Madiba’s Centenary Celebration and the Role of Artists
“Ethiopia always has a special place in my imagination and the prospect of visiting Ethiopia attracted me more strongly than a trip to France, England, and America combined.” Nelson Mandela
On July 18th Africa and the world will celebrate the Centenary of freedom fighter turned President and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Nelson “Madiba” Mandela, under the theme “Be The Legacy”. His efforts to end apartheid resulted in 27 years of confinement at Roben Island’s Pollsmore Prison, during which time he inspired decades of timeless artistic expressions. Most over 40 years of age may be familiar with the many Free Mandela songs from Hugh Masakela, Miriam Makeba and Stevie Wonder amongst others. But protest or resistance visual art was also a crucial part of the narrative for change. The “visual culture of struggle,” according to author and artist Judy Sediman in RED ON BLACK: The Story of the South African Poster Movement, documents the powerful images that helped ensure the transformation of South Africa.
Poignant slogans and explicit images resulted in graphic posters circulated secretly throughout the active anti-apartheid networks. The posters were calls to action, launch of campaigns, and announcements of mass meetings etc. Most of all, they were visual platforms to express the fury, frustration, self-determination and resilience of the South African people through art. Sediman states, “We argue that most if not all people making this artwork saw no contradiction between political belief, feelings, ideals and commitments and the production of their art work – indeed, these factors reinforced and informed that production.” Sadly, some artists sacrificed livelihood and life in their pursuit for justice, as was the case with S. Afica’s leading artist of that time, Thami Mynele, who fled to Angola and was subsequently caught and killed by the apartheid regime.
So what social and political challenges and responsibilities do 21st century African artists face? Should they be consumed with the lack of an African art industry, art materials and venues to exhibit? Should they be equally concerned for the millions seeking policy changes on issues of food and housing security, education, employment and anti-corruption? Should artists be forced to consider their daily sustenance before setting paint on their palette? Can or should artists try to reconcile the two? I offer one compelling and highly unusual case in point. The anonymous and illusive UK based graffiti artist, Banksy, has seen his subversive and politically charged works removed brick by brick from public spaces, to be then installed and auctioned at prestigious institutions such as the Tate Museum for…get this…hundreds of thousands of dollars. Hmmm.
Frankly, the Banksy story is A-typical but suffice it to say that in my experience with artists in Ethiopia and other parts of the Africa or in the Diaspora, there is generally a connection and concern for society. Sometimes literal and graphic other times not; but trust that African artists are feeling the pulse of the people and reflecting it accordingly. Some of these successful artists include Zambia’s Zenzele Chulu, whose achievements with modern recycled art has propelled his commitment to preserve Zambia’s rock art; African American Dr. Fahamu Pecou’s cocktail of fine art and hip hop challenge status quo myths on black masculinity and identity; South Africa’s Dr. Esther Mahlangu large scale colorful creations promote and preserve her Ndebele indigenous traditions; and Ethiopia’s Girmachew Getnet confronts capitalism, climate change and the celebration of splendid differences in his paintings.
So as we celebrate Madiba’s Centenary, I encourage artists to “Be The Legacy” as the visual voice for justice can never be enough. Your art is the mirror, reflecting the here and now. Twenty first century African artists should blow away the self-imposed boundaries, reconciling social responsibility with inherent talent. If successful, 22nd century artists, historians and students alike will be inspired by this century’s role towards their subsequent success; just as South Africa reflects on the 20th century efforts of artists towards ending apartheid.
Mandela wrote, “Ethiopia always has a special place in my imagination and the prospect of visiting Ethiopia attracted me more strongly than a trip to France, England, and America combined. I felt I would be visiting my own genesis, unearthing the roots of what made me an African. ”
In honor of Madiba; guided by his profound testimony on Ethiopia, then; considering Ethiopia’s sea of change, now; and might I add with an impenitent art lover at the helm, H.E. Dr. Abiy Ahmed, we encourage the recognition and elevation of the artists in the advancement of the country through awards of distinction, grants, and even appointments as Special Advisors to the Office of the PM, Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and other relevant ministries, regional offices and more so Ethiopian artists may do their part towards realizing the individual and collective aspiration…Be The Legacy.
Dr. DestaMeghoo, Jamaican born Creative Consultant and cultural promoter is based in Addis Ababa. She settled in Addis Ababa as former Managing Director of the Bob Marley Foundation, in 2005 and currently serves as Liaison to the AU for Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.