Skip to main content
January 18, 2019

How to look at art: Art and democracy in Africa

National Symbol
National Symbol

Art fosters creativity and innovation. The World Economic Forum highlights creativity as ‘the key driver of economic growth’, but it is also the foundation of democracy. 

By its definition, creativity helps people form a social vision and develop a sense of social ownership and justice, and to present authorities with alternatives to current socio-political constructs and values. Art is an effective vehicle for activism and expression. No wonder creative individuals always align themselves with struggles for democracy. Art not only reflects but actively forms democracy. 

Following independence, Africans hoped for economic prosperity, but poverty has not reduced, despite high economic growth of some countries. Fifty one per cent of Africans still live below the poverty line of $2 per day, according to the World Bank, and this number that has not fallen for the last 35 years. Resource-driven, the growth has not translated into jobs; it has led to rising unemployment. Only 28 per cent of Africans have regular jobs. 

In Kenya, six million young people aged 18-25 are unemployed without any meaningful prospects. Wealth is vested in the hands of a few. 

Africans hoped for democracy, too. Democracy that is not only about elections but also about rights and freedoms, because even democratically elected governments can restrict them. However, out of the 50 African countries rated by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, only Mauritius is considered a ‘full democracy’. Out of the six fastest-growing economies, only Mozambique is in the ‘transition’ category, while the rest are ‘authoritarian’. 

Governments threaten artists and art practices for fear of a challenge to the political status quo. Musicians and cartoonists in Kenya were censured by the Kenyatta and the Moi regimes; an exhibition by Brett Murray, ‘Hail to the Thief’, in which the artist satirised the ruling party’s corruption, was banned by politicians in South African.

Art education is schools in many African countries is virtually non-existent. Only 2 per cent of secondary schools in Kenya offer arts. This includes high-fee private schools, meaning that lack of art education is not the question of money. Some artists flee into exile, some opt to praise existing regimes. 

International donors should take some of the blamed here. They tend to consider some human rights more important then others, dividing them into those that are conducive to development, such as schooling, health and environment, and those that are not, such as art and freedom of self-expression. 


Alla Tkachuk founded Mobile Art School in Kenya. Become ‘Kenya Patron of the Arts’, contact Alla for more information on [email protected]


Poll of the day