in the course of contentious public debates on issues such as global climate change and nuclear energy.

Much has been written about the twists and turns in the politics of AIDS treatment in South Africa. Yet, most of these accounts have conformed to a David and Goliath narrative in terms of which heroic AIDS activists successfully fought against the might of the South African State and the global pharmaceutical industry. These accounts generally assume that activists were absolutely correct in claiming that ART is a financially viable, ethically principled, and scientifically proven biomedical technology whose successful implementation simply needed a cheaper drug pricing structure and the political will from donors and governments. There is very little ambiguity and contextual specificity in these accounts.

Sceptics and opponents of ART are described in these accounts as advocates of irrational arguments and pseudo-science. Some AIDS dissidents and denialists such as former President Mbeki and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang are even accused of complicity in genocide by activists and politicians. Borrowing liberally from anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist rhetoric, the dissidents argued that the profiteering pharmaceutical industry in the West was promoting AIDS drugs in order to exploit Third World markets. TAC activists featured in these dissident accounts as unscrupulous salespersons for the pharmaceutical industry. The dissidents also questioned the efficacy and safety of antiretrovirals, and instead promoted the efficacy of traditional medicines, nutrition, special diets (e.g., olive oil, garlic, African potatoes) and vitamins.

One of the costs of the “dissident debate” was that any questioning of AIDS orthodoxy of any sort was deemed to be complicit with AIDS denialism and dissident science. These highly polemical and politically charged contestations between activists and “dissidents” dominated the headlines, and contributed towards the radical hardening of the boundaries between positions on HIV. This resulted in the production of a stark divide between what was considered “proper science” and “pseudoscience.”

Even questions raised about cultural, logistical, financial and human resource obstacles to ARV rollout were labeled by some militant activists as examples of pro-Mbeki denialist thinking. Within the framework of these “epistemic wars” there was not much room to examine the complexities and nuances of health system realities and constraints.

During the height of these AIDS science wars, a small group of public health practitioners and health systems researchers argued that although the Khayelitsha pilot may have been located in a resource-poor urban community, the actual ART programme was very “resource-intensive.” They pointed out that the Khayelitsha programme benefited from massive donor funding and was supported by the well-resourced city and provincial departments of health. In addition, the MSF programme was driven by committed and highly skilled MSF clinicians, nurses, and activists. Due to its location, the Khayelitsha pilot was also able to attract clinicians and researchers from Cape Town’s academic hospitals and schools of medicine and public health. In other words, these public health pragmatists argued that, notwithstanding the successful treatment outcomes at Khayelitsha, the MSF model was exceptional, and was not easily replicable in typical rural African settings. These health systems practitioners were criticised by activists for claiming that it would be extremely difficult to replicate the MSF model in provinces that were less well resourced and burdened with dysfunctional health systems.

Cultural arguments were also deployed by some sceptics to highlight numerous barriers to testing and treatment. One of the most sophisticated of these arguments appears in Jonny Steinberg’s much acclaimed book on the reasons why a young man Steinberg got to know persistently refused to test for HIV even though he was very familiar with issues relating to HIV and treatment, and he lived close to the MSF treatment site in Lusikisiki. Steinberg’s book offers numerous cultural, social and psychological reasons for the man’s reluctance to test. For some activists, however, studies that emphasised cultural obstacles to treatment were regarded as providing an alibi for not fighting AIDS and providing treatment. As one of the TAC veteran activists told me, the aim of the TAC was to instil scientific ways of seeing the world and to rid South Africans of backward superstitions.
While the AIDS dissident arguments of Mbeki and Rath could be discounted by the activists on the basis of credible scientific studies, it was not so easy to dismiss the observations of Steinberg and others regarding the cultural, social and psychological obstacles to HIV testing and treatment in many parts of South Africa. It was even more difficult to dismiss the claims of public health experts on the extensive challenges of ART provision in the public health systems in South Africa’s poorer provinces.
The response from MSF, together with its TAC partners, was to start up a treatment programme in Lusikisiki, an impoverished rural area in the Eastern Cape Province. This programme sought to prove to sceptics that it was indeed possible to replicate the successful Khayelitsha programme in resource-poor rural settings. As in Khayelitsha, MSF developed a decentralized, people-centred, and nurse-driven approach to ART that was based on primary health care principles and practices, rather than relying on doctors and vertical, hospital-based treatment programmes. Studies of treatment outcomes at Lusikisiki demonstrated that it was indeed possible to have successful ART programmes in resource-poor rural settings.

Whereas the MSF programme in Khayelitsha was well-resourced and had a vibrant AIDS activist movement at its disposal, in Lusikisiki it was much more difficult to mobilize and there were countless social, economic and cultural obstacles to the promotion of HIV prevention, testing and treatment literacy. Activists in the rural villages of Lusikisiki District encountered numerous barriers to their biomedical messages, and alternative conceptions of illness, beliefs in witchcraft, and AIDS stigma and denial seemed much more entrenched in these rural settings. The health systems skeptics were clearly not far off the mark when they identified a litany of constraints and challenges for ARV rollout in the more resource-poor rural provinces.

Throughout the Mbeki period, and up until the present, a number of public health practitioners and academics managed to straddle the scientific and ideological divides that separated activist and health systems approaches. These practitioners and researchers provided pragmatically oriented health policy studies that identified the challenges of scaling-up treatment in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa. These studies highlighted health systems concerns that tended to be bracketed out of the activist frame during the “AIDS science wars”. These challenges to ARV rollout included the growing caseload of people to be maintained on long-term ART; problems of shortage and skewed distribution in the health workforce; and the heavy workload of ART delivery models. Similarly, researchers have called for a strengthening of health systems in order to address the challenges of scaling up access to treatment in contexts characterised by ineffective health systems. They also identified human resource challenges that included inadequate supply, poor distribution, low remuneration and accelerated migration of skilled health workers. Clearly, ART is much more complicated than activists implied during the Mbeki-era contestations over AIDS science. At the same time, the fact that 700 000 South Africans are now on ARVs in the public health system, suggests that the activists were not entirely unrealistic in their expectations.

In the post-Mbeki period activists have reinvented their agenda by moving from protests and litigation to an active involvement with health policy and health systems. TAC has added to its repertoire of strategies, the production of policy briefs on various topics including the disability grant for people living with HIV, male circumcision, and the National Strategic Plan for HIV treatment. The organisation has also become directly involved in HIV prevention programmes and the rollout of condoms, the training of community health advocates, and campaigns against gender-based violence. Clearly, the Zuma Administration’s orthodox position on HIV has allowed for a shift away from the polarisation and discursive policing of the Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang period. What it also offers is the possibility of critical reflection on the ways in which contestations over scientific truth unfold under particular historical conditions.

In summary, AIDS activists undoubtedly played a highly constructive role in the fight against AIDS. By contrast, the AIDS denialism and dissident positions of former President Mbeki and his health minister were extremely destructive and contributed towards much suffering and loss of life. Another less obvious consequence of the AIDS science battles elicited by Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang was the polarization of debate around HIV, which in turn obscured the complexity of treatment provision and adversely impacted upon efforts to address such issues as HIV prevention, drug resistance and the numerous other challenges of the pandemic. Fortunately, the end of Mbeki era of AIDS denialism has created the conditions for responses that do take these challenges and complexities seriously.

Steven Robins,
First published in the Cape Times, 24th December, 2009

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Re-Negotiating the Terms of Contemporary African Art: a reply to Professor Achille Mbembe

In his stimulating discussion “African contemporary art: Negotiating the terms of recognition,” posted to the JWTC Blog on September 8, Professor Mbembe is especially critical of the pernicious influence that Western-funded ‘development’ projects have had on the arts of the African continent. Although acutely aware of the equally baneful influence of the commercialization and privatization of all forms of civic life in the global economy, he singles out development as the primary threat to the continued growth of a vital African culture. I would like to critique his admittedly powerful argument with reference to a recent University of the Witswatersrand doctoral thesis, “Agency, Imagination and Resilience: Facilitating Social Change through the Visual Arts in South Africa” (2009), by artist and activist, Kim Berman.

In his lively conversation with consultant Vivian Paulissen, Mbembe refers to an ongoing collusion between African governments and Western funding agencies in promoting an anachronistic idea of development that lines the pockets of the functionaries while making very little dent in the very real problems of poverty. The so-called ‘humanitarian impulse’ in these (unnamed) development projects is in his view a “vicious ideology that promotes a view of Africa as a… doomed and hopeless continent waiting to be rescued and ‘saved’ by the new army of Western good Samaritans.” According to his argument, these powerful agencies conceive ‘development’ in narrowly materialistic terms, and so are blind to “cultural and artistic critique as a public good in and of itself.” The deplorable result “…is a tendency to conflate African art, culture and aesthetics with ethnicity or community or communalism; to deny the power of individuality in the work of art creation.” And he concludes, “…the function of art in Africa is precisely to free us from the shackles of development both as an ideology and as a practice.” [his italics]. I worry about prescribing any function for artistic practice, but also cannot agree with the basis of this assertion.

In my own view, the commercialism of the international art system of dealers and museums is far more of a threat to the future of the creative arts in Africa, and “the power of individuality in the work of art creation,” than the ideology of development. Despite the supposed success of the Africa Remix exhibition, which only came to Africa (Johannesburg) as the result of a last-minute effort, the work selected for that exhibit fit neatly into the well-established parameters of contemporary avant-garde practice. Although much contemporary art commands respect, all too many artists use technologically-based media to formulate a few sly references to their ethnicities or cultures, without presenting any real challenge to the viewers’ preconceptions or expanding their limited understanding. Whether from the BRIC countries or the Middle East or Africa, the individual creative artist makes work that can be ‘knowingly’ selected for exhibition, and accepted/purchased by a Western viewer. And, despite the very real differences in the contexts from which the artists make work, the art presents a homogenous facade, as a glance through catalogues of non-Western contemporary art will confirm. The discouraging visual uniformity of international avant-garde art production is a direct result of commercialism is therefore a direct refutation of the capitalist-based idea of art as individual expression. If they wish to be regularly included in international exhibitions, contemporary artists must make works that can sell. I suspect that work that truly challenges Western assumptions about a given non-Western region never makes the scene.

Maintaining an art-craft distinction that makes little sense in the South African context at least, Prof. Mbembe argues that “…without a major investment in critical theory, our artistic production will remain in the domain of artisanship. And it will always be left to others to dictate the intellectual, theoretical and political terms of its recognition in the international arena.” Admittedly, I am an outsider, but having taught at various South African universities over the course of the past decade, I have been consistently impressed with the uniformly high standard of academic discourse there. It seems to me that theoretically-based research is both firmly-established and well-supported, as exemplified by the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research (WISER) and the newly-established research Centre, Visual Identities in Art and Design (VIAD) at the University of Johannesburg. In fact, I would argue that critical theory is so well articulated and taught in universities in South Africa that, as in the West since the 1980s, much of creative art production dutifully illustrates theory, to its own detriment. Critical theory is neither a panacea nor a bogeyman. It is only problematic when teamed with commercialism and used by artists as a sign for a hip product.

The question that should be asked is whether critical theory has been tested on the ground through practice-based, ‘development’ projects, and if so, whether or not it has generated new knowledge and models for rethinking notions of creativity. Again, I would cite Berman’s thesis as evidence that it has, yet neither of the recent books on contemporary African or South African art give so much as a nod to the innovative community arts projects operating throughout the continent. (see: Sue Williamson, South African Art Now [New York, Collins Design, 2009]; Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu, Contemporary African Art Since 1980 [Bologna: Damiani, 2009]).

But to return once again to the nub of my argument, communalism or ‘lumpen-radicalism’ is not the problem, commercialism is. I would argue that the picture Prof. Mbembe paints of ‘development,’ which is based on his own negative experiences, fails to take into adequate account current approaches to the field. As he certainly knows, ‘development’ has changed quite radically as a result of influential theorists such as Arjun Appadurai and Amartya Sen, as well as the tireless work of artist-activists on the ground in South Africa and elsewhere. Although government policies and procedures justifiably remain open to criticism, the results of these numerous initiatives for the most part have demonstrated that community arts projects have provided its participants with the capacity to “inscribe our voice,” as Mbembe so eloquently phrases it. Unfortunately, despite the vitality of the field of development theory, relatively few community arts projects have been given sustained academic analysis. Contributing to this nascent field, Berman’s thesis places the three major ‘development’ projects she has founded over the past fifteen years—Artist Proof Studio, Paper Prayers for Aids Awareness, and the Phumani Hand-Papermaking Project—in the context of critical, educational and development theory, and demonstrates that individual and collective creativity need not be at odds, but rather can reinforce one another. Rather than attempting to paraphrase, I can do no better than to quote the first paragraph of the first chapter in its entirety:

“The argument that the visual arts can play a positive role in creating social change is based on the premise that a creative collaboration between the community arts and development fields is possible. This thesis argues for a paradigm shift in approaching development in a way that an art educator approaches the facilitation of an artist’s personal and creative growth. Dreaming and imagination facilitate self-expression. Developed further, self-expression is arguably a transforming process of self-creation. Empowerment is the ability to become an agent of one’s own life and to achieve self-actualization. When individual agency is applied as a catalyst to inspire new possibilities, social systems respond to stimulate change.”

Through her case studies, the thesis indeed demonstrates the ways in which change can occur and be sustained. Arguing that seeing beneficiaries as “inert units within a collective…is one of the primary reasons why development projects fail,” (and here she is in full agreement with Mbembe), Berman proposes that when members are seen as individuals with the creative capacity to use imagination and dreaming to envision a better future for themselves, and their voice as a tool to navigate their way out of poverty, they gain agency and their projects can succeed. One of the guiding voices for Berman’s own efforts has been Arjun Appadurai, whose notion of ‘the capacity to aspire’ she has tested with such impressive results. Also referencing Appadurai, Prof. Mbembe concludes that “In circumstances under which millions of poor people indeed struggle to make it from today to tomorrow, the work of theory and the work of art and the work of culture is to pave the way for a qualitative practice of the imagination—a practice without which we will have no name, no face and no voice in history.” (5).

Precisely. I have no problem with this passionate articulation of the function of art! However, to oppose individual creativity and ‘development’ is to sustain an anachronistic definition of ‘art.’ Community arts and individual creativity are not an either/or proposition, either for the artist-activist or for the participants on those projects. The radical paradigm shift in the development studies has opened broader roles for the artist in culture and in society. Because the contemporary museum-gallery system always follows the money, today’s studio artist is ipso facto a commercial artist. At the very least, development projects using the arts are a counterforce to its stifling power.

Pamela Allara, associate professor emerita, Brandeis University

Achille Mbembe’s piece is available at:


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Is there anything to be learned from District 9?

I have read and re-read Ato Quayson’s eloquent critique of District 9 several times and I can only agree whole-heartedly with his assessment of the representation of Nigerians in the film and what it tells us about the enduring stereotyping of Africa and Africans in general in Western thought. However, being Arab and Muslim, I’ve become quite accustomed, it is sad to say, to such negative portrayals in film and have made a conscious decision to ignore it, if only so I could go beyond the frustration and anger at being constantly represented as either a mindless terrorist or a mindless woman, and try to understand what, if anything, these films can tell us about the world we live in.

Popular culture, Bakhtine has shown us, is quite extraordinary in the way it manages to depict and put forth extremely complex issues to a wide audience, even subvert the way they are handled by powerful actors, by resorting sometimes to the most crude and vulgar tools and stereotypes. So what I usually do, these days, is turn off temporarily my critique of these vulgarities, because I’ve become frustrated with the impasse they often lead to. Where do you go after all of these relations of power and distorted representations have been deconstructed? Well if you’re a film-maker, then you make your own films and Nigeria, while simultaneously being villainized in South African films, has also produced the 3rd largest film industry in the world. But if you’re someone who makes a living analyzing societies, then continuing to critique quickly becomes unsatisfying as things rarely change to the better.

So with District 9, I found myself going beyond the identity politics the film obviously exploited and thinking about a completely different subject that I thought was brilliantly portrayed in a film of this genre, that is the question of humanism in our post-genetic, biotechnological, and biopolitical world. It is an issue that I’ve become keenly aware of thanks mainly to professor Gilles Bibeau, medical anthropologist, who has written and thought much about this issue and for whom I still work on occasion as a research assistant (see Bibeau, G. Le Québec Transgénique, 2004). But before I get to this issue, a word on the form the film took and the tools that are used to transmit its principal message, which in my opinion goes beyond the relation with the Other.

First, I was struck by its construction as a documentary and the role the talking heads play in the documentary, including intellectuals and social scientists, who are trying to make sense, or actually explain to the audience what actually happened. Here, the film is not only giving itself a pedagogical vocation, but also introducing within its intrigue the fact that the story and the discourse built around the story are inseparable. That truth and fiction go hand in hand. The involvement and motivations of those telling the story are ambiguous at best. How involved were the sociologists in the terrible turn of events? Where is the dividing line between observation and participation, between baring witness and using observation as an alibi to do nothing? The reference to realty-TV in contemporary societies is also quite clear. When the displacement of the aliens is ordered, it is done with cameras on hand. All of a sudden, the violent nature of the project of displacement, rather than be exposed to the audience through the presence of the camera, turn it into a video-game. However, soon the sense of false security the presence of the camera introduces, the virtual reality it invites the spectator to delve in through its presence evaporates as the violence becomes all too real and its consequences irreversible through the lead character’s ingestion of the alien’s bio-based fuel. The lead character asks for the scene where he is exposed to the biological fluid to be cut, as if cutting it from the film would make the event actually disappear. However, he soon finds out the there is still some ugly and consequential reality in reality TV as he begins to transform.

By introducing the documentary form, and the camera as witness, the film is asking to be read at various levels, from the most superficial to the most analytical, and through multiple lenses.

Second, I was taken aback by the way the film took words drenched in symbolic imagery but that have been gradually reduced to euphemisms in public discourse and re-invested them with their full meaning by taking away their metaphoric coating and re-using them literally, au pied de la letter, as we say in French, nakedly, through raw anti-semiotic aesthetics, and through revolting, fleshy, bare-life violence. For example the word “alien”, which is used without batting an eye in the United States to describe immigrants whether legal or not, and that has slowly crept into Canadian immigration discourse as well, is given its full meaning by turning immigrants and refugees in the film literally into aliens from another planet – ugly, needy, scary, completely dehumanized aliens. The same goes to the proverbial “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, when sympathy, charity and humanity lead to refugees being reduced to victims, unable to think for themselves, infantilized, and when they behave badly, re-inscribed in the imaginary, as savages. In the same way, charity looses its aura as it is shown as an essentially egotistical and narcissistic act that is more about making the one “being generous” feel better about himself than about actually helping a fellow being. “The world was watching Johannesburg, so we couldn’t afford to get this wrong, not to help, not to be generous, humane, shelter these disgusting creatures, etc.” one of the characters says (I’m paraphrasing here). It is this form of egocentric and selfish charity that makes it impossible for those involved in the humanitarian project to actually meet and get to know those among the aliens who were scientists, philosophers, etc. They were all seen as victims and so incapable of anything but receiving aid. In the same way, humanitarian aid, coupled with the discourse on militarized security are shown for what they really are, in essence, as contemporary incarnations of the final solution: those who are deemed Other, and who are unexploitable by society in capitalistic terms as Others – here I refer to Achille Mbembe’s talk on the poor being increasingly turned into superfluous people – can only be put under control and reduced to bare survival in concentration camps.

The same technique of turning metaphors into literal reality, is also used on a conceptual level. Biotechnology is no longer portrayed as this highly asepticized endeavour that takes place in clean, slick laboratories, or under a microscope. It is not represented as the triumph of humanity over its own mortality or biological limitations, through the spirit of innovation, invention, curiosity – all that makes us human. It is revealed to be the ultimate form of biopolitics, the symbol of the rise of savage capitalism to its highest and most sophisticated form, that which commoditizes and uses bodies, biology, as its primary material. Mining for exploitable bio-information from alien bodies with the refugee camp as the principal mine, and mercenaries being deployed for fetching the bodies and protecting the premises of the bio-industrial company, just as multinationals, many of which are Canadian, funded by Canadian taxes and billions of dollars of government subsidies, continue to mine Africa to its bare bones using Africans as dispensable labour and arming local militias to the teeth to protect the companies’ mining interests.

But beyond that, biotechnology loses its gloss, as it is quite literally portrayed as the fusion of flesh in its most animalistic form, with its bodily fluids, to metal in places that, in the end, look more like slaughter houses than scientific laboratories. On the one hand aliens are reduced to commodities for bio-industrial exploitation and on the other, biotechnology and the biopolitics that ensue from it, bring about that most taboo of acts – cannibalism. As if reaching the ideal of the post-genetic, biotechnical human can only be achieved through devouring one’s own humanity until all that is left is its pre-human animal bare-life form – primary material par excellence, ready to be exploited and consumed. Cannibalism here is not only shown to be something done by Nigerians, but also as a form of industry, as the father-in-law of the lead character in the film, a powerful bio-industrial CEO, is glad to inflict the most horrifying procedures on his son-in-law, without even an attempt at providing anaesthesia, when he recognizes the bio-industrial and military-industrial value of his son-in-law’s morphing body and the necessity to act quickly before it completely transforms. It is a fundamental rupture in kinship with the son-in-law as a fellow human being, and as a relative, that is again portrayed quite literally through the physical transformation of the son-in-law to a complete Other, an alien no less, which allows the father-in-law to torture him as long as he can extract biological data from his body to use for making bioweapons. Capitalism in this scene is portrayed as the ultimate form of cannibalism. Cannibalism for the 21st century.

As for the relation to the Other, may be it is the fact that I watch the film as an outsider to South Africa’s palpable racialized daily reality, but I thought first and foremost of how the arrival of the ultimate Other, literally an alien, irreversibly transforms a society, whether it likes it or not, and that transformation continues even after this Other leaves. Transformation, a loaded word in the South African context, does not necessarily lead to something better, the film seems to tell us, although the lead character, is redeemed through his transformation. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the lead character’s metamorphosis and Kafka’s short story with the same title (Kafka, F. The metamorphosis, 1972), considering that, even though the talking heads in the film are curious about what could’ve happened to the lead character, whether he was dead or alive, an alien or not, things seemed to return to their original order as the aliens were moved to another camp. Just like in Kafka’s story, the metamorphosis in the end had no impact on the system in place, only on two individuals, the alien scientist who managed to escape with his son and the lead character who seems in the end to have grown accustomed to his new form of life, while remaining nostalgic to his former self. We are in the realm of tolerance here, no more, no less.

Is this film a commentary on the politics of transformation in South Africa? A politics that have not necessarily righted the wrongs of apartheid, but only changed the terms of the same racialized relations of power, while bringing about a new scapegoat for racial violence, as we have seen in the 2008 xenophobic attacks on refugees? Even worse, was the refugee camp turned to concentration camp meant to portray the ultimate finality of the politics of transformation? It is hard to tell although quite disturbing to think about… considering that the refugee ends up leaving, and the lead character, an Afrikaner, ends up finding redemption while things stay essentially the same for most who live in the refugee camp…

These are some of the reflections that came to me as I watched District 9. Regardless of the needless caricatures of the Nigerians and the racial undertones Quayson rightfully exposed, there is much there, I think, to reflect on.

Yara El-Ghadban, Université de Montréal

Friday, October 16, 2009

Unthinkable Nigeriana: The Social Imaginary of District 9

This piece was first published on www.zelezapost.com as a contribution to an e-Symposium on District 9. Those interested in reading further contributions to this debate are invited to visit www.zelezapost.com

I: On Growing Up with Nigeria

The first part of my title is borrowed from a piece I wrote after my first ever visit to Nigeria in 1993. My six-week trip happened to coincide with the 1993 June general elections that were subsequently annulled by then President Ibrahim Babangida. I recall the palpable and abject sense of shock and disbelief of the students at the University of Ibadan amongst whom I sat watching the television announcement. I have never encountered such a collective gasp of despair as was emitted immediately after Babangida’s speech.

But I recall this incident for another reason. Thinking back at what Nigeria has meant to me as a Ghanaian, it now seems to me that 1993 and the dire events that were unleashed after that coincided with the gradual shift in the nature of urban myths that were to come out of that great country. Going to boarding secondary school in Ghana in the late 70s and early 80s, I remember that we used to spend an incredible amount of time trading tales about the wonders of Nigeria. There was good reason for this. My own uncle, Uncle Castro, was one of thousands of Ghanaians who had left for Nigeria to search for greener pastures. “Castro” had not been my uncle’s given name, but he had been such a radical at school and so attached to the ideals of the redoubtable Cuban leader that he changed his name and was forever after branded as the incurable radical of the family. He was a teacher, and was a radical in more ways than I can recount. He took off to Nigeria in the late 70s, learnt to speak Yoruba, married a local woman, and was never seen again. Not even the Nigerian expulsions of Ghanaians and other foreigners in 1983 could prize him out of his adopted country.

The infrequent letters that Castro wrote to us from his sojourn were only one source of stories about Nigeria. Many others were completely apocryphal, but no less believed for what they painted about the immense wonders of this much-envied land of milk and honey. My personal favorite from that time is about a hapless Ghanaian student who had been invited to visit his pen-pal (yes, those were the days!) at the University of Kano in Northern Nigeria. The Ghanaian student was utterly flabbergasted at the facilities he saw. But nothing could have prepared him for the surprise that was waiting for him at the dining hall. His friend asked him to join him for lunch and at the end of it, the Ghanaian, without being prompted, decided to take his tray to one of the innocuous looking sinks that lined the walls of the hall at regular intervals. As he was walking towards one of the sinks he noticed from the corner of his eyes what he thought were looks of condescension on the faces of some of the Nigerian students. They turned out to be looks of dismay, but how was he to know? And he had no intention of allowing them to think that he didn’t know what to do in a dinning hall. How dare they think that? How dare they? He continued purposefully towards the sink and turned around briefly to catch his friend gesticulating wildly from their sitting place. He ignored him. Who did he think he was, huh, trying to tell him that he didn’t know how to work a mere tap? Or did he think that because Nigeria was way ahead of Ghana we didn’t have even the most basic skills, eh? Twiaaa! The cheek of it! He continued his walk towards the sink, put his tray to one side, picked up his cutlery, poised them under the tap, and turned it full blast only to see Lo! and Behold! a rich warm stream of dark and absolutely delicious looking drinking chocolate!!! There are different variants of what happens next. In one of them, the chap remains calm and unfazed and places his other capped hand under the tap to gulp down a large helping of the magical drink. After which he continues walking calmly out of the dinning hall, making a dash out of the campus to the lorry park never to be heard of again!

This and other such stories were commonplace in 1970s and 80s Ghana. Yet by 1993 the stories had definitely taken on a different coloration. Stories of Nigerian internal corruption and external scams became increasingly common and many of the stories were distinctive for the sheer audacity that they revealed about Nigerians. These stories, that tended to circulate largely by word of mouth, have over the past few years entered the international public media domain. Some time in 2008 the British media widely reported on an email sent to members of Jack Straw’s constituency, saying he was stranded in Nigeria without his passport on a government mission and pleading that his constituents send contributions to a special bank account to help salvage the poor man out of Nigeria. Jack Straw, variously Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, and at the time of the scam, Secretary of State for Justice, only got wind of the scam when phone calls started flooding into his Blackburn constituency office informing them that monies had been sent out and that they hoped he could return home safely. Prayers had also been sent on his behalf. Add to this an earlier news item that did the rounds in 2006 of the governor of a provincial state in Nigeria who made away with three million pounds in a brief case, and, on being detained in the UK, escaped his captors and went back to Nigeria via Cameroon by dressing in drag, and we can see the image that has now been firmly fixed in the public mind about “the Nigerian character”.

Thus it is not entirely surprising that District 9, a mixed-genre science fiction and faux documentary film should settle on the image of Nigerians as profiteering gangsters. It is not the only film to have featured that impression of Nigerians. The Informant, with Matt Damon as the lead actor, is the story of a whistleblower working for a large food chemical company in the American midwest. The problem is that the whistleblower is an inveterate liar and has himself been siphoning off millions while trying to discredit his also corrupt senior management. Throughout the film the terms “419” and Nigeria are mentioned, and towards the end a Justice Department investigator explicitly tries to explain the whistleblower’s behavior in terms of the 419 scam phenomenon. Thus “Nigerian scamming” is now being used as a commonplace popular cultural shorthand for audacious shady dealings and corruption. In that respect scamming, as a dimension of “the Nigerian character,” and one that is repeatedly used as a stereotype for the country, is now part of its historicity. It is not dissimilar to the idea that Brazil produces great soccer players, or that Canadians are nice and peace-loving people, or that Australians are generally laid back, or that Swedish women are generally beautiful. These stereotypes and ideas are the elements that cement a community’s historicity both in their own minds and in the minds of others.

II: District 9 and the Representation of the Social Relation

And yet there is something deeply unsettling about District 9’s representation of its Nigerian characters. Recall that in the film the Nigerians are part of the slum dwellers that, with the alien “prawns”, lie outside the bounds of civil society. The Nigerians exploit the prawns by selling them catfood which they crave. Crucially, the Nigerians are also gangsters and seek to amass the aliens’ armaments and ammunitions but for reasons that are not made clear in the film. We are left to speculate by an extension of their depiction as gangsters, that this must be in order to dominate the rest of society. Additionally, and here is where the rudest shock is delivered, they are also depicted as cannibals. At one point in the film the Nigerian gang leader, pointedly named “Obasanjo”, attempts to eat the arm of the partially transmogrified Wikus van de Merwe, the central character, so that he can acquire the ability to manipulate the weapons that he has stockpiled. The aliens’ guns are so sophisticated that they only respond to a particular form of biology, namely, that of the aliens themselves. Obasanjo believes that by eating Wikus’s arm his own human biology will be transformed so that he can deploy their armaments. In many respects it is the dimension of their rabid acquisition of armaments and their explicit cannibalism that reveals the degree to which District 9 is prepared to go beyond the historicity that we noted earlier in registering the absolute otherness of the Nigerian characters. In other words, by not stopping at depicting them as inveterate and heartless scamsters but adding to this a dimension of blind military acquisitiveness and cannibalism the film goes well beyond the pale of what is now a key characterization of Nigerianness. For the film they are first and last barbarians, with no redeeming features.

Despite this highly offensive depiction, however, I think it would be mistake to read the film exclusively in relation to the a-historical othering of Nigeria. There is something much more subtle and complex taking place, which is best understood in what I want to elaborate in terms of the film’s social imaginary. Every literary and filmic text, whether realist, science fiction, magical realist, or otherwise, and no matter how apparently distant from the real world, displays a social imaginary. But what is this social imaginary, and how is it to be understood in the first instance?

In attempting to unpack the social imaginary of this or any other representational text we have to grasp the fact that the social imaginary entails the portrayal of a social relation. Essentially, the social relation has two inter-related aspects to it. The first aspect involves the depiction of the manner by which men and women relate to other people in society. These relations are relations of equality, hierarchy, subordination, self-and-othering, able-bodied vs disabled, and so forth. In a word, they are relations of Power, in the sense made famous by Foucault. The social relations depicted in any representational text can easily be inventoried. Are they depictions of individual vs state, father vs daughter, husband vs wife, culture vs culture, or, as is often the case, a combination of all these? Such an inventory of interpersonal and collective relations, however, has to be augmented by the analysis of a second aspect of the social relation, namely, the ways and means by which the relations of Power are converted into something else. By what instruments is it possible to convert a given set of relations of Power into a different, and perhaps more hospitable (for the foreigner) or democratic (for the putative citizen) or equivalent and respectful (for the family member)? At one level the instruments of conversion may be institutional and external to the self (courts, civic and interest lobby organizations, schools, churches), personal (you resign your job and go back to school), or collective (revolution), or, as is often the case, internal to the self and lying at the level of psychology. The two levels are not entirely separable, yet it is also the case that most texts focus on either one or the other. And each historic epoch provides a dominant way in which the two aspects of the social relation are dialectically connected. Thus, for example, in Native Son Richard Wright depicts the practical impossibility that is faced by a character such as Bigger Thomas in his attempts at freeing himself from the dominant relations of Power in his quest for self-fashioning. This is because, given the depicted race relations of 1930s Chicago, Bigger has not grown up with the requisite psychological instruments by which to successfully achieve a conversion of the relations of Power for his own benefit. Even when the external instruments are presented to him, such as the offer of the job as a chauffeur at the wealthy Dalton’s home, the external gesture is so compromised by the structuring of race relations of the period that Bigger interprets the offer not as an instrument of potential self-fashioning but as a trap. And, because of his psychic formation, the feeling of entrapment that unfolds progressively as the white folks try to be nice to him leads him to want to “blot” out the feeling of incapacitation that they generate inside of him. And because of his inherent social ineptitude and psychic formation the only means that appear pertinent to his own situation are those of violence. Thus the double murders that he perpetrates and which land him in jail. Bigger’s psychic responses are overdetermined by the warped character of race relations in the Chicago in which he grew up. Though this interpretation accords at least with the views espoused by Bigger’s Marxist lawyer in the long court scene at the end of the novel, it is really nothing but a shorthand for a much more complex set of conditions underpinning the dual aspects of the social relation depicted in the novel. But this synopsis serves to make the point about the dialectical links between the relations of Power and the instruments of conversion from one stage to another elaborated here.

In District 9 there is clearly a partial equivalence in the representation of the alien prawns on the one hand, and the Nigerians on the other. Both groups are alien to the civic and political order of Johannesburg and South Africa. Both are depicted as meat eating. At various points the prawns are shown tearing into raw meat as are the Nigerians. At the level of meat eating, the equivalence between the two groups begins to fray slightly when the prawns are shown to tear offending human beings into pieces but not necessarily to eat them, while the Nigerians want to eat a part of a human being. However, since the source of the chunks of red meat we see the prawns tearing into at certain points in the film are not clearly stipulated, there is a vague suspicion that they may also be cannibalistic. Be that as it may, at the level of the relations of Power, both the alien prawns and the Nigerians are depicted as not only unfit to be members of the civic community, but actually not wanted on the voyage (to quote the title of the Canadian Timothy Findley’s novel).

It is when we come to the depiction of the instruments of the conversion of the relations of Power, however, that we see a very sharp distinction between the prawns and the Nigerians. The prawns are shown to desire a mastery of science and technology in spite of all the negative conditions to which they have been subjected. The gritty yet highly sophisticated laboratory the prawn leader sets up with his son in their basement is a marker of this desire for technological mastery. Not only that, they desire the technological mastery not to conquer the people amongst whom they have been forced to live for over 20 years, but in order to go back to their own alien planet to fulfill their destiny. The prawn leader is first and foremost a scientist, but one with a highly developed social conscience. His social conscience is depicted in a miniaturized fashion in the warm and caring relations he establishes with his son, and at a higher level, his desire to repair the space ship in order that he might go back to his planet and return to save his people.

In order to radically alter their social relations in a society that clearly thinks very little of them, the Nigerians in the film on the other hand want to master not science and technology, but the mere use of the armaments they have acquired through exploiting the needs of others. And it is not clear what ultimate claims of sociality they want to make in the mastery of these arms. To the aliens is assigned the mastery of science and technology, but to the Nigerians the mastery first of the alien military technology, and later the society in which they reside The problem with the Nigerians’ quest for mastery, however, is that it is shown as being mediated through black magic (the cannibalism) and thus is essentially the marker of a moral and intellectual deficit. We see then that in the social imaginary of District 9 it is the Nigerians that are the true Other. The prawns are only partially so, because they are shown to possess superior “human” characteristics of familial love, reason (in the mastery of science), and political consciousness (in the prawn leader’s desire to come back and save his people).

So what then as Nigerians and Africans, are we to make of the social imaginary of District 9? The first thing is to acknowledge that the film is representing an image of Nigeria that is also true of what the country is in the popular imagination, and which has been contributed to, willy-nilly, by Nigerians themselves. However, when we shift the focus away from historicity (i.e., the truth or falsehood of Nigeria’s image) we have to account for why it is that, yet again, black life is depicted as somehow the bearer of an inherent moral deficit. This is a highly pertinent question because District 9 is set in a South African society that still bears the scars of years of apartheid and horrible race relations. In such a political context in which the imagining of black life takes shape under the shadow of the race relations left over from apartheid, the depiction of black life, whether individual or collective, cannot be taken as completely innocent. It is first and last ideological. True, the film also shows well-dressed urban blacks protesting the presence of the prawn slum. But that should not obscure the fact that the color coding of the film involves a white protagonist partially metamorphosing into an alien prawn, befriending the prawn leader as a fugitive, and almost being devoured by black folk. And it is not insignificant that the hero is himself a scientist. Thus it is black life that retains the mark of the intractable moral deficit, depicted here in the form of rabid acquisitiveness and cannibalism and handily projected onto Nigerians. Since, as we have shown, the cannibalistic tendencies of the Nigerians in the film exceeds their current historicity as scamsters, what the film does is to deploy their representation as a shorthand to register black life in terms of the excess of unreason (magical thought and cannibalism), something they could have done without referencing Nigeria at all. Given the subtle binary overlaps and oppositions that we have seen help shape the discursive relations between the alien prawns and the Nigerians in the film, it would not be unfair to say that the “Nigerians” are redundant, and that we are obliged to interpret them predominantly as ciphers of black life rather than as a reference to a putative Nigerian historicity as such.

The depiction of black life as somewhat in excess of reason has a long and chequered history, and takes us most famously to Hegel’s views on Africa, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and through various other disquisitions that have seen Africa and black life posited as the ultimate heart of unreason. Suddenly we see that the depiction of the social relation in Wright’s Native Son is not so distant from that of District 9 after all. In each instance the depiction shows certain race and its links to relations of Power, and in each one the attempt to convert the relations of Power into another set of relations is short-circuited by the fact that the black characters lack the consciousness by which such a conversion might be achieved. The difference between Native Son and District 9 is that Bigger has our sympathy but the Nigerians do not. This, we should note, is also due to the relationship established between historicity and representation. To unpack that we would have to go into questions of the contrast between medium (novel vs film) and generic conventions (realism/naturalism vs science fiction), and ultimately, to the objectives that the representations are expected to achieve in the real world. Perhaps we will pursue this thread another time.

Ato Quayson, University of Toronto

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The ghost in the art work

I write a poem, then I place it in a drawer. There it stays for months before I visit it again. If I found that it resembled me then, I consider that I have not done much. If I felt as if someone else had written it, when it strikes me as an Other’s poetry, I tell myself, that I have accomplished something.
Mahmoud Darwich, Palestine as a metaphor, 1997.

Like most expats these days, I often end up in Europe for a few days, as I transit between the Middle-East and North America. When my ticket leaves me in Paris, I make it a point to visit l’Institut du Monde Arabe. This summer, I was lucky enough to stumble upon an exposition of contemporary Palestinian artists, most of whom are around my age, that is early thirties. For someone whose engagement with Palestinian music and cultural production often led her to baby-boomers and survivors of the 1960s (read the 1967 war and subsequent death of pan-Arab nationalism), I was very curious to find out what the children of these artists and events, figuratively speaking, had to say about the world they live in today. A world of utter indifference to the Palestinians, of disillusionment with peace processes, and with the dreams of liberation movements and their nationalist projects. A world where art is as entangled as it has ever been in a promise of borderlessness, constantly broken by geopolitics, cultural politics, identity politics and the unabated exercise of power.

I was quite surprised, or perhaps I shouldn’t be, to discover that the paintings and installations dealt with familiar themes – exile, displacement, memory, history, identity, violence, checkpoints – albeit in very different and innovative ways. I saw no real dividing line between Palestinian artists of my generation and their predecessors whose evocations of exile where intimately attached to an imagined Palestinian homeland. One of the works that moved me was by Steve Sabella, titled In Exile (2008), in which he had taken a seemingly dull picture of the windows facing his own apartment building in an ordinary London neighborhood and juxtaposed endless inverted reproductions of it, creating a visual illusion of movement and infinity through the classical techniques of geometrical repetition, symmetry and complementarity that are associated with the arabesque form. Exile can be quite uneventful, monotonous and redundant, a sort of continuous movement without every getting anywhere. There is nothing heroic about being just another tenant in a shapeless apartment building, no matter how tragic the events that led to you living there are. The sense of solitude, alienation and powerlessness the work expressed left me with a knot in my stomach, especially when I look outside my own window and see the long lines of eerily similar houses, clones really, that make an ordinary Canadian suburban neighborhood.

Another work, by Sherif Waked, titled Chic Point (2003), featured a fashion show, not unlike the spring and winter défilés that attract fashionistas to Paris every year. Nothing special about the models either, who all fit into the Westernized standards of beauty. The clothes portrayed could’ve been designed by Calvin Klein, if it weren’t for the gaping hole the suits had around the stomach and the back. It doesn’t take long for the observer to understand the meaning of the holes, as Palestinians living under Israeli rule are required to expose their stomachs and their backs daily at checkpoints for soldiers supposedly looking for bomb-belts.

Following Rodney Place’s thoughts on the role that galleries and other cultural mediators play in the dissemination of contemporary art, and the perversion of its meaning and value, I can’t help but wonder about the transparency of the meanings expressed through these works. In Chic point, the artist wanted to make sure we understood the meaning of the holes, not only by his choice of title, but also by including a video within the fashion show of Palestinians being asked to strip at checkpoints. Is it that these works really do speak in clear and articulate voices about a universal human condition that any observer can identify with? Is it that the signs that inform the works are simply superficial and easy to interpret without much controversy or need for deep exegesis? Is it that all Palestinian artists speak from a similar place and follow a shared leitmotiv? Or was it a question of selection, in the sense that, only those works that did express clearly the plight of the Palestinians and their struggle with identity, exile and displacement ended up in the gallery?

Palestinian artists have constantly struggled with their work being interpreted through the paradigm of identity and liberation politics. Mahmoud Darwich was quite vocal about this issue, and has been known to reward an admirer with a symbolic slap in the face when he or she dared remind him of his public consecration as Palestine’s poet. Yet, he refused to give up political poetry as a way out of it, and has been even more outspoken about what he saw as an unhealthy turn in the Arab world to an unnecessarily opaque, obscenely aestheticized form of poetic writing with grandiose claims of subversion and liberation from the tyranny of the classical Arabic meter, while leaving the reader (and reality along with him) completely out of the loop.

Contrary to Rodney Place’s experience with the ever increasing degrees of separation between the artist and his/her work through the intervention of dissemination, and the manipulation of various mediators, Palestinian artists have virtually no breathing room between their creations and themselves. Dissemination, in their case, propels every individual creative act in a boomerang motion that slings the work away from the artist only to see it return and collapse into his/her identity and the politics that stem from it. It is no wonder then that Darwich considers his poems to be worthy, only when they become strangers to him, or him a stranger to them.

In his writings, and many interviews, there is a constant search for the ghost in the art work, that entropic presence that allows it to escape all the discourses around it, including his own. Of course, what Place is arguing, is that this kind of transcendental experience has become virtually impossible to achieve, in a time when the work can no longer exist on its own without a constellation of discourses to interpret it, criticize it, measure its value, and so on. In my own work with contemporary Western art music composers, I was astonished to discover how crucial the discourse built around their work has become for the value of the work, as well as for their own value and recognition as artists. Composers today are required, not only to write music, but to theorize it, sell it and sell themselves with it. I had many conversations where we ended up engaging in a call and response song of reciprocal theorization of their music. They have become virtuoso performers in an increasingly cacophonous scene of competing discourses.

Both experiences with discourse on art, whether it is of the collapse of degrees of separation, or the perpetual hijacking of the work from the artist, are different sides of the same coin, minted and traded, as Place as rightly pointed out, by various mediators and actors – states through their culture ministries and art councils, transnational organizations through the UNESCO and development agencies representing various “donating” states, like the International Canadian Development Agency, to take a local example, not to mention humanitarian NGOs.

In Palestine, in the aftermath of the 2006 election that brought Hamas to power, NGOs that were already acting like local government institutions for years were handed an enormous amount of power and resources as a way for Western countries to absolve themselves of the guilt of cutting aid to the Palestinians because they voted for the wrong party. Besides Christian missionary organizations that have been present for as long as Palestine has been Palestine, musicians and other artists rely heavily on funding from, interestingly enough, Scandinavian cultural NGOs who support the establishment of institutions like the Edward Saïd National Conservatory of Music in the West Bank, the formation of various orchestras and chamber ensembles, and the launching of programs that bring Israeli and Palestinian children together through music camps.

That reliance is partly due to the Palestinian Authority’s own failure. Allegations of corruption and oppression were rampant in the dying days of the Oslo accords so these NGOs filled a huge vacuum just as Palestinian artists where moving in their work away from Palestine as an object of representation and adoration, to the Palestinian as a subject and tragic figure. The combination of both trends brought about the establishment of various instrumental music and dance ensembles, as well as contemporary art expositions focused on highlighting Middle-Eastern contemporary art forms as opposed to folklore, or in some cases, turning folklore into a new form of aestheticized art form.

The relation to Scandinavian countries is noteworthy as they are represented as beacons of a successful and pragmatic leftism. This resonates with Place’s observation on the substitution of real and hard to implement political solutions by European lefties with feel-good cultural projects. But the history between Scandinavian countries and the Palestinians is deeper still. In Palestinian anthropology, one of the very first Western ethnographic accounts of Palestinian life that did not involve turning them into anachronical remnants of a biblical past, happens to have been produced by a Finnish scholar, Hilma Granqvist, who on a mission with a group of German biblical researchers at the turn of the 20th century, decided that studying the present and the Palestinians as people living in the present was much more interesting. She produced several volumes of classic kinship anthropology on a Palestinian village. Nevertheless, her Ph.D was never approved. And there are the Oslo accords of course.

This is all to say, that Scandinavian interventionism in Palestine has deep roots and the long term cultural and political impact of Scandinavian NGOs’ contemporary cultural pedagogical project aimed at turning potential “terrorists” into violinists will take years to assess. There is no need to highlight the echoes of such a project with French colonialism’s “civilizing” mission in its former colonies. Suffice it to say that since Granqvist’s first visit to Palestine, all this interventionism and humanism has not affected the conflict or made the lives of Palestinians any better.

For those musicians who want to get out from under the umbrella of such charityism, one other option is available to them: The world music international festival circuit and collaborations with Western musicians on various artistic projects. But there too, such collaborations come with political and aesthetic strings. Many Palestinian musicians end up, in fact, living in Europe, and being part of a continuous cultural brain-drain. They gain success and recognition in diaspora but are often unknown in their own country.

In places where the state is powerless, and where power is still in the hands of colonial actors, art becomes a devastating instrument of control and inaction. On the one hand, it provides an effective alibi for all those former colonial powers to keep doing nothing about the situation of the Palestinians. Building a music school is much easier to achieve then demolishing Israeli colonies. On the other hand, it acts as a sort of opium (as opposed to religion), a pacifying drug that provides Palestinians with a controllable outlet for expressing their anger and despair, a sort of therapeutic remedy to the chronic disease of occupation that is not meant to cure it, but only make it easier to live with and be resigned to it. Western cultural agencies are not unlike pharmaceutical companies or drug dealers that create the disease or addiction only to sell the victims a life-style drug to consume for the rest of their lives.

This is indeed quite a perversion of the role that art and cultural production has tended to play in postcolonial societies dealing with the legacy of colonialism. We have effectively moved from art being deployed as an instrument of nation-building and political resistance against colonialism to it becoming medicinal marijuana for the damned of the Earth. The ghost in the art work turns out to be just a hallucination, produced by a powerful drug.

I believe that art is a site where suffering can be differed, allowing society to escape auto-destructive impulses that result from a history of violence. However, it can also become a drug in contemporary societies where there is no longer any tolerance for suffering. For the rich, in Northern countries, it often turns into a recreative drug, consumed by cultural bulimics who have no aesthetic preoccupation or the capacity to appreciate aesthetics, but entertain the need to produce, or more precisely, to push for the production and surproduction of more art to keep getting high.

In the South, it can either lead to some form of individual, with certain artworks, collective, catharsis that may contribute to healing social and historical wounds, or when pushed by others, it can become a powerful sedative so the North may continue to enjoy their high without having to hear the South’s cries.

Yara El-Ghadban

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

African contemporary art: Negotiating the terms of recognition

Africa Remix poster

Africa Remix was an international success. The Johannesburg Art Fair is becoming a fixture in the international art circuit. Major academic interventions such as Sarah Nuttall’s Beautiful/Ugly are redefining the boundaries of African aesthetics. William Kentridge, Penny Siopis and countless individual African artists are making a name of their own in the world market. A silent revolution in contemporary art is in the making. Its ramifications extend to other domains such as literature, fashion, music, architecture and design. As jazz and cubism in the 20th century, it is to a large extent engineered by African forms.

Yet the terms of recognition of African contemporary art and cultural creativity are still contested. The latest controversy is about the role of Western cultural funding agencies in Africa and whether the support for arts and culture should be justified by the latter’s contribution to “development”. What, then, is the agenda of donors when supporting the arts in Africa? Is there a role for the arts in “poverty reduction” or in “conflict resolution”? Is “cultural cooperation” a two-way process or a surreptitious way by which donors impose their agendas on Africa? What do terms such as “cultural diplomacy” mean?

In this interview, Achille Mbembe research professor in history and politics at the university of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg, South Africa) responds to Vivian Paulissen, an expert and consultant in cultural funding policy based in Amsterdam.

Is there a space for respectful/mutual negotiation in the traditional donor-recipient relationship in which cultural funding agencies today operate?

I am not saying that it is a zero-sum game. Indeed there are very rare exceptions. The Prince Claus Fund is one of these. But overall such a space hardly exists. And considering the little amount of money involved, the damage is disproportionate.

In fact, relationships between Western cultural funding agencies and local “recipients” (individual artists and organizations) have never been so bad.

Over the last decade Western European financial contribution to the development of arts and culture in Africa has been steadily declining. The paradox is that as they put less and less money on the table, European agencies increased the severity of the conditions of accessing their meager subsidies. Instead of creating art, many artists in the Continent must spend a disproportionate amount of time, energy and resources filling useless application forms or desperately trying to respond to ever-changing fads and policies when they are not constantly checking the mood of ever-touchy and capricious Western consulates’ “cultural attachés” they hope to get support from.

Instead of spaces of mutuality, recognition and respect, donor agencies have established throughout the Continent countless networks of patron-clients relationships. These relationships are not one-dimensional. They are characterized by deep levels of collusion and complicity, unequal transactions, at times mistrust, and in any case reciprocal instrumentalization. We can keep dressing up the unlimited power of the donors and the myriad forms of humiliation and indignity visited upon their “recipients” in the fancy language of “partnership”, “empowerment” or even “international friendship”. These words won’t mask the brutality of the encounter between those who have money and resources but hardly any good or useful idea and those who have some good ideas but hardly any money.

The situation is made worse by five major local and global trends.

The first is the neo-liberal drive to further marketize and privatize all forms of art and life. This has resulted in the endless commodification of culture as spectacle and entertainment. This is a very significant development. It comes at a time when global capitalism itself is moving into a phase in which the cultural forms of its outputs are critical elements of productive strategies. The capacity of art and culture to engage critically with the velocities of capital can no longer be taken for granted.

The second is the relentless pressure from African governments to consider art and culture as a kind of “social service” whose function is to cure the ailments of poverty and underdevelopment. The third is the hyper-technological enframing of the life-world and the growing implication of art and culture in global systems of militarization of consciousness – which raises deep concerns over the limits of freedom in the militarized landscape of our times and points to the challenge to “de-militarize” culture itself. The fourth is the “humanitarian” impulse of most Western donor agencies – the vicious ideology that promotes a view of Africa as a tabula rasa, a doomed and hopeless Continent waiting to be rescued and “saved” by the new army of Western good Samaritans.

Finally there is a tendency to conflate African art, culture and aesthetics with ethnicity or community or communalism; to deny the power of individuality in the work of art creation. The dominant but false idea – shared by many Africans and many donors – is that the act of creativity is necessarily a communal act; that African artistic forms are not aesthetic objects per se but ethnographic objects that are expressive of Africa’s ontological cultural difference or “authenticity”. It is this African “difference” and this African “authenticity” donors are in search of. This is what they want to support and, if necessary, they will manufacture it.

Taken altogether, the combined effects of these processes on the relations between “donors” and “recipients” and on African cultural creativity and autonomy have been devastating. Without a new ethics of recognition, solidarity and mutuality, the way most Western cultural funding (or for that matter development funding) agencies operate will become ever more destructive of the Continent’s capacity to culturally and artistically account for itself in the world.

Would a ‘trading model” with both parties equally involved be a successful alternative for cultural funding in Africa? How to establish that?

We have to reckon with the fact that culture has become a commodity that can be shaped by the media and bought and sold like any other in the market - a form of property over which it is possible to exercise monopoly rights. The power of Western donors should not be overestimated although relative to the amount of money they contribute, their influence is disproportionate.

There are other powerful actors – galleries, international dealers networks, even wine farms and commercial banks. In South Africa we have a structure called The Johannesburg Art Fair. Such initiatives should be encouraged as long as they do not turn into new markets of dispossession for artists. We need to develop a continental art market that is properly connected to the international network of cultural industries. Artists, writers, designers, musicians and composers, photographers and stylists should be able to make a decent living out of their work. Professional galleries should be encouraged and private banks and especially development banks should devise innovative mechanisms to extend credit and financial support to cultural consortia. That is partly how we will develop a credible cultural economy in the Continent.

But visual art cannot flourish in isolation. Creative synergies should be established with other disciplines – literature, cinema, dance, music, architecture and design, digital art, critical theory, art criticism. Without a cultural infrastructure made up of cultural media, journals, magazines and a tradition of serious reviews and without a major investment in critical theory, our artistic and production will remain in the domain of artisanship. And it will always be left to others to dictate the intellectual, theoretical and political terms of its recognition in the international arena.

At the same time we cannot leave everything to the market. Further commodification and privatization of culture cannot go on unchecked. There are more rational and equitable ways in which art and culture as public goods can be supported. We have to design a matrix that can attend to a plurality of needs and not only those of states, banks, private dealers and the market. We need to keep reinventing the relationship between community and culture. Public art still holds the possibility of providing the necessary imaginary resources our cities need as they try to foster between citizens the sort of convivial and reciprocal relations without which there is neither a vibrant public sphere nor civic life as such.

A growing number of funding organizations is initiated from, and located in, countries/regions where they work (like the Middle East, Arab Fund for Culture). What is your experience with this in Africa?

There is no African Fund for Culture. There are, here and there, private rich citizens or even private banks or companies collecting art or funding exhibitions. South Africa has the financial means to develop a powerful international cultural policy. But the country profoundly lacks imagination. Alone it could easily fund a major Biennale in the global South. Johannesburg could become a cultural and artistic Mecca. But in its mimicry of British colonial empiricism, the ruling elite believe that “art and culture” are about “heritage, tourism and indigenous knowledge systems”.

In the official, state-sanctioned discourse, culture is completely subsumed under the doxa of “development”, “poverty eradication” and “racial redress”. Political considerations on who is black and who is not overshadow any intrinsic appreciation of the value of art as such.

For South Africa to fulfill its potential, the country needs to imagine itself as an “Afropolitan” nation, the avant-garde of a version of the African modern that is already in evidence in most contemporary African artistic and cultural forms. The country also needs to distance itself from an understanding of culture as pastness, a simple matter of customs and traditions, monuments and museums. We have to realize that culture is not yet another form of “service delivery”. It is the way human beings imagine and engage their own futures. Without this dimension of futurity and imagination, we can hardly write a name we can call ours or articulate a voice we can recognize as our own.

Where such funding organizations exist, are they different from other, Western donor organizations?

The fact is that power and money tend to speak the same language everywhere. Western donor agencies tend to collude with African governments in their attempt to instrumentalize art and restrict the meanings, power and significance of artistic and cultural critique.

They both argue that art and culture should be “relevant”. But their definition of “relevance” is thin and functionalist. In their eyes, good and “relevant” art and culture is art and culture that is colonized by the imperative of “development”. “Development” itself is conceived in the narrowest of terms, in purely materialistic terms. They both think that “to develop art and culture” (sic) is exactly the same as “to develop sustainable agriculture”.

We need to move away from this form of crass materialism and this empiricism of wants and needs in order to rehabilitate cultural and artistic critique as a public good in and of itself. The value of art cannot solely be measured on the basis of its contribution to material well-being. Nor is artistic creativity a luxury or an immoral pursuit that should be redeemed by its annexation and inscription in the official, state-sanctioned discourse of development and poverty reduction. We must resist this trivialization.

Artistic creativity, cultural and theoretical critique is an integral part of the immaterial and unquantifiable assets produced by a society. It is a constitutive dimension of our communities and nations wealth in the same way as our physical infrastructures. It’s value by far exceeds the means by which this value is counted. The management and regulation of art and culture should therefore pertain to a different order, one that takes seriously the “intangible” and “inalienable” qualities of culture and one that, as a result, is not dependent on purely quantitative measurements and indexes.

Nowadays public culture funds tend to focus on cultural cooperation with countries or regions, often defined by national government agendas. This has led to current “hot-lists” of countries and special interest in the arts of those countries. India, for instance, is one of the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) that are considered growing global economies. Another example is the growing interest that started some years ago on the arts of the Middle East. What do you think of the development of “cultural diplomacy” as a tool for political dialogue or trade?

I think that so-called cultural diplomacy is a miserable, comic fiction. What else can it mean when, as we are conducting it, border controls are being tightened; arbitrary restrictions are being imposed on mobility and we are witnessing the revival of a defensive, paranoid form of nationalism that is willing to resort to race vilification in order to regulate access to citizenship?

Who in his or her right mind do you want to believe in so-called cultural diplomacy directed at far-away places when, at home, we are bent on defending the supposed cultural integrity of the nation against supposed threats from asylum seekers, second-generation non-white citizens and all sorts of “intruders” perceived as a source of dangerous cultural pathologies?

In Western Europe today, both the liberal center and what is left of the reformist Left have unfortunately embraced this backward-looking paradigm and these regressive and paranoid definitions of national identity, belonging and difference. They have done so at a time when the old idea of national cultural identity for which they are so nostalgic is inexorably on its way out.

I therefore suggest that so-called cultural diplomacy starts at home. It has to be committed, straight from home, in theory and in practice, to foster forms of solidarity based on the recognition of our common humanity. Short of this ethical and practical commitment, all these so-called “hot-lists” will be but myriad versions of the good old “dog whistle politics” of yesteryear – the kind of politics that sells fake smiles abroad while, at home, it is engaged in the sordid business of racial vilification.

What is your experience with private and/or public funding?

When I was the Executive Director of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), I had to engage with public donors in France, Japan, theNetherlands, with UN agencies, and more importantly with Nordic countries. A lot depended on the intellectual and political caliber of the individuals and policy-makers I had to face. The most creative encounters were with those who believed that Africa’s fate was inextricably bound to the fate of the rest of the world. They agreed that to intervene creatively and efficiently in the Continent required a demanding, prolonged, meticulous exploration, analysis and critical thinking. With such interlocutors, we usually came up with inventive, cutting-edge programs.

Otherwise, the overall scene was quite depressing. One constantly had to deal with cynical bureaucrats, people who profoundly hated the Continent but had become addicted to it and to some of its perverse pleasures. They could hardly let go the addiction. They interacted with the Continent the way some people do when they are trapped in an abusive relationship. They did not believe in the catechism of “development” they were nevertheless preaching. Going through some of those meetings was like visiting for the first time an asile de fous – people who had failed everywhere else and who could never make an honorable career elsewhere except in Africa. They needed not think because for them, Africa is simple. In fact, there were very hostile to anything that looked like an idea.

Even more unsettling was the implicit assumption, especially in Nordic countries, that Africans could only speak as “victims”. In the course of expressing their solidarity with Africa’s past struggles, many Nordic countries have unfortunately encouraged the sense of victimhood some Africans intellectuals and politicians have been peddling all along – which they try to mask under the guise of anti-imperialism. They have tolerated mediocrity and encouraged lethal forms of populism and lumpen-radicalism to prevail in African social science discourse for instance. They poured – and I guess they still do – millions of dollars each year into sustaining hugely bureaucratic and inefficient organizations that should have been closed long ago and where countless middlemen enjoy diplomatic immunity and earn salaries equivalent to those in UN structures. This form of benevolent paternalism, of course, has deep unconscious racist undertones.

This having been said, I had a lot pleasure working with institutions such as The Prince Claus Fund and some US-based foundations. But I hear that in these neo-liberal times, even these progressive and somewhat avant-garde organizations are under tremendous pressure. Indeed, they have to justify their activities to bureaucrats and tax payers. Some have adopted a strong anti-intellectual bias and bought into romanticized but uncritical and debilitating forms of grassroots activism and populism. To a certain extent, they are all forced to pay lip service to the fiction of “development”.

This is all the more regrettable because what we need right now is a critical cultural politics that confronts the rhetoric of “development” and reveals the deeply reactionary nature of this project.

Another focus of international arts and culture funding is the “culture for development model”. Two polemic visions in funding the arts and culture are on the one hand a voice that says we have to reward the “arts for the arts”; and on the other hand the voice that says we support “arts for development”. What do you think about the “development” agendas, like the AIDS-theatre for example? Can development be a goal when funding the arts? What happens to the arts when artists are funded to bring a certain message across (like AIDS prevention)?

Most Western donor agencies have a simplistic notion of what “Africa” is and of what “development” is. They are unaware of – or pretend to be ignorant about – what recent critique of “development” (as an ideology and as a practice) has revealed. They want to operate as if such a critique had not been done.

The fact of the matter is that on the ground, where many of us live and work, the paradigm of “development” is functionally dead. This we can see in ordinary people’s everyday experiences and actions. But the “development machine” itself is still alive. It keeps disbursing fat salaries to experts, middlemen and consultants, good per diems to its native clients, auxiliaries and courtiers, and it keeps delivering untold tragedies to the poor and their communities. The “development machine” keeps running on. But it is running on empty. This emptiness is what worries me because it is productive of tremendous waste.

The other fact, nowadays, is that most Western donors consider Africa to be a zone of emergency, a fertile ground for humanitarian interventions. The future is not part of their theory of Africa – in the very rare cases such a theory exists. For them, Africa is not only a land of empiricism. It is also the land of a never-ending present, a serial accumulation of “instants” that never achieve the density and weight of human, historical time. It is the place where today and “now” matters more than “tomorrow”, let alone the distant time of the future and of hope.

This is what the temporality of “development” has done to us – the fragmentation of time, the erasure of history-as-future and our mental incarceration in a never ending form of presentism and nihilism. This nihilistic impulse worries me too.

Under these circumstances, it seems to me, the function of art in Africa is precisely to free us from the shackles of development both as an ideology and as a practice. It is to subsume and transcend the instant; to open the vast horizons of the not-yet – what my friend Arjun Appadurai calls “the capacity to aspire”. Such too is, at least to me, the function of cultural criticism and of critical theory because art cannot thrive in the absence of a strong critical theory tradition.

In circumstances under which millions of poor people indeed struggle to make it from today to tomorrow, the work of theory and the work of art and the work of culture is to pave the way for a qualitative practice of the imagination – a practice without which we will have no name, no face and no voice in history. This struggle to write our name in history and to inscribe our voice and our face in a structure of time that is future-oriented – for me this is a profoundly human struggle. It is a struggle of a different kind than the struggle for mere livelihood, physical sustenance and biological reproduction.

I hate the idea that African life is simple bare life – the life of an empty stomach and a sick and naked body waiting to be fed, clothed, healed or housed. It is a conception that is structurally embedded in “development” ideology and practice. This kind of base materialism radically goes against people’s own daily experience with the immaterial world of the spirit, especially as this spirit manifests itself under conditions of extreme precariousness and radical uncertainty. This kind of metaphysical and ontological violence has long been a fundamental aspect of the fiction of development the West seeks to impose on those it has colonized. We must oppose it and resist such surreptitious forms of dehumanization.

Achille Mbembe is a research professor in history and politics at the University of the Witwatersrand and the author of On the Postcolony. Vivian Paulissen is afree-lance expert and consultant in cultural funding policy based in Amsterdam.