“What brings us together should be universal. Respect for human rights, freedom of creation and expression... from and for all. Unity will come from what we stand for. Let’s say the alternative to geographic affiliation is Humanism.” - Aadel Essaadani Interviewed by Sophia Olivia Sanan on the concept of the ‘Global South’ (ART AFRICA, 2016)
Upon being elected as Arterial Network’s Chairperson in Cape Town in 2013, Aadel Essaadani vowed to “put all of my weight behind the actions and projects of Arterial Network.” The co-founder of Racines, an association for cultural development based in Morocco and at times a technical director, an urban sociologist, a city planner and activist (amongst other things), Aadel has brought a wealth of expertise and support to the continuation of Arterial Network’s mission of advancing Africa’s creative sector. In this interview, Aadel reflects on Arterial Network’s first decade and the difficulties of uniting the continent’s vast and differing arts and cultural sector.
ARTERIAL NETWORK: How did you join Arterial Network, and how would you describe the atmosphere of those early years ?
AADEL ESSAADANI: I met Mike van Graan in Alexandria in 2009. I found the idea of an African network working for culture, for democracy and for human rights to be very powerful and effective. The idea was to bring together African activists to amplify their actions and work in a South-South logic, exchange best practices between countries with similar needs and contexts, and reduce the copy/paste mentality of theories and methods that have worked in other contexts outside of Africa.
I applied for the first Arterial Network Winter School (Cameroon, 2010), a genius idea of Mike’s to train and mentor African cultural actors in advocacy and the use of culture for the development of our continent. Shortly after, I joined the network, becoming Vice-Chairperson in 2011 and Chairperson in 2013.
During the early years, I felt that the levels of development, activism and commitment were not the same for all members. The objectives of belonging to the network also differed. But the atmosphere was positive as we accompanied the birth and evolution of a network that previously did not exist and has since become the interlocutor of several organisations. We worked hard to overcome the obstacles of the beginning of an African, non-governmental organisation. After all, the African Union cannot solve all of the continent's problems alone. Arterial Network could work, grow, organise and hope to become a tool for the implementation of cultural policies that are useful to civil society, artists and cultural professionals.
What challenges did you face during your time as continental Chairperson, and if you could do it again, what would you do differently?
I would say that the challenges I encountered were twofold; the surmountable and the insurmountable. The former resided in the immensity of the mandate. Working with 54 African countries that are not all homogeneous, with issues of poverty, unequal levels of democracy, human rights, public services, and a multitude of languages ... it led us to wonder what might bring these countries together as often there is not much in common other than belonging to the same continent. However, this challenge was considered surmountable because, whatever the African country in question, it could draw on the experience of at least one other country on the continent that knows more about managing an artistic discipline or who is more advanced in copyright law, for example. We decided that, in a comparable situation, it was better to learn from similar countries than to import solutions and experts that would not necessarily adapt to continental needs and specificities.
What I found insurmountable was the lack of militancy among some members of the network and that some used their positions more for traveling and / or for their own promotion. What I would have done differently is not to create national chapters, but to recruit only activists and humanists for the network who are interested in working for culture and for the good of Africans – not only in words, but in actions.
You have worked towards the common goal of "Putting culture at the service of human, social and economic development." In your opinion, what have been the biggest successes of Arterial Network in advancing the development of the African creative sector?
Arterial Network has become a valid and credible interlocutor when talking about culture on the African continent. This has made it possible to better negotiate the desired objectives and desired impacts with donors and international partner organisations. Another big success has been the production of freely downloadable textbooks (toolkits) for the professionalisation of cultural actors.
What are you working on at the moment?
Racines organised two editions of the General States of Culture in Morocco in 2014 and 2016. This work consists of making inventories of the existing artistic infrastructure in terms of artists, professionals, places, laws, cultural governance etc, and to meet and collect the requests and suggestions of professionals, and the public. We continued in 2016 with a survey on the cultural practices of Moroccans and held regional meetings across Morocco. Following this groundwork, Racines is now working with other African countries (Rwanda, Egypt, Tunisia, Mauritania) and the Middle East (Lebanon) to implement the same methodology, adapting it for each country.
Racines has also been doing other things, such as the setting up of an incubator of cultural structures in Casablanca and the training of professional technicians and administrators for live shows.
Ten years down the line, what would you like to say to the members of Arterial Network?
The network is now large enough to do without advice. I would advise members not to listen to advice and to act according to their convictions for a dynamic Africa where cultural policies are essential tools for the development of the African citizen, public spaces and economic development. This can be done by first ensuring the viability of artists and cultural professionals before considering culture as an international image factor for the continent, with no impact on its inhabitants.