Being culturally sensitive in Africa

by Jason Gross

5 January 2006


Two interesting articles about Africa and culture.  The first one is a New York Times essay by Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah that argues for preserving cultural artifacts but not cultures per se because that’s harmful and unrealistic.  It’s a very thoughtful piece but I keep wondering if Appiah is too dismissive of the intoxicating effects of Western culture.  I do admire the fact that he’s in favor of preservation when it’s home grown.  But does that let off the hook large foreign companies who can easily invade a marketplace and squeeze out local artisans and businesses?  I think the example of Wal-Mart here in the States is a pretty instructive example of the potential abuses and exploitation that can happen as such.

The other article is a Guardian piece where the Jonathan Jones not only talks about an African exhibit he admires in England but goes to the source to gather some context.  He comes up with some interesting questions about what constitutes “art” per se.  Here, the subject of preserving cultures comes up as a connection to the art itself- more specfically “Respect my art, respect me.” But, Jones hastens to add, “... the African experience suggests that even when oppressors acknowledge, quite fulsomely, the beauty of your art, this doesn’t stop them classing it as “primitive” and continuing to treat you as a lower form of life.”

One thing I noticed when I was in Africa was that the local crafts you could buy directly from the artists were being resold in the States for maybe fifty times the original price in stores and galleries which hype them up as “authentic African art” (which they were but…).  Exploitation for sure and as for preserving culture, these artifacts were touted more as home decorations and probably used and seen as such more often than not.  How that helps the cultures they come from I couldn’t tell you.

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