Botswana is a tiny little country with a tiny little population and an even tinier artistic community. Iíve thought for a long time that because of that, and given the fact that most of our artists are struggling to keep their heads above water, that maybe there was no room for proper criticism.
Every supposed review of some creation— be it a sculpture, a book, a song, a poem— is full of positive hyperbole. There is no bad art in Botswana. Everything is beautiful. It’s as if we have been drinking from the spiked grape Kool-aid.
I’ll admit I’m part of the problem. I decided some time ago that here in this column as well as on my blog and other venues, if I didn’t like a book written by a Motswana, or for that fact an African writer, I would not mention it. I would only do reviews of books I could honestly recommend, books I liked.
My position was decided by how difficult it is to be a writer on this continent as well as a little bit of cowardice on my part— this place is small, dude, and I don’t need more enemies. But honestly, failing to critic our art properly is killing the artists of this country and ensuring they never find success outside of our borders.
I once saw a post on Facebook where a sculptor made these huge heads of some famous person. The person posted a photo of the heads (heads made of a lot of material which likely cost the artist a substantial amount of money) and then everyone lined up, as per the Setswana way, and said how wonderful the sculptures were. It was like no one could see the naked emperor. I felt like I’d fallen through the worm hole. The sculptures were awful. Everyone could see that and yet everyone lied.
If you take a step to try and improve the situation and say: Well, no actually, that’s not good— you are immediately accused of ruining people’s dreams, of being a hater.
And so music with impossibly bad lyrics, derivative melodies, and poor understanding of basic song writing techniques and traditions are raved about by radio DJs.
Paintings that emote nothing from the viewer are deemed as powerful, moving masterpieces when they are flat and boring even when on the rare occasion they are executed
Self-indulgent, slapdash, cliché-ridden poetry is praised, and books that read like an editor never got within 100 kilometres of them are put up as excellent.
All art in Botswana is wonderful. It has to be. It’s an odd sort of home-grown countrywide disingenuous pact. I think it’s time for some honesty.
Honesty that comes from a good place, a place that wants to see our artists jump over our borders and be a success wherever they step. Right now this false praise does nothing but ensure that our artists stay exactly where they are, and an artist who is not continually growing dies. And then the haters win- the true haters.
Imagine a new writer. He sends his book to a publisher and the publisher rejects it. “That publisher is jealous,” the writer’s “friends” say. “Your writing is amazing.”
So the writer takes all of his savings and self-publishes his book. What happens then? His “friends” buy 25 copies.
None of them will ever read the book. He’s got 475 copies in his parents’ garage. He checked them the other day; mice have built nests inside of the pages.
Imagine instead, a new writer’s friend tells him— “Listen, dude, this story needs work. Maybe you ought to read a bit more, see how stories work, maybe you need to give this a rewrite”.
That’s a friend who cares about the writer and wants to see that writer become a success.
The writer gets back to work. Reads more. Drops his provincial chains. He re-writes. And re-writes again, and again. He sends it to a literary magazine and gets an acceptance.
Then a reviewer gives the story a look and says what’s good and what’s bad. The new writer reads the review, throwing his ego to the side, and tries to do better with his next story. That’s how criticism empowers artists.
Art is about truth, if there’s no truth there’s no art. But yet in Botswana, time and again, art is covered in this white-wash of lies and all it is doing is killing us.