The research project Common Life focused on the challenges of sustaining art places in Africa and the general dependence on international funding. Instigated by artist and community organizer Molemo Moiloa, it considered what the continent offers in terms of mixed financial models and multidisciplinary engagements for common living and operating in ways that complement the immediate environment – breaking the moulds of specific disciplines and no longer looking for financing from the Europeans.
In examining how artistic practices and societies can connect, Common Life was a continuation of ideas which Molemo Moiloa had previously been working on regarding collective organizing on the continent. Guided in part by the ideas of “Sumak kawsay” or “buen vivir,” the project explored five case studies on collective artistic practices that are versatile, innovative, and committed to their situatedness – working at the intersection of creative practice, collective organizing, and community resource-sharing. The concept of Sumak kawsay, meaning “good life” or “living in harmony” in Quechua, originates in Indigenous cultures of the Andean region and the Amazon rainforest.
Workshop with all participants and researchers. Courtesy of Molemo Moiloa
What does the English word “common” generally mean, and what does its use reveal? Etymologically, dictionaries suggest that the adjective emerged at the beginning of the 1300s to describe something that belongs to everyone, is owned or used jointly, that has a public nature or character – stemming from the Latin word “communis.” But of course it also refers to notions that are known under other names in other languages, like “ubuntu” or “unhu” on the continent.
The collectives taking part in Common Life were Afrika Arts Kollective – Ekilawuli, Dzimbanhete Arts & Culture Interactions, Kino Kadre, Festival Sur Le Niger, and Kër Thiossane. Each collective has a history of challenging institutions and systems of power that sustain relations of exploitation, domination, and repression. The project paired each collective with a researcher: writer and journalist David Kaiza, artist Tafadzwa Gwetai, artist Taryn Mckay, literature professor Ibrahima Wane, and social psychologist Dieynaba Ndiaye respectively. Common Life insisted on collaborative research. Each researcher was already related to their chosen collective in some way – Taryn McKay, for instance, is part of Kino Kadre. These are engaged researchers who have a responsibility towards their community.
All Workshop participants. Courtesy of Molemo Moiloa
The researchers produced case studies describing the collectives’ work and the ways in which, as the project’s website puts it, they “combine commercial and non-profit models for sustainability.” They pinpoint where “the lines between artists and community members blur,” Moiloa says. While our highly unequal society makes it hard for radical projects to be well-funded, Common Life seems to provide a blueprint for certain ways of living and illustrates ways of working outside funding agendas – an organization might be interested in tech or farming, for example, as an extension of art-making.
The religious, social, and aesthetic purposes of art are all intertwined with everyday life for these collectives. Molemo Moiloa says K.C. Anyanwu’s philosophical rant “The Idea of Art in African Thought,” published in 1987, points at what the possibilities are, and that one can see “African art as inseparable from the African world, mindset and religion.” This is reflected in the project’s published research and the playlist the website offers that resonates with all the texts. It is interesting how social scientist Kurt Lewin’s “action research model” appears to have been combined with experimental research and writing on art on the continent.
In looking through the project’s publication, two projects particularly stand out for me. Ker Thiossane’s fablab Defko Ak Niёp in Dakar explores the digital commons, creating shared resources, a community that interacts with these resources and a set of rules that organizes its use. While real estate is an exhaustible resource, the knowledge commons is unlimited. It has the power to change how we disseminate information and how people can intellectually be together.
Ekilawuli ‘Glass Works Project’ in Kampala, Uganda. Courtesy of Ekilawuli
Another story I found remarkable was David Kaiza’s work with Ekilawuli, a glass-blowing and recycling community. Like all cities on the continent, Kampala has a history of segregation. Segregation has shifted from race to tribal and class lines: where there is an affluent neighborhood, there is a matching slum to provide the labor. Trying to do research during a pandemic, Kaiza rode his bicycle 50 kilometres each way once a week – but only on days when it would not interfere with the rhythm of the collective’s work. “The amount of sacrifice the members of the collective put into this work puts me to shame,” says Kaiza. Ekilawuli operates on fragile ground because of its off-location, but its members go to extraordinary lengths to make it work.
Common Life raises ethical questions regarding arts education on the continent. Communities are elastic, constantly shifting and adapting, including more and more voices and concerns. What sustainability models exist for students leaving art school? How can an arts organization serve as a shareable and regenerative resource? Common Life sought to make make known and express aspects of reality that dominant narratives ignore. Its proposal is radically spiritual and ecological, and thus incompatible with development and industrialization. It posits the possibility of living in common – a possibility for which the very concept of development is not only insufficient but simply wrong.
This project does not advocate any course of action or claim to represent the whole of Africa, but it does recognize the tragedy of putting self-interest at the core of art practice, which could lead to less than optimal results for the continent. Its greater sensitivity to communities’ latent potential encourages us to think about where our shared futures are heading and what they might become.
Fadzai Veronica Muchemwa is a researcher, writer and curator currently operating between Harare and Makhanda. She is interested in notions of care and social justice issues in artistic practice. She is the co-founder of the Practice Theory Collective.