African Colours Interview with Hama Goro

This is Hama Goro, the cultural manager of Soleil d’Afrique speaking with David Kaiza in an interview that was published by African Colours. He talks about his impression of the role of visual arts in his home country Mali – especially as compared to the success of African musicians in and outside Africa. And, I was wondering whether some of this also applied to Nigeria. From my limited experience I thought there were some parallels. Anyway, here some excerpts, only the bits that resonated with me in one way or the other. You can find the whole interview here.


Hama Goro is the Cultural Manager of Soleil d’Afrique, based in Mali. He is a painter as well. He attended the 4th World Summit on Arts and Culture in Johannesburg, South Africa and spoke to AfricanColours in this interview with David Kaiza. He discussed the disparity between the success of his country’s performance art – particular the world famous Malian music - and the struggling visual arts. (image courtesy of African Colours ... aright, didn't actually ask them but hope they don't mind and here's the link)


Kaiza: What is the artistic scene in Mali like?

Goro: In Mali and Africa in general, culture has a very important developmental role. If you take music in Mali – there are so many Malian musicians inside and outside the country – with big names and big performances. Culture brings a lot of money to Mali. It is a factor in the country’s development.

Art occupies a very important part in the Malian economy – music, fine art, sculpture – all these are the arts practiced in the country. Many people make a living doing art.

Let me give you the example of Oumou Sangare. She has her own hotel. She sells cars and she got all of this from her music alone. Many musicians from Mali are invited worldwide and this brings Mali up. Of course, for every successful musician, there are many who struggle and have problems making a breakthrough.

Kaiza: What is the place of the visual arts?

Goro: If you take the visual arts, you see that it is hard to make an impact in the country with it. We don’t have a local market for this. Only a few visual artists are able to make a living. Some try and give up. Some continue. Some go to do other things. For many artists, it is very difficult to make enough money to even buy materials.

Kaiza: Why the disparity; why is the music performing so well and the visual arts so badly?

Goro: I think it has to do with our traditional heritage. Take Griot. It is a tradition of singing, music about history and this has power in society. If the Griot musician comes to your house and he sings about your history, you give him some money. Even if you are poor, you still find some money to give him.

This concept developed over time and now anyone who can sing is given the opportunity to sing. In the past, to become a Griot, you had to come from a family of Griots. Because of this folklore tradition, people understand the music instantly.

You take visual arts. Before, we were doing visual arts but it was not done as art for art’s sake. It was done for symbolic, social reasons. But then the Arts School arrived, brought by Europeans who defined in their own terms what art was, how it was supposed to be done. This was not reflective of popular opinion. There was a divergence of interpretation. People were not in. There were out. It became a matter of doing what the European wanted.

In contrast, music was locally defined. There is no divergence between the interpretation of music and the popular opinion. With music, there was historical and cultural continuity.

Kaiza: In your opinion then, how can the Visual Arts connect with the people?

Goro: We are still thinking about how we visual artists can connect with the people. I am an artist. I have managed a cultural centre for 10 years. I have organized workshops and exhibitions. All along, I have been constantly thinking about the problem, how to connect with the people. I have not had a very good response so far. Of course, people are beginning to come awake to the Visual Arts, beginning to see that it can define them and the way they are living.

Kaiza: How can Art Schools, Artists and Galleries address this problem? This is after all, a problem that is felt in all of Africa?

Goro: […] I think Art Schools should play a different role to the one they are playing at the moment. I think they have to continue teaching students the basics of how to draw and mix colour. This is fine. But they have to invite the public to participate in what they are doing. They should see their role differently. They must communicate the meaning of art to the public. They have to communicate that the artist’s job is not just technical.

Thirdly the artist […] Discuss your art. Art is not just about drawing and painting. Art is also conceptual. Be more aggressive. Take your art out to the public. Create interaction between your art and the public. Today, the idea of the artist confined to the studio does not apply. We should go out and have a discourse with the public. If the public does not listen to you today, they will listen tomorrow.

Kaiza: How can the visual arts learn a lesson from music?

Goro: Where I live [sic], I think about this situation and what happens elsewhere. In Mali, the public thinks Visual Art is only for Western people. The challenge is how to disprove this idea. As I have said, music in Mali has to do with our traditions. For the visual art, we should induce the public. We have to find ways to make them see that the art is for them as well. We as artists should visit schools and introduce art when people are still young.

Kaiza: Are summits like this one useful for Africa?

Goro: Look at the list of sponsors for this summit. Are there any African sponsors? No. This is the problem. Our governments and communities don’t support art. The ministries of culture don’t get enough allocation in the budget to support art because we in Africa don’t believe in art. Our governments, our politicians, all don’t believe in art.

[…]

Mr. Goro’s work and cultural centre can be visited on www.soleildafrique.org


I thought the music – visual arts parallel he was drawing was quite interesting. Here some of my thoughts:

His thesis is that: Contemporary music is rooted in local musical traditions. In contrast contemporary visual arts, and I suspect he limits the term to ‘fine arts’ more or less (in Nigeria at least popular forms of painting are rather common, I perceive), are rooted in Westerntraditions of fine arts and, as a result, are not connected to the cultural experience of most people. I’m not an ethnomusicologist. But he’s certainly right in so far that we’re hardly speaking about classical music, the musical equivalent to fine arts I assume, in the African context. (Though this might as well be the result of my limited insight or a bias in the research and anthropological conducted.) Still I’m not sure whether that holds at close inspection. Or rather whether it holds for all or even most forms of contemporary music.

Spontaneously I only have to think of rap which, arguments of the ultimate African roots of this Afro-American form of music aside, has been imported but subsequently creatively adapted to suit local African tastes and address local African concerns. It has been imported but still connected to the cultural experience of sufficient people to make it commercially viable. So what’s the difference then?

It is that time has passed since the establishment of the first art schools and the new import could draw upon a, to an extent, globalised (and at the same time localised) shared (youth) culture?

(Lorry Art, 21st Century, Maiduguri, my photo)

Or is it that rap music was not introduced via an institution only accessible to a selected few (with a background in Western education) like Western forms of visual art and, thus unconfined by institutional constraints, was more selectively introduced and more quickly adapted to suit local tastes and express local concerns? I say more quickly because I do identify in popular painting an adaptation of originally Western visual practices to (contemporary, urban?) local tastes and concerns? I certainly haven’t read enough to make any statement about the role of institutionalised Western style art forms in the popularisation of popular painting. My hunch, however, would rather point towards the impact of cinema, film posters, news magazines and the like. (And of course, you're certainly right there have been local traditions of wall painting, though, to my best knowledge less naturalistic in style.) Or think of the Kalabari Ancestral Screens which, according to the interpretations I have read, might have been inspired by the artists exposure to the angular, two-dimensional visual arts owned by the Kalabari's European trade partners. However, what I’m trying to point to is the voluntary and selective adaptation of popular art forms, be it music or visual arts, on the one hand and institutionalised introduction of so-called fine art forms to an originally restricted (may I say: elite?) group.


(Kalabari Ancestral Screen, late 19th CenturyMinneapolis Institute of Arts, Source)

Or might it have something to do with the price of in particular cassettes, later CDs as compared to that of pieces of visual arts, I mean, works by academically trained artists in particular. Just wondering. I mean for a relatively small amount cassettes and CDs offer the opportunity to entertain small crowds of family, friends and acquaintances and, btw, show off once acquaintance with the latest musical trends or suggest affiliation with a particular (youth) subculture. And, even though I’m not sure about that I assume that, especially compared to pirate copies of music cassettes and CDs, a painting is expensive. Unlike a cassette, CD or mp3 file that can be played using various portable devices a painting can reasonably be displayed in one place only (alright, you can occasionally hang it elsewhere but you wouldn’t actually carry it around, wouldn’t you). Might that not also have played a role in the greater popularity of contemporary African music as opposed to contemporary African visual arts with local African audiences?

Just a few spontaneous ideas. Am I making sense? I’m kind of lacking the ethno-musical background to make a more substantive argument but I hope to hint the direction of my thoughts here.

Any kind of feedback? Any thoughts on Goro’s or my own argumentation?

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