August 2010 presented arts therapists, activists and educators from across the African continent with an invaluable opportunity to interact, share stories, ask questions, inspire and encourage one another at the Drama for Life Africa Research Conference held in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The conference brought together a diverse and dynamic group of people working in a broad variety of projects involving the arts. Delegates from fields of drama, fine arts, music and dance included researchers and lecturers with doctoral degrees, therapists, teachers and students, community-based practically trained artists and even some who sported no particular titles but brought with them experiences of how they utilised the arts to respond to needs and potential they witnessed in their communities.
Perhaps the most poignant aspects of a conference of such diversity were the stories presenters offered of their work, and the practical workshops, performances and events where the work that had generated these stories could be experienced and explored first hand.
As a delegate, I was privileged to witness many of these stories. Artists and arts therapists spoke of offering safe spaces that enabled people in South Africa suffering from HIV/Aids or due to xenophobic attacks to creatively depict and display their stories, regaining their sense of humanness and dignity as others witnessed these stories. A photographer gave video cameras to a variety of people living with HIV and taught them to use these cameras to create portraits of their lives. These were made available for the public to view to reduce stigmatized views of HIV as people could witness their similarities and connectedness with those living with the disease. Dramatists, living in societies torn by political unrest such as Zimbabwe, shared stories of how they created and performed interactive plays in efforts to promote peace within their countries. Drama students performed plays that highlighted important aspects of sex and sexuality, to provoke thought around issues that are often not discussed openly. Still other dramatists offered impromptu performances of personal stories shared by audience members, enabling individuals to see their stories reflected through others, whilst the audiences could experience our shared humanity by making connections with a personal story relived on stage. A Rwandan dance student shared his attempts to offer dance workshops for children of families of both perpetrators and victims of political violence, to draw these groups together and rebuild broken relationships.
As part of the conference we were fortunate to visit the South African Constitutional Court, built on the site of the old Johannesburg Prison, where famous political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu were detained. Here we were powerfully reminded of our own past through plays performed in the prison reflecting aspects of prison life and the apartheid system. We then entered the court, and experienced the dream of our new democratic South Africa depicted through art works reflecting the struggle of apartheid, the colour and vibrance of our nation and our hopes of a new system of justice guided by our new constitution, that strives for mutuality and equality for all people. Through art we were reminded of the pain of our past and drawn towards a future filled with hope.
Importantly, the conference offered opportunities to debate the many challenges, uncertainties and struggles of our work, leaving us all with important questions to consider. If artists have such powerful voices for drawing people towards social change, have we been effective when so little progress has been made in terms of issues such as HIV/Aids, and apartheid systems of division that seem to be replicating themselves in our society, taking on forms such as xenophobia? Are we empathetic and relevant in the way that we conduct our work, or are we forcing our arts on people who are not interested or who may even be offended by what we offer? How do we work effectively when the needs seem so great and our resources so few? How do we document our work in order to show its effectiveness?
The conference, however, was also an opportunity to reflect and marvel at the powerful transformations that can and do occur when people are able to create art of their lives. Artists are not merely bystanders or additional extras but hold tools that can deeply and profoundly move people and even nations.
As I initially looked through the conference agenda I wondered at the apparent lack of presentations focused on music, particularly given the importance of music in Africa. Whilst music was part of many presentations and workshops, it often seemed merely a support to theatre productions or dance workshops. Thus I was pleasantly surprised when, on the second evening of the conference, a community musician from Cape Town’s Music Therapy Community Clinic led all the delegates in singing (and dancing) a Xhosa song …so that slowly we began to move together, held and connected through music – the music of our own combined voices, stamping feet and moving bodies.
To complement this experience, on the final day of the conference Mercedes Pavlicevic offered a keynote address in which she asserted the importance of taking music seriously – noting that music is more than just something we listen to as simply entertainment, but is part of us, and part of and pivotal to everyday life. Mercedes’ address served to introduce some of the first published stories of music therapy work in South Africa, as we launched the book Taking Music Seriously: Stories from South African Music Therapy.
The book offers stories of 13 music therapists who practice across South Africa, offering and participating in transformative and empowering experiences of musicking with individuals, groups and communities. Rather than offering a scholarly account, the book’s focus is on the stories of what is possible when we have the opportunity to make music with a vast range of people of all ages who may not otherwise have access to music due to their disabilities, disadvantages or marginalization in society.
I am in awe of the profound work that is continuing within the arts in Africa, work done by a diverse range of people in diverse settings. As our book was launched, I feel proud that, as music therapists we have made our, perhaps small, yet significant contribution to this work. Taking Music Seriously and the stories it reveals hopes to inspire many more stories of activists, educators and therapists who have chosen to take music and the arts seriously in Africa.
 The book, Taking Music Seriously: Stories from South African Music Therapy can be ordered through The Music Therapy Community Clinic. The cost is R130.00 (ZAR), plus a postage fee. Please contact Roma Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Pavlicevic, M., Dos Santos, A. & Oosthuizen, H. (2010). Taking Music Seriously: Stories from South African Music Therapy. Cape Town, South Africa: The Music Therapy Community Clinic.
Oosthuizen, Helen (2010). Taking the Arts Seriously in Africa. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved May 16, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=coloosthuizen200910