by Joe Madisia
This statement appears in the book African Paradox: Experienced in Namibia, an anthology of linocut prints and poems that pay tribute to the late John Muafangejo and the late Peter Clarke.
This anthology of black and white linocut prints and poetic-rhymes are created from an artist’s perspective and comprise of 11 works. These works excavate the deeper symbolism and meaning of the artwork, and reflect on issues to do with ownership, possession, abundance, greed, money… you name it. Some poems also throw light on theology, ethics, economics and biblical studies, and they seek to explore how African people find value in having things. It is also about how having things in turn gives value to life in communities and society, including the grassroots as a whole.
Going back to biblical times there have been protests about the concentration of wealth, and it thus seems that there must be some underlying reasons why this nevertheless remains a popular idea. Several arguments can be made against or in favour of a more equitable distribution of wealth .
Surprisingly, it has been confirmed by psychologists that wealth and status decrease our feelings of compassion for others who have less. After all, it seems more likely that having few resources would lead to selfishness. Such trends are evident in most Africans nowadays, where rich African people feel just eathers for the poor. And so the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Some suspect that the answer may have something to do with how wealth and abundance give us a sense of freedom and independence from others. The less we have to rely on others, the less we may care about their feelings. This leads us towards being more self-focused. Another reason has to do with our attitudes towards greed, for which the human being can develop valid and fair arguments.
The fairness argument can be that all people come into the world equally helpless, and that they should ultimately reach at least approximate equality of condition when they mature. The argument for social stability will be that if the gap between rich and poor widens too much, it can result in societies that are too out of balance, social unrest, self enrichment or crime. The proverb goes: ‘A hungry man is an angry man’.
But resentment against the wealthy may lead to their death or banishment and the forcible taking of their property. Even where the civil disturbance doesn’t succeed, the damage to the social fabric may be severe and long-lasting. Think about the passion killings, baby dumping, rape, theft, money swindling, ethnic strife, and so on, that most African social cultures are experiencing around the world.
Every culture includes a somewhat different web of patterns and meanings: ways of earning a living, systems of trade and government, social roles, religions, traditions in clothing and foods and arts, expectations for behaviour, attitudes toward other cultures, and beliefs and values about all of these activities. There may be many groups within a large society, with distinctly different subcultures associated with region, ethnic origin, or social class.
If a single culture is dominant in a large region, its values may be considered correct and may be promoted—not only by families and religious groups but also by schools and governments. Some subcultures may arise among special social categories (such as business executives and criminals), some of which may cross national boundaries (such as artists and scientists).
The democratic argument against the concentration of wealth in a small group allows for anti-democratic influence on social policy. The wealthy have the ability to create their own “think tanks” and “frontline” organizations. These are then used to create the perception that the public is in support of their self-serving objectives.
One must also bear in mind that it is easy for artists to imagine that things will get better, but it may not be the case. Nevertheless, it enables one to be prepared when confronted by the same kind of obstacles. Can we imagine a bank that puts people before profit; a party that was devoted to truth and the long term; a university that cared only for intrinsic value; a media organization that simply reported the facts; or a church that was truly devoted to human welfare and free of mystification.
But, that is merely a poor human being’s dream. We can’t really believe that the bank would survive, the party get elected, the university get funded, the media organization compete successfully against tabloid culture, or that the church would win millions of adherents. The obstacle is always human nature. Anyone is free at any point to initiate noble institutions; but initiating isn’t the problem.
The problem is that, while it is always tempting to blame poor leadership, the past, greed and corruption, the underlying fear is what we see about our own collective appetites. We’d rather gossip, entrench our prejudices and ogle the suffering of others than understand and solve our problems. We’d rather vote on the basis of immediate self-interest than a distant public good. We’d rather find a good job than to contemplate the truth.
Anyway, this is a just but a somewhat wide-ranging and imprecise introductory brief, and it is perhaps not surprising that the artworks and poems are of varying quality, relevance to my own African societal life experience that always remained a paradox. It could, however, be very similar for any other African artist with a social conviction somewhere else on the continent.