STRUGGLE OF THE ARTS
Covid-battered artists unite in call for stronger ties with civil society and the education sector
South African artists have declared that their future is aligned with struggles for equality, transformation and social justice, and called for improved cooperation with ‘broader civil society’ heralding ‘the transformative impact of the arts on society and nation-building’.
The first national #StandTogether Arts summit hosted by the Sustaining Theatre and Dance (STAND) Foundation ended last week with a series of resolutions that aim to strengthen the voice of artists and raise the visibility of arts in education and civil society advocacy.
After three days of discussion and introspection, resolutions were adopted by delegates from 33 organisations, across disciplines and genres, at the summit in Stellenbosch. They included the Visual Arts Network of SA, National Writers Association of SA, the SA United Cultural and Creative Industries Federation, Im4theArts and the Theatre and Dance Alliance.
The summit found common purpose on the need to build diverse, representative, democratic and united voices through better coordination and collaboration.
In their words, “a seed has been planted for broader sectoral cooperation”.
According to Yvette Hardie, honorary president of International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People and deputy chairperson of STAND, the summit created space for “engagement and discovery”; it exuded a sense of “the excitement of being in person, of people finding one another, of deep listening and of the potential for collaboration”.
In his opening plenary speech, playwright Mike van Graan sketched a short history of the role of artists at previous moments of crisis, including in the struggle against apartheid, when faced with a different type of silencing and censoring. Today’s silencing arises from the shutting of theatres and other performance venues caused by Covid and is exacerbated by a prolonged and abject failure of the government to encourage and fund the arts.
The creative industries don’t exist in a vacuum. The arts help people process the world around us. They play a vital social role. In Van Graan’s words: “We have a duty to help our fellow citizens make sense of this world, to interpret and reflect, to help our audiences to experience catharsis, to speak truth to power and somehow, somewhere, to find beauty, to affirm life. Even though we, too, are not well.”
The Covid-19 pandemic, the summit resolutions point out, has had a “devastating biopsychosocial and economic impact on the arts and culture/creative industries and on those who make their livelihoods within the sector”.
This has been compounded by “the lack of care and the non-sustainable support made available by government authorities for the sector during this time” and “maladministration of relief funds by those with authority”.
Sadly, corruption has infected this area of our life, as much as it has elsewhere.
As a result, participants agreed to “actively lobby for public sector support and funding for formalised, representative structures that have proven memberships, sound governance structures, accountable financial systems, active programmes of action and relevant legal founding documents”.
However, a constant complaint has been that the government has failed to engage independent arts formations in meaningful consultation. As a result the summit resolved:
- “Actively to engage relevant government departments and political structures to pursue and defend the interests of the arts and culture/creative industries and of our members in particular on matters of policy, strategy and funding that affect us”; and
- “To establish a team across all disciplines to monitor the development and implementation of policies that affect the sector, to inform the sector about such developments, to undertake research and make proposals with regard to such policies and to inform representative civil society structures about how to engage with such policies.”
Significantly, artists declared that their future is aligned with other struggles for equality, transformation and social justice and called for improved cooperation with “broader civil society”, noting particularly “the transformative impact of the arts on society and nation-building”.
To this end they resolved:
- “Actively to cooperate, collaborate and build strategic alliances with broader civil society formations and campaigns that advocate for a better, more humane society;
- “To educate the arts and culture sector about broader social issues and related advocacy campaigns such as the Basic Income Grant, and to mobilise the sector in support of such campaigns; and
- “To maintain a non-partisan (not aligned to any political party) approach in doing so.”
In relation to the impact that Covid is still having on the sector, the summit resolved: “To drive adequate safety measures and education regarding vaccinations… both among those who work within the sector and audiences to ensure maximum safety against community spread of the virus, and that workspaces can reopen sustainably.”
With many theatres and other venues still closed, the summit resolved to “engage with government, private and other agencies to represent the views and interests of the arts and culture/creative industries in matters to do with pandemic related to regulations and decisions that directly affect the sector.”
Finally, according to Hardie, “a very strong component was around the need for the mainstreaming of arts in education, across the whole spectrum of education. There was a sense of “urgency around this question”, a “feeling that the arts can help equip us all as citizens for the 4IR (Fourth Industrial Revolution)”.
But noting that “the arts and creative economy is only as strong as the education that underpins it”, the potential for arts-based learning was counterposed to the “lack of capacity in the basic education system to support adequate arts and culture teaching and learning”.
Thus, the summit resolved that “existing curricula need revision, decolonisation and interrogation and that certain ways of knowing and assessing have been marginalised”.
It declared: “That all children have a right to be exposed to arts-based learning for balanced cognitive development which promotes whole brain-thinking, creativity and adaptive thinking.” And resolved to: “Engage the education value chain from ECD to tertiary levels to ensure inclusion of arts education as a focus for all learners at all stages of their education.”
As South Africa recognises the growing importance of early childhood development (which moves from the Department of Social Development to the Department of Basic Education in April 2022), the summit called for “the development of an arts-based curriculum for ECD which can be rolled out nationally through the engagement and training of unemployed youth”.
“Very positive conversations started”
The summit ended with a clear commitment to moving forward together, with concrete plans to consolidate the network and “to include other membership-based organisations and key organisations that have national or provincial impact”.
In the words of the Theatre and Dance Alliance’s deputy chairperson, Cornelia Faasen: “We’ve been working in silos for too long. Covid-19 has emphasised the need for us to take collective responsibility for our sector.”
Gregory Maqoma (founder and director of the Vuyani Dance Theatre), Cornelia Faasen (CEO of the National Afrikaans Theatre Initiative) and opera singer Sibongile Mngoma (president of Im4theArts), who recently was among artists who staged a sit in at the offices of the National Arts Council to protest over maladministration of relief funds, were elected as joint chairpersons of the new informal network of artists. DM/MC
The full resolutions of the summit can be found here.
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