Sunday, September 16, 2007

Interrogating the chokehold on Malawian art

By LEVI KABWATO, The Daily Times - Sunday, July 29, 2007

Much has been said and written on Malawian art – music, writing, theatre, fine art and even film. The arts industry has produced phenomenal talent, from Proffessor David Rubadiri to Maria Chidzanja-Nkhoma to Wambali Mkandawire to Shemu Joya. But, there seems to be something that is choking the complete evolution of the arts in Malawi. LEVI KABWATO interrogates the arts space in Part 1 of this two-part series.

A FEW weeks ago I received an email from a colleague and friend of mine Kondwani Kamiyala. It was an invitation to be part of a young writers’ workshop due to be launched soon.

The workshop, the email informed me, would be held once a month and would have, as its main thrust, the activity of reading each other’s work, constructively critiquing it for purposes of generally moulding participants into better artists – poets and prose writers.

I found it to be a particularly exciting invitation. It is the coming together of young Malawian artists in such a way that kindled my enthusiasm for the project. Finally – or so it seemed – here was a positive and united effort to contribute to the growth and development of Malawian writing by young artists.

I later learnt of the active participation of two of my close friends, performance poet Chisomo Mdala a.k.a Nyamalikiti Nthiwatiwa and writer Michael Phoya. The fire I had begun to feel for this initiative burnt sure and bright from within me.

Kamiyala is an award-winning writer. So is Nyamalikiti. The latter has even been part of art and culture exchange programmes that have seen him travel to places like Uganda. Phoya has just completed an intriguing and thought-provoking anthology of non-fiction essays which is already on the market.

As you can tell, this is quite an ambitious breed of young artists. “The youth of today are tomorrow’s leaders,” goes the age-old saying. But, “the youth of today” are constantly derided as lacking in ambition, having a shocking fashion sense and an appalling attitude towards arts.

Hence, if young people of today truly exemplify this notion then, I think they have not had better models in their older folk to learn from. But again, if we talk about the evolution (or lack of it) of Malawian art then the opposite will ring true, probably.

Yet, as the email I received exemplifies, young people, especially the artists, no longer want their kingdom to come tomorrow, they want it today. And for a good reason too.

Reads part of the email; “Compelled by the unfortunate realisation that Malawian writers today have irregularly achieved in their continuous state of existence as hermits, emerging writers based in Blantyre have decided to form a grouping, or, ordinarily a writers’ workshop putting to rest a long run of procrastination and lip-service pre-existing this action.”

It’s not only in writing that this is happening. In music too, there seems to be this sudden surge that has brought forward young musicians with a wealth of talent. I could mention here Peter Mawanga and that youthful act, Burning Sounds.

“We feel we have something to prove as young people. We are not about smoking chamba, or drinking alcohol. Coming from less-privileged backgrounds, we want to be a beacon of hope to other young people in our communities,” once said Peter Siliya of Burning Sounds to this writer.

Such is the enthusiasm in upcoming artistes in Malawi. Yet, despite this, the artistes themselves seem to be going round in circles, failing to found an outlet that can bring to the world the hallmark of their art.

I was in a small town called Grahamstown in South Africa when Kamiyala e-mailed me. I was part of a group of African journalists that was reporting on the National Arts Festival that took place in the town.

So, it came naturally for me to pay close attention to what would unfold in the succeeding days during the festival. The idea was to relate what I was seeing with what happens here at home. It certainly was not as easy at it seems.

Yet, the point raised in the e-mail I keep referring to that our “[artists] live as solitary persons and record their success in that state” kept ringing true for me as I encountered several performers and exhibitors at the South Africa Arts Festival.

One such act I encountered was the Bongolesizwe Tintswalo Theatre Project. Formed in February this year, this act comprises young performers – musicians and actors – from Alexandra Township in Johannesburg.

This is what the group co-ordinator Felicia Hlungwani told me about the project. “Most of these youngsters have nothing to do but they are such a wealth of talent. They could easily end up selling drugs in the streets or engaging in dangerous sexual behaviour. And that would be a huge loss to this country.”

What struck me most was that in just four months, these youngsters managed to set themselves up and produced an exciting and well-co-ordinated show, which they performed at, arguably, Africa’s largest arts showcase.

They say there is power in unity. But here in Malawi, it seems unity – of purpose and vision – has for a long time eluded the arts sector much to the lack of innovation and the development of local art for extended periods of time.

Malawian artistes – it seems – prefer to work alone, without active affiliation to the respective organisations to which they can subscribe. But then, it could also be so because the artistes see no benefits arising from their affiliation to such bodies.

“Do we have a Musicians Association of Malawi? I’m hearing that from you. What does the body do? Who does it stand for?” responded one musician recently after being asked whether he was going to work closely with Mam.

Such, also, is the antagonism and tension that is contributing to the stunted growth of our arts industry. In the music industry, for instance, most artistes feel let down by their association with regards to the issue of piracy.

“Piracy is hurting us a lot. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in this area. So far, Mam is not doing a satisfactory job and this is affecting our growth as artists,” said Lilongwe-based musician Annie Matumbi early this year.

And, when Oliver Mtukudzi told me, in an interview a couple of months ago, that Malawian musicians are failing to tap into the wealth and trappings of international success because they do not travel, I was immediately tempted to think that the mbira maestro was only saying so because he is a well-travelled artist himself.

But he quickly justified his assertions. “Travelling brings you into contact with cultures that are different from your own. It contributes to your experience as an artist. More importantly, it gives you a story to tell to the world,” said Mtukudzi.

Few Malawian artistes travel, especially the musicians. We have had a successful tour at the Music Crossroads finals in Zimbabwe, winning the title for two consecutive years. Hence, there’s hope yet.

Writers like Proffessor David Rubadiri, Wokomaatani Malunga and Stanley Kenani travel abroad a lot and, perhaps, that is why their writing has been met with positive international recognition.

The e-mail quotes Ghanaian writer and publisher Nii Ayikwei saying; “However, much of our progress as [artistes] will have to come from a bottom-up change in the way we work and develop ourselves in our individual countries.” Can this be a solution to local art?

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