In June, 2012 the German Federal Cultural Foundation first presented its new thematic focus on Africa. How good is this initiative fared? SAFIA DICKERSBACH looks at how a German government institution botched a well-meant initiative on Africa.
The cultural foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany, the German "Kulturstiftung des Bundes", decided to initiate a new thematic focus in its grants activities. The programme is called "TURN" and its topic is to foster cultural relations between Germany and African countries.
Africa seems to be on everyone's lips these days. For some it has become the centre of economic expectations trying hard to become the "next Asia", for others the hot spot of interesting cultural developments which deserves a "response" by the German "Kulturstiftung", as now even the cultural bureaucracy in Germany has found out quickly jumping on the bandwagon.
In June of 2012 the German Federal Cultural Foundation first presented its new thematic focus on "Africa". The public presentation was accompanied by a nation-wide press campaign which centred on a close-up photograph of Euro bank notes which appeared in a number of national and regional newspapers in Germany. Together with the headline "The German Federal Cultural Foundation with a new focus on Africa", but mostly without mentioning the exact amount of money reserved for this "new focus", the German audience got the impression that the new initiative of the Kulturstiftung could actually improve the relationship between Germany and Africa and take it to a new level through arts and culture exchanges.
When it became clear that the money available for the TURN programme was just 2 million EUR – by far insufficient for the whole continent of Africa and its more than 50 countries and that the African art institutions were totally excluded from the application process and nobody in Africa knew about this programme – the disappointment was big. The grand vision of the initial concept had shrunken to a narrow-minded example of bureaucratic restrictions.
The main reason for outrage and indignation is the fact that the funding guidelines of the programme prevent any active participation of African art institutions and exclude the artists and art communities in African countries from independently applying for the funds. The funding guidelines tell the other side of a prospective cultural exchange in a roundabout way what in blunt words would be: "Sorry, but we cannot trust you, the German art and culture institutions have to first discover you, choose you and then they have to be the lead partner in the exchange, because with bookkeeping we have to rely on the German side".
Dr. Uta Schnell who runs the TURN programme tried to explain these shortcomings by "statutory and administrative restrictions" which unfortunately "limit the possibilities" of the Kulturstiftung. At this point you start to wonder whether those statutory and administrative restrictions themselves are a consequence of subtle prejudices and paternalistic attitudes which we believed to have been buried for long in the past of European-African interconnections.
This condescending treatment is especially misguided and out of place if you take into account that it was not the arts and culture communities on the African continent who asked to be included in some cultural exchange programme with Germany, but it was the German Federal Cultural Foundation's decision to say: "Now we are starting a new policy focus on Africa, we need it and we want it". Such a lack of inter-cultural competence is even more surprising coming from a board and its team of Western highly educated intellectuals with an academic background in all kind of studies including cultural sciences and even African studies.
Additionally, TURN's budget of 2 million EUR is dwarfed by the task of financing an artistic exchange programme between Germany and the whole African continent for a period of two years. It would be fine to use such an amount for cultural relations with only a handful of African countries and to focus on specific regions or projects, but to take this budget and call it a "policy focus on Africa" sounds ridiculous, especially if you compare it with the overall budget of the Federal Republic of Germany's state secretary for culture of over 1 billion EUR per year which includes the budget of the German Federal Cultural Foundation as a whole.
The debate about TURN's deficiencies had the additional effect to uncover that the theme "Africa" was at least partly misused to justify the work of the German Federal Cultural Foundation in its 10th anniversary year 2012. Different from what the Kulturstiftung proclaimed in its initial press and media campaign, TURN is not about strengthening the institutions for artistic and cultural projects in African countries, but it is rather about fostering the German art and culture scene. This truth came out when a TURN jury member conceded in a discussion about TURN on Facebook: "They've also said that the fund is about the 'German institutional art-and-culture-scene' and not about 'supporting African contemporary art institutions', but I'll leave them to clarify that."
In the end this means in other words: We are getting fresh ideas from Africa with our little change money, because over there in Germany artistic creativity urgently needs some spicing up and new blood. But maybe the German Federal Cultural Foundation has reckoned without its host. It remains to be seen how the arts and culture scenes in the various African countries will react to a programme which they were neither consulted nor informed about, which also excludes them from active participation and which calls their administrative reliability into question.
Safia Dickersbach, born in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, currently based in Berlin, Germany, is the Public Relations Director of Artfacts.Net, a British company which is the leading online database for modern and contemporary art. As an art market practitioner she has gained considerable insight into the mechanisms of the international art market.