Greetings from beautiful Accra Ghana where I am participating in an African Union (AU) United Nations (UN) hosted meeting on the implementation of the International Decade for People of African Descent (IDPAD) towards recognition, development and justice. The focus of the meeting is “strengthening national, regional and international action and cooperation in relation to the full enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights by people of African descent and their full and equal participation in all aspects of society; promoting a greater knowledge of and respect for the diverse heritage, culture and contribution of people of African descent to the development of societies.” While this may be a mouthful, it is an important undertaking that, in my estimation, requires culture – emphasis on the arts- for success.
I was therefore happy when the Diaspora African Forum’s (DAF) suggestion of an art installation and participation of artist Merid Tafesse in the meeting of approximately fifty representatives from AU, UN, African governments, civil society and private sector was accepted. With an objective to build awareness and understanding of the IDPAD, its rationale, mandate, and work program; five working groups were formed to tackle the development of a work plan in the areas of Institutional Cooperation; Role of Civil Society; Development; Role of Women and Gender; and Public Information. Sadly and strangely the work group on the role of women and gender was cut, suffice it to say, we’ll tackle that issue another time. So with four work groups now assembled, Merid was strategically placed to hear the varying opinions and perspectives of the working groups while watching the displays of passionate exchanges. Just as groups sat with paper and pen taking notes and creating the recommendations which will be presented to the AU as part of a plan of action, Merid too was articulating his perspective in a grand mosaic.
A collage of forty three A4 neon colored papers were carefully composed on the wall of the conference room by Merid before the morning meeting, ready to receive his charcoal and oil pastel, the medium of choice. As the four work groups set about accomplishing stated goals, so too did Merid set out to articulate his observations. After 90 minutes of deliberations resulting in recommendations, a 1.18m x 2.23m art work also emerged. The piece encapsulated what appeared to be both a historic and futuristic take on IDPAD. Charcoal images of shackles, a person’s bare and vulnerable back, and a haunting portrait of a young man with defiant and piercing eyes testified accurately to the conditions and emotions of a horrible past unleashed on Africa by European colonial powers. This was juxtaposed to images of children with headphones, whether for the purpose of listening or blocking sounds; while a woman with a child tied to her back and a toddler engage in the operation of a drone, looing to the skies. These dominant images, amongst others, do not disguise an atmosphere of chaos and occasional comfort, typically found in Merid’s provocative and unapologetic creations.
So what is the point and significance of art being inserted into such dialogue as the IDPAD? On one hand Artists, Activist and Academicians (the three A’s) spend their lives committed to various concerns. On the other hand institutional representatives, who may sincerely champion certain campaigns, are still employees limited by mandates, budgets and timelines. In consideration of this, it is more important than ever that Good Will Ambassadors from the world of the arts are part and parcel of any and all major campaigns for awareness and development. The old adage that a ‘picture says a thousand words’ is true and if IDPAD desires successful outcomes which are game changing and sustainable in the context of the recognition, development and justice for People of African Descent, they should fully incorporate artists in all such meetings.
Songs, poems and paintings have articulated, promoted and memorialized the challenges and contributions of People of African Descent globally. Dare I say, with or without institutional frameworks that shall continue. However, when the highest institution in Africa commits to such an important cause and speaker, H.E. Ambassador Kwesi Quartey, Deputy Chairperson of the AU states, “[African] history has stood the test of time…advanced tremendously through…institutions of higher learning, tourism and cultural exchanges…” all of society must be encouraged to join in this journey. Looking beyond self imposed mental boundaries and colonial constructs, recognizing that art is cross cutting and a powerful tool for the repair and reconstruction of an eventual world where, “…the color of a man’s skin is of no more significant than the color of his eyes…” according the H.I.M. Haile Selassie’s UN Speech, turned song by Bob Marley.
Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.