On 19th April, after two years of confirmatory research, the University of St Andrews rediscovered the provenance of twelve works by some of Africa’s most prominent 20th century artists which had been scattered between various Argyll and Bute schools and libraries – knowledge of their significance lost over time.
The pieces, by the likes of Samuel Ntiro, Jak Katarikawe, Henry Tayali, and Lucky Sibiya, had been bought by Naomi Mitchison for the Argyll Collection from the galleries of Dar Es Salaam, Nairobi, Lusaka, and Kampala in the 1960s and 70s to promote art education for Scottish children, only to become overlooked. The works will now be exhibited in Dunoon Burgh Hall from 21st May.
That journey from African art hotspot to being lost within the Scottish arts landscape is one that may resonate with individual African artists in Scotland. It is also one which cultural bodies stress they are keen to avoid.
In February, Creative Scotland created a new advisory group to be ‘reflective of all Scotland’s communities’, and four of the nine recipients of its 2021 New International Collaboration Funds are Scottish-African partnerships.
So how healthy is Scotland’s relationship with its African arts? As Africa Day, 25th May, approaches, SNACK asked representatives of Scottish organisations working in African film, music and art how the cultural landscape looks to them.
Africa in Motion
Africa in Motion is the largest African film festival in the UK. Primarily based in Edinburgh and Glasgow, it will be held online in October 2021. Submissions for its short film competition are currently open. Liz Chege is the Festival Director at Africa in Motion, a position she has held since August 2020. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, she currently lives in Glasgow.
How would you describe Africa in Motion?
This is an interesting question because I am in the middle of revising what it means. Primarily it is a film festival, but I love the title ‘Africa in Motion’ because it doesn’t restrict it to just film. We do art exhibitions. We are very involved in VR. Gaming is a very big industry now on the continent. Something that I launched last year is the Notes Unbound critics circle for African or African diaspora critics. So we are involved in a lot of different aspects of creativity.
I would say it is an organisation committed to the discovery of new African talent, both on the continent and in the diaspora, and to introducing these artists to audiences in the UK.
Africa is a large, diverse continent. Is all of Africa equally represented in film?
Africa is huge. You can fit China, America, Europe, and Australia in it with room to spare. In Kenya we have 43 languages, which means 43 cultures. Nigeria has over 200. So it is impossible to capture everything. But yes, there are regions that have more of a platform because of heritage.
West Africa, because the French colonised there, tends to have a successful track record. Nigeria is rich in resources, which is why Nollywood has grown. North Africa, especially Egypt and Tunisia. And of course South Africa has resources, and Hollywood films there because of tax cuts. But across the continent making money from art is difficult because it is not seen as a respectable field. We do try to give as big geographical cover as possible, but recognise some areas are more represented than others.
Why is an African film festival important for Scotland?
First, the amnesia in the UK about its colonialism cannot be ignored. The histories of Africa and the UK are so entwined, even in the present day – not just the fact that African people are here, but there are also British people across the continent. Second, there tends to be only one perspective of Africa. I know the existence of the NGOs is important, but bombarding UK audiences with those adverts doesn’t help the narrative. There is a disconnect with how Africa is represented here.
What change would help African films get more established in Scotland?
Helping more artists will naturally – depending on who is moderating this – mean there are more Black and African Scottish artists represented. I actually think there needs to be more investment in the initial stages of film: the writing, script development, the craft of filmmaking, rather than just production. Invest more in the development phase because you will get good work rising to the top, and that work produces more funding.
Does using the term ‘African’ risk making Scottish audiences see African filmmakers as ‘other’?
I think specificity is incredibly important. I do see both viewpoints: someone says ‘I just want to be known as an artist’, but on the other hand saying you are colour-blind, which I despise, means you erase somebody’s identity. My opinion is that it does matter and should be included, but I also know that I don’t speak for all Black people and opinions will differ. I think if you can be more specific about where someone is from – if you can say Kenyan-Scottish, Egyptian-Scottish – it is much more helpful than just saying African.
Has having African heritage influenced your career path in Scotland?
Absolutely. This is the first time the festival has been led by a Black person, and not just a Black person but a Black African person. It is hard to put this stuff into words – and I can see why people don’t want to speak about identity because it can be so easy to misconstrue – but I think my experiences will inform how the films are talked about and what kind of people are invited to speak. This is a good and bad thing because it can become hard to separate yourself from the identity of the festival, but I have worked hard on having boundaries in place.
Where would you recommend a person start in order to improve their knowledge of African film?
Thank you for asking this question. There are some amazing curators out there who have collected and produced DVDs of great works. Criterion Collection has an amazing resource of not just African filmmakers, but also Black directors from all over the world. BFI also has, but not on the same scale. And we have an African film database which programmers and curators can look through. Also read magazines like Film Comment. And just keep attending these festivals; that is where the new work is coming, as well as archive work that is being restored.
Finally, how can people learn more about Africa in Motion beyond the festival?
They should sign up to our newsletter! But we do year round screenings, which are usually free, and we are part of an African festival consortium called Tano – Tano means five in Swahili, as there are five festivals. And there are various ways people can participate. They can volunteer. They can spread the word. They can follow us on social media. And they can donate!
Glasgow African Balafon Orchestra (GABO)
Glasgow African Balafon Orchestra (GABO) is a platform promoting Afrobeat, Afro Jazz, and collaboration. Established in 2018, it currently offers a band, studio, radio station, and workshops, and is launching a festival this summer. It is part of the broader Afro-Celtic Connections project. Chief Bapula Chebe, 50, founded GABO and works as its Music and Artistic Director. Born in Pulima, Ghana, he currently lives in Kilsyth and has recently also started African Dreams Publications.
What brought you to found GABO?
It was a combination of frustration and hope. The frustration being that I am a musician and author in Scotland finding it difficult to see African authors and musicians develop professionally – including myself. Knowing that the talent is there and not being able to do anything. The hope is because I come across a lot of musicians and artists and can see the cultural fusion that African music can bring.
How healthy is the African music scene in Scotland?
That is one of the questions I have been waiting – waiting, waiting, waiting – for somebody to ask me. African music in Scotland is at a chronic anaemia stage. Chronic, as in suffering. And anaemic is malnourished. I say this because in Africa music is normally part of an inheritance culture – my grandfather played balafon, his grandfather played, and so on. Scotland has people who have found themselves here and who have these unique cultural inheritance legacies, but our situation is impoverished by a lack of network organisation and targeted resources.
An example: I have worked as a community artist in schools, and have been happy doing it because a cultural artist has responsibility. But when I reached the point to develop my art, I struggled for any funding or resources. I have made five applications to Creative Scotland and failed. You get small funds from the Lottery, then hope for a fund from Creative Scotland which you don’t get so the thing you want to do becomes a mess. The amount of time you spend as an artist on applications is frustrating. If somebody as established as myself cannot get access…That is why I say we are in a chronic state of anaemia.
Does Scotland still see its African artists as outsiders?
The problem is poor presentation. But art is the best opportunity to make Africa a desirable brand. Art can help people up from the streets. There are talented people, but they have to sell drugs – it is so embarrassing. Scotland is a welcoming place, but how are we enabled to contribute effectively to the social economy? We are actually most welcome when we have no place to live: once we find a place, we are abandoned.
That abandonment does not come from hate but the way people logically think. But there is an opportunity here. Art offers that hope because there is talent out on the street. We need to find ways to find it. It is not about equality, but opportunities. If you support ten artists, maybe none of them will become Rihanna. But if you continue supporting, one of them will become somebody that moves out of this targeted effort.
Are there expectations inside Scotland’s African community about what art it should be producing?
A lot of our educated people don’t embrace our artists. They think ‘Why would I bother seeing someone playing a drum when I can just play Dr Dre or Kanye West?’ We are not professional artists in their eyes. Yes, you have a community festival, you play the drum, and they will enjoy the spirit, but unless we gain a lot of people’s attention our own people discriminate against us. ‘You are an artist but your car is breaking down all the time!’ (laughs) ‘You are an artist but we see you wearing the same jacket!’ So that is quite complicated within the community.
A lot of people just give up. Many of the refugees from West or Southern Africa are musicians, and their music asks intelligent questions, but here frustration comes and they do a security or cleaning job.
Does money influence the type of art that African musicians are producing?
Definitely. It influences not only the art people are producing, but the art people are consuming. I have visited thousands of schools and done so many community workshops, and at that level some of us are effective contributors. But when it comes to big events there is no strategic money there. I can only present my art to people where it is nearly free: I don’t have the capacity to develop an orchestra and make it not just me banging drums for 300 people. So you become a general consultant rather than a specialist. I have to be a writer, I have to do this, have to do that. Sometimes I have to combine everything. You can’t focus on your own special area.
After you develop art to a certain standard, it becomes universal, and I think Scotland is missing a big opportunity. If a mega national funder like Creative Scotland could have an African community art fund, it could give Scotland, a small place, a lot of global linkage. Now when they play my music in Ghana, I go there as a Scottish export. The cultural and economic benefits cannot be underestimated.
Johfrim Art and Design
Chief Josephine Oboh-MacLeod is the Artistic Director at Johfrim Art and Design – an art exhibitor and seller based in Milngavie. Started in 2016, Johfrim hosts cross-cultural events and represents work by 30-50 artists, approximately 70% of whom are from Africa. From Lagos, Nigeria, she is also an artist, photographer, and businesswoman.
How did you come to be representing African artists in Scotland?
I have been working with art for over thirty years. When I was 16 I wanted to be an artist, but my mum wanted me to be a businesswoman – I said if I am going to work for you, you have to sponsor my art! Later, I set up an African art gallery with an English partner in Guildford, and after my MBA I started an art hotel on Victoria Island [in Lagos].
I started this in Scotland because I married a Scottish husband. We met in Nigeria – it was his bagpiping that did it for me. When I got to Scotland I went to the artists guild where I am from and asked them whether they would trust me with some works so that I could market the work internationally.
Are there similarities between African art and Scottish culture?
I find that a lot of your Celtic symbols and colours are very similar to ones in Africa. Even the kilt. In our tradition, during the ceremonies, men wear things like the kilt. And when my husband went to my village for the first time and played his bagpipes, the oldest man was saying the sound was like an instrument they used to have in the olden days.
Why do you think exhibiting African art is important for Scotland’s cultural landscape?
Scotland is becoming a cosmopolitan place. There are a lot of Africans now proud of being Scottish. I’m one! So for the sake of those Africans, including myself, who are Black Africans, I do want something that represents me within the landscape of Scotland. I feel it is also good that Scottish people know about the rest of the world, and are positively influenced by other parts of the world.
I want us to prosper and work together so we can reduce racism. Art is the strongest weapon to reduce racism and classism. You meet yourselves as equals when you are artists.
How is African art trending in Scotland? Is it becoming more popular?
I think it is positive. I think there is a future for African art, definitely. They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with one footstep, and we have started that step. People are responsive to it: Gavin’s Mill [in Milngavie] has Africa Days to make African art and meals and they have been very successful. People are ready for it.
Are there any specific challenges in getting African artists shown?
We need a space to do things and the support of the government. The people and the Lottery can’t do everything. If the Lottery is giving funding, then the government should give a space – there are so many run-down properties they could do up with a little funding, then say ‘OK, Black Africans, you have this here, showcase your work’. We can do that with other Scottish people too, it doesn’t have to be only Africans. So funding and spaces. If we get those two we are good to go.
Do Scottish art watchers have expectations about what African art should be?
I think the expectation for some is it is going to be ugly. But I promise them it is not going to be ugly; we just need to explain that there are different aspects to know about African art. You have art intended for a shrine where the intention is for us to be afraid of our ancestors, so the artist portrays fear.
If, after 500 years, you are still afraid and say it is ugly, it means the artist has done what he intended to do. But when you look at other art, and they have streamlined faces like the bronze work in Benin in praise of the obas or iyobas, you find them handsome. This art is for beauty.
On the flipside, do African artists have expectations of what will sell in Scotland?
No, but we are still testing the market. So far I know people love bright colours. During the winter they say ‘No no no, I want bright colours!’ But cool colours can also be relaxing, for example in office spaces. So we are still testing to see the reaction – but the reaction is mostly ‘we love the bright colours’.
Is there a way for people who are not artists to participate in Johfrim’s work?
Yes. During all our exhibitions we have community participation where you paint with us, or we do something with you and we display it. We show things from people who have never painted before but who have taken part in the exhibition. And if a buyer wants to buy it, that is fine.