How Can East African Artists Benefit from their Hard Work?

By Tom Odhiambo

The debate on whether art can pay has been around for a long time and remains urgent in Kenya today.

Many of our artists remain poor till death despite the few so-called celebrities driving around in big cars and wearing bling bling. The moneyed lot among our artists is very much a minority.

The GoDown Arts Center, with the support of the Swedish Institute and Mimeta of Norway, recently organized a three-day workshop called “The Economy of Creativity” at the Whitesands Hotel, Mombasa, to discuss this question of how artists in Eastern Africa can benefit from their work.

The conference brought together about 80 participants from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ethiopia. There were also delegates from Europe working or interested in African art and culture.

The conference debated the challenges artists and cultural producers face in their work and how best to gain from it.

How can artists influence government policy to benefit from public funding, distribute their work; how does art and culture contribute to the economy and what can be done to sustain art and culture production in an economy where other competing needs mean less is spent on consuming art and culture?

It had artistes from music, theater, painters, carvers; filmmakers, producers, art teachers and critics, donors, government officials and art enthusiasts. One of the keynote speeches was given by Dr George Abungu, former Director-General of the National Museums of Kenya.

He noted a number of shortcomings in the production, distribution, consumption and conservation of art and culture in East Africa. The other keynote speakers were Dr Bitange Ndemo, Ministry of Communication permanent secretary and Prof James Ogude, who teaches African literature and culture at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Each of these speakers highlighted the need for artistes to network, strategize and adopt new ways of selling themselves and their works to the public. Speakers generally called for capacity building regionally. Artists and entrepreneurs were encouraged to take note of the consumption patterns and cultural and art needs of the emerging and expanding middle class in the region.

It is this socio-economic group that may guarantee art producers a sustained market. For example, Dr Abungu also noted that the youth can benefit from the employment potential in the arts and culture industry, whilst also being consumers themselves.

Artists in the region were also urged to learn from African countries such as South Africa and Ethiopia where the state has proactively supported the arts, although they were cautioned to work hard in seeking to engage with the government and leverage influence in shaping policy and government support.

Other speakers highlighted the need for artists to engage directly with business, the donor community and the government.

Mr George Materego, from Tanzania National Arts Council, Mr Nathan Kiwere from Uganda Visual Arts Association and Mr Maurice Okoth from the Music Copyright Society of Kenya all highlighted the need for artists and cultural producers to network organize among themselves first if they hoped to attract funding and also earn from their work.

Mr Materego summed it up thus, “This conference is one of the most important opportunities to share and network and coordinate in art and culture in the region.”