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January 17 2017

Exposing Troubled Presents, Supporting Creative Futures | By Efemia Chela

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A Review of How Free is Free? Reflections on Freedom of Creative Expression in Africa

How Free is Free? Reflections on Freedom of Creative Expression in Africa collects a range of perspectives from practising artists, academics and journalists across the continent in order to evaluate the state of the arts and their tenuous relationship with freedom. The contributions take the form of well-researched essays, clever short stories and stirring poetry. The book is stylistically diverse and its strength lies in its breadth of topics and the depth of the authors’ research.



Of great interest are the pieces devoted to the repression and surveillance of artists - an urgent and life-threatening issue. Chenjerai Hove unveils the colonial structures handed down to the current Zimbabwean government in the excellent, ‘Beautiful Words Are Subversive.’ Hamadou Mande, in ‘Artistic Freedom and Cultural Creation in Burkina Faso,’ details the fascinating knock-on effects of censorship, namely further rebellion and the founding of even more creative events.

This indomitable artistic spirit emerges in other pieces, one example being how rap musicians in Senegal were able to influence the nation’s elections which is explored by Aisha Dème. One can read the witty ‘An Inconvenient Cow,’ by Elana Bregin, as a parable for art’s continual quest for freedom and its stubbornness in that regard.

A more literal take on freedom is given by Jesmael Mataga’s legal and policy survey of Zimbabwe. This survey illuminates how the vagueness of existing legislation gives the police free reign to ban art exhibitions and performances under the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act. In contrast, Dr. Mohamed Abusabib, shows how in the Sudanese context, the law acts as a noose, constricting all artistic freedom, only permitting the state-determined Islamist ideal of art. It is clear that as many ways as there are to make art, there are equally as many tactics to stifle it.

Most of the authors believe art to be inherently political in nature, including Ellen Banda-Aaku, in her essay on the Zambian scene titled, ‘If You Pay It Will Show.’ She invokes the words of poet Bertolt Brecht [1] and comes to a new conclusion that art is both a mirror and a hammer; it can reflect societies but may in a more brusque manner, smash existing hierarchies.

Several contributors highlight the ‘hammer aspect’ of art, cautioning that not all art should be permitted, nor deserves to be displayed. Africa, they argue, is home to special contexts where “art for art’s sake” gives too much free reign for offense in the light of a sensitive racial history. Instead freedom is to be earned, according to Raimi Gbadamosi in ‘This is Not Another Appeal for the Arts’ and Sami Tchak in his emotive story, ‘The Children of Norbert Zongo.’ It is these polemical pieces that wrestle with the reader, giving great food for thought. They gave me a real sense that these are the ideas we need to be debating in public.

Phiona Okumu’s article provides a nice balance and brings some positivity to the book. She shows the feats that artists are achieving in ‘Phase 2.0: How Digital and Social Tools Empower Storytellers Today and Enable Modern Day African Conversations.’ She highlights several projects, including the popular puppet-driven satire news shows in Nigeria and Kenya, and explores how technology has the capacity for inclusion as it is able to make outsider art more accessible.

The only criticism that can be levelled at How Free Is Free? is that it could have benefited from a more thorough edit to ensure flawless syntax throughout. Nevertheless, it provides a wealth of information and exposes the unique challenges that African artists face today. It gives hope and shows that we have a rich past of daring artists and a future of inventive young creatives on their way to earning their freedom. The collection admits the problems are complex, but undaunted, it compels the reader to think about freedom deeply and agitate for economic and legal freedoms that will enable African artists to thrive.

[1] “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”- Bertolt Brecht


Author Bio

Efemia Chela is a half-Zambian, half-Ghanaian writer and editor. She studied at Rhodes University, SA and Institut D’Etudes Politiques in Aix-En-Provence, France. Her first published story, ‘Chicken’ was nominated for The 2014 Caine Prize For African Writing. Efemia’s subsequent stories and poems have been published in places like Brittle Paper, Short.Sharp.Stories: Adults Only, Prufrock and PEN Passages: Africa. Efemia was a fellow of the inaugural Short Story Day Africa / Worldreader Editing Mentorship Programme. She continues to write fiction whenever she can find a spare moment and a working pen.

Photo Credits
1 - Junior Bilaka
2 - Arterial Network
3 - Efemia Chela

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