During a press conference for my artist friend’s exhibition, a journalist claimed that Ghanaians were not interested in the visual arts. Her opinion seemed to confirm my observation about the general attitude of most media entities towards arts and culture. This journalist’s misguided observation appeared to ignore the large crowds annually during the CHALE WOTE Street Art Festival and KNUST (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology) graduate and alumni visual art exhibitions, which are prime examples that debunk this inaccurate assertion. Admittedly, media entities in Ghana appear to pay more attention to entertainment and popular arts, particularly music. Why are art and culture stories usually placed in the latter pages of our newspapers? This is an excellent metaphor for how we treat cultural production – as secondary, unimportant, lacking, a mere afterthought.
How do we challenge the country’s media entities to produce well researched content? Currently, the media in Ghana is yet to make sense of the arts as highly important cultural vehicles for transmitting messages to broad audiences. What will get our media to see that arts and culture are significant as forms of Ghanaian creativity and imagination in this historical moment? The media are primary vehicles for the generation, reproduction and more importantly, the transformation of ideas. Yet, a cursory examination of the treatment of arts and culture by media reveals coverage to be underreported, often inaccurate and heavily depoliticized. Stories about the arts appear to be framed as purely entertainment. Art and culture offer frameworks through which we can better understand the world around us. This makes it imperative for mainstream commercial media to seriously consider the role of arts and culture in the work of social transformation in Ghana.
As noted, the media typically treats culture and politics as separate entities. (Perhaps this is partly because of its narrow notion of politics shaped by partisanship, particularly of the NDC and NPP.) But the terrain of culture is also political.
Whose stories are absent?
Whose interests are served in these stories?
Addressing these questions places us on the terrain of politics. Those who speak and whose stories are amplified offer a world view which invariably reflect their experiences. For example, heterosexual men dominate a lot of media airtime, thus they offer us a world framed by their lived experience. Often, these stories ignore and obscure the experiences of women and other marginalized identities. (One always cringes when issues of sexual assault are discussed by an all-male radio panel.) All this is to say: the call to take culture seriously also means broadening our definition of politics and making it more inclusive.
To consider culture as a terrain of politics also requires a call for inclusivity of voices and stories that are traditionally excluded, violated, or suppressed. Perspectives that may make us uncomfortable. The arts have offered space and opportunities to marginalized groups to not only tell their stories but to be heard. For example, hiplife music became an avenue for young folks, particularly young men across the country, to register their concerns about their experience in postcolonial Ghana. Incidentally, the arts are also spaces where alternative stories are told, the very stories that are largely ignored by commercial mainstream media. For instance, critical conversations by creatives at venues across the city are exposing unquestioned assumptions around issues of gender, sexuality, race and imperialism. Since stories circulate ideas, changing the stories or including alternative stories may also change ideas, informing new cultures and communities of creation.
Beyond insisting that cultural production is political work, it is also a vehicle of reimagination. With the audacity to imagine, artists create work that color outside the borders of taken-for-granted ideas about the world. This is particularly crucial for shifting perceptions, because it is through the arts – as some argue – we are able to see and speak about the world differently. Indeed, for us to conceive of alternative ways of existing we must be able to talk about the world in different ways. For instance, at CHALE WOTE in August, Josephine Kuuire and Mantse Aryeequaye’s installation, “A Country Formerly Known As Ghana,” challenged visitors to reimagine our society without the violent experience of European colonialism.
To conclude, if we are serious about positive social transformation in Ghana – a favorite topic in the media – we must connect arts and culture to its’ deeply political contexts, improve coverage with thorough research and factual accuracy, and create more and more spaces for alternative stories.
It is dangerous to ignore the realm that informs how we make sense of our world. Culture is integral to politics, yet we have ceded this vital domain to foreign ‘cultural products,’ particularly from the West. But now is the time to take arts and culture seriously, if anything, our sisters and brothers in Senegal (Y’en a Marre) and Burkina Faso (Balai Citoyen) showed us that you can use Hip Hop, for instance, to successfully challenge the regimes of longtime presidents. If it were not for digital media activism and creative entrepreneurs who are writing about art, culture, history and politics on social media, vlogs and websites in Ghana, this would indeed be a hopeless scenario. With radio and television being the primary channels of access to most Ghanaians, it is imperative that high speed, reliable Internet be accessible and affordable to everyday Ghanaians as a means of narrowing this disparity in access to information. Certainly, these are examples the Ghanaian media can examine for clarity. Culture and arts is and has always been a potent engine for socio-economic and political transformation.
Story + Images by Nii Kotei Nikoi
Nii Kotei Nikoi is a Ghanaian writer, researcher and photographer based in Accra. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in Communication Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.