Archive: Issue No. 55, March 2002

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Traditional and indigenous artforms

Baskets and other crafts for sale in KwaZulu-Natal
Photo: SA Tourism

'Hello, this is Africa': Traditional and indigenous artforms in South Africa
by Doreen Nteta

Article reprinted courtesy of

There are some words, in arts circles, which cause raised eyebrows. If you mention "traditional" or "indigenous", people roll their eyes heavenwards. They will say, "we are talking about the arts here". To use the young people's language, "hello, this is Africa". So, when the Arts Council wants to promote traditional and indigenous artforms, the practitioners of the Eurocentric arts get very fidgety. They think, now there'll be less or no money to promote these artforms. The art critics imagine they will be out of work, as these artforms are perceived to require a different form of criticism from that applied to Eurocentric ones.

The indigenous people of South Africa comprise approximately 80% of the total population. A recent study commissioned by BASA and the NAC reveals that among black South Africans traditional dance and festivals were the two events rated highest. Opera and ballet were the least favoured activities. Considering the fact that we are dealing with the art of the majority here, is it not fitting that their art should occupy a premier position in promotional activities? I think it is the right thing to do.

Included in traditional and indigenous artforms is language, craft, music, dance and the culinary arts. To promote these artforms is to affirm the people's identity and to ensure that their history is preserved. Because traditions are often vested in older people, it is important to research and document them for posterity. They should be taught in schools and displayed and demonstrated in museums.

The revival of indigenous arts such as crafts can and does bring great economic benefits through trade and tourism. Their uniqueness makes them marketable especially to tourists who want a unique experience. South Africa does very little to promote indigenous artforms. It does seem, however, that there is no better time than the present. A library and archive of traditional and indigenous artforms is overdue. There are private initiatives, but this does emphasise a need for a national facility and programmes. Also needed is a contemporary galley of traditional crafts. Experts and scholars must be engaged to run workshops, demonstrations, and classes in order to ensure that traditions do not die. The Arts Council must support initiatives aimed at teaching traditional arts to young people.

Doreen Nteta is the CEO of the National Arts Council (NAC). The views expressed in this column are her own, and are not necessarily those of the NAC or of