Wednesday, March 3, 2010

No, Minister

Dear Minister

Many of my blogmates have taken to letter writing as a quiet form of protest lately. For example, Shiny, who writes to correct certain undesirable forces in her universe, or Mud, who gently questions the strange things she finds in her new home.

I too have decided to take up this form. I have a few things to say to you. Actually they are quite serious things and I do hope you are listening.

Dear Ms Xingwana, you have been appointed as the Minister of Arts and Culture. Clearly they didn't brief you properly. Your job is not to censor artists. Your job is not to take your petty puritan morality and project it onto the works of art that cause you discomfort.

Minister, your job is to take the pair of scissors and cut the ribbon, to open the exhibition. Not pass your judgement and tell artists that their work is 'against nation building.' I may have to check my facts here, but I think another aspect of your job may be to protect our constitution. Remember? The one so many people died trying to uphold. I don't think they gave you licence to decide that some people were more free than others to express themselves. That would be going backwards a bit.

Minister, we artists have a rule of thumb to ascertain whether our work is effective or not. Its to do with the function of art in society. If a work has the effect of making people talk, or causing a little discomfort, (I know this will seem strange to you) we generally see that as a good thing. It means we have made people think about an aspect of society that needs thinking about. There is a word for works of art that confirm or impose ideologies espoused by powerful ruling agenda. That word is propaganda. Mostly, artists are not so comfortable being a mouthpiece for the state. They like to interpret the world around them for themselves. They like to create and celebrate beauty, or turn the mirror on ugliness when necessary, so that they can provide a balance against the misery they see in the world around them.

Minister, perhaps you are concerned about the high rates of rape, sexual abuse against children and women in this country. For this reason you are uncomfortable about public exhibitions of pornography. This is what you have said. Minister, allow me to explain how to recognise pornography. Usually, it is an image where there is an uncomfortable level of dominance or a power imbalance in the sexual act. Minister, tell me, in the images below - do you see anything violent? Do you see anything other than love, tenderness, sensuality?

Minister, is it because, as some have suggested, there are black African women displaying love and tenderness towards one another? Dare we use the word, lesbian? Minister, I know this may come as a shock to you but there is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that lesbianism has been alive and well on this continent for centuries, and that it was the coming of the white man, bearing Queen Victoria's flag and the Christian Church's moralities, that brought this prurience and intolerance to your continent.

Minister, allow me to draw to your attention some real concerns that you can get busy with. It is 100 days until we become the Fiefdom of the World Cup. Artists, theatre-makers, musicians and cultural activists are wondering why there has been so little invitation to share their works on public platforms so the world can see how talented we are. And what of those rumours about the R150 million that kind of disappeared, that was supposed to be for World Cup arts projects?

Minister, a friend of mine, a well respected choreographer received a grant from the National Arts Council recently. Two weeks before her work was due to be showcased, she still had not received the money in her bank account. This was a great threat to the integrity of her work. When artists get grants, generally they need the money before the work, you see, because unlike government officials they are not using that money to reward themselves or buy nice cars, they are using it to actually buy materials in order to make the work. I can't quite understand why it took the administrators of this important national institution so long to process a small bit of paperwork. Its not like there was a very long list of grantees. Please could you facilitate some sort of forum so that we the artists can communicate to those the bureaucrats what our needs actually are? We really don't want to fight with you.

Minister, every year we lose a national treasure, an artist of great talent and brilliance. We are losing these people not to old age, but to common preventable diseases of poverty, or to crime. We have actors and musicians who have worked their entire lives listening to the Muse, unmotivated by wealth or fame, who cannot afford medical care, who have no form of unemployment insurance. Make no mistake Minister, these are real 'nation builders.' We have graduates with artistic training, young people of great promise who are working as administrators and car guards because there is no vision from your department on how these creative minds could feed into the economy.

Minister, while I am at it, and I know I am going on a bit now, would you consider talking to the Ministers of Education (both of them, please) about how to improve creativity training in schools. I know there is an Arts and Culture lesson in the curriculum, but do you know how many teachers use this period to clean their classroom? I know maths and science are important, but consider the value of enabling young minds to be creative and literate as well. It has been well documented that this kind of education is essential in producing well rounded learners, and even in helping them to develop that much vaunted sense of morality that your people keep talking about. Let's not go back there.

Minister, audiences in Paris, Oregon, London, New York, are being wowed by South African artists. When these artists return to theatres in their home country, they struggle to cover their costs. Please, help to build an environment in which artists can just do their jobs. Don't tell them what they should be creating.

There is that small matter of the Constitution to uphold.

Thank you, Minister, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to read this. If you would like any other reading matter that could point you in the right direction and help you carry out your public duty, please let me know, I would be happy to assist.

yours sincerely concerned,

Hungry Nation Builder.

Monday, March 1, 2010

elephant whisperer

[photos by Freya Reder]

And then in this other dream, I had discovered the ancient secret of communicating with elephants.

Oh my, it was a beautiful space to be in.

I'm busy reading Caitlin O'Connell's The Elephant's Secret Sense, which along with Silent Thunder by Katy Payne, goes into the whole thing of how elephants pick up infrasound using spongy pads in their toes. That low rumble that just sounds like the earth curdling underfoot, rumbles they can hear for kilometres.
Its a fascinating document - some stuff I didn't know, and lots that I had just kind of guessed, having spent a lot of my younger life in the presence of these enormous ghosts. But this was different.

This was me sitting with a cache of actual manuscripts: ancient, paleolithic translations of elephant speech. Oh, and I was the chosen one who was going to be able to transmit to the world the messages of these wise old beasts, and what's more, teach people how to talk to them so that we could solve this so-called 'elephant problem' once and for all. Oh so that's what I'm here for.

And I did it. I had full on conversations with a wrinkle eyed old elephant mama crone. Words of such wisdom and depth. Not words, no, just - thoughts. Bytes of knowledge, transmitted not through the brain but the heart.

It was so cool.

I can't remember a bloody thing she told me.