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Creative Industries as Underdevelopment

Are the creative industries turning the tide against urban development in the global South, gobbling up space, agency and voice in the pursuit of distorted trends of progress? Stefano Harney and Tonika Sealy, founding members of Ground Provisions, an educational and curatorial collective in Barbados, argue that nouveau creative compradors are getting rich through cultural reappropriation.

“Creative industries” is an increasingly popular term which refers to a range of economic activities that contribute to generating information, knowledge and cultural identity, including film, music, architecture, fashion, education, digital technologies and gaming development. “Underdevelopment”, on the other hand, is a term that is rapidly being forgotten.  We find this curious, particularly because, in our contention, the creative industries are busy underdeveloping cities across the global South.

It is easy to understand the ideological power of the creative industries and the pull of the idea of creative cities as a development strategy in countries of the global South with large and often vulnerable urban populations. But it is also easy to see the structural distortion produced by this fashionable, “industrial” strategy. Anyone who goes to an art museum or a concert hall or a festival in most countries in the global South will surely notice a dual economy: there are people who sell art and make a lot of money, and there are people who sell the tickets, the beer, or the chicken, who do not. This is not going to change no matter how big the festival gets, and no matter how much chicken gets sold. It might be better to have the chance to sell beer than not sell beer. But to support the strategy of creative cities amounts to making the same argument made by colonisers, who claimed that colonial countries would develop despite selling cheap and buying dear. In the creative industries, not only does the beer seller sell cheap, she also buys dear.

The creative industries do nothing to slow underdevelopment. When the economy of the many is structured to serve the few, that economy and its people are underdeveloped, even as overdevelopment looms directly above them. This is also why one can see the appeal of the creative industries to policy makers and the ruling classes. It will make a comprador class rich, as it already has in Mumbai, Cape Town, and Shanghai. And yet, unlike the comprador class that relied on metropolitan support and alliance, this new rich class is fully integrated and employs the fruits of its own national culture for that integration. Indeed it sells the culture of its nation to gain admittance to the class. Creative industries do not cause all of this, but they certainly contribute enormously to real estate booms.  Gentrification, for example, pushes up the price of housing, food and utilities. The newly wealthy withdraw from public services and investors demand more speculation, and soon education and health are financialised.

As with earlier forms of commodity production for metropolitan consumption, the real reason only a few will get rich is that access to the means of production is denied to those who produce. The main means of production in the creative industries is higher education. But restrictions on access to higher education, including privatisation and vocationalisation, ensure that these means will be out of the hands of most people. The mass of people still produce culture, yet without seeing the benefits that would come if they controlled the means.  And in the case of education and the subsequent spaces of the theatre, the gallery, and the studio, this is worse than being locked out from previous means of production.

Plantations, mines, and even factories offered a means of production that could be seized, and sometimes they were, but as the history of state socialism sadly records, these means offered little in the way of organisational lessons for a new society. Not only were these forms of organisation themselves impoverished, structured around debased understandings of who would work in them, but they offered no history of adaptation to other uses, with only refusal as a critique against the form. When it came to thinking about cooperation, and experimenting with forms of being together, plantations and assembly lines proved poor theatres, poor studios. For this reason some of the best minds that Africa has produced, such as Amilcar Cabral and Julius Nyerere, sought inspiration in communal forms beyond what they had inherited in farms and mines, knowing that the organisational basis for society could not be adequately foreseen in the deadened forms of economic production producing underdevelopment. But again, as we know, that very underdevelopment had degraded many of these communal forms, and neo-colonialism preyed on many others.

Today the creative industries do not just deny to most people the means of production in those industries, but also distort and underdevelop their means of production, as anyone who works in a university, a theatre or studio well knows. And yet these means would precisely be the ones capable of carrying experiment, organisational improvisation, and new forms of ensemble into the arena of collective social life. Not only inspirational leaders like Cabral and Nyerere, but also everyday people in Africa, the African diaspora, indigenous communities and numerous post-colonial societies insist on the historic and future role of the arts, of culture, of language and music. We are not making a special case for the arts. The case is already made. The creative industries are such a heinous form of underdevelopment for precisely this reason: the organisational genius of a people resides in their arts. This genius proposes itself against the creative industries and as a form of organising not only the arts – the minor task that the creative industries take as their only ambition – but also the organisation of society itself. And there is plentiful evidence of genius at work against gentrification.

Rosalyn Deutsche’s Evictions makes clear the role of art and architecture in the class struggle of urban gentrification in the US and Europe. There is a danger of Eurocentrism in this narrative of a global sweep of gentrification through the arts. However, a vital counter-praxis has been developed in the last ten years, for instance, at the Collective Research Initiative Trust (CRIT) in Mumbai, where artists and architects put themselves at the service of the organisational aesthetics of already active urban dwellers. The inspiring work of CRIT suggests that even at the sharp end of gentrification, art and knowledge can organise with and for the social genius of urban dwellers, not against them. In Africa, we have seen the Institute for Human Activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo redirect the speculative potential of affect through its curated chocolate sculptures, produced by Congolese cocoa workers. According to the Institute for Human Activities, the cocoa produced on plantations is thus priced to include affective labour of “feelings, ideas, convictions”. Perhaps this example does not escape the bounds of critique and enter fully into praxis. But another example comes from the Senegalese curator N’gone Fall’s collective, Gwa-Lab. Pop-up art installations, fashion stores, and food shops are often the equivalent in environments subject to gentrification of Israel’s “knock-on-the-door” bombs – as soon as you see them you know it is time to go. But Gwa-Lab subverted this form by involving local market workers and traders in the pop-up, taking over the pop-up form rather than becoming victims of it.

We ourselves witness an amazing example of this self-organising aesthetic each Friday night in Barbados, where our collective is based. People gather in a fishing village called Oistins. They eat grilled fish from local stalls. Some tourists gather on one stage and dance to soca music. Behind this stage is another dance space, surrounded on three sides by small bars and bordered on the fourth by fishing boats and the sea. Here, local people gather, dressed for the occasion, and dance to vintage music. At first it seems nothing remarkable is happening, but gradually one understands that with each step and beat they are organising this event. The event has no organiser because it is an experiment in self-organisation, in memory, in gender, in race, in the freedom drive.


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This story features in the new Chronic, an edition in which we ask: what if maps were made by Africans for their own use, to understand and make visible their own realities or imaginaries? How does it shift the perception we have of ourselves and how we make life on this continent?

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