50 years of Botswana’s visual arts

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As the nation looks ahead to its golden jubilee celebrations this Friday, Mmegi Staff Writer MOMPATI TLHANKANE reflects upon effective visual arts development as everyone celebrates this progress that has grown from humble beginnings to an authentic success story

During this 50-year-period, through their artistic eyes, Botswana visual artists had reflected a nation that was going under a lot of transformation after independence in 1966. As the world was slowly changing before their eyes, these artists helped construct Botswana’s tradition and national identity.

It was not all easy for these artists because most people did not know about art except a few self-taught artists and expatriates from Western countries. Botswana’s contemporary art scene at the time was restricted to baskets and pottery. The crafts dominated the sales and there was a little room for painters and sculptors. Still today, visual arts categories such as traditional pottery, leatherwork, woodcarving, beadwork, lekgapho, and basket weaving play a better role in preserving Botswana’s culture.

Potters made clay pots for storing water, traditional beer and also for cooking and hardly for commercial use. Throughout Botswana craft makers made wooden crafts and they made traditional cooking utensils such as leso and lehetlho, traditional wooden chairs and drums among others.

The National Museum was established in Gaborone in 1967 through an Act of Parliament as a non-profit making organisation under a board of trustees accountable to the minister of Home Affairs. The National Museum has progressed along a historic route and managed to leave a heritage trail by using art and culture to capture Botswana’s moments after Independence. The museum has faced many challenges along the way like artifacts being easily destroyed or stolen because of lack of security.

Still today the museum cries of limited storage and the storerooms are not up to standard to keep some artifacts, which need a certain temperature. However they have managed to save a higher percentage of artifacts collected since the museum was established a year after independence. Organisations such as Friends of the Museum were established to enhance the museum’s existence.

The Kuru Art Project is a project of a community trust called the Kuru Development Trust. The Kuru Development Trust was established in the 1980’s to create greater autonomy, capacity and social advancement for the San of the Ghanzi district of Botswana. Since 1990 the artists from the Kuru Art Project have produced original contemporary art that reflects their lifestyle. The artists have become well known internationally exhibiting in various galleries. Artists who worked with the project such as Olebogeng Qaeqhao Maaramele Moses went on to exhibit and sell their work in America and Europe. It gave them a chance to experiment with drawing and painting as well as generate income.

But when Thapong International Artists’ Workshop was established in 1989, it opened many doors for artists. The first Thapong International Artists’ Workshop was held in November 1989 in Kanye. It brought a combination of artists from various countries. In 1999, Thapong International Artists’ Workshop established a centre at an old building in Gaborone Village, which was donated by the National Museum and Art Gallery. Since then, Thapong Visual Art Centre accommodated local artists who opened their studios at the centre. The centre managed to nurture a lot of artists. In 2004, Thapong introduced Thapong Artist of the Year award (TAYA) in order to motivate and reward artists for their contribution towards developing the arts sector. The award continues to attract more entries every year. The government also managed to fund the centre following years of outcry to construct artist studios with more than P2 million.

Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture (MYSC) was established in January 2007, to address matters relating to youth, sport and culture and improve the quality of the arts in Botswana. Issues relating to the arts did not receive required attention. In April 2014, the then Department of Arts and Culture was re-organised under MYSC to improve efficiency and to improve delivery of services. Though it has long been established more artists cannot get enough funding and an arts council is yet to be established. Artists still have no market to sell their artwork and they have no place to exhibit their works besides Thapong and National Museum.

In 2008 the government continued to show appreciation for the arts with the introduction of President’s Day Celebrations competitions. millions of pulas got poured into awards and more artists started coming out because what they had wishing for was now granted.

In terms of art education Botswana has developed from the time parents forbid their children to study art at school to the little appreciation we have today. The Revised National Policy on Education has guided the curriculum on education. Arts were introduced in senior secondary schools as a subject in the late 80’s. In junior secondary schools Arts, Craft and Design were offered as an optional subject and areas of study included drawing, painting, design and sculpture. Despite more children showing interest in the subject there is a lack of adequately trained teachers to implement the programmes. There are no art institutions or academies where students can continue their love for the skill. Schools lack proper infrastructures and resources to efficiently implement the Arts.

Of the older generation of artists who stood out there are still more artists coming out and ready to take Botswana beyond the 50 years. While some existing artworks from the early 70’s might seem like a throw back for the younger generation, it is important to note how the artifacts paved way for the younger artists to follow in the footsteps of others who came before them.

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