For nearly 50 years every successive Government makes of the Ministry of Culture its weakest link. And yet ours is a country with a rich and diverse cultural heritage, revealing old and fused histories, deep entangled philosophies, with unique cultural synergy and specificities. At conferences at which I have spoken about Mauritius, from Tokyo to Louisiana, academics have been fascinated about the cultural phenomena of Mauritius. Where does the dissonance get played out, therefore, between our full artistic and cultural potential and the governance thereof? The whys of the undesirable and weakest link that is the Ministry of Culture and, especially, the building blocks thatwould create an empowering landscape for art and culture in contemporary Mauritius were the subject of my discussion with Paul Comarmond (artist), Sadek Ruhmally (poet), Uvi Babajee (artistic manager and lyricist), Christophe Botti (writer and theatre director) and Selven Naidu (film-maker).
Kyété sa, manzé/bwar?
‘The political class’s lack of consideration for arts and culture is to do with the perception that culture is worthless in comparison to the economy and all the rest,’ assertsSelven Naidu. And this to thepoint that there has never beena national sustained culturalpolicy for Mauritius. This lackof policy and orientations hasresulted in a lack of institutional support, witnessed in dilapidated museums and theatres, a lack of financial and logisticalsupport to artists acrossall disciplines, the absence ofartistic training and exposurein schools, the lack of validation of amateur artists, the lackof means of professionalization.The list of ‘manquements’is long indeed.
The highjacking of culture
Successive Governments seems to have little idea of what culture is about. And since culture is ill defined or misunderstood, the temptation is to keep the ‘‘gatekeepers’’ of culture happy. For Selven Naidu, ‘they are the self-proclaimed gurus who think they are the gatekeepers of religious and cultural matters’. At the crux of the matter is the mixing up of culture and religion. For example, Tamil is a language and a culture and a Tamil can be religiously Hindu or Christian or Muslim, atheist etc. Many do not or refuse to understand this. An almost straightforward equation between culture and socio-cultural organisations is maintained in the eyes of and by Government. For Uvi Babajee, ‘our politicians have deliberately brainwashed the population into pigeon-holing itself into increasingly restrictive boxes’ whereas art and culture is an open arena which cannot have frontiers under the false pretence of politics.
Paul Comarmond identifies hang-ups relating to the colonisation of the mind. Culture is always elsewhere for the colonised, in the metropolitan centres. It is true that connections with ancestral lands and heritage were systematically broken by colonialism and attempts at building bridges in that direction are being made. ‘But when will we realise that we can have our own cultural metropolitan here itself?’
Besides, each ensuing Government throws away the baby with the bath water. The Salon du Livre, Confluences for two years brought to Mauritius writers and thinkers from various parts of the world, helped to put Mauritius on the world cultural map and promoted Mauritian writers internationalinternationally.It is suddenly no more. Forsustained progress in the fieldof national culture, we wouldneed a State institution thatremains independent of partisanpolitics.
‘Government often reduces culture to cult’
For Sadek Ruhmally, the artist seeks to render truth and beauty, seeking innovation through disruptive thinking, constantly and purposefully building ideals. They are, above all, courageous in articulating these in the first place. ‘Artists are defined and exist by themselves, their work is a creative energy which seeks to define our tomorrow.’ The political approach, on the other hand, which defines and contains artists in different disciplinary boxes is antithetical.
While art and culture provide a fundamental questioning of self, politics does not want the population to evolve, it needs it to be subservient so the status quo can be preserved. Art and culture inculcated in our children from a young age will give them the tools of the master for self-improvement. This threatens the pseudo-masters.
Pillars: Cultural Tourism
Et pourtant, ‘de grands artistes sont de grands ambassadeurs pour un pays,’ says Christophe Bottiwhose play Sous LaVarangue hasknown phenomenal success lastweek at Eureka. Cultural tourism complements and is evenstarting to replace traditionaltourism. ‘On cherche du sens. L’île Maurice peut offrir ce sens par sa multi-culturalité.’ Going forwardit would be impossible tobypass culture as an asset. Butwhen and how are we going tostart thinking proactively, withhonesty and openness, aboutthe cultural capital that we have,that we could nurture, harvestand offer, besides the stalemateand often embarrassing culturalmenu of hotel clichés?
Defining a national policy and executive structure
1. The first priority is that an overarching cultural reflection and national policy for Mauritius be carried out by a council of practitioners of arts and culture and not by people who use art and culture for political mileage. This vision paper based on a cross-fertilisation of disciplines and dialogue across cultures would be submitted to Cabinet for discussion and executed by the Ministry.
2. To support policy a national structure would need to be set up to ensure that good projects are sustained over a period of time irrespective of change of governments. It would require an efficient mechanism and competent human resources to welcome, assess and support projects. Keeping artists on hold for months to finally refuse a bid is a waste of energy for all. The priorities would include:
• The creation of arts and culture scholarships distributed through independent commissions on a quarterly basis.
• The development of a sponsorship framework of art and culture which encourages the engagement of SME to remain close to the local and the grassroots and play an active role in the development of cultural life. Through proactive sponsorship a company creates cultural links between the artistic sphere, the economic sphere and more.
• The organization of events around the cultures of Mauritius linking creatively contemporary creations to traditional ones and involving the participation of diverse cultural voices.
Democratising art and culture
3. An initiative to democratise art and culture would create access and relevance to a much wider group of people than is currently the case. We would need to usher in a new cultural dynamic of regular collaboration between artists and citizens through a programme of artistic residencies, touching cultural centres, schools, universities, prisons. In bridging the missing link between art and the population, ‘c’est un vrai changement de société qui devient alors possible,’ affirms Selven Naidu.
Valorising and supporting amateur practice
4. A valorisation of amateur practice across all art by first of all giving it its due status and place is long overdue. Generating proximity and exchange between professional and amateur practitioners in mutual respect as to the dynamics that they both bring would be a productive second step.
Education, Art and Equity
5. Convince national education policy makers to open up to artistic education to allow all
Mauritian children (and not just those who can privately afford) to develop a deep understanding of arts and artistic practice during their schooling. This would allow every child access to a holistic development irrespective of their social origin and will be a building block towards the principle and practice of equity.
A High-income Economy with Smart Cities will occupy their space but cannot occupy the whole space in nation-building and will ultimately mean little without the offerings of artists and cultural activists, the architects of the soul of a country. The transformative educational, social and economic potential of art and culture speak for themselves about a pillar that has yet to be built.
Part of the dissonance between potential and representation lies in contradictory perceptions of culture and therefore of its value by different stakeholders. Culture, which forges our human relationships, shapes our practices, gives meaning to our traditions and values and remodels them, defines who we are. It is an evolving process both tangible and intangible in which we are all actors, the underpinning of our lives. It is also a potent industry and an important pillar to cultural tourism.
For Christophe Botti ‘avoir une politique culturelle active est le signe d’une démocratie forte. Encourager la culture, c’est encourager le développement intellectuel, la force vive d’un pays. Et la culture est un secteur économique viable, surtout dans un pays à fort potentiel touristique.’He was supported by private individuals offering an artistic residence which allowed him toshare his know-how with Mauritian artists. Christophe Botti faced a fair bit of difficulty with the mechanics of organizing a play in Mauritius and would have liked to see more artist-in-residence programmes to support the buoyant talent.
In the last 2-3 years there has been a strong artistic effervescence in Mauritius, with some artists no longer waiting for the State to create. The private sector plays an increasing role in the field of theatre, music, cinema as we have seen with The Bridge and the Institute for Contemporary Arts, Indian Ocean. These are excellent initiatives which have their place in a big void. But these may run out of steam in the absence of an overall national ‘démarche’. And, in leaving the cultural space for foreign cultural organisations and the private sector to occupy, the State abdicates its responsibility in matters of innovation.