Harare, April 10th 2014 | Patience G. Tawengwa
“It is a good thing to place different civilizations in contact with each other; that whatever its own particular genius may be, a civilization that withdraws into itself atrophies; that for civilizations, exchange is oxygen.” -Aime Cesaire, African poet and political theorist
COLLABORATION THROUGH THE ARTS IS TRANSCENDANT
Iremember attending a Pan-African arts and culture festival where selected artists from 53 African countries came together in the North African country of Algeria for 21 days to share and celebrate the diversity of the various art forms on the African continent. We were all housed in one “village”: the memorable and unforgettable Village des Artistes which overlooks the Mediterranean Sea in the city of Algiers; a place where all the trees stand tall and proud, neatly painted white at the base of their trunks, I always say in Algeria the trees wear socks. The village had been specially constructed for the festival and not one single drop of alcohol was allowed to pass beyond the heavily armed security at the gates since we all had to observe and respect the religion of our host nation.
All the participants and delegates lived in close proximity and in our very sober and clear minded states, it didn’t take us very long to realize that although we all shared one common denominator and identity, the fact that we were all Africans, we could not freely communicate with each other. It proved to be quite frustrating and we soon naturally gravitated to those who spoke a common language. We ended up splitting into roughly three distinct groups: Africans from anglophone countries, those from francophone Africa and a small minority from Portuguese speaking African countries: the legacy of colonialism.
Africa as a continent has the handicap of possessing no commonly shared mother tongue to bridge our divides. The only one thing which triumphed and managed to repeatedly bring us together and transcend barriers of verbal language, geographic origins or even religious persuasion was the power of the arts. When artists were thrown together in a rehearsal space to collaborate or a performance was on stage, the interest, enjoyment, laughter and applause was universal. A certain understanding of other cultures dawned upon each of us, the walls of suspicion and aloofness came down and friendships were forged through the collaborative power of the arts.
At the end of the festival although initially most of us never got beyond a casual ‘hello” or a rudimentary “bon jour” we became united through collaboration. That life lesson never left me, the fact that when we collaborate through the arts our hearts connect and we ‘speak’ one universal language.
When Danai and I founded Almasi the bedrock was and still remains collaboration. The mandate was always clear, that collaboration would be a pillar and central to whatever we do in order for us to realize the full potential of the organization; hence our name Almasi COLLABORATIVE Arts. It has been an amazing experience to see what we are able to accomplish when we join forces, let go of our egos and cease to care about who will get the credit for the success of a project. 2013 was a remarkable year for us in terms of the scope of the cross cultural creative collaborations which we managed to complete and their impact on the chosen participants.
In Africa we generally tend to struggle with the model and notion of collaboration across the board because when we collaborate not everyone can be the leader or the boss. I have learned firsthand from my American peers through immersion and also by observing that the excellence they manage to achieve is a result of creative collaborations where each person knows their job and is given room to excel doing what they can do best. This is in stark contrast to how we tend to function in Africa: one individual responsible for everything. The late Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe succinctly captured our weakness when he said ” What worries me maybe more than anything else in Africa is the inability of leaders to understand that no one person has the answers to everything. We have to move away from this idea that only “me” can do it, because that’s not true.”
I believe if we are going to realize our full potential in our creative sectors it is absolutely necessary that we learn how to effectively work as creative teams. It is up to us as Africans to bring about the change we desire in our countries and on our continent, we have to take the lead; but we need partners and collaborators both in Africa and beyond our borders to help us accomplish this mammoth task, we cannot do it in isolation and we cannot do it alone.
We are thankful for those of you who are already a part of this journey and we are asking more of you to actively join and partner with us. As we begin our 2014 season we are excited to be initiating more cross cultural exchanges. Collaboration, teamwork, working together in every discipline of life, are the foundations of being successful.