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Writers from Africa were bestsellers in Europe more than 200 years ago. One picaresque autobiography of a child captured into slavery in west Africa, who, as a free man, travelled the world as a shipping clerk and navigator, lent a powerful voice to the Abolitionist cause. Published in London in 1789, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African went through nine editions (one American) in Equiano’s lifetime and 10 posthumously, including translations into Dutch and German.
Readers in England devoured just as eagerly Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho. Sancho was a fashionable Westminster grocer and philanthropist who had the misfortune to be born on a transatlantic slave ship. A writer of poetry, prose and music, he counted among his society friends David Garrick, the Shakespearean actor, and Laurence Sterne, author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, bankers and artists (he sat for a portrait by Thomas Gainsborough). Collected in 1782, two years after his death, and reprinted five times, Sancho’s correspondence brought him posthumous acclaim — and substantial royalties for his widow.
Though admired by European contemporaries, the writings of Equiano and Sancho were largely forgotten until the 1960s, when they furnished proof that a trailblazing generation of writers — including Chinua Achebe and Ayi Kwei Armah in English and Ousmane Sembène in French — had feted forebears. Two more decades passed before the 1986 Nobel literature prize for Wole Soyinka of Nigeria was mistakenly hailed in some quarters as the arrival of African literature on the world stage.
Those 18th-century bestsellers are a reminder that the arts of the global south have rich, though not always remembered, histories. (This amnesiac tendency had a further corrective in the 1990s in Margaret Busby’s 1,000-page anthology of women’s words and writings, Daughters of Africa.) They also reveal how uncomfortably art sits under national flags. Both Sancho — born off the Guinean coast and baptised in Cartagena, before becoming London’s first Afro-British voter — and Equiano epitomised a cosmopolitan modernity in an era of globalisation. Amid its violent ruptures, Derek Walcott, the St Lucian poet, wrote: “I had no nation now but the imagination.”
The same goes for many writers, artists and film-makers today. When asked to name their influences, some may nod to national icons, but most bow to an eclectic pantheon — as did generations before them. The Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez hired and fired William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway among his literary mentors. The film-makers Ousmane Sembène of Senegal and Satyajit Ray of India were nourished by the 1940s Italian neorealism of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves — just as Martin Scorsese has placed Ray and the Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa, alongside Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, among his “four greats”. These influences cross art forms as well as national frontiers. Günter Grass, the late German Nobel laureate, told me in 2010 that Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon was one inspiration behind his Nazi-era novel, The Tin Drum (1959).
An expectation that art should express nationhood can even act as a straitjacket. Frank Bowling, the Guyanese-born artist who won the silver medal to David Hockney’s gold at London’s Royal College of Art in 1962, uses a vibrant palette in his abstract work, sometimes touched by memory and history. His early “Map Paintings”, revealing the contours of an enlarged South America through layers of colour, reimagined a decolonised world, around the time that Jasper Johns and other US artists were deploying maps and flags to question US power.
But the hostility Bowling met as a Caribbean-born painter daring to venture into abstraction sent him to the psychoanalyst’s couch. As he told me in 2007: “People had a locked-in view of what I should be doing as an artist; that my role was to represent a certain viewpoint.” His huge map canvases languished in storage for three decades until they emerged to cause a stir at the 2003 Venice Biennale.
Bowling’s rising reputation (his “Poured Paintings” were shown at Tate Britain in London two years ago) is part of a wider movement shaking the art world. Along with a proliferation of biennales, there has been an acquisition drive to fill glaring gaps in the collections of western art institutions such as the Tate, the Pompidou Centre in Paris and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
This dawning reappraisal of generations of artists from the global south, or its diasporas, is also calling into question what one international art curator at Tate Modern, Kerryn Greenberg, recognises as western art history’s “linear narrative of modernism”. Tate Modern’s leading show this autumn, “The World Goes Pop”, is one fruit of this broadening vision.
Yet the country in which artists work may still throw up nets that ensnare their talent and prevent its reaching an international audience, which is often the key to earning a living. With the exception of South Africa, writers across sub-Saharan Africa contend with a dearth of local publishers and lamentable distribution. Short of self-publishing, the path into print often lies abroad.
While Arabic publishing is more established, in Lebanon, Egypt or Morocco, the chances of being translated, particularly into English, are still slim, because their publishing scenes in these countries are well established. Other hurdles range from arcane censorship rules to rampant book piracy. As even the bestselling Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany, author of The Yacoubian Building, said in 2008: “It’s almost impossible to make your living as a writer in Egypt; I earn from my books which are published abroad.”
For artists across Latin America, the sophisticated art infrastructure of Brazil and Mexico contrasts with meagre conditions in Bolivia and Ecuador. Colombia, with a fast developing art scene, has strong art schools and legions of talented graduates but few places for them to show. This “institutional deficit” has been offset by the talent and energy of artists and curators. Nor is there any certainty that booming economies will invest public funds in the arts. That takes political will.
Sembène told me two years before his death, that in Senegal in the 1960s, he distributed his internationally lauded features in 35mm cans by bicycle, since “Africa is my audience; the west and the rest are markets”.
Just as digital cameras have transformed access to film-making and distribution (sparking, for instance, a boom in short films in Cambodia), technology is opening doors for writers and artists — at least by a few degrees. Across Africa, online journals such as Kwani?, Chimurenga, Saraba and Jalada are vaulting geographical and economic barriers to give writers direct access to readers.
For artists, the internet has become essential for promoting their work and linking to far-flung art scenes. Yet the goal for most writers remains to be published in print — not least to receive royalties. María Paz Gaviria, director of Bogotá’s international art fair, ArtBO, cautions that, in contrast to the internet’s revolutionary impact on the music industry, “the art market is still driven by validation from curators, museums, galleries and art fairs”.
While technology may be helping to level the playing field, an engagement with arts around the globe calls for a fundamental shift in perception. Like the 18th-century readers who hung on the words of free Africans, or the viewers who rediscovered Bowling’s abstract painting, the enriching encounter can turn some of our deepest assumptions on their head. It means new ways of seeing not just the rest of the world, but also ourselves.