Summon the artists

Art is essential to building a better future, writes Nanjala Nyabola.

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This year was supposed to be different – at least if all the mantras so many of us shared on social media and with our friends were to come true. The broad consensus was that 2020 was an annus horribilis – a disastrous year – but that 2021 would be an opportunity for a reset. Yet, seven days into the new year a plane fell from the sky in Indonesia, a new generation of famine-causing locusts hatched in East Africa and a group of rightwing extremists attempted a coup in the US, while the number of people dying from Covid-19 continued to rise. The first days of 2021 didn’t promise a radical departure from what came before, and why should they when a year is nothing more than an arbitrary human marker of the passage of time?

If history offers anything for these times it is the lesson that we are in a transition moment that may determine what the next 20 or 30 years look like. This feels like one of those periods that will go into future history textbooks to teach children about why their societies turned out the way they have. Like 1914-20 when a great war tore through Europe and other parts of the world, with an influenza pandemic hot on its heels and new diseases unleashed in Africa helped to consolidate colonization. To quote Gramsci: ‘The old world is dying and the new one struggles to be born: now is the time for monsters.’

These monsters – unchecked greed, rising authoritarianism, collapsing states – are the reason why we need artists more than ever. We need people thinking through the bigger questions of what it means to be human and live in a society, to guide us through this moment of transition, to help us imagine a new and better world. The threat of social collapse need not be final. Life as we know it may be permanently altered but we need these creative minds to make sure that whatever succeeds, it will be better than the system that is falling away.

I’m struck by how routinely people are reaching for George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and others to give them guardrails for making sense of this state of flux. These were artists who were very much writing about their own time – trying to help the world rebuild from the ashes of the Second World War and the rise of fascism in Europe. But their observations and their insights are still important today.

This is the kind of art that I think the world needs now: art that responds to crisis and also starts to imagine a way out of it. Novels that imagine children with enough agency to push back against adults that insist they must still put on uniforms and go to school, even in the face of a pandemic. Poems about elderly citizens who refuse to comply with a government that decides that they are not worth saving. An epic on the scale of The Iliad that charts how social media infiltrated our private and public lives and was used to orchestrate a violent power grab.

Good and timely art may not avert the crisis of this season, but world-building art will capture the energy of the moment and at least start the process of imagining different futures.

Nanjala Nyabola is a political analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya. She is the author of Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How The Internet Era is Transforming Kenya (Zed Books) and Travelling While Black: Essays  Inspired by a Life of Travel (Hurst).