As we speak over the phone, artist Shikhant Sablania says he is now in Zambia, gearing up for his 52nd day of the 200-day road trip across Africa. The tour he is on is titled “The Great African Caravan” (GAC), and it aims to promote art, tourism, inter-cultural exchange and sustainable peace on the African continent with the help of artists. The GAC includes 12 artists in total, of which six are from India. The participants are to visit 12 countries—South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt—where they will collaborate with over 100 local African artists to make wall graffiti, comics, music, theatre and organise creative workshops for youngsters.

Till now the GAC has covered three countries, which are South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Delhi-based Sablania is one of the 12 artists in this initiative. His role is that of the project designer and visual artist. “In each country, we focus on a common theme derived from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. In South Africa we worked towards gender equality. In Zimbabwe, it was about the building of peace, and here in Zambia we are working towards reducing inequality,” says Sablania.

Sablania aims to create street art and put up performance art pieces on his trip. He says, “In South Africa, I worked on a wall mural, we painted a 60-foot long shipping container with local artists—Alex, Andrew and Zanjo—at the Rainbow Arts organisation that works with the children of Delft, a township near Cape Town. Zimbabwe was not very eventful as due to the cholera outbreak and the political atmosphere of the country I could not work on a wall in the city. However, I got to meet and interact with various artists and know about the politics of the city and how the art industry works there. In Zambia again I am showcasing a mixed-media work on what inequality means to us and how we feel about it.”

A one-of-its-kind project, the GAC  intends to tell the world that Africa is not just about diseases, poverty and other struggles. It is a diverse continent with many talented and beautiful people. The project is designed  in a way that facilitates the international exchange of artists, helping them to understand varied cultures. Through the artworks created in Africa, it also makes a political statement, about issues like gender, race, language, migration, poverty and inequality among others. The GAC as a concept is about creating a positive, safe and artistic space to engage in contextual problem-solving. And this inter-cultural exercise, in many ways, further aims to build artist hubs in these 12 countries for presenting local issues to a global audience.

GAC artists making a graffiti in Delft, Cape Town.

Charan GP, an entrepreneur from India, is the curator of the GAC. In an email interview, he informs that this is the first edition of the event. On choosing Africa right at the beginning, he says, “Africa is the place where our existence began and hence we are here. In the future, we are looking to travel across other continents with the same vision. And, according to me,  to create a dialogue between cultures is the oldest and the most fundamental mode of conversation and very much an antidote to rejection and violence.”

The dialogues here are created through multiple mediums. Ife Piankhi, a poet from the United Kingdom, has a wide range of experience in using art for social change. For the initiative, she wrote a poem entitled “Caravan”:

Once we moved freely

The travelling caravan would move to pastures green on our own two feet.

Our heads filled with knowledge and know how.

We would ask what do we need and what do we leave behind?

We would take our most valued commodities

Salt, seeds, medicine and music

Talismans, totems, sacred incantations for the sick and the weary.

Once we moved freely.

We would make what we needed.

Pottery, shoes, tools we didn’t know the blues of being called the war-torn refugee, economic migrant, humanitarian disaster.

Once we moved freely.

No need for passports or visas!

But now the system won’t allow

We cry, we cry with our hands holding barbed wire fences.

But let us remember that once…

Once we moved freely.

Piankhi, in the GAC, has also curated poetry collaboration forums for various artists.

Yllka Lota is an actress from Kosovo. She is actively conducting classes for children on the GAC tour. She says, “With children, you have to be free. When I was directing them to include a certain element in their acting they were a little confused but when I set them free, it was very easy.”

Akram Feroze, a theatre artist from India, is another GAC participant. He uses his creativity to create a social impact and is working towards his dream of a borderless world. He says, “As we were travelling I saw a lot of emptiness on the road, there was also a bit of uncertainty as we were quite unfamiliar with the place but overall it is turning out to be a good experience.”

For Sablania, the GAC is a project that he has found most enriching as an artist. According to him, the work they are doing and the challenges they are facing are very new and hence the solutions will be new too. “As an artist I am humbled to experience life from various perspectives, the lives of people in the caravan and the lives of the people in the places we visit and stay in.  This journey has various faces. At times it is a journey of individuals on an exploration, at times it is a mirror to our insecurities and differences that we face, at times it is a pool of stories that we are gathering, at times it is an exploration of who we are as artists and what it means to be one. I think this caravan is similar to life…”

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