Can artists express themselves freely?
It has become apparent that the codes, rules and norms that determined artistic freedom of speech and expression need to be refreshed in our memories this week.
In June this year, one of our most celebrated female star singers made headlines after her freedom of expression and speech on stage at the Nama award. One SMS published in a local daily read: “First you exposed your womanhood with your ugly dance moves, then you insulted the whole country.”
This subject also touches on the essence of artistic practices per se, which fundamentally entails and depends on conditions of freedom. Contemporary artists in a so-called free society operate under the de facto assumption that they can work in conditions of freedom – but to what extent? Especially nowadays wherein corporate, Government and private interests has the potential to increasingly compromise our artistic autonomy, this may hold serious predicaments for freedom in art in Namibia. What about the nature of artistic freedom itself?
All this happens against the background that we are generally taught as artists that the arts are a reflection of our society, wherein the role of art is to hold up a mirror to our society. It also reminds me of a veteran artist Tswana, who once said, “Artists must continue to enrich us by delving deep into the soul of society. Art should show both want we want to know and also what we do not want to know of ourselves.” The production and distribution of art does not happen in a social vacuum. Visual art, theatre, music, dance, literature and film are created and distributed in national and global contexts which are characterised by vast inequities between rich and poor; by rabid discrimination on the basis of nationality, gender, sexual orientation, education, meager elderly pensions and a host of other factors; by ongoing and massive environmental destruction and by violence – institutional, military and criminal – being wreaked on human life and dignity of our country.
Thus, if we are to evaluate our art work over the last number of years without losing sight that art is about critical issues, what does our art say about our society, about the world we inhabit, about us? Whose stories do we tell? To whose music do we dance? Whose images do we put to canvas?
Of course, we all might think critically, we might even voice our criticisms around dinner tables, in pubs and shebeens, in our dressing rooms, around a bottle of wine, and call that freedom of speech and expression, but when it comes to really speaking truth to the power that be, and to acting it out in our creative work and life, one must say that we’re generally a coward bunch in the land of the brave!
Others may argue that artists are no different to other human beings and also have needs to pay rent, put food on the table, pay school fees and deal with rising fuel and the cost of living. But, why then in my view, should artists be obliged to do and say things that could alienate those in power or those with resources or their primary middle-to-upper class audiences and markets that help to sustain our tenuous lifestyles?
Yes, let us also admit it! For most of post- independence artists were the most marginalised and were the outcasts, but they remained society’s perennial critics. This has been their thankless, but generally accepted and venerated role.
Our recent history has it that many Namibian artists died poor or we either appealed for last minute or “quarter past 12” funds to be collected when they land in our hospital’s intensive care unit.
Of course, noone seeks to be a martyr for art or for freedom of expression or to go to jail or to embrace – relative - poverty by challenging those officials responsible for perpetuating injustices and inequities. But then, who will speak the truth to power? Make no mistake; we still have some brave artists somewhere else in Africa. It was not long ago that Cameroonian singer Lapiro de Mbanga was released in March 2011 after serving a three years in jail for his song Constipated Constitution, which was critical of the political status quo in his country. Maybe, our country’s freedom is relatively much milder and safer, that is why Namibian singer Elemotho could get away with his song The System is a Joke.
It reminds me so much of Harry Belafonte who said in 1988: “You can cage the singer but not the song”. The same can also be said of visual artists: “You can cage the painter but not the painting”. So artists, whatever your role, stop playing safe by selling your soul, but know the pros and cons of freedom of speech and expression as per our constitution, and how you go about your freedoms in your creative work.
It is also important to know how freedom of speech and expression relate to artistic and literary expressions cannot be entirely compared to how public spaces are inhabited, used and occupied. That is why the freedom of the media is also separately regulated by a Media Ombudsman in Namibia. Because, there is a very, very fine line between the difference between how artists and how the general public and others deal with their freedoms. May it is time to have an artistic Arts and Culture policy regulated by an Ombudsman or an independent Advisory Council for the Arts and Culture in Namibia as well.
Lastly, we may not always like what artists have to express to us or about us, or even how they freely represent our doings in their creative productions, but we should be nonetheless frequently grateful to be provoked by works of their creative expression that boost the geniuses and sagacity within in our society.
That is why S. G. Tallentyre’s as a member of The Friends of Voltaire said (1907): ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’