Africa On Your Doorstep

Watch out for the Africa 05 programme – a London-wide celebration of African arts, heritage and culture scheduled to run from February to October 2005. Remi Harris and Mark Grimmer take a look at what’s coming up…

Africa 05 aims to add a cultural component to the political momentum and focus that will be placed on Africa when the UK takes over the presidency and chairmanship of the European Union and the G8 this year. Notable African artists, scholars and thinkers, including Yinka Shonibare, El Anatsui, Baaba Maal, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka will also be contributing to the programme.

Events will include African contemporary art at the Hayward Gallery, MC Solaar at the Royal Festival Hall, Fashion at the V&A and a display of the oldest humanly made objects in the world at the British Museum (two million year old stone tools from Tanzania). These major institutions of British cultural life are all partners in the initiative, along with the BBC and Arts Council England – each institution doing what they know best, with the theme of showcasing the rich diversity of African culture.

The programme will also involve events from 50 smaller organisations (including the LIP magazine), ranging through film, dance, music, literature, drama, fashion, radio, television and crafts.

The legacy of Africa 05 is intended to be a permanent improvement in the diversity of the museums and galleries sector, both in creating new fellowships for curators of African origin, and developing new audiences amongst the ethnic minority communities of London. The programme could also change the way things are collected and interpreted.

Mark Grimmer talked to Programme Director Dr Augustus Casely-Hayford about the inspiration behind the programme of events and his hopes for the future representation of African culture in the UK…

The LIP: What prompted you to put Africa 05 together?

Augustus Casely-Hayford: It has been a long time since the last big celebration of African culture in 1995 and since then most mainstream venues have done very little to build upon that fantastic platform. Africa O5 will be a long overdue focus on Africa, and will hopefully be the beginning of a more sustained delivery of African programming by cultural institutions.

The LIP: The ‘Tree of Life’ project sounds fascinating – how can art help shift the focus away from Africa’s violent past?

AC-H: The Tree of life – a life size tree made from weapons that were collected after the Civil war in Mozambique – is an arresting image. It is meant to be provocative, to make us think about how Africa can work through the most devastating periods and thrive. The two Mozambique Government and opposition leaders came together under the tree to reflect, yes upon their countries violent history, but also on their hopes for the future. The tree is now in the Great Court of the British Museum.

The LIP: Does the African artist who claims to represent his or her country have added responsibility?

AC-H: I would hope that no artist should have to take on that responsibility unless they wish to. I hope that during Africa 05 we will be able to see the work of hundreds of African artists, most of whom have never been seen in Britain before. I hope we will begin to get a sense of the huge complexity of African arts practise and to emancipate African artists from the responsibility of feeling that they have to represent anyone but themselves.

The LIP: Why has African culture been neglected on the British scene until now?

AC-H: I think that there has been an unfortunate history of collecting African material culture and placing it in an ethnographic context. This has meant that most of the African material in the National collection has been collected by museums who are interested in material culture. The recent move by the galleries to begin to collect African work will begin to change how and where African art is seen. Hopefully if the Nationals take a lead the commercial sector will follow.

The LIP: In the past, large-scale cultural events such as Band Aid have been linked with a negative image of Africa as a starving continent. Is Africa 05 deliberately moving away from that?

AC-H: Africa 05 is all about celebrating Africa. In a year when we may see African debt cancelled, and a sustainable AIDS policy. It is time to be optimistic and celebrate Africa.

The LIP: What was the African input into the curation of the project?

AC-H: Africa 05 is a celebration, not just of Africa, but also its Diaspora. The whole Africa 05 team are of African descent and we have worked with the Arts Council to begin new curatorial development schemes for BME (Black Minority Ethnic) curators.

The LIP: Can we really talk about ‘Africa’ as a homogenous unit? The art and the artists’ Africanness is both a unifying and differentiating factor – how is this manifested in the project?

AC-H: Possibly not – but the problems of under representation have affected the people of the continent as a whole, hence it is easy to market ‘Africa’ to get people through doors, bums on seats, watching TV – then we can explode the myths and stereotypes. All the artists are here as individuals, and the platforms they have been given respect their individual talents.

The LIP: How will the African presence be maintained on the British cultural scene in 2006 and beyond?

AC-H: We have developed a number of programmes with the Arts Council that will make a sustainable change to the way that African art is delivered in Britain.

The LIP: What does multiculturalism mean to you?

AC-H: I think it means respecting and valuing difference, whilst seeking common bonds.

The LIP: There has been talk lately of an African Renaissance – how important is it for these innovative individuals to channel their talents back into Africa?

AC-H: I would encourage anyone to invest their energies in Africa, whoever they might be.

The LIP: What political decisions were involved in putting the scheme together – is Zimbabwe represented in the project?

There are a number of Zimbabwean artists involved in Africa 05 – the programme has attempted to be as inclusive as possible and not make any judgements that are not aesthetic. I think you have to scream political messages louder and louder, as people get bored of hearing the same thing. Art by its very definition is unique and offers a refreshing take on a number of otherwise unpalatable truths.

The LIP: Where is Africa now?

AC-H: Here in London! Come and see it during 2005.

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