The state of arts education in Africa

Article by Lineo Segoete.

Arts education in Lesotho is undernourished. Yet this does not mean there is no talent in the country, it is immense, but it is stunted by poor infrastructure to support meeting its full potential in spite of the government’s efforts to introduce it in schools under the creativity and entrepreneurship syllabus. More work remains to be done.
Art is an integral part of African heritage; it presents alternative tangible and intangible means of sustaining, conserving and continuing our cultures. Not only does art rejuvenate the mind body and soul, it also critiques the ugly and hails the beauty of the environments we live in. Why then is it not a priority in every country’s development goals?

The world is shifting into a state where cultural diversity is taking centre stage. A conversation about this shift cannot take place while excluding art in its various forms because every culture has its signatures, stories and character. Think about Zulu dances, Basotho grass-woven products, Burundi tribal masks and Maasai beadwork; each of them demonstrates the uniqueness and sophistication of its people. The African Union is aware of this reality and is making strides to lay the groundwork for a Pan-African approach toward a full-on integration of arts education into every school curriculum. To set up structures and infrastructure that support this new paradigm is obviously a mammoth task, yet not impossible.

Before we get into the practice of arts education we have to first deconstruct the colonial undertones that preside over art production on the continent. In order to make arts education in African countries a true representation of African cultures we must analyse the impact of colonialism on perception, thinking and memory. Cultural scholar Emma Wolukau-WanambwaI, re-evaluating the educational theories of Margaret Trowell, founder of the Makerere School of Art in the Uganda Protectorate, has written that “The imperative, in Trowell’s own words, to “keep the children’s work really African may partly have been borne of her love and respect for indigenous East African cultures, but it was also motivated by her desire to instill in her African students an idea of their culture as static, primitive, and naturally subordinate to a wholly distinct and superior European culture”. A successful roll-out of arts education on the continent must therefore be informed by dismantling and unlearning Eurocentric ideologies in the African-aesthetic realm.

Insufficient training is another burden blocking access to arts education for many African children. We have been led to believe that arts are good only as hobbies, interests or a fall-back plan. There is an unhealthy assumption that formal education in the arts either correlates with a lack in intellect or failure to meet entry requirements into “better” faculties such as Law, Science or Economics. As a result teacher-training institutions have a poor intake in the arts faculty which then forces some schools to hire artists as teachers. Artist-teachers may sound like a viable solution but it is not because all artists are not teachers (and vice versa), there are protocols to observe and a certain temperament required in dealing with learners. As a result students do not inherit the full value of an arts education. Governments, academic institutions and arts agencies are therefore tasked to revise the perceived standards of achievement by focusing on developing natural artistic talents among youth.

Nowadays a country’s development rests heavily on its creative industries; corporates look to creatives to drive their marketing campaigns, tourism is influenced by the creative output of a location, and creative people can now operate as entrepreneurs and may create job opportunities for others. Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández from the University of Toronto defines the arts as “a set of practices and experiences framed by particular discursive regimes that cannot or should not be framed substantially, but rather processually and contextually”. The arts tell a people’s a story, they play an instrumental role in reclaiming identity and forging independence. The Professor continued that “if we understand education as a cultural process, then schooling should be, first and foremost, a place for engaged and continued cultural practice. Symbolic creativity—including perhaps those practices and processes that are sometimes associated with the concept of the arts—should be central to how we conceptualize teaching and learning for all students—not because it improves learning but because it is learning.”

Art is not about objects or demonstrations, it is about people. To succeed at making arts education standard in Lesotho and across schools in African countries we must pay great attention to culture in the context of its dynamic characteristics. New traditions and so-called sub-cultures emerge all the time while old customs are constantly altered. Consequently, we must be cognisant of these trends in relation to cultural production and how it translates through art. A successful roll-out of arts education relies on innovating old teaching approaches in terms of curriculum and assessment as well as applying new technologies and inventing fresh ways of thinking in order to stay current and relevant. One cannot teach art, the arts are something people do. Teaching is simply a matter and means of guiding the process.

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