An inauspicious start to the African Capital of Culture

Strange goings on in Morocco. Until a few days ago Marrakesh was getting ready to host the first African Capital of Culture. Its PR was in full swing. But just eight days before its official launch it was announced that Marrakesh has “withdrawn” and Rabat will hold the title.

Marrakesh was invited to hold the first, pilot, African Capital of Culture title by the “owners”, the Africa region of the Union of Cities and Local Government, at its Africities conference in 2018. (No link to the UCLGA site as it seems unsafe).

And since then it has been developing a programme. Its honorary president Mahi Binebine, a well known painter and cultural figure, attended a formal presentation in Paris on 16 January. He was with the president of the organising committee and general secretary of UCLGA, Jean Pierre Elong Mbassi.

To quote a media interview with the pair:

“In Africa, people no longer dream at home, they dream towards the North and we have to stop.” This plea by Moroccan artist Mahi Binebine is at the heart of a new pan-African event, “African Capitals of Culture”, to strengthen the dialogue between artists and economic opportunities in the cultural sector on the continent.

On the program of Marrakesh Capital of Culture: an “African garden” presenting sculptures near the very crowded Jamaa El Fna square, the travelling exhibition including paintings “Lend me your dream”, at the initiative of investors Moroccans and presenting around thirty major artists from the continent, a literary fair, concerts, fashion shows “with African colours, yellow, garish red!”, describes Mr. Binebine.

Coming to Paris for the launch, the president of the Organising Committee of African Capitals of Culture and general secretary of the UCLG, the Cameroonian Jean-Pierre Elong Mbassi, recognises that “too often, culture has been left behind” by the authorities on the continent and that “most” professionals in the sector do not live by it.

“There are efforts to be made so that Africa’s contribution to universal culture is commensurate with its cultural depth,” he believes. According to him, cities have “a big role to play” in making the “junction between the cultural substratum carried by the traditional authorities and the modernity called by the cultural industries”.

So far so good. The official launch was set for 31 January with a street parade.

And then suddenly an announcement, from UCLGA, saying that Rabat would hold the title.

Mr Binebine on 22 January (six days after the Paris presentation) put a post on Facebook:

“I have the sad regret to announce to you that it was decided (for incomprehensible reasons) and after several months of intense preparation, that the ocher city would desist in favor of Rabat”, 

The Moroccan press had reported “royal anger” after a visit of the King ” predicting that the “delays and failures” of the projects would cause an “administrative earthquake”.

More background here.. although very little light being shone on the reason for the change.

A press release from UCLGA said

“After examining the assets of the city in terms of the specifications for the celebration of African capitals of culture, the committee welcomed the candidacy of Rabat, and decided to designate Rabat as the African capital of culture in 2020/2021 ”,

It was signed by the Secretary General of United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLG Africa), Jean Pierre Elong Mbassi.

A team has been put in place, including members of the management of the African Capitals of Culture, to work on the general programming of the various events and activities. This team will present the results of its work and consultations to the public next March at a conference planned in Rabat.

Rabat was nominated as a “Capital of Culture” by the government in 2014.. one of many cities around the world which adopt the title as a tourist marketing slogan.

Not an auspicious start to the African Capital of Culture idea.

Capitals and Cities of Culture in 2020

This year 26 cities in 24 countries around the world will celebrate a City or Capital of Culture title awarded to them (rather than self proclaimed as a marketing ploy, there are many more of them!).

Potentially the most interesting is the first African Capital of Culture. Marrakesh in Morocco is the first title holder, the title organisers are the Africa branch of the United Cities and Local Government (UCLG). Will the city with its undoubted heritage put on a programme combining that heritage with contemporary arts? How will it deal with censorship? At the conference in November 2018 of Africities a session was run with representatives of the European Commission and European Capitals of Culture (ECOC). It is far too early to suggest the African title can be as comprehensive as the ECOC in its first edition but it is a start.

An update. At the last minute the government of Morocco has stepped in and makes Rabat the title holder. Marrakesh is simply dumped. Not a very good sign for the new title if it is at the mercy of governments. I hope the UCLG make a protest.

The ECOCs of the year are Rijeka in Croatia and Galway in Ireland. The latter had a struggle getting their act together but in the last year under a new CEO they have put together a sound programme. Rijeka in contrast have been very active and successful in their preparations. Croatia assumes the presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first six months of 2020 and has set out a wide range of cultural objectives. Croatia is the only EU member state where the culture minister is an international expert in cultural policy!

Lithuania was the first European country to develop its own national title, this year Trakai has the honour. Its impressive castle in a lake will undoubtedly feature as a venue. There are ten other “towns of culture” in the country, one in each county: an innovative way for smaller towns to highlight their cultural offers.

Parma takes the Italian title. There was no Italian Capital last year as Matera held the ECOC title but now the national title is back in full flow.

Braga in Portugal is the regional Eixo Atlântico Capital of Culture. A full programme from February to November is planned, no doubt as a practice run for their bid for the ECOC title in 2027.

Lida is the Belarus national title holder. This title stands out in Europe as being very folk art and heritage based under the restrictive government control. The Catalan regional title is with El Vendrell, home of the Pablo Casals Foundation and museum.

Russia hosts two very different titles. The Krasnoyarsk region has yet to announce its title holder. Mishkino is the Finno-Ugric Capital, a region of just 7,000 people. The only City of Culture programme run by civil society: the Youth Association of Finno-Ugric Peoples (MAFUN) and URALIC Centre for Indigenous Peoples.

The Commonwealth of Independent States has designated Shymkent in Kazakhstan as their 2020 title holder.

The London Borough of Culture moves on from Waltham Forest to Brent in 2020. Sefton in Liverpool also holds a Borough of Culture title. This title is held on a planned rotation of the 6 boroughs in the region and omits the competitive element. There is no UK City of Culture title in 2020, Coventry is in full planning mode for 2021.

Slovakia in 2020 also has its second title holder, Nové Zámky.

South America hosts two titles. Buenos Aires is the Ibero-American capital (for the second time after 1992 and following its 2017 year as Ibero-American Capital of Gastronomy) and Punta Arenas in Chile is the American title.

The Arab and Islamic titles are a mixed bag. Sometimes there is a good programme, more often the title appears to pass the city by. The Islamic titles in 2020 are Bamako in Mali, Cairo in Egypt and Bukhara in Uzbekistan. Cairo appears to be planning a significant programme. Bethlehem hosts the Arab title, the university is fully engaged and will run projects including a “Bethlehem University Prize for Arabic Fiction”.

Khiva is the second city in Uzbekistan to host a title in 2020, holding the Turkic World title. Normally Turkic World programmes start in April.

The Culture City of East Asia has, as usual, three cities. Yangzhou (China), Kitakyushu (Japan) and Sucheon (South Korea). Year by year the title holders seem to be becoming more adventurous in their programmes. The competition to hold the title in China and South Korea is attracting more applicants every year. Kitakyushu will be “competing” with the Cultural Olympiad of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Several titles follow the summit meetings of their organisers. Their programmes generally are limited to high profile openings, a few concerts and exhibitions: a medium sized arts festival with little ambition to any other objectives or legacy. Yogyakarta continues with its ASEAN title which is spread over two years between the meetings of ASEAN member states. Praia and Velha (Ribeira Grande de Santiago) in Cape Verde are also in the second year of their Capital of Culture of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries. There is no news yet of the SAARC title holder; it is scheduled to be in India as the member states take it in turn to host the title. Thimphu in Bhutan hosted the 2018/19 title.

An updated and revised edition of my global survey and directory of Capitals and Cities of Culture is in preparation. The 2017 edition is available here.