An artist collective is an initiative that is the result of a group of artists working together, usually under their own management, towards shared aims. The aims of an artists’ collective can include almost anything that is relevant to the needs of the artist, this can range from purchasing bulk materials, sharing equipment, space or materials, through to following shared ideologies, aesthetic and political views or even living and working together as an extended family. The term collective implies shared; ranging to certain perceivable aspects, from ownership, risk, benefits and status, on an equal basis within the group, as opposed to other, more common business structures with an explicit hierarchy of ownership such as an association or a company.

Artists’ collectives have occurred throughout history, often gathered around central resources, values and responsibilities. For instance, the ancient sculpture workshops at the marble quarries on Milos in Greece and Carrara in Italy. Collectives featured during both the Russian revolution when they were set up by the state in all major communities, and the French Revolution when the Louvre in Paris was occupied as an artists’ collective. In Africa, and later in other non-european cultures, artists’ collectives have existed particularly due to African cultures’ general orientation towards a collective social orientation and existence.

In contemporary terms, more traditional artist collectives tend to be smallish groups artists who produce work, either collaboratively or as individuals toward exhibiting together in gallery shows or public spaces. Often an artists collective will maintain a collective space, for exhibiting or as workshop or studio facilities. Some newer, more experimental kinds of groups include intentional networks, anonymous, connector, hidden or nested groups, and groups with unconventional time-scales and structures, which are particularly customized to fit into the realities of the artists within the collective. Recently, artist collectives may be formed for economic reasons - to give members volume purchasing power and allow costs of publicity and shows to be shared, for political reasons - to increase local lobbying power for arts infrastructure and to gather behind a cause or belief, for professional reasons - to develop a higher group profile that benefits the individuals by association and to create a hub for curators and commissioners to more easily locate potential talent. Such reasons may have been with artists collectives like Tinga-tinga in Tanzania, or with Nigerian photography Artists collective of depth of field.

Artist collectives are significant to the artists practice in part because of the increased collective intelligence made possible by the cross-combination of multiple creative minds and disciplines, the cross-fertilisation of ideas and approaches and also due to the social richness and networking capacities involved.

Media artists Ingrid Mwangi and Robert Hutter live and work as a collective, having combined their two individual artistic positions into one, showing their work under the merged names of IngridMwangiRobertHutter, blending their life histories, biographies and even their dates of birth. But what really does this mean for both contemporary realities, as well as for multicultural situations, like that of Mwangi Hutter?

In various non-Western cultures such as African, Aboriginal, American Indian, East Asian, and othert "preconquest" cultures, views and attitudes are encountered which emphasize the collective and relational features of human beings and their minds at least as much as the individual features; indeed it seems that modern Western individualism is an exceptional or unique phenomenon, and maybe even inferior, among the world's cultures, past and present. The notion of collective conscious experience is seen here as an alternative or complement to the more familiar notion of individual conscious experience, and equally important of selfless and undemarcated sharing. Although individuality is so prominent in Western cultures and daily life, it only exists in theoretical form.

In line with age old traditional African mannerism, Japanese philosopher Tetsuro Watsuji probably said it best by expressing that, " being conscious of you is intertwined with your being conscious of me...” and henceforth, our perception of existence without the other symbolizes our lack of consciousness, other than being a reality. Traditional African societies were, for the most part, founded on communalism.  The term is used here in two senses. First, it denotes a definite mode of production or social formation that comes generally. Communalism is also used in a second, related sense to denote a way of life that is distinctly African.  This way of life can be glimpsed in the collectivist tructure of African societies in which: Different communities enjoy (near) unfettered independence from one another; Communities manage their own affairs and are for all practical purposes self-accounting and self-governing; and every individual without exception takes part, either directly or indirectly, in the running of community affairs at all levels. Essentially, much of Africa is communal in both the cultural production/social formation and descriptive structural senses. Among the most important features of African communalism was the absence of classes, that is, social stratification; the absence of exploitative or antagonistic social relations; the existence of equal access to land and other elements of production; equality at the level of distribution of social produce; and the fact that strong family and kinship ties form(ed) the basis of social life in African communal societies.  Within this framework, each household was able to meet its own basic needs.  Under communalism, by virtue of being a member of a family or community, every African was (is) assured of sufficient land to meet his or her own needs. There was a pronounced sense of equality among all members of the community.  Leadership focused on the interests of the group rather than on authority over its members.  Invariably, the elders shared work with the rest of the community and received more or less the same share or value of total social produce as everyone else, often through tribute/redistributive mechanisms.

The relationship between the co-ordinating segments of the community was characterised by equivalence and opposition, and this tended to hinder the emergence of role specialisation, and thus the division of labour among individuals.  Generally, elders presided over the administration of justice, the settlement of disputes, and the organisation of communal activities, functions they necessarily shared with selected representatives of their communities, depending on the specific nature of the dispute or issue involved. Such meetings and gatherings were not guided by any known written laws, for there were none.  Instead, they were based on traditional belief systems, mutual respect, and indigenous principles of natural law and justice. Social sanctions existed for various kinds of transgressions-theft, witchcraft, adultery, homicide, rape, etc. In traditional societies, Africans reached major decisions through consensus, not by voting.  What Nnamdi Azikiwe says of jurisprudence in communal Nigeria is no less true of the rest of Africa: It is based on the concept of settlement of disputes by conciliation.  It emphasises the need for amicable settlement of disputes by mutual compromise...  In its operation, the machinery of Nigerian justice shuns technicalities but places more emphasis on redress, impartiality, reasonableness and fair play... the positive legal system of Nigeria seeks to prevent the perpetuation of injustice and to enthrone equity, on the understanding that no person should be unjustly enriched or denied the elementary principles of natural justice. By the turn of the 15th century, several African societies were undergoing a transition from communalism to a class system.  Social stratification formed the basis for the eventual rise of classes and the development of antagonistic social relationships, culminating in the establishment of empire states with centralised forms of government in some parts of Africa.

The period of conquest was followed by the introduction of new production processes. The fundamental objective of this restructuring was to bind the incorporated economies into the world economy.  The critical weapons here were monetarisation (the introduction of money), trade, wage labour, taxation, and investment, coupled with the development of appropriate social institutions and infrastructure.  This always involved the introduction of incentives aimed at dissuading the local populace from investing in areas of local need, and instead to turn to production of cash crops and related goods and services. It was primarily to this end that a monetary system was introduced.  By a monetary system, we refer to the use of money (that is, inherently non-valuable objects or tokens) not only as a medium of exchange, but, more importantly, to the elevation of money and its accoutrements to a level of cultural preponderance within both the economy and society as a whole. Money is, after all, the basic prerequisite of a market economy, without which exchange and economic growth are impossible.  The process of monetarisation thus went hand in hand with the spread of capitalist relations of production. As noted earlier, a capitalist economy requires the establishment of social and political institutions that reproduce and regulate class relations.  The colonial education system served such a purpose.  Together with the church, another agent of socialization, it provided ideological justification for the emergent capitalist mode of production in Africa.  As well, it’s worth noting that there was no clear-cut distinction between the state and the church on the one hand, and the church and the school on the other - they formed an integrated system of ideological support for colonialism/capitalism.  Indeed, colonial education was a common basis for class alliance between colonialists and local bureaucrats.  Political parliamentarianism was the inevitable result of such education. Overall, the process of Africa’s incorporation into the world capitalist network started during the latter stages of communalism, lasted through feudalism, and continues to the present day in the form of neo-colonialism.


To us in Africa, land was always recognized as belonging to the community.  Each individual within our society had a right to the use of land, because otherwise he could not earn his living, and one cannot have the right to life without also having the right to some means of maintaining life.  But the African’s right to land was simply the right to use it: he had no other right to it, nor did it occur to him to try and claim one. Nyerere contrasts the foregoing with capitalist society, which fails to give its citizens the means to work, or having given them the means to work, prevents them from getting a fair share of the products of their toil.  “Ujamaa... is opposed to capitalism, which seeks to build a happy society on the basis of the exploitation of man by man; and it is equally opposed to doctrinaire socialism.”  Under Ujamaa basic goods were to be held in common and shared among all members of the unit. There was an acceptance that whatever one person had in the way of basic necessaries, they all had; no one could go hungry while others hoarded food and no one could be denied shelter if others had space to spare... a society in which all members have equal rights and equal opportunities; in which all can live at peace with their neighbours without suffering or imposing injustice, being exploited or exploiting; and in which all have a gradually increasing basic level of material welfare before any individual lives in luxury. He continues: The land this community farmed would be called “our land” by all the members; the crops they produced on that land would be “our crops”; it would be “our shop” which provided individual members with the day-to-day necessities from outside; “our work-shop” which made the bricks from which the houses and other buildings were constructed, and so on... Lastly, “how to share out as well as how much to grow, the arrangements for the children, the crippled and old-must be made by the agreement of all the participants.  Village democracy must be open from the beginning: there is no alternative if this system is to succeed.”

In as much that our minds may not be prepared for artists collectives, it is important to acknowlege that this lack of understanding mainly arises from our incapability to unexorcise ourselves from miseducation, capitalism, self-absorption and the blinding mask that individualism replaces human vision with, as oppossed to any particular ideals or values that may be aligned by such creative afinity. By developing this male / female, African / European, husband / wife collective, Ingrid Mwangi and Robert Hutter have just symbolized the triumph of an age old ritual.

© Jimmy Ogonga, 2006


Mwangi Hutter. The Triumph of Ritual

by Jimmy Ogonga