It is said that home is where the heart is, but you cannot spell h-e-a-r-t without art. This means that where we are best to feel safe, comforted, free and empowered is interlaced with our production and consumption of art.
Botswana is a country that takes pride in its diverse cultures. You need only look at the President’s Day Art and Culture Awards to see the plethora of performative and creative styles that we have at our disposal. However, much of our cultural consumption is dependent on fleeting events like festivals or concerts. Similarly, much of the cultural and artistic tourism that takes place in the country has been silently relegated to being done by visitors to Botswana when it is in fact available. One wonders, then, how this dissociation from art and the dearth of public art affects our collective mind, soul and pocket as Batswana.
When you travel, you want to take in the sights that you know are regular. Many a times I have been on safari only to be told by a group that went one way while I went another that they’ve spotted an animal that I would have loved to see. This is the risk you take when you don’t have the luxury of doing numerous drives in a day. Yet, where a leopard or a pride of lions can be mobile, a piece of public isn’t.
When in New York and you don’t make your way to the Statue of Liberty, you know that there are signature visual treats beyond Times Square. When in Chicago, you make it a point to visit the Anish Kapoor’s 2006 giant silver sculpture, Cloud Gate. Countless people hunt for the works of prolific street artist, Banksy. Most Africans who know of it would like to pilgrimage to see the epic African Renaissance Monument in Senegal. The streets of Berlin, much like those of Philadelphia, are amass with captivating artistry that arrests you when you’re simply going about your day.
Travelling to any of these places becomes about more than just being there but seeing the art that you’d otherwise only see in movies or online somewhere – unless you’re one still getting postcards. The local economies of these places bring in money due to the presence of art. But Botswana, unfortunately, is yet to bolster its various community economies through public art and spaces. Tourism accounted for 13.1 percent of the national GDP in 2019, with travel and tourism providing 8.9 percent of total employment in that same year.
Much of this is directed at wildlife-related tourism, yet it could be boosted by making areas outside of nature reserves and wildlife worthy destinations. This can be done through investing in public art, which “adds enormous value to the cultural, aesthetic and economic vitality of a community.” according to Amherst Public Art Commission.
Botswana is a fairly flat country, as such very few things that are worth looking at for hours and hours on end interrupt the landscape. In addition to the natural canvas, the designs of built up spaces in the country have historically not been made for entertainment but for practical utility. This makes for aggressive, uninviting architecture that limits how much urban tourism can be generated.
The global culture and heritage tourism industry is valued at US$ 1 billion. Of this amount, the Asia-Pacific region alone takes US$ 327 million. This is invaluable income that comes from things that will remain in-country, thus must always be sought there. The presence of public art also makes for fun activities for locals, be it school excursions, case studies for projects, recreational sites, or locations for grand romantic gestures.
Botswana-born international visual artist Tebogo Cranwell offers: “It is evident from looking around that we don’t have much regard for our public space.” She goes further to state that while it may be a seemingly insurmountable challenge at present, “the importance of public art is in that it is urban design that lets you know what the artists are feeling, and in turn lets you know what the community is feeling”. These are sentiments echoed by countless researchers and public administrators worldwide. Community identities are formed through the presence of public art. These locations can form part of how each city, town or village is appreciated by different audiences and provide opportunities for local artisans, eateries, performers and the like to derive livelihoods by association.
The question then stands as: How do we start? Firstly, as a growing country, we do not have the luxury of demolishing the architecture that we already have, but we do have the chance to plot how we approach urban design moving forward. This can also be done by way of giving public spaces and buildings facelifts. Secondly, it lies in the hands of property developers to note the importance of public art and have it incorporated into their plans before breaking ground.
Lastly, our attitudes toward exteriors must change from seeing them as transitory to wanting them to be destinations in themselves. Imagine a Botswana with locales that have signature aesthetics that are, in and of themselves, timeless and irreplaceable. Wouldn’t that be thrilling?