It’s a painful time to tell stories about the arts. This week, hundreds of venues across the UK were lit up in red – not in an inspired display of creativity, but as a cry for help as arts venues find themselves on the brink of collapse.
The protest culminated in the iconic chimney at London’s Tate Modern art gallery being made bright red, and illuminated with the words “Throw Us a Line” – a reference to the 1m jobs at risk in the live events sector following the Covid-19 pandemic and shutdown. A report from the digital, culture, media and sport select committee warned last month that the UK now faces the prospect of becoming a “cultural wasteland”.
But it’s not just Covid-19 that is responsible for this calamity. Britain has long celebrated its cultural productivity. It is another area in which we are told we are “world leading” – yet the British government fails to offer the sector the same status of recognition and support as other European countries.
Here’s an idea for our government. Stop co-opting the creative industries into a narrative that has us always boasting of being the best. Instead, invest in the actual artists whose work is of such a quality it speaks for itself.
This “world-leading” perception Britain still has of itself is part of a wider deluded colonial narrative. I have learned a lot about British attitudes towards the arts in recent months on the continent where so many of our ideas and history – never mind those delusions of colonialism – reside. The last year of my life was spent filming a three-part series on the art of Kenya, Ethiopia and Senegal, for the BBC.
Senegal, in particular, has a history that can teach us so much in modern-day Britain. It shook off formal French imperial rule in 1960 – and although its economic base and viability was far from certain at the time, Senegal understood the value of its arts in a way that our government has shown itself totally incapable of.
Led by the poet president, Léopold Senghor, one quarter of the new nation’s budget was allocated to the arts. A huge investment by any measure, this money was used to build presses, theatres, museums, art schools, archives, and workshops. It allowed Senegal to position itself globally as a leading proponent of black art, attracting the diaspora of black artists – a legacy still visible today – and hosting annual salons, international exhibitions and festivals, as well as providing a generous system of bursaries and civil service jobs to entrench art in the economy.
Britain does not have a track record of learning from countries like Senegal, because the need to be “world leading” clouds our judgment with a narrative of superiority that has a very specific history when it comes to the art of the African continent.
The British media talks as little about Senegal, or any of the other Francophone nations that make up the bulk of west Africa, as the French media does about Ghana or Nigeria. Instead, each prefers to stick to the zones in which it wielded colonial power, and continues to retain problematic, possessive ideas.
Looking at the art of countries within Britain’s zone is perhaps even more complicated. Kenya is a country that has done possibly more than any other to inform the British imagination of Africa. It’s no coincidence that the author Binyavanga Wainaina, who so brilliantly satirised the European perception of Africa, was Kenyan. From this perspective, he wrote, Africa is always characterised as “hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving,” and Africans as a people who “have music and rhythm deep in their souls”, but also “no history, no past”.
To learn from and appreciate Kenyan art requires a British audience to first unpick these deeply ingrained – and regularly reinforced – perceptions.
Channel 4’s recent series The Tribe Next Door, for example, was almost a case study in the kind of stereotyped depiction of Africans that Wainaina cautioned against. Set in Namibia, the series sought to depict African life as nothing more than the “tits and spears complex” so adored by our media. This was confirmed when Channel 4 described the location simply as a “remote African village”.
It’s hardly compatible with a conversation about how countries like Kenya are forging ahead with responses to the climate crisis, and how these manifest in its art. The nation introduced a total ban on plastic bags in 2017 and is now a creative leader in art that explores consumption and sustainability – with artists like the sculpture Meshack Oiro creating powerful works from recycled materials.
As a black British person, there is a profound quality to simply witnessing art by black creators. It’s hard to escape the impression that this is a different process when rooted in countries where artists’ blackness is so normalised it does not demand a response – and where racism does not constantly invade their conceptual space.
The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement will, I believe, attract more diaspora black artists to the African continent, renew interest in the legacy of leaders like Senghor and his philosophy of négritude – a complicated but important conversation about what blackness means and how we should nurture it.
It feels like an important time to engage substantively with African art, but at the same time, in Britain there is so much baggage when it comes to looking at the art of Africa’s 54 nations, that the lens itself feels compromised.
I encountered some of the most exciting art I have ever experienced in Ethiopia. It feels insulting to think of the photography of Aida Muluneh – regal, diasporic positioning of black women long before Beyoncé’s Black Is King – or the painting of Yonas Degefa merely as a response to Bob Geldof’s Live Aid in the 1980s. Britain may still choose to see African nations through the filter of charity fundraisers, but Ethiopians are getting on with their art – ancient, contemporary or Afrofuturist, and all of these at once.
There is never a bad time to simply show mesmerising works of dance, fashion, painting, sculpture, architecture and photography, knowing that it speaks for itself. It’s impossible, if you engage properly with art, not to see it as a value in itself, rather than – as the British government sees it – something that does or does not deserve furlough money based on its export potential.
Which is why, as British art institutions stand on the brink of a creative collapse, with potentially generational consequences, we need to broaden our gaze. If we engage with the art of African nations – rather than seeing them as countries waiting for Britain to be their “world leader” – we might find we learn something instead.
• Afua Hirsch is a Guardian columnist. African Renaissance begins on Monday 17 August on BBC4 and iPlayer