Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 24, December 1998 


Cultural Industries and Development in Africa

Conference sponsored by the Howard Gilman Foundation, June 11-13, 1998, White Oak Plantation, Yulee, Florida

Katherine Salahi
Katherine Salahi is Co-ordinator of the Bellagio Publishing Network.

The drive from Jacksonville, Florida to White Oak Plantation on the Florida/Georgia border could easily be mistaken for parts of Africa - all the panoramic landscapes and humid warmth. And then you see black rhino and cheetahs and you know for certain you were on the wrong flight. But we weren't.

White Oak Plantation is the source of the trees that are used for the paper mills which made the late Howard Gilman rich enough to realise his dreams of supporting the arts and animal conservation. The plantation houses an incredible assortment of animals, many of them rare species that come from, and are sometimes shipped back to Africa. They are cared for by a dynamic young team of conservationists, who mingle easily with the more bookish conference participants (`leave your formal clothes at home') and no doubt with the other guests who visit. Mikhail Baryshnikov, a personal friend of Mr Gilman, has his own world-standard dance studio there `for when he visits'.

The conference, convened by the Gilman Foundation with help from Dr Alberta Arthurs (MEM Associates), brought together 27 cultural professionals, academics, donors and government officials from Africa, Europe and the USA for a weekend of discussions on cultural industries and their role in development. The sessions began with an overview, before moving on to perspectives from the field: visual and performing arts (dance, theatre, music), communication and information (radio, media, publishing, film and television), conservation (museums, cultural heritage, tourism). Private and public sector responses followed. Final sessions discussed adding cultural industries to the development agenda, concluding with how to proceed from talk to action.

Alberta Arthurs opened with an upbeat comment on changes in the perception of Africa in the US, helped by Bill Clinton's visit to Africa, and the appointment of Jesse Jackson as White House Special Advisor on Africa. Africa is now regarded as a world force, a continent of economic opportunities. She urged us to be concrete and practical, to explore `how to help cultural actors make a living'.

Stephen Stern (World Bank Partnerships Leader, Culture and Development) talked about the World Bank's new interest in culture and development and its new willingness to listen to indigenous people. `Now they want to find out how to make the interest instrumental.'

`This is the first conference to talk about using culture to create jobs and wealth', noted Carol Steinberg (Chief Director of Arts and Culture, South African Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology) approvingly. `It needs to be tackled with integrity and concern for culture.' She urged African governments `to mainstream cultural industries', with the caveat that empowerment must be for the disadvantaged not the élites. This theme was loudly echoed by Professor Kwabena Nketia (Emeritus Professor, International Centre for African Music and Dance), Ester Ocloo (Founder, Aid to Artisans Ghana) and Daniel Ndagala (Tanzanian Commissioner for Culture) among others, as the sessions on different cultural enterprises developed.

Publishing was well represented by Chief Victor Nwankwo (former Chair, APNET). Publishing can partner any or all of the creative activities and as such should be counted as a strategic cultural industry.

North American academics skilfully turned the wide-ranging discussions into structured summaries, at times `translating' what the cultural practitioners said into the language of northern consultants and experts - a cultural exercise that left some feathers ruffled.

As Damien Pwono (Senior Program Advisor in Arts and Humanities at the Rockefeller Foundation) pointed out early on in the meeting, the many significant discussions on African cultural industries since 1975 all reached the same conclusions: that political and economic realities are the main constraints, internally and externally, and yet individuals and institutions somehow keep going. Could there, he suggested, be an annual conference of policy-makers, politicians and professionals? Is there a way of restructuring the OAU Fund for Culture? These were some of the many practical suggestions that we heard and hope to see (or better still participate in) being implemented.

The conference opened doors to new possibilities. The sight of the Danish-South African partnership in full flow at the bowling alley won't be forgotten easily, nor will many of the useful contacts and connections made in the extraordinary atmosphere of White Oak. [BPN, No. 24, 1998. p. 5]

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