07 July, 2011

African [dis]Advantage

My experience of Festival so far has, in a sense, been very one-sided. I came into the newsroom excited and open-minded, ready to view whatever was thrown my way as best I could. To my surprise, this became slightly challenging as the days went by and I felt like I was watching the same show over and over again. These shows all had in common the word “African” in their titles – a word which, to me, is where the problem lies.

The word ‘African’ in its stricter sense means something or someone that originates from Africa. In the context of the arts at the festival, it includes pieces of work that are entirely created in Africa by African individuals. The shows being defined in this way also then come with the genre tag of ‘traditional’.

This ‘African’ label also comes with its own set of connotations, often negative, which audiences then attach to the shows. Opinions and reviews of the shows portray them in a homely, one-tracked way, automatically describing them as ‘energetic’, ‘fun’ and ‘lively’ and often do not offer any critique of the actual dramatic aspects of the shows, simply because they are traditional.

You would think then, that producers would avoid labelling their shows with words like ‘African’ and ‘traditional’ but instead they persist. It seems that the market value of the label to tourists is more important to producers than the image of the artwork itself. As long as ‘African’ is selling tickets, everything else becomes secondary. This is a shame considering the Festival aim is to bring together people who value the arts.

What these productions are failing to see is that by not allowing their shows to transcend the connotations of the ‘African’ label, they are preventing their work from being judged for what it is and at the same standard as other shows. Furthermore, just because these labels are not included in their titles, does not mean that their work is any less African or any less traditional. It just prevents audiences from bringing their own notions and stereotypes into their judgements and aids a more open-minded approach.

What we need is for these traditional shows to have enough confidence in their work to present it for what it is. After all, no other countries or continents present their work in this way. For example, ‘River Dance’, the traditional Irish dance, does not explicitly call itself traditional Irish dancing and is still able to draw audiences on the merit of the standard of the production. Hip-hop dancing was never called traditional African American dancing and has become a world-wide phenomenon.

If the producers of our local shows can change their own image, then audiences will be forced to look up and pay attention, realising that their preconceptions no longer apply. If our shows can demand the respect they deserve, they could be more successful. It is not our shows that are the problem; it is the labels that are attached to them that limit their progress. 

By Devaksha Vallabhjee

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