Honour the living

2010-12-05 13:00
Victor Dlamini
What does it say about us as a nation that we only seem to rush to recognise some of our best artists once we hear that they’ve died or are ill?

Then you hear of a memorial event or benefit concert being hastily organised to give the gravely ill artist money to cover their bills. Too many of our extremely talented artists have died lonely, ­forgotten and often penniless.

But you will not understand how this is possible if you listen to the outpouring of love once news of the artist’s death is received.

Musician Simphiwe Dana ­highlighted the complex relationship between gifted musicians and the South African public when she recently poured her heart out to the nation on TV.

She revealed her ­frustration that even though she wrote and performed most of her ­music in Xhosa, her biggest audiences are in Germany.

It was quite clear that she was not speaking only on her own behalf but that of countless artists who spent years developing their craft only to be spurned by fickle audiences.

If we do not go to their concerts while some of our top artists are still at the height of their power; and we do not buy their books, art or music, how can we say we love them? It is as if in death we react more from our guilt rather than the love that we ­express so freely at their passing.

At the memorial service there is not enough time to accommodate the speakers singing the posthumous praises of the artist posthumously.

At the memorial service for the great writer Lewis Nkosi, the speakers all eulogised him for his talent across the literary, cultural and intellectual fields, but such high praise was at odds with the paltry sales figures of his novels within the country.

Surely it must tell us something that while we rushed to claim him as our giant once he was dead, Lewis Nkosi had not ended his long exile, choosing to live in Switzerland even after the collapse of apartheid.

It says something that even Miriam Makeba died in Italy, far away from the source of her best ­music. Like many of our artists who’d been forced into exile, Makeba had jumped at the chance to return home in the early 90s. But after a brief honeymoon with South African audiences, she may as well have still been in artistic exile.

Politicians and other leading lights line up to read the great speeches we write in which we praise them for their great cultural contribution and flying the South African flag.

We seem unaware that the reason they had to travel so far to fly the flag in distant parts of the world is because of limited opportunities in their own country.

We seem to grow proud of them once they are dead. Praises on the dead are wasted if they do not reflect the esteem in which the person was held during their lifetime.

Giving an artist a “lifetime achievement award” after they are dead is a missed ­opportunity.

There are times you get the sense that exile may have ended for most of us, but for some of our most gifted artists who can only get their best gigs overseas, it may as well be the height of exile.

In venues across Europe and the US, artists like the jazz genius Bheki Mseleku used to perform to packed venues, but back in their own country they could only perform at small ­venues.

It is true that the best art cuts across borders, but there’s something wrong if the only choice for our artists is between starvation and performance in lonely, foreign venues.

How many more artists need to perish in poverty and obscurity while we splash out on multimillion-rand events in which the bulk of the cash goes to decor, flowers, food and everything else but the artists?

Perhaps it is time we listened to mercurial artist Kanye West when he says in his lyrics: “People should be given flowers while they can still smell them.”

Then the likes of ­Simphiwe Dana will be given ­recognition, love and support in their own country and in their lifetime.

As a nation we should reach deep into our pockets and hearts to ­recognise the incredible talent that our country possesses in abundance.