For some time, I have been perplexed by the question: What kind of visual arts practice is relevant to the present Malawian socio-economic context? Should we even begin to ponder this question at all considering that art itself is already regarded as irrelevant in our culture? However, it is my strong conviction that art can contribute to the development of the society that fuels the zeal to pursue the subject. Most of us in Malawi tend to think about art as what I would call an object-based practice whereby an individual (artist) makes a physical object (an artwork) whose main purpose is to be looked at and enjoyed for its visual qualities. In this context, art as object sets up a rigid equation of artist-artwork-viewer when art has the potential to be much more. It also surmises a few things: That art should be centred on objects; that art should satisfy the visual sense; that the viewer is often a passive element; and that commerce is embedded in this object.
Is this practice of object-making for contemplation relevant under the present Malawian circumstances? Even as an artist, I have come to appreciate the hard truth that a highly priced object made solely to be gazed at is a luxury that makes unrealistic demands upon a population which is barely surviving each day. Not that the poor do not have the capacity to appreciate art, but realistically it is not a need. Moreover, only a few privileged individuals will have the resources to access these luxurious objects. These resources include time to visit a gallery, or money to purchase an artwork, besides a quality education that prepares one to be able to appreciate art. Such an art needs a leisured class to support it but unfortunately Malawi has none at present. If at all a middle class exists in the country it is economically weak and not exposed enough to back art. Do not get me wrong, painting can elevate the mind. It can also bring food on the artist’s table. But Malawi does not have the necessary structures for an art like it to be impactful. So far, tourists and a small expatriate community have provided an alternative market for art for years. While this has benefited some artists, unfortunately it has also promoted an impoverished art that feeds the demand for souvenir and curios. A large population of Malawians is therefore alienated from the visual arts. But this is not to condemn art as irrelevant to society.
So, what then is the appropriate art practice for our social context? What art form is fit for the artistic, cultural and economic needs of the poor who form the majority of the population? Let’s first revisit our definition of art. Art encompasses a multiplicity of practices besides traditional painting, sculpture, or ceramics. There are also new genres and practices which have surfaced in recent years such as performance, installation, and the incorporation of new media forms. Some practices involve artists venturing out to interact with nature by using earth, air and water to make temporary artworks that attempt at a metaphysical reconnection with the sublime and the spiritual. Other artists use their bodies as media for artistic expression in work that questions the limits of physical endurance. Others use cyberspace as a vehicle for an art of protest creating viruses to attack websites of corrupt corporations and oppressive regimes. Yet others engage in what are called collaborative or participatory practices born out of the need for art to reconnect with life, directly intervene in local social reality (in connection to global economic developments), and contribute to the betterment of society. In collaborative practices, artists work with their communities to try to find sustainable solutions to the problems that the people face. This involves individual or groups of artists referred to as “collectives” collaborating with communities and participating in socially engaged emancipatory and transformative projects. (African examples include the Sisi kwa Sisi artists of Kenya, Gugulective of South Africa, Huit facetes of Senegal, and Les Groupe Amos of DRC.). Many of these developing and contemporary art forms re-map and redefine what it means to make art in a contemporary landscape with new economies, new technologies, and new cultural boundaries. So how has Malawian art adapted to address these shifting realities?
Wary of the approach to copy and paste alien solutions for local problems, I am reluctant to prescribe any foreign art form as sure remedy for our cultural and economic needs. However, given the socio-economic pressures that we face, perhaps collaboration-among the other practices mentioned above- sounds as one of the most meaningful approaches.