If ever the dryness of a language is felt, it is in the misused, overused and ideologically-motivated use of words such as “freedom”, “peace” and “humanity”. For these words, have been used for extreme political reasons as much as for sincere attempts to live up to such notions. In other words, one finds for example in the political speeches of even political figures of the far right maintaining that they are in search of freedom from oppression and peace. This skewed application has rendered such terms vacuous, even obsolete.
It is therefore heart-warming and tinged with hopeful optimism to find a correlate of these ideals in a language other than English, as if its provenance pre-dates the coolness of Latin, the high-discipline of the Romans and the hedonism of the ancient Greeks. While this is a simplification, the point is that we need new words to reclaim the inner soul of the vessel that are words. In this respect, consider “Ubuntu”, a term that refers inter-alia to a connectivity between people, a common humanity, a spirit of Africa that is universal and the potential for virtue, compassion and empathy.
“Uhuru”, a Swahili word is perhaps less well known, but in simple terms, refers to freedom, which may be interpreted as being no longer subject to colonial rule as well as a more abstract, personal sense of freedom from various encumbrances and limitations. While “Awethu”, perhaps more well known in a South African context as the rallying call after the powerful “Amandla” chant, refers to the fact that power is to reside with the people, that the rich and powerful need not decide the fate of the disenfranchised many.
Taken together how shall one interpret the mixture? Perhaps it is that a spirit of Ubuntu is achieved through a search for a certain African self-confidence, that with the use of such words one need not hanker after the European ideal and its philosophical heritage as the benchmark of both moral and even epistemological truth, that Africa has something to contribute – indeed to teach. In this respect, Africa is not “othered”. Following from this, freedom is achieved for if freedom is to mean anything, it is the capacity to intellectually determine one’s frame of reference; it is to define oneself with the use of one’s own concepts, no better explicated then in one’s own language. That is not to say the concept cannot be imported beyond that language, for a concept breaks the bonds of time and space in some respects, just as in the abstract concept of number. Finally, the freedom that is Uhuru gives way to a reclaiming of power by those often simply used by the system to entrench the system of commodities even further.
Now applied to art, perhaps we can say the following or ask the following questions: What new language can be found in visual terms to correspond to these concepts? Is there truly an art for the people or even by the people and can that be “read” by those outside of the game of art, without simply being a propaganda tool for socialism or the like? Africa is complex as is art, so I would suggest there is no overarching aesthetic. However, that should not deter African artists from finding a universal chord or harmony in their art – in new and exciting ways – that give colour to the terms, Ubuntu/Uhuru and Awethu.
Perhaps that is rather too emphatic. For on closer reflection, one needs to ask is there in fact freedom and humanity in art in the first place? And what does one mean by freedom and humanity? For if freedom and humanity were defined as literally no bounds, then there could be no form, image or aesthetic. This may sound liberating, but it is not. For anything to be communicated, there is a mediation device, that is, some form or language or image – and therefore true freedom also has limits. Art is one such limiting, framing or mediation device at once expressing that freedom/humanity and limiting it. In that sense, art does somewhat as human discipline express that freedom, but as a limited mediation device, a language, an art world – art also curtails that freedom and humanity. Sometimes that freedom is further curtailed by other extra-aesthetic concerns – the political, economic, religious, commercial, ideological…Yet that need not deter one form seeking peace and humanity through art and ones other concerns in life.
Perhaps at the very bedrock for the possibility of freedom, peace and humanity is the simple acknowledgment across the spectrum of people, namely the recognition that one does not know the answers to the ultimate questions or even if the questions make sense at all. To ask these questions does not presuppose the opportunity for formal education, though that may help. Perhaps this self-awareness/knowing then is the beginning of freedom from oppression and the true lived reality of humanity.
by Dr Danny Shorkend