The directive instructing government departments to buy locally produced goods has been such a real boon to Thapong Visual Artists Centre artists that some of them made enough money to fly the coop and build their own nests.
“It is really pleasing to see that,” says Reginald Bakwena, the Centre’s coordinator.
Of the government entities that bought artwork from Thapong between January 2010 and November, 2011, the Ministry of Education was the highest-spending with P63 685. The Ministry of Agriculture and the Office of the Auditor General come second and third with purchases of P38 000 and P32 800, respectively.
Other government ministries and departments that bought artworks from Thapong are Culture, Youth and Sport, Labour and Home Affairs, Mineral, Energy and Water Resources, Foreign Affairs, Botswana Defence Force, Directorate of Public Service Management, University of Botswana and Occupational Health and Safety Services.
When the directive was implemented in 2008, one of the beneficiaries was Thabiso Thekiso who at the time was a student at the Molepolole College of Education. He was commissioned by the Botswana Police Services to do realist pieces that were later distributed around police stations countrywide. By his reckoning, he made well over P50 000 from this project.
While Bakwena is happy to see artists move from rented studios at Thapong to set up their own, he feels that the one other group that needs empowerment is that of government officers who come to buy the artwork.
“It is important to share knowledge with buyers to help them select artworks and educate them on what is good art and what is not good art, what should be in their collection and what should not. We should avoid a situation where they just collect art for the sake of it because such art ends up in the storeroom. Some just buy because they have been instructed to. The value of art appreciates and in the future, the government collection can be sold and bring in good revenue. In some countries when exhibitions of government collection are held, buyers come from all over the world. As artists, it is important that we inform buyers about what they should look for in a work of art so that in the end, such art is of economic benefit to the country,” he says.
Such empowerment, Bakwena suggests, can be in the form of a “two or three-day workshop.”
What he has observed since the Buy Botswana directive is that generally, government buyers tend to favour realist artwork depicting Botswana landscapes and rural life over other styles like abstract expressionism and cubism. While he respects the buyers’ choice, Bakwena’s gripe is that a good art collection has to be stylistically broad to have international appeal.
“Outsiders don’t recognise this art and it also cannot compete internationally. Consideration must be given to other styles – like abstract and semi-abstract. This would also ensure that artists grow. However, if landscapes and traditional huts rendered in realism are all that sell, then artists are going to stick to that style because that is the only way they can make money. In the process, the artists’ minds get commercialised and their creativity is limited because they are not mentally challenged,” Bakwena says.
Government alone cannot empower artists, which is why Bakwena believes that there is need to reach out to the members of the public. In addition to newspapers and word-of-mouth advertising, Facebook is one of the vehicles that Thapong has hopped on to recruit as many buyers as it can.
“Nowadays when we hold exhibitions, I see more new than old faces and the newcomers would tell me: ‘I saw your page on Facebook.’ A lot of artworks get sold during the exhibitions and the buyers don’t even complain about the prices,” Bakwena says.
The outreach programme also entails going out to rural communities to both educate laypeople and motivate artists. As part of that programme and in collaboration with UNHCR, Bakwena conducted a workshop at Dukwi Refugee Camp a fortnight ago.