Everything we do, think and create is political. The absence of movement—and even death—is political. Politics comes from the Latin word polis (“the city”), as diverse groups of people were drawn to large urban centers for work, school and leisure. The collision of strangers in the city is politics—as persons petition the state in cooperation and conflict to be recognized through an accurate representation and e…qual (or superior) rights accorded to their particular groups (i.e., ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, race, etc.) Politics concerns that which is needed to reproduce one’s daily life (water, food, shelter, basic healthcare, education, livable wages, etc.) while also demanding the state for access to greater social and financial privileges.
Art is inherently political. It can mirror the crises and disjunctures of social life while also possessing an imagination that considers alternatives outside of existing reality. Should artistes restrict themselves to painting and installing non-controversial subjects and leave political concerns to the politicians? Nelson Rockefeller once referred to modern abstract expressionism as “free enterprise painting”—was he not offering a political definition of art? When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of the Vatican, was that process free of politics? Art will always provide a space to critique the hold of society’s manacles while also serving as a conduit to humanity’s higher self.
Artistes do not create in a vacuum, they are indisputably coupled to the society and times in which they work. Specifically, artistes manipulate and transform raw materials into a new form. Who makes these raw materials, how much are they paid and under what conditions do these laborers work? The fact that these supplies are created from the toil of others exemplifies a political construct. In Ghana, western benefactors—churches and missionaries, embassies and high commissions, banks, NGOs and philanthropic foundations—primarily fund artistes. This is not exceptional benevolence on the part of these agencies but rather systematic efforts to increase their political power, prestige and ability to define what are acceptable forms of art. Since labor and commerce are realms understood to be political spheres, then art, which is inextricably bound to these fields, is automatically part of a political process.
So, how does art address dystopia while reaching for utopia? What is the way forward if my utopia is your dystopia? How can we open ourselves up to other ways of thinking—to that which does not make sense, that which makes us uncomfortable, that which is different? How do we make art—and find home—in dangerous territory while also reaching for “The Promised Land?”