In late 2015, on a whim, Adelaide-born budding filmmaker Victoria Lewis went to Kenya, intrigued by the culture. She had completed a film course, had a longstanding interest in documentary, and had already made a short film whose subjects included a woman born in the East African nation.
Lewis soon discovered “a new generation of Africans” making “incredible” contemporary art. “The common thread was how art and creativity were giving hope and direction to the young people we met,” says Lewis, who continued the journey to Tanzania alongside Kenyan cinematographer Kevin Bulimu. “Art was changing their lives.”
Directing and producing her 20-minute film Slum Ballet, about some of the artists she met in East and West Africa, prompted Lewis to set up the not-for-profit body Sanaa Ink, an organisation that showcases these artists in Australia with the aim of increasing intercultural understanding. Sanaa is the Swahili word for “art or work of beauty,” Lewis says.
Gaining funding was at first a hard sell, but Lewis soon won support from law firm Lipman Karas and the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre at the University of South Australia. The first Sanaa Festival was held in Adelaide in 2017. This year, six African artists are being flown to Australia and more will have work in the Sanaa Exhibition, which is part of the Adelaide Fringe festival.
The six were chosen from about 150 applications from across Africa. They are graffiti “lines man” Thufu Bebeto (Kenya); visual artist Mwamba Chikwemba (Zambia) who focuses on women’s identity; street artist Sparrow and photographer Papa Shot It (both from Uganda); interdisciplinary artist Fatric Bewong (Ghana); as well as Kenyan performing artist Octopizzo.
“I look at their art forms, and then I’ll look at the artists and the quality of their work and how Australians will react to that,” says Lewis of the criteria for choosing the successful applicants. “I also look for community leaders. A lot of the artists we work with have their own community projects, and are teaching young people in their countries not only art but also leadership, confidence, all these life skills.” For example, the street artist Sparrow runs a street art festival in Uganda “communicating peace through street art”.
Lewis particularly admires Mwamba Chikwemba from Zambia. “Her art is self-taught. She went through high school, then did a diploma in public administration and worked as a till operator for Pick n Pay [supermarket]. Then she decided to pursue her passion in art,” she says. “Her art focuses on women’s identity in a place where female roles are strictly defined. She wants her portrait paintings to be seen as a collective image of African women who have power, courage and wisdom to follow their own goals.”
For the 2019 festival, South Australian artist Julia Townsend will collaborate with two visiting African artists on a work for a wall provided at the office of Multicultural Communities Council of SA while another local artist, Dave Court, will collaborate with visiting artists on a wall at the Arts Theatre.
Lewis says the festival in its present size is right for Adelaide, but she’d love in the future to turn it into a road trip. “We’re bringing artists all the way from Africa. If we could take them to another state, that would be great.”