What you need to know:
- The research was conducted by 15 different teams in different parts of the world.
- I am focused on the impact that the arts can have in better black futures.
- The book presents proof that there are many conscious creatives out here who only work with entities whose work conforms to their values.
Churchill Ongere, an artist, also describes himself as a Pan-Africanist and development sector practitioner. He has a keen interest in the deployment of creative voices and technology in improving Blacks’ futures. He spoke to Life&Style ahead of the launch of the book: Forces of Art, by Hivos, the Prince Claus Fund and the European Cultural Foundation.
You are a visual artist, an advocate of the arts and Hivos East Africa Project Lead, Resource of Open Minds (R.O.O.M). What does your practice entail?
I am curious about the construction and deconstruction of socio-political relations and how this transforms society. My arts’ practice has revolved around several media, but currently, I draw and paint.
My sensibility as a person and as a professional is highly informed by these experiences which have always been processes of learning more than curated presentation. With this background and interest, I appreciate the funding and capacity deficiencies in some areas of the arts sector especially in the manner that R.O.O.M plans to intervene in them. The program supports creatives in grant-making for content production, capacity building for artists, and linking learning activities for artists and makers to encourage networking between artists in East Africa, Southern Africa, and Northern Africa.
What led you to advocacy, and what inspires this role?
My sensibilities about what matters with regards to equality, justice, and world futures is informed mainly by the history and plight of black people. Indeed, this is the history of the world as well since in many ways all oppression is connected. I’ve interacted with this archive in school, at work, and continue to do so in daily engagements. This, plus the experiences closer home in Kenya – the injustices in society, the nonchalant state resolve to combat corruption, and what this does to our psyche individually and nationally, and our belief of what is possible and isn’t is part of what drives me. We need to guard the hopes we have for a better society, through clear and abstract labours. Here, I am most encouraged by the late Binyavanga Wainaina’s assertion that we need to free our imaginations. It is here that art and creativity comes in.
Presently, I am focusing on the impact that the arts can have in better black futures which if we are in a just world also means better world futures. A future where human rights, equality, diversity, inclusivity, and justice reign together with meritocracy. At Hivos, we advocate for, amongst other things, open societies where freedom, justice, and opportunity is guaranteed for all.
A key finding of the book is that the arts and culture sector is facing a lot of pressures from especially the political front in society.
Through R.O.O.M, we work with artists and makers who are offering a positive counter-balancing force to hegemonies and injustices in society through their content across different media. These artists and collectives, like Duuka Productions, Kijiji Works, Simma Creative Arts Foundation, Pollicy, Tribeless Youth, Siti and the Band, Metta, and Culture and Development East Africa, are challenging popular narratives in society about themes like gender, fashion, plight of refugees, mental health, and tribalism in their societies.
Forces of Art (FoA), a book by Hivos, The Prince Claus Fund and the European Cultural Foundation will be launched on 26thNovember. Tell us about this project?
The book was motivated by a need to understand how creativity and the arts are transforming people’s lives globally. At Hivos, we believe that art offers a positive counterbalancing force to injustices and other issues in society. We, therefore, came together with other organisations. Hivos, The Prince Claus Fund, and the European Cultural Foundation share a deep belief in art as a force with the power to transform our society.
Now, more than ever, we are all reminded of how art can offer powerful new ideas and forms of self-expression for people and communities, act as a catalyst for change and provide hope through meaningful connections and solidarity. And yet, artists and cultural organisations increasingly find themselves operating in a context where they have to demonstrate the worth and effectiveness of their practice through quantifiable methodologies that are unsuited to the work they do. By raising awareness of the fundamental role of art and culture within societies, the book aims to contribute to building and expanding an independent, diverse, and inclusive cultural field.
The result is a multilayered, unique, and polyvocal reflection on how arts and culture shapes societies as diverse as the research settings in Dakar, South East Asia, Syria, and Istanbul just to mention a few.
The research was conducted by 15 different research teams in different parts of the world that were jointly selected by the three organizations together with an independent advisory committee. The teams of researchers selected a total of 38 projects among those supported by the Prince Claus Fund, Hivos, or ECF in different countries during the past decade. It was a team effort of a global dimension that mostly involved each of the organisations providing information on the locations of their interventions across the world, and providing different forms of support to the researchers.
The result is a cocktail of insights that can inform other art sector interventions in the future.
For Hivos, this research has been key to better understand and frame the importance of the work that our partners do, often in very challenging circumstances. For instance, how do artists, musicians and filmmakers increase the space for freedom of expression, collective imagination, and community wellbeing and how can it counter hegemonic narratives and the shrinking of public space? These are some of the questions that you will find in the pages of the book, and the answers that different researchers and artists gave to them are insightful for us, as well as for the cultural sector at large
Why was it important to gather of the various voices and perspectives across different geographies?
The researchers involved selected the 38 projects that they studied, from an archive of over 200 projects and organisations that Hivos, Prince Claus Fund, and European Cultural Foundation supported over the last decade.
Just to mention a few, these are located in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Senegal, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Croatia, Turkey, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Timor Leste, and Cambodia.
It was important to do this research in diverse societies so as to note differences in approaches used by these art initiatives, and to test out different research methods in the different locations.
The result is a cocktail of insights that can be drawn into, to inform other art sector interventions in the future. Art is also a very diverse sector and we wanted to capture its force across different medium, language and cultures. This is only possible through looking at a wide respondent’s base.
Hivos has also been actively involved in funding creatives under the new theme ‘New Ways of working’ that speaks on resilience and adaptability of creatives especially during the Covid -19 pandemic. Tell us about this, and why it’s particularly important to support artists during this time?
At Hivos, we have had to make adjustments to respond to the new realities of Covid19. It is these interventions that we are referring to as “New Ways of Working.”
As much as it is a resilient sector, in the context of Covid-19, the creative sector is very delicate in the sense that it thrives in the very conditions under which Covid-19 is also most threatening – an environment of free movement and gatherings, and unrestricted contact.
We are now working in a world where simple contact can have fatal endings, and social gatherings where creatives mostly present their work to the public, are discouraged. Two months into the pandemic, we launched a “Resilience Grant fund” for creatives in East and Southern Africa, plus the North Africa region as a pandemic response facility for artists and arts’ organisations. Subsequent grant making processes in East Africa have also incorporated funds to purchase Covid-19 preventive materials.
Additionally, we are working to foreground issues of wellbeing in the creative sector with, for example, conducting research and supporting discussions on mental health in the creative sector. We are also encouraging the incorporation of history and memory in the production of critical content by the artists we are working with, through supporting access to public and private archives. We would also like to bring artists currently at the peripheries into the core of what Hivos does. Here, we will be working more with artists in remote areas, mostly representing marginalized communities like refugees.
Hivos grant-making to the creative sector has not been disrupted by Covid-19. This year, we have disbursed grants worth 12 million Kenyan shillings, while in 2017-2019, the grants disbursed were worth 32.2 million Kenyan shillings.
From exploring the role of cultural spaces, looking at art events, initiatives and artist experiences in different parts of the world, The Forces of Art book brings up the critical debate on the value of art in society. Why is it important to the world considering that it gathers perspectives from a changing world?
A key finding of the book is that the arts and culture sector is facing a lot of pressures from especially the political front in society, as politicians adopt more divisive tones that have become popular and have been made worse by their trend on social media.
The book is important in asserting the role of arts’ spaces as sites of dialogue, understanding, and free imagination in societies where free thought is increasingly being forbidden. This, unfortunately, is the situation in places like Tanzania where freedom of expression is highly curtailed.
In the World Press Freedom Index 2020, Tanzania is ranked 124 out of 180. In 2019 Tanzania was ranked 118. The book also has insights on how the arts’ sector is an employer to many people across the locations where the projects that are in the report were evaluated.
Insights in the book include some of the challenges that artists and art organizations faced before the pandemic ranging from funding, and capacity gaps in different areas such as management of art organizations. The pandemic then compounds these problems meaning that there is need for increased support for the sector at this time when creative enterprises are really suffering.
The book is important in considering the futures of the arts and cultural sector after the pandemic, since it has some recommendations on how state and non-state actors can work together to improve the resilience of the art sector through improved strategies around cultural funding, and exploring things like social protection and security for creatives.
The studies in ‘Forces of Art’ challenge existing assumptions about the roles of artistic creation and expression in society. What are these assumptions and what are the existing realities?
The book isolates a few negative narratives about artists and the creative sector, and then demonstrates how artists are countering these. An example is the notion that artists and creatives are largely disorganised. There are multiple examples included of how artists are well organised and are even managing organisations that now engage very actively and directly with government unlike before.
Examples here are one of Hivos East Africa current partners, Culture and Development East Africa (CDEA), from Tanzania which is both a platform or artists and an active actor in freedom of expression policy engagements in the country.
Additionally, the book presents proof unlike what is the usual assumption, that there are many conscious creatives out here who only work with entities whose work conforms to their values. The common narrative in society, especially during the elections period in Kenya is that for some money, any artist can be co-opted to support messages that do not align with their ideals and world view.
Where can we get a copy of the book?
The book can be bought online form the website of the publisher, Valiz (https://valiz.nl/en/publications/forces-of-art.html).