Black Swan Meeting - April 2021

6 May 2021

A Note In Summary And Response 

The relationship between Europe and Africa, community to community within both, those represented and un- or under-represented, was the topic for discussion raised in April for EFA's Black Swan group. Two questions were posed at the start. Who has a seat at the table, takes decisions in European arts engagement? And who speaks for whom and where?

As the issues were unpacked it became clear that festival curators and artists are giving answers that undermine many of the assumptions that have guided the development sector for the last 40 years. At the same time there emerged sharp distinctions between the acceptability of artists and their outlets having financial ties to public authorities in open liberal democracies and those who have to put up with autocratic and corrupt regimes. For precisely this reason, remarks that follow from the discussions are unattributed and reformulated.

There is, it seems, a variety of attitudes. There are those who are worried about Europeans being, or appearing to be, neocolonialist when they offer a platform to shape a programme of work from outside their own territory. Yet others regard that as a means of transferring resources from the relatively rich centres to artists in less well supported areas of the world. Some resentment is aimed at the notion of the elite artistic locations which claim excellence; the old European and American centres of Paris and London, New York, Brussels, Vienna and the satellite venues and festivals that circle them. The argument that these are where the media and arts business is seen to operate neither stands up in fact (both are now global) nor is desirable for those who want fresh nucleii to register on the global consciousness.

Some, though, cannot see what the fuss is about. These 19th and 20th century hubs have given many artists the chance to exhibit and develop their work away from the constraints of home (political, social and religious) in an atmosphere of tolerance and financial security. This in turn has helped them repatriate their art, support initiatives and mobility in their original territory with a degree of freedom and, by their example and direct intervention, give hope and opportunities to emerging talent. The old colonial hubs were always imperial, either in money or governance, but they can also now be open havens in an intolerant and autocratic world. As one participant put it, 'in Africa everything is a priority - water, food, work, freedom. In Europe a €200 costume is normal, easy, not amazing.'

Independence has come to be a complicated concept too because one has to ask what an artist is independent from: government censorship, interference and retaliation; the pressure of monied patrons, the criteria of foundations that aim to do good but are steeped in the philosophy of aid and institutional paternalism - patronising in the worst sense, however well-meaning or politically correct the intentions. There are plenty of countries where to be an independent artist is dangerous, not only for themselves but for those they work with. The 'family' of the arts is no more safe than the real family of a critic of the regime.

Touring may be a false measure of success but not to tour and to remain stuck in one place is parochial. But for all the benefits of engagement and facilitation - the point that it is difficult, not bourgeois, to provide links and audiences - there is a worry about who is in control, even when an audience is receptive and curious. The cycle of touring, guest appearances, and global media fame is seen as failing to break the cycle of dependence, of representation and privilege, the logic of aid and development. On the one side it is the opening up of resources, on the other it is the cementing of a debt relationship.

The ancient Greek concept of colonialism was the founding of friendly cities on distant shores. It implied the security of trade routes, not necessarily dominance over wide territories. Dominance and control is imperialism. These days physical imperialism is practised by China and Russia, money and media technology imperialism by the USA and its subsidiaries. Perhaps Europe's new strength can be defined as an invitation to colonise itself with new ideas and voices from its former possessions and beyond, to celebrate their incoming brilliance, and find ways of collaborating in their circulation: an inversion of colonial thinking.

by Simon Mundy