Cultural institutions worldwide, such as museums and art galleries, are continually engaged in processes of creative, social and aesthetic exchange that actively inform and enhance the promotion of contemporary practices in the arts and that welcome new ideas from other parts of the world.While much of this exchange is made possible by modern communication and media developments, it is commonly agreed that when people from diverse cultures, backgrounds and experiences meet together on a face to face basis to discuss and work on shared projects this process of cultural education is greatly enhanced and amplified.
On returning to Botswana after a gap of 10 years I have been disappointed and dismayed to discover the run-down and dilapidated state of Botswana's government museums and government funded regional museums and art galleries in Gaborone, Mochudi and Maun and the general lack of development in the visual arts as a whole. While living in Botswana from 1992 to 1999 and working as the Visual Arts Officer at the National Museum and Art Gallery in Gaborone (NMMAG), I initiated and developed a number of innovative arts projects designed to raise the profile of the visual arts within Botswana and to create relevant points of social engagement and exchange between artists and civic society. I felt then that, as a non-Motswana artist, I had been offered a unique and generous opportunity to contribute to and enhance contemporary artistic development in a country not my own but in which I was a welcome resident for almost seven years.
My work with NMMAG culminated in the creation of the Princess Marina Public Art Programme (1996-1998), Botswana's first - and to date, only - public art programme.
This is astonishing. In the last decade, in Gaborone alone, an extensive programme of corporate, public and government building has taken place that displays little or no relevance to the unique cultural character of Botswana. Despite the success of the Princess Marina Programme and its highly popular impact on the hospital environment, no similar public art projects have been developed and applied within any of the extensive urban developments over the last ten years. Where were the agencies brokering exchanges between planners, architects, artists and society, emphasising the profile of the visual arts and their capacity to humanise public spaces? Why has no visible Tswana imagery reflecting the country's rich cultural heritage been incorporated into the built environment, the lack of which has resulted in many parts of the city being indistinguishable from modern cities anywhere in the world? What was and is the current role of the National Art Gallery in the relationship between the arts and artists in Botswana and the people they serve? And why are the views and ideas of so many accomplished, dedicated and talented artists in Botswana apparently disregarded?
The recent government directive of 2008 to furnish government buildings with artworks made by citizen artists is deceptively positive. On one hand it is obviously preferable to buying "off the peg" imagery but buying without an informed artistic appreciation has the propensity to stultify the market and encourages artists to modify their originality in order to produce what seems to be commercially acceptable. This inevitably results in an overall stifling of creativity and has a serious impact on freedom of expression. In addition, the directive seeks to source and acquire art solely from citizen artists which immediately rejects works from long term permanent resident or non-Batswana artists regardless of how long they have been resident and worked here or how much they may have contributed to the development of art in Botswana overall.This is in direct contradiction to the ideals of cultural and creative exchange that should be exemplified by institutions such as the National Art Gallery but is sadly not in evidence at present.
A further point concerns the national art collection. In the case of the National Museum and Art Gallery in Gaborone I have been informed that the national art collection is "too fragile" to be put on display in the public galleries and I understand that requests to access the collection for personal research have either been delayed or left unprocessed for lengthy periods of time. This negative and unprofessional approach is a scandalous misuse of a national resource and effectively denies the people of Botswana access to their collective heritage. It is in direct contradiction to the customary role of museums to collect, collate, protect and promote the cultural history and traditions of a country and to employ this resource to educate, inform and involve its people in a constantly evolving dialogue of exchange and enlightenment. Currently there is little evidence of any such dynamic taking place.
With regard to the regional museums and their hugely important role to promote, develop and generate cultural dissemination, they would appear to have been almost completely neglected in recent years. Visits to Nhabe Museum in Maun and Phutadikobo in Mochudi were sad and disappointing experiences. Both institutions are seriously under funded and lack comprehensive government support and the recognition that properly managed museums such as these have significant income generating potential as national resources and as part of the tourist industry. It is tempting to associate the gradual decline of these once lively museums with the rise of the new cultural icons of Botswana such as the gleaming 4x4s and shopping malls which appear to be taking precedence over earlier cultural arts and artefacts that once represented Botswana's vibrant history from pre-colonial times through to a modern democracy.
During my several years as the Visual Arts Officer for the National Museum, Monuments and Art Gallery, I was in no doubt that there is a huge resource of visual art, artists and expertise in Botswana that only lacks sufficient support and viable means of expression to properly flourish. The 11 artists who were commissioned to design public art for the Princess Marina Public Art Programme produced a series of distinctive artworks that enlivened the external environment of the hospital and brought a quality art experience to the wider public. That this initiative has not been developed in subsequent years is a missed opportunity but one that can be taken up and utilised at any time. The skill is here, the expertise is here, the creativity is here - all that is lacking is the vision to gather all this together and lobby for the inclusion of the visual arts in all their diversity in the constantly evolving cultural and urban landscape of Botswana. That there is, and must be, a central role for the National and Regional Museums and the National Art Gallery to play in helping to generate the necessary conditions for artistic and cultural enterprise within a modern Botswana is abundantly clear and should be a priority concern for the respective Ministries of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism and Youth, Sport and Culture governing these institutions.