Forms of Establishing and Structuring Syrian Arts Groups by Mike van Graan

Jul 2018

Mike van Graan

South African playwright, President of the African Cultural Policy Network, and independent arts consultant


As part of Ettijahat- Independent Culture’s Programme, the Cultural Priorities in Syria, we are currently compiling a series of articles addressing the challenges facing Syrian cultural work. These articles have been written by Syrian and non-Syrian experts alike, as well as various cultural actors.

Through this article, Mike Van Gran, the author, cultural activist, and arts consultant, observes the forms of cultural and artistic organization that South Africa knew during the segregation regime period within the county and outside of it, as well as the types of alliances that ware formed after the decay of this regime, and the latest transformations that followed. At the end of the article, he attempts to ask problematic questions that should be asked today by Syrian cultural activists and the artist should find answer to it.   


This article is written less to prescribe how Syrian cultural workers, activists and practitioners should structure themselves (this is ultimately for such actors to do themselves), and more to share some insights based on the South African experience, which may or may not resonate with the contemporary Syrian arts and culture experience.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, there were various categories of arts and culture organisational practice, divided between exiled artists (generally under the patronage of the major political grouping, the African National Congress – ANC - that had been banned and forced into exile), and those who remained inside the country.  The struggle against apartheid had numerous international supporters and strategies – an arms boycott, an oil boycott, sports and cultural boycotts, the disinvestment campaigns, etc – that sought to isolate and pressurise the apartheid regime towards change. 

While civil society had always been well-organised within the country, the cultural boycott contributed to the formation of and support for progressive artists’ organisations inside the country, so that these could help inform the implementation of the cultural boycott (i.e. which South African artists were allowed to travel abroad, and which were deemed to be supporters of the apartheid regime).

Broadly speaking, there were three categories of artists within the country during the apartheid era:

  1. Artists employed in, or supported by publicly-funded institutions which were regarded as part of the state, using soft power or cultural means to reinforce the hegemony of racist and colonial values, ideas and worldviews that elevated whiteness; these artists were regarded by progressive formations as part of “the enemy”
  2. Artists who consciously aligned with the anti-apartheid struggle and who mobilised around the idea of “culture as a weapon of struggle”, lending their skills, talents and creativity to create music, plays, posters, art, graffiti, poetry, films, etc with the broad aim of ending apartheid.  There were different ideological groupings within the anti-apartheid movement, the key formations being a non-racial, inclusive grouping on the one hand and a grouping that excluded white people.  Artists aligned themselves with the grouping where they felt most comfortable, but it was the non-racial grouping – largely the internal wing of the ANC – that had the most organised formations with artists organising themselves into discipline-based structures such as the Congress of South African Writers, the Film and Allied Workers Organisation, Dance Alliance, etc. These structures were supported primarily with international funding, particularly after states of emergency severely curtailed more “regular” forms of political activity and the arts became shields behind which anti-apartheid struggle continued to take place.
  3. Artists who believed in “art for art’s sake”, and self-consciously steered clear of politics, seeking to make their livings with a mixture of box-office and market support on the one hand, and corporate sponsorship on the other.

Externally, the exiled movements – African National Congress (non-racial in character) and the Pan Africanist Congress (with an emphasis on black aspirations and leadership) – provided patronage to exiled artists, with the likes of Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba gaining global recognition as icons of anti-apartheid cultural practice.  Progressive artists and institutions within the country were supported to tour abroad with the help of international donor support further to educate international audiences about the human impact of apartheid’s ideology and practice. 

When international pressure and internal resistance reached their goals and the apartheid government unbanned the ANC, released Nelson Mandela from prison and entered into negotiations, a realignment of artists’ formations took place.  Progressive arts organisations recognised that given the major legacies of apartheid, it was unlikely that the arts would feature in the negotiations unless cultural workers themselves lobbied strongly for new arts and culture policies that reflected a new political order.  Accordingly, whereas they had been in political alliance with the ANC before, these organisations spearheaded a non-partisan movement that sought to include all practitioners – including those deemed as “the enemy” in the past and across ideological divisions within the anti-apartheid movement, to develop a vision for post-apartheid policies and an effective advocacy structure.  Thus was the National Arts Coalition born in 1993 so that by the time of the country’s first democratic elections in April 1994, artists had formulated clear proposals for a new arts and culture dispensation, with many of these proposals eventually being integrated into the country’s first post-apartheid cultural policy adopted by government in 1996.

The Department of Arts and Culture of the ANC did not approve of these organisations assuming a politically non-aligned stance as they believed that the ANC should be the vanguard of all aspects of social transformation, but these arts organisations and their leadership were clear about the need to establish their independence since the ANC would be a major player in the new government, and artists and their formations would need to be able to “speak to truth to power” without the need to genuflect to their historical political “sugardaddy”.

In contemporary South Africa, artists organisations are generally weak; artists do not see the need to belong to them, and generally seek to create art and earn a living with or without government support.  Government has sought to organise artists into a creative industries federation in a top-down manner which has been an utter failure.  The anti-apartheid era, and the transitionary period in which artists influenced policy-making significantly, were the most euphoric in recent times; it is ironic then, that “freedom” and “democracy” have actually undermined and compromised the organisation of artists, although the needs – while in different circumstances – for such organisation remains.

In the light of the above, the five key themes that Syrian artists might find useful to reflect on are the following:

  1. Given the current conflict within Syria, Syrian artists and cultural practitioners are the “flavour of the month” with international donors, with curators and festival managers seeking to provide platforms for “the Syrian story”.  That will inevitably change as the conflict moves towards some kind of resolution and/or as “Syrian fatigue” sets in.  Cultural activists in the Syrian Diaspora and within Syria, need to anticipate this, and organise accordingly: how should this window be used to generate resources to support artistic practice within Syria and by Syrians who choose to remain in exile, after the end of the conflict?  The emphasis will be on “rebuilding Syria” and the costs related to rebuilding infrastructure alone will deem the arts to be a luxury; cultural practitioners might consider establishing a Fund now with contributions to support artistic practice later.  What kind of organisation is necessary to facilitate this now?
  2. In a reconstructed Syria, what do artists believe would be the best political structure?  What kinds of policies with regard to culture more broadly and the arts in particular, would they like to see in place?  What role do artists envisage for themselves in the reconstruction of Syria?  What structures currently exist to develop, advocate for and monitor cultural policies?  What kind of organisation is necessary to facilitate this now?
  3. The Syrian conflict is not over.  So there is a need to organise/network artists – those in exile and those within the country – to work for and implement the most effective ways to contribute towards the resolution of the conflict.  Then, artists would need to be organised to contribute to the transition, to bringing about a new society once the conflict ends.  But that will not be the end of it.  There will be a need for artists to have organisations that monitor the implementation of policies and continue to advance and defend their individual and collective interests in a reconstructed Syria.  What kinds of organisations are needed now, to facilitate the work of artists in three quite different sets of circumstances?
  4. Many arts practitioners have left Syria.  Some will have created new lives for themselves abroad and may stay in exile once the conflict has ended.  Others will seek to return and make a contribution in their home country.  There will be artists who remained inside the country, some of whom may be aligned to, or sympathetic to the Assad regime, while others may have been an integral part of the opposition.  Those who stayed inside the country may feel resentful towards returning artists.  How will the arts and culture sector and its leadership bring together these disparate forces, and unify them in their collective interests?  Is this a desirable goal?  If so, what kinds of organisation are necessary now to work towards this?
  5. There are political forces engaged in the Syrian conflict and there are international political forces who are part of the conflict, with all these forces ultimately contributing to how and when the conflict ends, what a reconstructed Syria would look like and who will assume political leadership.  How will artists and cultural practitioners ensure that their interests are taken care of as these political forces take shape?  What forms of organisation should be in place for the broad Syrian arts and culture sector to influence the political shaping of their country, and how should they engage with the different forces shaping their country?



Forms of establishing Syrian arts groups would depend on how pessimistic or optimistic Syrian actors in the cultural space are.  If the overriding view is that the conflict will not end for at least another 5-10 years, then that will necessitate different forms of organisation to a view that anticipates the end of conflict within the next five years.  Those of us who grew up under apartheid never thought that it would end, even though we were actively engaged as students and adults in seeking to overthrow it.  And then we won.  And then we lost. Because we trusted our fellow liberators far more than they were due such trust.  And allowed ourselves to be divided through short-term advantages provided by political players.

I wish for my Syrian counterparts the wisdom, courage and political will needed to shape their own destinies.


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