‘We’ve been tackling the same issues for years and years – for decades.’
That was a comment from Africa No Filter’s Moky Makura at Philea Forum 2022. She was speaking on a panel exploring what it takes to power up Africa’s landscape for social change, but the statement could have underpinned any number of sessions at this year’s conference in Barcelona, where the reality of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the enduring impacts of the pandemic, and the ticking clock for climate hung heavy over many of the discussions.
Makura’s session – facilitated by Hilton Foundation’s Shaheen Kassim-Lakha, and also including the Moleskine Foundation’s Adama Sanneh and Ghana-based graphic novelist Nana Akosua Hanson – turned its attention to the power of art.
‘We’re wondering if there’s a new way to approach these problems,’ Makura said, finishing her thought on repeatedly working on enduring global problems. ‘I think that’s why people are coming to the creative space.’
Art is one of the bigger chunks of the philanthropy pie, with nine per cent of all grants going to supporting the arts. But most of that is directed to organisations with large endowments – not a lot makes it to frontline work, according to Kassim-Lakha.
But it’s the work of these artists on the frontline of social change that can move us, the panellists agreed.
‘I truly, deeply believe in art as the real power changer,’ said Hanson.
On thinking outside the traditional grantmaking box
Makura and Sanneh, representing the philanthropy side of the conversation on the panel, shared insight from their own work funding artists. Africa No Filter works by finding their grantees through open calls on social media, and they’re able to impact so many organisations by giving out smaller grants between $500-$2,000, which helps them get to grantees that wouldn’t be able to absorb the size of donation that a big foundation might wish to allocate. They also don’t require written reports.
Hanson, a grantee of Africa No Filter, shared that not requiring written reports allowed her work to simply be her work. And Sanneh echoed that: ‘You have to transform and shapeshift yourself to get most grants.’
The panel, which spent the session reflecting on the power of art, also pushed the audience to considering finding art in their everyday work.
‘Think about how you feel when you’re at the cinema and the lights go out, the film begins,’ Hanson said. ‘You don’t feel that same way when you read a grant application report.’
Yet – both are stories.
On finding the words
An important influence of arts and culture is the language we gain from it to describe our work, said Sanneh.
‘Think about language,’ he said. ‘Before the word social entrepreneurship, you were either a lousy entrepreneur or a sell-out activist for social change.’
‘The creative space is the only space building new language, and now more than ever we need new language.’
On what gets counted as philanthropy
The panel discussion also turned its attention to the different standards for what is valued as philanthropy, after an audience question asked if philanthropy had been ‘hijacked by rich people’ and ‘needed to be returned to the people.’
Makura addressed this idea, sharing about the concept of the Black Tax, which is when one member of a Black family gets a well-paying job and then uses that money to educate their siblings, support their family, and contribute to the well-being of their loved ones.
‘In another situation, that would be called philanthropy,’ Makura said. ‘But we call it a tax.’
Can we even find the revolutionary voices?
The overall message of the panel focused on the importance of paying attention to artists. Sanneh pushed the audience to think about the most important thinkers, writers, and artists that had transformed a particular sector. He shared the example of the influence of bell hooks and Maria Montessori on education.
‘These people transformed a system, revolutionised the way an entire generation thinks about education. Would we be able to find and support them today?’
If we want to find solutions to the biggest problems on the planet, we need creativity, Sanneh said.
Hanson’s final words to the audience were direct: ‘Support artists, fund artists, but don’t mess with their art.’
Now for philanthropy to take that directive and run.
Elika Roohi is Digital Editor at Alliance.