African cultural exchange program: German turns off the taps

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Prejudices and insufficient funds hamper a German government programme for arts and culture exchange with African countries

A new optimism about the chances and potential of the African continent has gained ground. Africa has become for some the center of economic expectations trying hard to become the “next Asia”, for others the hot spot of interesting developments in art and culture.

Now these rumours have even reached the cultural bureaucracy in Germany which quickly jumped on the bandwagon and through the so-called German Federal Cultural Foundation set up a national funding programme by the name of TURN in order to respond to “remarkable cultural developments” on the continent.

Its declared objective is to foster cultural relations between Germany and Africa. When it became clear, however, that the money available for the TURN programme was just 2 million EUR and by far insufficient for the whole continent of Africa, the disappointment was big. TURN’s budget of 2 million EUR is dwarfed by the task of financing an artistic exchange programme between Germany and the whole African continent for a period of several years.

Compared with the overall budget of the Federal Republic’s state secretary for culture of over 1 billion EUR per year which includes the budget of the German Federal Cultural Foundation, the money which is designated for TURN is nothing more than small change money. Further aspects of the programme caused furrowed brows from the beginning: TURN is called a “Fund for German-African cooperation”.

With this title the German government-funded institution totally ignored the fact that, as opposed to Germany, Africa is not one country, but rather a whole continent consisting of more than 50 individual countries. The German Federal Cultural Foundation apparently considers all those countries to be culturally homogenous enough to be able to entertain coherent “cultural relations” with Germany.

This ignorance of the cultural diversity of the African countries became apparent in TURN’s first presentations on the web when the German Federal Cultural Foundation spoke about “African artists”, “African partners” and “institutions in Africa”.

How could the people at the German Federal Cultural Foundation forget that Africa is an entire continent which is larger than China, the USA, Western Europe, India, Argentina and the British Isles combined, with 2000 languages and the cultures and customs connected to them

How could they imagine that a jury of 3 people would be able to make reasonable decisions involving this vast and diverse continent with its geographical, cultural and political variety?

Another reason for outrage is the fact that the funding guidelines of the programme prevent any active participation of African art institutions and exclude the artists and art communities in African countries from independently applying for the funds. The funding guidelines reveal the reason to this: “The German partner, as the project coordinator, has to assume responsibility for ensuring that all funds are expended as contractually agreed upon with the Federal Cultural Foundation.”

In other, simpler, words: The Africans are not trustworthy. This approach reminds me very much of the paternalistic attitude which characterized the way Europeans dealt with Africans in former centuries.

This disrespectful treatment is especially annoying because it was not the arts and culture communities on the African continent who asked for being included in some cultural exchange programme with Germany, but it was the German Federal Cultural Foundation’s decision to pursue a new policy focus on Africa.

Do the African countries still want to be treated like this in the year 2013? What are you, the reader of this article, personally feeling about this? How can this attitude be finally put to the dustbin of history? Another aspect of this doubtful approach is the selection of the jury which seems to be totally miscast.

The only African on the jury, Nana Oforiatta Ayim, according to information given by her, was born in Germany to Ghanaian parents, studied in England and Russia and is currently based and works in Germany, the United Kingdom and Ghana.

Besides the fact that the internet reveals an awkward variety of birth dates and places for her, jumping between Africa and Europe back and forth according to project-related suitability (born in 1976 according to information of the African Film Festival of Milan, born in 1977 according to information of the Nigerian Invisible Borders Trans-African Photographic Initiative and born in 1980 in Accra according to information of OCA / The Office for Contemporary Art Norway, all in all a rather confusing and embarrassing biographical hotchpotch which puts her credibility as the “African representative” into question), she is at least due to her upbringing and education subconsciously as “Western” in her attitudes and points of views as the theatre-director Sandro Lunin from Switzerland and the Bavarian-based journalist and deejay Jay Rutledge.

Why didn’t the German Federal Cultural Foundation choose at least one if not a handful of additional art and culture professionals who have spent most of their life living and working in Africa as jury members? Somebody who is not in one way or the other connected to the Western or (Eurocentric) “international” art scene and its somewhat specific understanding and particular taste of contemporary art? Why is there not at least one genuinely African artist or art professional to complement the jury who makes sure that the African perspective on art is taken into account and Africa’s artistic vision is positioned well?

So what did the German Federal Cultural Foundation say to all this? Surprisingly enough the person in charge of the TURN programme admitted in an email exchange the flaws and deficiencies of their own programme by saying that “unfortunately” they were not able to “take into account all suggestions” they “might have desired”.

But why were they not able to do that? It was due to “statutory and administrative possibilities”. That does not sound convincing. Where there is a political will, there will be a possibility to adapt those statutes and administrative regulations which the German Federal Cultural Foundation is complaining about as the reason for being prevented from changing the structure of their own funding programme appropriately. The fact that no attempts were made to change this regulatory framework although the Foundation is financed by and affiliated with the German government shows that those statutory and administrative restrictions themselves are a consequence of subtle prejudices and paternalistic attitudes which we believed to have been buried for long in the past of European-African interconnections.

What the German Federal Cultural Foundation did change several times since my critique of its programme was first published on October 1st, 2012 (see the link to the updated version on the blog below this article), is the written presentation of the TURN – Africa programme on its website.

In response to the critical reminder that Africa is not a country the wording was changed from “German-African cultural relations” to “cultural relations between Germany and African countries”. Later on the explicit reference to certain art and culture institutions in different African countries was also deleted. In any case the constant adaptations of the website and similar means of window-dressing are no replacement for thoroughly and decisively correcting the basic flaws and deficiencies of the programme’s structure as they are pointed out in this article.

Such a lack of intercultural competence is even more surprising coming from a board and its team of Western highly educated intellectuals with an academic background in all kind of studies including cultural sciences and even African studies. If already the elite circles of the art world in Europe deal with an easy element of arts and culture policy like that, what does this reveal about the way the political decision-makers will act when it comes to shaping the really relevant policy actions for dealing with Africa in foreign policy, development aid and other questions of human survival?

The German TURN project – different from what it sounded like in the initial press and media campaign – is not so much about strengthening the institutions for artistic and cultural projects in African countries, but it is rather about fostering the German art and culture scene.

This truth has been revealed when the TURN jury member Nana Oforiatta Ayim conceded in a comment on Facebook: “They’ve also said that the fund is about the ‘German institutional art-and-culture-scene’ and not about ‘supporting African contemporary art institutions’, but I’ll leave them to clarify that.”

If she as a jury member knows that the public presentation of TURN as a programme to promote German-African relations in arts and culture is wrong and that from the very beginning the hidden goal is rather to invigorate and vitalize the German institutional art-and-culture scene and less to strengthen African contemporary art institutions, then the question is: Why does she allow the German Federal Cultural Foundation to choose her as the only alibi African on the jury?

Why is she not fighting for a change of the structure and funding requirements of the programme on behalf of the arts and culture communities in Africa, but leaves this task to outside critics? But in the end it remains to be seen how the arts and culture scenes in the various African countries will react to a programme which they were neither consulted nor informed about, which also excludes them from active participation and which calls their administrative reliability into question. So far the conclusion is that Germany’s TURN is a turn-off.

Post By: Safia Dickersbach is an art market practitioner, born in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, currently based in Berlin, Germany, and is the Public Relations Director of Artfacts.Net, a British company which is the leading online database for modern and contemporary art. 

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