Sometime ago, I came across Mo Ibrahim’s keynote address at the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Tshwane, South Africa. I listened as he pronounced that (and I paraphrase) ‘there will be no progress on the African continent until there is free movement of cultures, capital and people across borders.’
From his words, we can deduce that in many different sectors, not just in the arts, the freedom – or the lack of it – associated with movement plays a major role in the discourse on how to forge ahead in a continent burdened by the downsides of abundance and possibilities. This much is clear. But what seems rather foggy in this mad rush for movement and exploration of possibilities, is the question of direction. Where are we heading? Are we transcending limitations or are we merely circulating within them?
These questions have come to form the driving force behind the endeavours of artists and thinkers who champion ‘movement.’ Perhaps the aim is not to arrive at a definite answer. Perhaps it suffices that the questions exist. Perhaps the back and forth between these notions becomes the mechanism of necessary movement.
Over the years, artists, mostly African ones, have tried to address this issue. An immediate example that comes to mind is the Pan-African Circle of Artists (PACA), which was founded in 1991 at the University of Nigeria by some young artists of Nigerian and Ghanaian origin. According to their founding dictum, part of their aim ‘was to create a forum on which art and culture in Africa could be promoted and disseminated from inside by Africans and on Africa’s terms.’
Before I continue, I would like to pause and reflect on this notion of the ‘insider-African’ because it is in the function of this very phrase that we find the temperament that fuels an urge towards affinity with an African reality characterised by the multiplicity and diversity of 54 countries and over a billion people. The emphasis on the ‘insider-African’ carries with it a proactive antithesis to the apologetic responses to the many definitions imposed on Africa and its people by Western ideologies in the past. But beyond that, it proposes an open confrontation with the constituents of our own everyday reality – working with it, in it, through it – as the only means of overcoming its limitations. It presents an Africa that recognises that the solutions to her problems are right under our feet; that we have been standing on them all along.
PACA used tools such as lectures, workshops and roundtables to propagate their ideas in different countries across the continent, focusing on thought-provoking themes such as ‘Africa and the Politics of Postcoloniality.’ As is often the case, PACA was slowed down after a decade of activity by the politics of sustainability and perhaps by the fact that their methods were giving way to a much more open, hands-on approach with practices that sought to also incorporate the everyday public rather than focusing primarily on the arts, the artists and the art world.
In 2008, the late Cameroonian artist Goddy Leye organised Exitour, a project that took five Cameroonian artists on a five-country road trip from Cameroon to Senegal for the Dak’art Biennale. Faced with visa issues at the Senegalese border, they missed the first week of the Biennale. The artistic intervention directly reflected the harsh reality of attempting to navigate the continent. It is, in itself, a performance in which the artists used their bodies and presence as the object for trans-border discourse.
In 2009, ten artists from Nigeria embarked on a similar journey from Lagos to Bamako, encountering their own share of obstacles, which did more good than harm, spurring them on to more road trip interventions. The Invisible Borders Trans-African Project (as the project is known today) is a microcosm of the defiant energy hovering above the continent, energy that instils people with the urge to explore beyond their comfort zone. There is something about this energy that refuses to take anything at face value or accept generalisations, especially in matters concerning Africa. It recognises the vastness and the great distances and rather than see them as a hindrance, it recognises the endless possibilities they offer. Therefore when we ask ourselves: in what direction are we moving, the best answer as it stands would be: ‘it is not so much about the destination, as it is about the journey.’