“There’s not much art in Malawi” was the refrain I heard from expats and Malawians alike as I asked around about the art scene in the country. I was skeptical. I have always firmly believed that wherever there are people, there is art.
In the summer of 2016, I received a fellowship to work at a small NGO in Malawi called the Art & Global Health Center Africa (AGHCA). Through this fellowship, I was fortunate enough to attend the Americans for the Arts Annual Convention in June 2017, which focused on equity and art’s role in activism and community development. During the convention, what struck me most was just how robust the arts ecosystem in the United States actually is. Having spent much of my career working in curating and public programs in art museums in the US, I realized that I had come to take this extensive infrastructure for granted. Thanks in no small part to organizations like Americans for the Arts, we have arts education programs in schools, institutions of higher learning dedicated to the arts, arts councils, arts nonprofits, museums, galleries, public art funds, performing arts spaces, philanthropists, and patrons. We have to fight relentlessly to maintain funding and support, especially now, with the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities once again on the cutting block. But the ecosystem exists. And my time in Malawi convinced me that this ecosystem makes all the difference.
Malawi is a small land-locked country in Sub-Saharan Africa with a population of over 17 million. Colonized by the British in the late nineteenth century, Malawians achieved independence in 1963. The country has made tremendous strides in developing its infrastructure, health care, and educational systems. Yet with nearly 85% of the population still reliant on subsistence farming, Malawi remains among the poorest countries in the world.
Not long after I arrived in Malawi, it became clear to me that the arts are alive and well. In many communities, singing, dancing, and oral storytelling are integrated into everyday life, crossing social, cultural, and economic boundaries. I marveled when my Malawian colleagues and friends, many of whom were raised in cities, effortlessly engaged children in rural communities in songs and dances, drawing on a shared cultural heritage. Few Westerners perceive these forms of self-expression as “art” because of how narrowly we define that word. Few Malawians describe these forms of self-expression as “art” because they are part of lived experience.
If one focuses purely on the “fine” and performing arts, these too can be found with a bit of persistence and interest. In my limited time in Malawi, I encountered numerous artists who, through sheer force of will, were creating their own opportunities with extremely limited resources.
Q. Malewezi, one of Malawi’s best-known poets, performs in festivals internationally, travels the country hosting poetry slams, and mentors young writers. Lily Banda, a young singer and spoken word artist, is an outspoken advocate for women’s rights. The Lusubilo Band, a rotating group of young dancers and musicians, draws on traditional music from Northern Malawi to create vibrant new sounds and has performed nationally and internationally. Professional theatre company the Salomonic Peacocks has staged everything from classics, such as Romeo and Juliet, to original productions tackling pressing social issues.
Sharifa Abdulla, one of the AGHCA’s co-founders, teaches theatre at the University of Malawi and has staged participatory plays inspired by the stories of people living with HIV. Renaissance man Elson Kambalu, who runs one of Malawi’s only commercial galleries, has taught arts education programs for youth, reimagined traditional folk art to explore the concept health, and recently completed his first feature film. Graphic artists Akulu Lipenga and McPherson Ndalama co-founded the Zaluso Arts Collective to give young artists opportunities to collaborate, exchange ideas, and showcase work; they recently ran a comics workshop in which teenagers invented a superhero who fights government corruption. Zaluso was launched through the Students with Dreams youth leadership program run by AGHCA, the NGO for which I worked this past year. Our programs vary widely, but each at its core uses arts-based community engagement to advocate for social change. Students with Dreams provides college students with training, mentorship, and seed funding to develop innovative projects that address pressing social issues. Dreamers have created “condom couture” to spark conversations about young people’s sexual health, launched arts festivals for children with disabilities, and inspired secondary school students to tackle injustice through creative writing.
One of our Dreamers, Mwizalero Nyirenda, created the documentary film Umunthu: An African Response to Homosexuality, which was screened at festivals in Los Angeles, Boston, and Lilongwe and won the Sembene Ousmane prize at the Zanzibar International Film Festival; the film inspired AGHCA’s Umunthu program advocating for the rights of LGBTI people. Through Make Art/Stop AIDS, drama groups have created participatory plays inspired by the experiences of people living with HIV and performed them in rural communities. The arts provide safe spaces to tackle taboo topics and empower people silenced by stigma and marginalized by discrimination to express themselves.
In recent years, a handful of organizations, AGHCA included, have sprung up to support arts and culture across the country. The British Council, HiVOS, the Wellcome Trust and a number of embassies have all begun investing in Malawi’s arts infrastructure. Yet much remains to be done. Only a handful of private primary and secondary schools offer any kind of arts education. There is just one college program for the fine and performing arts, which includes all of theatre, visual art, and music. There are only a handful of galleries and the country’s two national museums, which focus primarily on history, are severely underfunded. High quality instruments, photography and film equipment, and traditional fine art materials are difficult to find and wildly expensive. Buying art, or paying to experience it, is not yet widely perceived as a worthwhile way to spend one’s hard-earned income.
Malawi has no shortage of artists. What’s needed is a more robust arts ecosystem in which artists can grow and thrive. There is no question that the arts are critical to fostering human development, establishing identity through shared cultural heritage, bolstering democracy, and protecting human rights. But if there’s one thing that became crystal clear to me at Annual Convention, it's the vital role the arts can plan in spurring economic development. Malawi’s Lake of Stars music festival is a testament to that. Launched in 2004, Lake of Stars has become hugely successful, bringing more tourists and positive media coverage to Malawi than any other event and generating over $1.6 million for the Malawian economy each year. It is high time that international donors and the Malawian government realized that one of the country’s greatest resources—arts and culture—remains largely untapped.