Africa is not a country: An Open Letter to the Cultural Foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany

By Safia Dickersbach

How can the German Federal Cultural Foundation believe that 2 million Euros will promote cultural relations with the whole continent of Africa (and not even involve the Africans in the process)?

The cultural foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany, the “Kulturstiftung des Bundes”, decided to initiate a new thematic focus in its sponsorship work. The programme is called “TURN” and – as explained in the introductory statement – it is supposed to deal with “Africa”. Although there are certainly good intentions behind this new initiative, the information published about this programme on the website of the “Kulturstiftung” and the funding guidelines which were recently released raise more questions than answers. I want to share some of my anger and disappointment with you as follows:

1. “TURN” is supposedly dedicated to foster “German-African cultural relations”. Without a doubt a cultural exchange is necessary to develop mutual understanding and communication. As opposed to Germany, Africa is not one country, but rather a whole continent consisting of more than 50 individual countries. The Kulturstiftung apparently considers all those countries to be culturally homogenous enough to be able to entertain coherent “cultural relations” with Germany. Could it be that the people at the Kulturstiftung are talking about 50 different relationships between Germany and the individual African countries? But then wouldn’t it seem a bit ambitious to have a jury of three people make decisions involving an entire continent, 50 countries and more than 2000 languages together with the cultures and customs connected to them? Are the three jury members familiar enough with all these countries to fully comprehend their different cultures and languages? And what do these three jury members know about the currently developing new arts and culture scenes on the huge African continent?

2. The budget the Kulturstiftung considers to be sufficient enough to achieve all those goals (see No. 1 above) is a modest 2 million EUR. This is not a joke. The exhibition “Who knows tomorrow” alone which took place in Berlin and showed the works of solely five (!) African artists had a budget of 900,000 EUR. It is ironic to call the provision of 2 million EUR for projects that are supposed to last until 2015 and cover a whole continent a “thematic focus”. Especially so if it is a focus of a foundation of the German federal government. Compared with the overall budget of the Federal Republic’s state secretary for culture of over 1 billion EUR per year which includes the budget of the German Federal Cultural Foundation, the money which is designated for the TURN – Africa project is nothing more than small change money. With such a tiny budget would it then not be more honest and realistic to focus the activities on a few African countries or a specific region of the continent?

3. The Kulturstiftung claims to support the new African initiatives in the area of contemporary and innovative art. But on the other hand:

a. Africans are not allowed to apply for the funds directly.

Africa is not a country. Africa in Perspective.
Africa in Perspective.

b. The African partners are only allowed to apply together with an institutional partner in Germany. The funding guidelines reveal the reason to this: “The German partner, as the project coordinator, has to assume responsibility for ensuring that all funds are expended as contractually agreed upon with the Federal Cultural Foundation.” In other, simpler, words: The Africans are not trustworthy. Basically the funding guidelines tell the other side of a prospective cultural exchange in a roundabout way what in blunt words would be: Sorry, but we cannot trust you, the German art and culture institutions have to first discover you, choose you and then they have to be the lead partner in the exchange, because with bookkeeping we have to rely on the German side.

c. There is no mechanism that guarantees an adequate representation of the different African points of view.

d. No information about the sponsorship scheme has been published in African countries. At least the funding guidelines have been recently made available in English. But French, Portuguese and Arabic translations have yet to appear and it is not that we are asking for Kiswahili, Yoruba, Chichewa, Ovambo, Hausa, Kinyarwanda and Shona, just to mention a few.

e. How exactly does the Kulturstiftung want to prevent the fact that essentially it yet again reflects the German point of view of what is artistically relevant in Africa? Because this is what happens when only German institutions are allowed to apply for funding and no African artist or art collective nor any creative community from Africa has been informed and enabled to apply for funds themselves? If only the German viewpoint counts, why does Kulturstiftung even mention the so-called “cultural exchange”? This approach reminds me very much of the paternalistic attitude which characterized the way Europeans dealt with Africans in former centuries. Do the African countries still want to be treated like this? The attitude transmitted by the funding guidelines and the structure of the TURN programme seems to be the consequence of profound prejudices and can only be considered by the African side as completely disrespectful.

f. What is the role and position of the “new developments and initiatives” in Africa which Kulturstiftung emphasizes, if solely the German institutions are allowed to decide whom they choose as their African cooperation partner? Basically, with this strategy Kulturstiftung cements the current dominance of Western/European art professionals being the decision-makers in regards to what is accepted as significant or important African art. If this is not an expression of a hegemonial approach in cultural affairs than what is?

g. When Kulturstiftung writes on its website that “the programme will primarily provide German institutions and artists incentives to enhance their profiles with new themes, working methods and perspectives”, it sounds as if fresh African ideas and innovations are exploited as new inspirations to rejuvenate the cultural scene in Germany instead of promoting equitable cultural cooperation between Germany and the different African countries. Why do those German institutions not just exhibit or present the best of what Africa has to offer in the same way as they would do it in their regular programmes in case of an artist from France or the U.S. without talking about profile-enhancement with new working methods?

h. It seems that the theme “Africa” has been misused to cast a favourable light on the work of the German Federal Cultural Foundation in its 10th anniversary year 2012 which was celebrated in June 2012 with Chancellor Angela Merkel joining the festivities. The Kulturstiftung’s TURN project – different from what they made it sound in their initial press and media campaign – is not so much about strengthening the institutions for artistic and cultural projects in African countries, but it is rather about fostering the German art and culture scene. This truth has been revealed when a TURN jury member conceded in a comment on Facebook: “They’ve also said that the fund is about the ‘German institutional art-and-culture-scene’ and not about ‘supporting African contemporary art institutions’, but I’ll leave them to clarify that.” What does this statement mean in the end? It proves that the marketing campaign which was centred upon a “new focus on Africa” was actually misleading to the German public, the taxpayers whose money the Kulturstiftung is using and the political decision-makers who decide about the Kulturstiftung’s budget.

What is exactly the misleading element? As a headline to the presentation the German Kulturstiftung states that their goal is to promote German-African relations in arts and culture. But from comments like the one above we now know that the intention of the program is rather to invigorate and vitalize the German institutional art-and-culture scene and less to strengthen African contemporary art institutions. But then the program should have been better called something like “Advancement of the internationalization of the German art and culture scene through cooperation with artists from African countries” instead of creating the impression of a big new policy focus of “German-African cooperation” in cultural affairs.

i. Out of the five institutions which Kulturstiftung mentions in its TURN concept as an example of new artistic developments in African countries two are managed, founded or directed by curators who indeed have an African origin, but were raised and/or professionally assimilated in the West. Of course, there is nothing bad about being educated abroad and obtaining a broader professional horizon. On the other hand, one has to be aware that these so-called diaspora curators are often criticized by artists who are still based and working on the African continent for exerting an undue influence on defining what is internationally accepted as relevant contemporary African art to the detriment of local art scenes and communities in Africa.

Local artists complain that those art spaces are usually not exhibiting art which is accepted and appreciated in their home countries and in the communities in the vicinity of these institutions. Instead they select artists whom they consider to be in line with the international trend in order to satisfy the expectations or requirements of their Western backers and sponsors or to become critically acclaimed in the West. Some artists claim that the activities of those art spaces and their exhibitions often demonstrate experimental and almost compulsively pretentious art which is not enrooted in the countries where those institutions are located. While there might be some envy and competitive resentment in such remarks and an objective judgment on the quality of art is an oxymoron, it is at least questionable to present experimental art like installations and video art as important African art in a cultural setting in which visually strong and historically acknowledged art forms like painting and sculpturing still have to overcome significant obstacles in order to be viable as a part of the cultural life. The problem is not whether contemporary art forms like video art and installations should or should not be part of an artistic programme, rather whether such art should be presented as the currently (only) representative and significant kind of contemporary African art in spite of the fact that in most of the African countries there are sophisticated art works of the last 10 to 20 years which are simply ignored by the international art establishment until now.

j. Whether the “new African institutions” actually work “outside the public funding system” as Kulturstiftung claims on its website seems dubious. Those institutions will hardly get funding from their home countries, but rather from Western and European sources, be it state-sponsored development aid or money from private foundations. Does this statement yet again highlight deficits in information about the state of art life and institutions in Africa?

k. Another aspect of this doubtful approach is the selection of the jury which seems to be totally miscast. The only African on the jury, Nana Oforiatta Ayim, according to information given by her, was born in Germany to Ghanaian parents, studied in England and Russia and is currently based and works in Germany, the United Kingdom and Ghana. Besides the fact that the internet reveals an awkward variety of birth dates and places for her, jumping between Africa and Europe back and forth according to project-related suitability (born in 1976 according to information of the African Film Festival of Milan, born in 1977 according to information of the Nigerian Invisible Borders Trans-African Photographic Initiative and born in 1980 in Accra according to information of OCA / The Office for Contemporary Art Norway, all in all a rather confusing and embarrassing biographical hotchpotch which puts her credibility as the “African representative” into question), she is at least due to her upbringing and education subconsciously as “Western” in her attitudes and points of views as the theatre-director Sandro Lunin from Switzerland and the Bavarian-based journalist and deejay Jay Rutledge. Why didn’t the German Federal Cultural Foundation choose at least one if not a handful of additional art and culture professionals who have spent most of their life living and working in Africa as jury members? Somebody who is not in one way or the other connected to the Western or (Eurocentric) “international” art scene and its somewhat specific understanding and particular taste of contemporary art? Why is there not at least one genuinely African artist or art professional to complement the jury who makes sure that the African perspective on art is taken into account and Africa’s artistic vision is positioned well?

4. The Kulturstiftung also sponsors research projects. In the presentation of TURN there is so much talk about cooperation and exchange between German art institutions and their counterparts from Africa that it was somewhat surprising to see that an additional programme is needed within the TURN fund to promote research projects. If this is a concession of the lack of knowledge about the African art scene and of cultural misunderstandings, then wouldn’t it be better to support more than 10 research projects with 9,000 EUR each? Actually, a much bigger share of the budget should have been made available for such fact-finding missions. The harsh reality that essentially more research is needed to enable a successful cultural exchange appears almost like a Freudian slip in the rhetoric about promoting German-African cultural relations.

In any case, these research missions actually might enable German institutions to thoroughly explore contemporary and emerging art and culture in African countries, as opposed to the blind following of the conventional wisdom of the established circle of Western-educated art professionals and curators.  This would be an opportunity to critically reflect on the dominance of the Western-influenced art scene and its particular agenda in the perception and global acceptance of African art. Curiously enough Kulturstiftung mentions the “cultural exchange” between the five African art institutions which it considers to be progressive and the “Afro-diaspora communities” worldwide. Mentioning this kind of an “exchange” might be a euphemism for a connection which – as mentioned above – is sometimes criticized for solidifying the influence of Western diaspora communities and artists on the international discourse in regards to what kind of art should be considered worthwhile and exhibited as relevant contemporary African art. An exchange which too often silences and drowns out the voices of the local artists and creative communities based in Africa. Why do we not let the African art communities decide for themselves which kind of art should be considered as the benchmark of contemporary art from Africa today? Would it not be a sign of mutual respect and intercultural understanding?

5. The final remark in the funding guidelines speaks for itself: The Kulturstiftung recommends to its applicants to regularly follow up on the travel warnings of the Auswärtiges Amt (Foreign Office) relating to African countries. Maybe it would have been wiser (and not only more appropriate with regard to the available funds) to focus the whole effort on a limited number of countries which would not actually be on the Auswärtiges Amt travellers’ “black list”.

All this leads to a question: Does “TURN” really “revolutionize” the hegemonial treatment of the value and quality of African traditions and idiosyncrasies by the European art establishment which we have observed for too long?  Will the time come when numerous diverse art scenes, creative communities and cultural circles on the African continent finally be taken seriously and treated as an equal, a partner that has an opinion – a voice that must be heard?

6. What does the Kulturstiftung, the German Federal Cultural Foundation, say about all this: Dr. Uta Schnell who runs the TURN programme claimed in a statement which she emailed to me that the Kulturstiftung “unfortunately is limited by statutory and administrative possibilities”, so that it could not “take into account all suggestions it might have desired”. I am wondering whether those statutory and administrative restrictions are a consequence of the same subtle prejudices and patronizing attitudes which characterize the whole structure of TURN and its funding requirements and which we believed to have been buried for long in the past of European-African interconnections. Maybe not without reason Uta Schnell did not answer me any more when I asked her what exactly those “statutory and administrative” obstacles were and what changes they prevented which the German Federal Cultural Foundation would have desired to make. It is a sad experience that a serious Western institution recognizes severe deficits in its programme, but then gives in to unclear administrative regulations instead of fighting for an immediate modification of the programme and a removal of its problematic parts.

A cultural exchange requires respect for your cooperation partners and dealing with them at eye level; these basic principles seem to be completely ignored by the structure and funding requirements of TURN although you would expect them to be observed first and foremost in an arts and culture related programme. If already the elite circles of the art world in Europe deal with an easy element of arts and culture policy like that, what does this reveal about the way the political decision-makers will act when it comes to shaping the really relevant policy actions for dealing with Africa in foreign policy, development aid and other questions of human survival?

This text was first published on October 1st, 2012, and was last updated on April 1st, 2013.

* Africa Is Not A Country – Blog: http://bit.ly/XzGTcn

* Africa Is Not A Country – Facebook page: http://on.fb.me/11cUk5B

* Twitter: https://twitter.com/ArtsSafia

Download the PDF copy of Africa is not a Country by Safia Dickersbach – 1st April 2013.

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Safia Dickersbach is an art market practitioner, born in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, currently based in Berlin, Germany, and is the Public Relations Director of Artfacts.Net, a British company which is the leading online database for modern and contemporary art. 

Filed under: Africa Report

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