Friday, August 14, 2015

The Art of Circles: 51 Years of Lost Motivation

Maybe there was a true motivational factor. Maybe the true motivational factor was lost in time because, maybe, July 6, 1964 is such a long time back that nobody remembers what the initial focus was.
But, as Malawians prepare to commemorate 51 years of independence from Britain, the arts industries will likely look back with mixed emotions, appreciating the steps taken to uplift the lives of actors in the industry while ruing lost opportunities.
The unfair part about life is that, while there may be many different paths to success, colouring the feat in a different way, there are not many ways of colouring failure except using dark colours.
One of the hallmarks of the country’s failure to tap from the hidden treasure that is culture has been the failure to develop a Cultural Policy, at least until the coveted blueprint was adopted by the Cabinet. However, there has been negligible progress since Culture Minister Kondwani Nankhumwa became the bearer of the good news.
The government’s half-century wait to adopt the Cultural Policy could be baffling to some international scholars who cannot visualise life outside the cultural parameters that reflect a nation’s collective aspirations.
For example, in a paper titled ‘The Context for Cultural Policy – Old World and New World’, Maria Naimark, Associate Professor at Interstudio State Institute for the Professional Development in Culture in Russia, and Dennis Rich, chairman of the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management Department at Columbia College in the United States, observe that the wheel of national development cannot roll smoothly without culture.
Reads part of their paper: “A nation’s culture mirrors its deepest roots, current state and vision of future. The cultural sphere develops along with national development in general, but there are the fundamentals that never change completely and influence every-day cultural life. Culture is often the result and always the cause for the cultural policy.

There is a kind of circle: national background national cultural policyartistic product [institutions, individuals with their creations] cultural life of the country [which becomes the part of the context and finally – background] - again cultural policy - And any changes, or improvements can only shape, adjust, optimize the long-existing tradition.”

Naimark and Rich also provide a justification for the state’s subvention to arts organisations.

Put another way, the collective heritage of a nation deserves collective, that is, public or government support. It can also be argued that government funding relieves or at least minimises the pressure on arts institutions to fund-raise. And, unburdened by this distraction, arts agencies and artists are free to pursue artistic endeavor.

Another very significant argument favouring public funding for the arts is that such funding frees the artist from the pressures of the market place. This way it makes a kind of circle: national background – national cultural policy – artistic product (institutions, individuals with their creationscultural life of the country again cultural policy.”
For Malawians, however, the only words they have heard from Culture and Tourism Minister, Kondwani Nankhumwa, are that “This (the adoption of the Cultural Policy) marks the beginning of the creation of a win-win situation.”

Survival mechanisms
But, in the absence of government subvention due to lack of a cultural policy, arts associations have largely relied on external technical and financial support to keep the boat floating.
For example, the Film Association of Malawi (Fama) says it has created partnerships with international institutions to promote industry interests.
“We have partnered with international organisations that support and promote international exposure,” says Fama president, Ezaius Mkandawire, citing the Goethe Institute and Arterial Network Africa Movie Academy.
However, Mkandawire observes that these efforts are not enough, and the path to meeting international standards remains largely unpaved. He says current efforts are “just a way to create a conducive environment for our film makers to get used to the standards that are required 
But, again, while the coming together of film makers is a sign of a country coming of age, Fama came into being only in the early 2000s, some 35 years after independence from Britain.
The same can be said of Musicians Union of Malawi (Mum). 51 years after independence, Mum is yet to forge win-win partnerships with international players in the music production and distribution chain, as Mum president, Reverend Chimwemwe Mhango, acknowledges.
  “At the moment, we are working with international music distributors to increase the exposure of our musicians to the international audiences,” says Mhango.

National ‘orphan’ 
While all the players in the arts industry are facing crippling challenges, one voice that rises loudest is that of writers who say that, half a century after the attainment of independence, the local writer remains at the mercy of book publishers’ devices.
Malawi Writers Union (Mawu) president, Mike Sambalikagwa Mvona, suggests that book publishers have created divisions among writers by preferring some writers over others.
“The publishers have sidelined the general fiction and non-fiction writer in preference for textbook writers, and this has reduced chances of getting one’s work published,” says Mvona.
This, he says, means that while other writers are making hay while the sun is shining, others do not know when it will be ripe to buy their way back to the bank.
On a positive note, though, the international community seems to have realised that Malawi can make a positive contribution on the global stage after Mvona’s election as Vice Chairperson for the International Authors Forum (IAF), a global organisation which provides a platform where authors’ organisations share information and take action on issues affecting them worldwide.
It is, in a way, like these have not been 51 years of walking under the shadow of anxiety.

Ideal world
This notwithstanding, there are others in the arts industry who feel that, in an ideal world, Malawi was supposed to have a one-stop arts centre.
For example, author, Malawi Pen and Book Publishers Association of Malawi president, Alfred Msadala, says some countries in the world have managed to develop one-stop arts centres as one way of appreciating the positive contribution of the arts in development.
“At my house, I have a picture of one of these centres, where artists have everything in one building. I took the picture when I visited one of the countries and I think this is the right way to go,” says Msadala.
Instead of working on this dream, however, the operational environment continues to be oppressive to, for example, publishers.
“The cost of publishing books is higher in Malawi than outside because paper and machines used are taxable,” says Msadala.
This, half a century after independence!

Biased recognition
As the country hopes for better days ahead, however, there are suggestions that creative minds that have contributed towards efforts to rid the country of vices such as colonialism and one-party oppression should be honoured.
For example, Poetry Association of Malawi (Pam) president, Felix Njonjonjo Katsoka, observes that poets have not been accorded the respect they deserve.
“For example, one day the country will realise that, through poetry, Jack Mapange actively participated in the struggle against oppression and fight for democracy,” says Katsoka.
And, half a century, later, poets are yet to reap the fruits of their labour
“Poets are not receiving loyalties from any media house. Currently, Cosoma is not collecting loyalties on behalf of poets while musicians are enjoying [the same]. [We also have a] small number of female poets. Potential female poets do not want to expose their talent,” laments Katsoka.
This notwithstanding, the poet has not been completely forgotten in post-independence Malawi.
“Malawian poetry has been part of the syllabi in all literature courses at all levels of education; for instance, Akoma Akagonera and Ndidzakutengera Kunyanja Ligineti in secondary schools,” he says.

Visual contribution
The visual arts industry has been one of the features of post-independence Malawi, painting the aspirations of individuals and the nation.
However, Visual Arts Association National Executive Committee Secretary, Gilbert Mpakule, recently told Weekender that, it has not been easy for the industry, too. He says the industry suffers from the malaise of lack of appreciation.
“Take, for instance, our secondary school curriculum. It took the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology ages to come up with a curriculum that incorporated Creative Art. Now we have Creative Art at secondary school level but there is lack of seriousness. Just imagine, we have a lot of secondary schools in Blantyre but only students at Chichiri Secondary School have expressed interest in the subject,” he observes.

Grand plans
Director for the Department of Culture in the Ministry of Information, Tourism, Culture, Dr. Elizabeth Gomani Chindevu, says the government appreciates the role of the arts industry in the country, hence the establishment of the Department of Culture as well as that of Arts and Crafts.
She says the department has great plans.
“Actually, we have plans to construct cultural infrastructure across the country. The challenge has always been finances,” says Chindebvu.
“Following the Adoption of the Cultural Policy, it will become easier for us to source funds because development partners want something that is typed in black and white, and this is the purpose that the Cultural Policy will serve,” adds Chindebvu.

Common hope
When all is said and done, all the arts associations seem to agree that the adoption of the new Cultural Policy heralds new hope for Malawi.
Pam recites stanzas of hope. And, so, do musicians. The film industry joins the song.
Pinning their hopes on a piece of paper. 51 years later!

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