Government Support Is Essential, Especially Right Now
Eldevina Materula, Minister of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Mozambique; Founder of Xiquitsi Orchestra, Mozambique
The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply affected many economic sectors across the world—none more so than the cultural and creative industries. Cultural heritage infrastructures, museums, libraries, galleries, cinemas, and arts education institutions have been locked down. Shows, exhibitions, fairs, cultural tourism, and international exchange opportunities for artists have been canceled. Millions of artists have lost their jobs, and people everywhere have lost access to cultural life. Less visible but equally important are the millions more whose jobs depend on the work of artists.
But can the arts truly stop? This question is like asking, “Can life be stopped?” Of course, the answer is no. In addition to the important economic role of the arts and the creative sector, arts and culture also play a social role of immeasurable impact in creating the messages through which peoples, societies, and social groups communicate with one another.
When I was a young teaching artist working with the Sistema-inspired program NEOJIBA in Salvador, Brazil, I discovered that I was doing more than teaching oboe; I was giving the children and young people of the region the language they need to create a vibrant and healthy youth community. Essentially, the program was offering them a way to build a “gang” around music rather than around drugs and violence. Within three months of playing their first notes, my students had created a new Facebook page for NEOJIBA oboe students. I saw then that building a youth orchestra is not only about proficiency in a “high arts” form; it is also about the creation of solidarity and connection between peers, without which society cannot flourish. (I’m wishing a happy 13th birthday to my dear friends and students from Neojibá!)
Later, when I decided to build a youth orchestra back in my home country of Mozambique, I did not forget this lesson. Some people called me crazy for trying to create such a thing in a country that had no orchestras at all. However, I knew that a youth orchestra would bring young people new ways of being together and communicating with one another. So I created the Xiquitsi Project, which has developed to be a thriving part of my country’s youth culture.
NEOJIBA and Xiquitsi are thousands of miles apart, on different continents. But they share similarities: both work with children from at-risk environments in areas of great poverty. How have they managed to survive and flourish? There is one overriding reason: both programs convinced their governments that their work was necessary for social wellbeing. At NEOJIBA, government officials at both municipal and provincial levels are constantly invited to attend concerts and tour the facilities. These officials learn firsthand that NEOJIBA builds a youth culture that can help shape a positive future for their communities.
And in Mozambique, once the youth orchestra was a reality, the government education and culture ministries understood its importance. Government support for Xiquitsi and similar projects is critical for sustaining our country’s progress toward a future in which young people create a better future for themselves.
This is why it’s the duty of governments at every level, and of international organizations such as UNESCO, to encourage artists of all kinds to continue creating songs, dances, paintings, sculptures, poems, books, movies, and shows. Transmitted through digital platforms, all of these art forms can reach homes everywhere, contributing to the mental health of families and societies and transmitting vital public messages about how to promote public health and prevent infection during the pandemic. This is why governments and aid organizations need to support cultural activities with special vigor, right now; they are vital to the development of social cohesion we need to emerge from this crisis strong and ready to move forward.