The common objection to the work of many African artists is simple: they oversimplify reality and dehumanise the African experience to please a so-called global audience. As a result, their content is predictable and monotonous.

In fact, it is not just an insult but, to a large extent, also a lie. What I mean is that the African human condition is not just about suffering, war, famine, oppression, poverty and dispossession or just greed, corruption and crime.

It is not just an unending series of the unchanging negative. The African experience is complex and dynamic.

Human life on the continent is as dynamic, progressive, ever-changing and complicated as in any other part of the world. But one rarely perceives or experiences this through African art, especially the visual arts like movies, photography etc.

Africans are multifaceted human beings, too, with full human life experiences despite the poverty, unemployment, corruption and crime.

They have love, joy and happiness or anger, jealousy and rage.

But they are, mostly, dehumanised and reduced to victims of colonialism, apartheid, racism and the betrayal of African politicians and government in places like South Africa, Egypt, Libya, Zimbabwe or Tunisia.

What I find disappointing and frustrating about African arts is two patterns.

Firstly, Africans are, mostly, portrayed as less than human because of degrading material circumstances.

Secondly, they are always portrayed in an unending condition of poverty, war, inequality, corruption and political crime.

In fact, this image of the African does not change. It has become frozen in the human consciousness, including the mind of the African visual artist.

We must challenge and problematise this portrayal, which perpetuates a negative view of the continent and its people by suggesting there is no progress or development.

Nobody is denying that Africa, her people and governments have serious problems like poverty, war or corruption. But this should not make African artists not consider or reflect the possibility that African experience may have some positive elements. Yes it may not be in a perfect material state but the white European experience is just as imperfect as well.

It is misleading for African artists, particularly, to portray and project the African experience as unique in its imperfection. Look at human degradation in Europe, India and China, for example.

Unfortunately, white hegemony and economic control makes it almost impossible for African artists to give a different or positive picture of the African experience.

Some African artists may want to broaden the depiction of the African human experience. But they find that they are prescribed and limited by those who not only control the purse strings but the power to open up opportunities for them and thus determine the content of their work.

Of course, due to their economic might, white Europeans and Americans control and manage the elite cultural industries and thus dictate what happens and what does not.

In fact, what they demand and dictate is that the market wants a negative view of Africa.

This has limited African artistic freedom. African artists have compromised their integrity and commitment to African self-determination and freedom for short-term gains like opportunities abroad, fame and fortune.

I am not suggesting that they should deny the tragic reality of the African experience. But artistic expression should capture and reflect the multidimensional African human experience and mirror the changing face of the continent and her people.



Sandile Memela

Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic, columnist and civil servant. He lives in Midrand.

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