“I have nothing unhappy with the Chinese government and big corporations; they help us build a lot of things, like infrastructures. We Kenyans have bought a lot of stuff made in China, such as cell phones, but Chinese people here buy little. It’s not fair,” said John, a guide at Kazuri, an organization providing employment for disadvantaged groups within Kenyan society through the production of ceramic jewelry and pottery. “We export to Australia, Canada, all over the world except China.”
China has become Africa’s number one trade partner. According to the PRC’s Ministry of Commerce, in January 2018, the import and export value of China-Africa trade amounted to US$16.5 billion. However, trade relations have been extremely unbalanced. In 2017 for instance, China’s exports to Kenya reached US$390.6 billion, but China’s imports from Kenya was only US$9.9 billion. Both sides have been wishing to switch from “made in China” to “made in Africa.” Among those, apart from manufacturing, artwork trade has been considered as well.
“Chinese do not appreciate our art and culture”
Africa has a strong reputation for its tremendous artwork, which has been exported to destinations throughout the world. However, the interest of Chinese in African artwork has been limited to a natural resource catalog of pieces. We interviewed 10 Chinese citizens who have been to, or are now in Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa. They all agreed that their and their fellows’ main expenditure on African handicrafts focuses on natural resource-based products, like blackwood-carvings instead of African paintings and textiles. (We received this information from many sources, including the shop assistant at the handicraft store in Eastland, a Chinese Hotel in Nairobi). To satisfy Chinese buyers’ unique interests, Chinese shops have opened in Africa to meet consumer demand.
Other handicrafts like oil paintings get much less attention. Lonlhinos Nasila, a painter, told us the Kuona Trust, a collective working place for artists, is now surrounded by Chinese residences. However, Chinese come to visit frequently but few will buy. On the contrary, he said that Europeans are the largest buyers. Similarly, John from Kazuri said: “Most Chinese just buy one or two items.” Visitors from the West, nevertheless, purchases more. “Americans are the best buyers,” said John. “Westerners support us a lot.”
How Handicraft and Artwork Trade Reflects Challenges Facing Sino-African Relations
Chinese consumers’ limited preference has its reasons: a lack of knowledge and interest in African culture, and higher concern with price and quality.
Most Chinese in Africa are businessmen who do not have a background knowledge of art. What they know is the value of natural resources. Mr. Shan told us blackwood-carvings’ price is much higher in China, which makes them suitable for their own collection and decent gifts for friends. “What is valuable in Africa is what is natural.”
Caring more about price and quality than charity behind them also made most Chinese buy few other handicrafts. “Many colleagues and friends who have been to Kazuri consider the prices unreasonable,” said Mr. Wang, senior employee of Xinhua News Agency who has spent eight years living in Kenya. “Some of them might buy a few for charity, but majority would just take a look.”
Compared to Chinese consumers, Westerners are more inclined to pay more for charity. A Dutch tourist, Be, and an Argentinian tourist, Maria, were both willing to spend more money on Kazuri’s feminism. Mr. Wang himself also bought some Maasai fabrics because of their multifunctional use, but he thought better fabrics at a lower price can be found in Yiwu, a Chinese trade center of cheap industry products.
Different from handicrafts, artwork trade is more about recognition. “It’s not about price, but the European ones can be more valuable in China,” said Mr. Wang. Highly-salaried Chinese, like Mr. Wang and his fellows, would go to Europe to collect artworks like paintings.
Chinese people’s reluctance to buy artwork and cultural products has affected locals’ perception of Chinese. “Chinese are good at business but do not like to pay for art. If you appreciate art, then buy it,” criticized John Silver, a well-known artist who has held a series of shows in Kenya, United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Japan. “A Chinese businessman named Papai came to my studio in the Nairobi National Museum last year, and he’s never contacted me again. He lied to me.”
In John’s entire art career of 25 years, he has had a number of students from the West, like one university teacher from Belfast, UK, and also many visitors from all over the world, including a group of 20 artists from Korea in 2018, but “not a single Chinese has ever come to me.” The absence of cultural exchange is responsible for the unsubstantial trade in handicrafts and artworks, and such unsubstantial deals in reverse restrict mutual understanding of culture.
Changes Happening with the “China Africa Art Project” and Young Generations of Chinese
It is difficult to change the existent mindsets of old generations, but the young ones may be different. “The old Chinese do not want to talk to us,” said Mike, a Kenyan working in Fu You ,a Chinese restaurant in Nairobi. “But young Chinese are better at English and more open than the elders.” Their efforts are witnessed in creating commercial platforms for African handicrafts.
In August 2018, Yushun, a 16-year-old high school student from Nanjing, created an online shop with his teammates to sell African traditional handicrafts to China during an educational trip to Kenya through China House, an organization aiming to help Chinese better integrate into Africa. He said, “Last year I took part in an academic competition held by the US and topic was Africa. Hence, I am interested in what happens in Africa. That is why I am here, to learn and try to help.”
Yushun tries to select artworks that are more appealing to Chinese buyers, and he decided to spark interest first among friends, classmates and relatives. Relying on survey and interviews he conducted in China, he now purchases selected products in local partners’ stores and brings them back to China to sell.
Currently, there are six pairs of earrings, two necklaces, and five handbags available on the platform. “I hope our platform has a bright future. Sales and profits are actually not our priority,” Yushun said. “This is a window for Chinese to get to know this continent.”
By Zhang Tianxin, Zhang Enyun, Yang Xianchen