Sunday, February 2, 2014

Malawian Artists Struggle to Leave International Mark

...Bigger at home, obscure abroad

It remains a national mystery. Whenever local artists clinch awards, furies seem to pursue them day and night that, finally, when the truth dawns on them that they remain global nonentities, pangs of their dissatisfaction become greater than the exaggerated euphoria that marred their happiest moment of triumph.

So bad is the situation that, as the artists’ frustration grows, there seems to be a winding down of the artists’ psyche to a point where they cultivate permanent peace, resigned to the fact that their celebrity status will, like tilapia saka (Chambo), be confined to Malawi.

May be it was written in the stars that most artists who win various awards locally would end up being anonymous individuals in the wider world. To make matters worse, this predicament seems to befall all categories of artists in the country, be it poets, creative writers, film makers, sculptors, musicians, among others.

In the end, reigning Miss Malawis end up being just that: human beings who cannot extend their sphere of influence beyond the borders. And, during the past four years, only Ella Kabambe and Susan Mteghacan can claim to have carried the brand name ‘Malawi’ to the world, thanks to their participation at Miss World Pageants held in 2010 and 2012, respectively.

But things have not been rosy for the majority of those who have served as Miss Malawi as they found chances to parade on the international stage hard to come by. And talking of failure to take local glory abroad, Miss Warm Heart of Africa Aisha Chiwanda summarised the catalogue of pageant exposure problems well when, instead of taking the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’ brand outside the country, the best she could do was to embark on a national tour in 2012.

In her “capacity” as Tourism Ambassador (after being endorsed by the Ministry of Tourism), she toured such districts as Salima, Mzuzu, Nkhotakota, Mangochi, Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mulanje, visiting tourist attraction places.

And it is no use talking about Miss Blantyre, or Miss Malawi Schools Victoria Mhone. She will be lucky if the typical villager in Rumphi, Nkhotakota, or Nsanje come to know even her name. The international scene is like the moon to her; an alien world she will never get to visit.

Not that theatre and drama groups sing a different song; a song of international tours. It is the same, old story. For instance, after scooping top positions in awards such as the dead-and-forgotten Malawi Broadcasting Corporation’s Entertainers of the Year programme, groups such as Kwathu have yet to take the Malawian story abroad.

Talking of poets, chances that the likes of Dede Kamkondo Poetry Contest winner Paul Sezzie Phiri will find local associations that may raise their profile abroad seem slim, thanks to the national ailment of ‘stunted’ fame. Thus, chances of making the best of his winning poem, ‘Bitter Tale’, by clinching a publishing contract with international publishers seem slim.

As of musicians, little is expected of award winners at the inaugural Malawi Music Awards held on Friday, January 17 this year. Award winners included Tiwonge Hango as Up-and-Coming Musician of the Year, Anthony Makondetsa as Best Male, Best Acoustic musician, Giddes Chalamanda, Best All Time Band Alleluya Band, Best Reggae Artist, the Blank Missionaries and Sally Nyundo, Best Gospel Artist Mlaka Maliro, among others.

After these come Life Time achievers that include Sir Paul Banda, Bernard Kwilimbe, Wambali Mkandawire, Overton Chimombo, Rev. Chimwemwe Mhango, Lucius Banda, Wyndham Chechamba, Lucky Stars, Maria Chidzanja Nkhoma.

Save for the Life Time achievers (who have mesmerized Malawians for years and some of whom are known beyond the borders and have won international awards), it remains doubtful whether the others will take advantage of their awards and spread their wings across the borders.

Why is this the case when artists from South Africa, Nigeria, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe or Botswana have made a name in Malawi? Is there anything wrong with local awards?

Structural holes

Award-winning film-maker Shemu Joya says there is nothing wrong with local awards.

“The problem is exposure. Even after winning local awards, our artists are not exposed to the outside world, and I blame this on structural problems. We do not have the necessary structures; structures such as production companies,” Joya says.

Joya says, for instance, that quality problems and structural problems such as the lack of production companies negatively affect the availability of local music, films, and other creative works on the international scene.

Joya, whose films ‘Seasons of a Life’ and ‘The Last Fishing Boat’ count among local productions that have won international awards, adds that, due to these challenges, local works of art find their way onto the international market through unconventional means that border on piracy, thereby affecting their market value.

“The problem with artistic works sourced through piracy is that most radio stations, television stations may not play or beam them, inevitably affecting the exposure of local products on the international scene. In the end, people in those countries are denied the opportunity to sample our artistic,” Joya says.

But the multi-award winner maintains that there is nothing wrong with local awards, including the awards organised by the Film Association of Malawi a couple of years back. What is needed, he says, are the structures that will help saturate the international market with local artistic works.

“In my case, I am working with a well-known production company in Zimbabwe, and this company has been distributing my films using the legal means. Through that arrangement, my films are shown in cinemas in Zimbabwe and, from he feedback, it seems like Zimbabweans have fallen in love with them. We will see if the arrangement will be beneficial to us, and map the way forward,” Joya says.

Organisational lapses

Musicians Association of Malawi president, Rev. Chimwemwe Mhango, concurs with Joya, saying there is nothing wrong with the awards.

Mhango observes that what is needed are initiatives that would help award winners take their artistic works beyond the borders.

“For example, we can take advantage of our affiliation to international organisations such as the Federation of International Musicians, where we are a member. We also work with individual countries such as Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, France, Zimbabwe and other countries that are in the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) council of artists,” Mhango says.

However, Mhango concedes that the inaugural Malawi Music Awards did not include modalities on how to help the triumphant artists take their works to the international audience.

“Let me acknowledge that it (the idea of promoting the triumphant artists internationally) never cropped into our minds. But there is always next time, and I hope we will do better next time. We will include this issue on the list of things we have to improve on during the next awards. We have already received overwhelming feedback on this, and next time we will do better,” Mhango says.

Tall order

Malawi Writers Union (Mawu) president, Sambalikagwa Mvona, says lack of international exposure has been a long-time thorn in the flesh of local artists.

Mvona also concedes that, for creative writers such as poets and short story writers, there is no imminent solution in sight.

“It is very difficult to expose winners of creative writing awards to the international community at the moment because international publishing contracts are hard to come by, and we do not have agreements with those publishers at the moment,” Mvona says, adding:

“At the moment, the best we can do is to work with regional bodies such as the Sadc Council of Writers and hope that the works of our creative writers get exposed. But, get it from me, getting our writers exposed to international readers is one of the objectives of Mawu when the organisation was founded in 1995. We still keep that in mind.”

The multi-award winner creative writer adds that it cannot be difficult to expose local writers because they are few in number, making it easy to analyse and expose their works.

“At the moment, we are trying to promote local writers by posting on Twitter and other forms of online media whenever they win awards. That way, the international community knows what is happening in Malawi,” Mvona says.

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