Sunday, April 11, 2021

Botswana artists looking for themselves

It is often said, “Art created life, and life bestows upon art the opportunity of having multiple mediums that come in the form of colour, sound, rhythm, words, space and time.”

Well, individual artists carry their various perspectives on this subject where ‘we’ begin to try and understand the complexities between art and life, expression and society, being and creation. This is a wide and grey area that demands that ‘we’ look at the root of all things.

A definition of art in the Setswana context continues to be an issue of serious and fast growing heated debate. Many feel that what qualifies as authentic Setswana art is artwork that is produced by Batswana about their culture, while others take a somewhat different stance on this matter.

Often, the assumption within this trail of thought is that nobody, but Batswana natives, would be able to articulate the various facets within the Setswana cultural experience through artistic expression accurately.

Nonetheless, the unanswered question still stands: can an artist really do justice to a piece of art, when the subject matter is about a culture that is unfamiliar to them? Then again, many could argue that an artist’s sense of expression should not be locked into a specific space as to allow the fluidity that comes with various forms of artistic expression. Therefore, a Motswana artist should be afforded the chance to explore Japanese culture and speak about that culture from their perspective without the intricate knowledge that a native of Japan would carry about their environment. Artists in this sense are then inhabitants of the world, free to express what they feel about any given layer within life.

In this sense we then find ourselves in a position where we are forced to reexamine our ideas about art and its usefulness to humankind.
When negotiating with a definition of art in the Setswana context, a lot of gray lines exist where our forms of art cross over to an area that is often thought of as ‘traditional ritual’. Is there a way of separating our Setswana traditional rituals and forms of local artistic expression? The sight of an old man sitting at a kgotla (customary court) reciting a poem (leboko) in pre-colonial times, is something that now falls under the canon of performing arts. A grandmother putting up a mud-hut for shelter is also another example of how old Setswana ways of living now fall under our forms of artistic expression. It would seem that we have moved on to embrace a cultural hybrid that consists mainly of western forms of existence while our cultural ways of being lag behind, left to be saved by the arts.

According to Reginald Bakwena, Curator for the Thapong Visual Arts Centre, in the villages across Botswana “you could find people performing art without knowing that they are, it is part of the old African tradition. Referring back to our cultural background, you find that the old people used to design chairs and that is art: carving”.
Bakwena goes on to elaborate saying, “The problem with African art is that the writers who analyze African art are often not African, so they don’t understand what really goes in. This is why I have always said we have to create our own critics who understand African art and all its spiritual and cultural elements. This is why we often study European art instead of our own. The Europeans have taken time to define the ideologies within their artwork. My dream is to see us writing, studying and analyzing our art. Look at the rock paintings in Tsodilo and Matsieng, for example, that is beautiful, it is a form of art that has been left by our ancestors.”

Reginald Bakwena is one who works primarily with oil paint and produces very nostalgic pieces of art that speak to the soul in a spiritual way. One of the elements that stand out in his work is an obvious yearn for needing to speak about pre-colonial Setswana ways of being. This is reflected in the pieces that he presented as part of the New Version exhibit that opened at the Thapong Visual Arts Centre gallery in Gaborone on Thursday, October 26. One of the pieces that Reginald Bakwena put on display, titled Kwa Masimo, carries an air of loss and a yearn for times long gone. His use of color and silhouettes is very bold and expressive as it emphasizes the presence of movement. He is one that truly succeeds at articulating the Setswana way of being.

Granted, a Motswana would probably carry more general knowledge about forms of expression that are unique to this country through upbringing and socialization. However, there is a danger in seeking to close off the analysis of our cultural experiences and artistic forms of expression to just the local eye. This approach could isolate local art from the level of growth that is often attained during the process of any form of cultural exchange.

Undeniably, there is a need for more Batswana to delve into the arts and enter the space of critical analysis within this area. However, we need not assume a territorial stance where we become possessive of our culture while seeking to preserve and express Setswana cultural experiences. The reality as it stands is that there is much to be gained from the constructive criticism that we will receive from people of various origins.

Hip-hop culture for example, is a movement that started in New York City during the late seventies to early eighties and has since spread the world over. Afro American and Latino communities used this form of expression through Mcing (rapping), Djing, urban street art (graffiti), and hip-hop dance (break dancing) to speak about the various issues within their environment. Hip-hop purists maintain that these elements are the four pillars that should stand to define this cultural movement. However, in the view of others, hip-hop culture has evolved and could include political activism, hip-hop slang, hip-hop fashion and street vending among other things.

Various parts of the globe have embraced the hip-hop movement and now use it to express themselves. In Botswana today, multiple hip-hop artists release music that speaks of our culture in many ways. Local hip hop artist Apollo Diablo (Monametsi Nkhukhu), values the need for a localized version of rapping. He expressed that there is an importance for Batswana hip-hop artists to see the value in using rapping as a tool of expressing the Setswana life experience as opposed to an emulation of American culture. He stated, “The very nature of hip hop is dynamic, if you go to Japan, hip hop is huge there and you can see it because graffiti has always been a part of hip hop. The Japanese love Manga cartoons and animation so now hip hop comes through in that culture in this sense. I see an acceptance of hip hop growing here only if we start to make it local. I took a very bold step by rapping in a language that nobody had ever used, it is a language that is not spoken by all in Botswana and one that not everybody wants to hear; Kalanga (one of Botswana’s native languages).” Diablo goes on and further states, “I feel like the local artists need to bring hip hop closer to the community by giving it an ethnic face like Nomadic (Tebogo Mapine, previously known as Mr. T) does.”

Apollo Diablo’s debut album was released earlier this year and is titled The Meaning of Life. This CD offers the listener twenty-three tracks of local rap done in Kalanga, Setswana and English. The Meaning of Life, says Diablo, is an album that seeks to explore “one of those age old concepts they say only God can answer because it is the secret of the universe and all that. I called my album this because I think the meaning of life is purpose. What a person is meant to do with their life”, states Diablo.

Being a cultural movement of less than fifty years of age, hip-hop has touched upon the lives of many across the globe and continues to facilitate a platform for cultural mixes and exchanges within the realm of artistic expression. One such example is the recent Image in Nations nine-country tour of Africa during the month of October. The group Image in Nations came about as a result of a merge between South African and French dancers. This group offers a cross-cultural performance that mixes South African Pantsula (urban dance) and Gumboots culture with French hip-hop dance.

Together these three elements of dance create a hybrid that is rare and pleasing to the eye. The Sunday Standard attended an Image in Nations performance on October 26, at the French residence in Gaborone and spoke to some of the group’s dancers about their collaboration.
“I am into gumboots dance, Pantsula and hip hop dance. There is a future in the merging of different styles of dance and many people across the world do it. As a South African, I have been working with the French for over two years now and it is a beautiful experience,” stated Norman, a dancer for Image in Nations.

Art with all its diversity and uniqueness seeks to capture the mundane and everyday things in specific places. The image of a woman bearing a child on the farmlands of Good Hope, a child carrying a gun in the midst of civil war in Rwanda, a Vietnamese minor slaving away to manufacture a pair of Nike running shoes at an American owned factory in Vietnam or a “street kid” ravaging through a trash can for their day’s feed at the Gaborone main mall… Whatever the subject maybe, whatever tools one chooses to use, at the core of all art forms sits a story that seeks to be expressed. Art and life were both bestowed upon us. Their relationship is symbiotic. However, the stories they tell fuel the core of our existence as humankind.


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