‘KulTur i Afrika’ - Interview with Mai Palmberg

Mai Palmberg and Carita Backström are the co-editors of ‘KulTur i Afrika’ (Culture in Africa), a book in which they share their and other researchers’ recurring encounters with African authors, pictorial artists, musicians, filmmakers, dancers and actors.

Mai Palmberg has carried out research on culture in Africa at the Nordic Africa Institute for 15 years within the framework of the ‘Cultural Images in and of Africa’ research programme. The concept of identity was at the centre of this research, and the studies touched on a number of aesthetic disciplines, but also communication studies, political science and anthropology. ‘KulTur i Afrika’ has emerged from that research.

Four questions for Mai Palmberg:

How has the image of Africa changed in the last ten years?
The cultural image of Africa is tainted by the public image of Africa, which still is condescending, paternalistic and very generalizing. But it is not everybody’s image. Anders Ehnmark has used the image of a river; while the image of Africa flows with its negative expectations, there are also many tributaries that produce other images that are more representative of Africa. The tributaries are growing stronger thanks to improved knowledge as well as increased exchanges and contacts. There have been exchanges and contacts since the missionary activities in the 19th century and today there are a great number of solidarity and aid organisations, in addition to a range of collaborations between artists and cultural workers in Sweden and Africa.

What have been the major trends in contemporary culture in Africa in the last ten years?
I see three clear trends. Firstly, African artists no longer regard themselves as teachers that have to explain and defend the state’s development policies and uniting efforts. Instead, a variety of different roles are emerging.

Secondly, the diversity of artistic expression is striking, from contemporary dance to cinema, arts and literature. Especially women’s entry onto the literary stage has changed the agenda. Feelings and emotions found in people’s ‘little lives’ and everyday struggles have been intertwined with the larger world of politics and conflicts. Chimamanda Adichie’s book ‘Half a Yellow Sun’ about the civil war in Nigeria is a brilliant example of this.

Thirdly, today many African artists reject western judgments of what authentic African culture is about. With pride and self-awareness they know themselves when to borrow where they think it is appropriate. African cultural creativity cannot be referred to as exotica; it belongs to the global discussion about culture, roots and identity.

Your own research has in part focused on Zimbabwe. When interviewing Zimbabwean artists about their reflections on the country’s hard times, what was the most striking aspect?
My first reaction was: How do they have the strength to continue in a situation where everything seems to fall apart, from the availability of bread to decent behaviour among fellow citizens? And yet they continue; if it is not possible to paint in bright colours, the artist paints in grey and brown nuances; if the leading actor moves abroad, someone else is there to fill in. Not to mention people who persist and continue to create and spread culture: publishers like Weaver Press in Harare and Ama Books in Bulawayo, the Amakhosi theatre in Bulawayo, the Book Café in Harare, Harare International Festival of Arts, musicians like Oliver Mtukudzi and many more, and the Delta art gallery. Culture has a wondrous toughness. The authorities and the economic crisis disturb it, but do not have the power to destroy it. If Zimbabwe’s soul isn’t completely eroded before its nightmare is over, it will be thanks to people in culture.

What is the main conclusion of your book?
We wanted to portray the diversity among the voices of culture on the vast African continent. We also wanted to point out how much of contemporary culture in Africa is about similar topics in contemporary culture and public debate in the West: identity, diversity, multiculturalism, modernity and roots. We want to remind readers that African artists have a great deal to say in this global discussion about culture and identity.

At the same time as we have witnessed African artists no longer serving as their governments’ teachers, we have also witnessed very little art for art’s sake. Art is about society, it teaches us about the African society. And if it is about bitter injustices, we have to remind ourselves that the West continues to aggravate the injustices; the unequal exchange goes on.

Mai Palmberg is a Finnish political scientist. She was a researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute between 1984 and 2010 and the coordinator of the research project ‘Cultural Images in and of Africa’ from 1995 to March 2010.

Carita Bäckström is a cultural journalist, specialising in literature, theatre and dance. She has made documentaries from different parts of the world including Somalia, Ghana and South Africa for Finnish radio.

Mai Palmberg
Performing arts
Visual arts
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