11 Questions: Kona Khasu, Cultural Aficionado
Khasu is a long time Liberian culture promoter and currently heads the Liberian Arts and Culture Council in Liberia as post war Liberia moves to position the arts at the center of national development. To simply called Kona Khasu a cultural enthusiast would be unfair, he has been at the center of education and social policies in his native Liberia for close to a decade and half, and if anyone knows anything about Liberian theatre also, they would know Kona Khasu.
1. What has James Emmanuel Roberts aka Kona Khasu been doing since his tenure ended as the Artistic Director at Kendeja?
I have been into so many things. It might just be better to send you an abridged CV. Briefly, since I transferred from Bureau of Cultural Affairs, Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism to the Liberia Development Corporation to work for Tourism Development in Liberia, against my will, I must add, I founded the Liberia’s professional theatre training program, the Blamadon Theatre Workshop. I produced Liberia’s television series, was sent to every prison in Liberia beginning with the police cell and then ended up in the notorious Belle Yala Maximum Prison. The camel’s back got broken in 1985 when I was nearly executed by the Doe Regime during the aftermath of the abortive Thomas Quinwonkpa Coup d’état. After my release from prison in 1986 (due to national and international pressure on the military regime) I escaped to the United States where I had been offered a Visiting Scholar position at Boston University and taught at African Dance and some theatre classes at the School for Arts, and Creative Writing at its College of Liberal Arts.
Visa conditions [J-1] proscribed that I remained in the employ of Boston University after two years. Since I could not immediately return to Liberia, I took up employment with various academic institutions in Boston: UMASS/Boston’s Adult Literacy Resource Institute. There, I coordinated two State and Federal-funded literacy projects, Publishing for Literacy, and Setting the Stage for Literacy. These were projects designed to develop new readers and learner-generated reading materials. I also acquired a graduate degree from the Harvard University School of Education, specializing in Administration, Planning and Social Policy Analysis in 1995.
2. What can we look forward to seeing from the Blamadon Arts and Cultural Center that you founded in the near future?
The Blamadon Center for Arts (BCA) is an arts collaboration to support creative people in the arts (music, theatre, poetry, and visual arts), and to support them applying what we learn from the arts to transform thinking and behavior in the lives of Liberians. It establishes the social context for communicating shared values derived from common beliefs, mythology, symbols and history of the society.
The BCA also embraces skills training, promotion, and marketing. Its objective is to support self-reliance, confidence, and national identity; it will significantly contribute to mitigating the hatred and political instability that the nation experienced over the last 30 years. BCA will implement special programs for marginalized youths who feel abandoned, and those who have neither basic education nor critical thinking skills, both of which are pre-requisites for acquiring employment. The BCA therefore, is a response to the great societal need to regain national equilibrium through a community of artists sharing a common environment and synergizing their creativity while producing vibrant new ideas that catalyze social change.
The BCA encourages and supports ethnic diversity, cross-ethnic collaborations, it engages its expertise and networks to market and distribute creative products, and train its members to manage successful creative businesses. In this way, it will be fulfilling its multiple responsibilities to the nation.
At the height of the Liberian Civil War in the early 90’s, I realized there would be horrific destruction of the country, especially the education system. None would have more impact than the loss of self-respect, dignity and self-confidence of the Liberian people. The proliferation of NGOs inevitably followed millions of aid money in Liberia during the emergency period; it also encouraged and developed a ‘welfare mentality’. The population first lost its dignity, then its confidence becoming increasingly reliant on gratuitous ‘foreign assistance’. The result was a near incurable dependency mentality, the exact opposite of what was really needed for a sensible, sustainable national reconstruction. The nation needed to invest in the ‘human infrastructure’; instead there is a disproportionate focus on physical infrastructures, leading down the cascading path of insatiable appetite for bricks and mortar development devoid of cultural context that make the bricks and mortar development meaningful and satisfying to Liberians. Surely, a nation needs the ‘bricks and mortar’; it needs bread. But the nation also longs for a meaning in life that is not satisfied by ‘bricks and mortar’ or bread.
Returning and settling in Liberia in early 2000, I was amazed how the adult population still remembered the “Kotati” series, the popular Liberian television program produced by Blamadon Theatre workshop. This television series, which ran for a year, kept viewers glued to their seats and was the topic of Monday morning conversations.
But this was not what drove me back to the theatre. The credit must go to my son, Kona Khasu, Jr. This young man argued with me for 10 years while we were in exile that I return to the theatre so I could pass on the skills and knowledge to the younger generation of Liberians. Fast forward to January 14, 2013 when Marlene Cooper gave her Sugar Beach mansion to Blamadon Center for Arts to develop an arts center, I realized the power in his vision because it was through his efforts in organizing a Blamadon event to celebrate our 165th Independence Anniversary in Silver Springs, MD. that we got this gift.
Our first major project together was the highly acclaimed documentary on the 2005 Liberian elections titled “No More Selections We Want Elections!” It premiered at the Africa World Documentary Film Festival, University of Missouri, St. Louis, MO, February 2012, and was shown at Shiloh Baptist Church Trenton, NJ. , the New African Films Festival, Silver Springs, MD, Harvard University 2012, the African Development Conference, Cambridge, MA., the 44th Annual Conference of the LSA, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY., and at the Boston University’s 20th Annual Graduate Conference in African Studies. “No Selection We Want Elections!” is a documentary portraying the challenges of holding free and fair elections after 14 years of civil war. It has been praised by viewers for its balance, and ‘uncharacteristic non-partisanship’. A self reliant population does not have to wait to be employed. With its innate talents, it just needs to acquire the mentality and attitudes for self-employment.
3. Can you elaborate on the goal and aims of the just founded Liberia Arts & Culture Council?
The goals and objectives of the Arts and Culture Council of Liberia are:
- Encourage, promote, and advocate for arts and culture in the Republic of Liberia;
- Mobilize financial, material and moral support for Liberian arts and culture by encouraging, supporting artists and strengthening organizations that work in arts and culture;
- Encourage the private sector to support arts and culture as an effective tool for reconciliation, and the re-establishment of social and political stability pre-requites for securing its investments; and encourage building coalitions and partnerships with the business community;
- Support the establishment of public policies for the creation, preservation, and protection of Liberian arts and culture;
- Support the inclusion of arts and culture in the national curricula at all levels of our education system;
- Enhance the quality of artistic production through support for the training and professional development of artists and art institutions;
- Encourage, promote and advocate for the establishment of public buildings such as museums, concert halls, theatres, art galleries, public sculptures, archives, recording and film studios, that display, preserve, protect and pass on the arts and culture of Liberia to succeeding generations;
- Support the organization of local and national festivals, competitions, awards, prizes in arts and culture;
- Ensure that the arts and culture of this country are passed on to succeeding generations
4. Has the Sirleaf government been receptive to your efforts, and what level of involvement and cooperation does the Council expect from the president?
We are hopeful that President Sirleaf soon will respond to our letter requesting that she endorse a Legislative action and the recommendations of Dr. Elwood Dunn’s 165th Independence Celebration Oration:  turn over the E. J. Roye Building to civil society group for use as a national Arts Center for Liberia, and  request the Legislature to pass a law stipulating a certain percentage of the Annual Budget of the Republic of Liberia to support the country’s arts and culture. At the recent National Vision Conference in Gbarnga, the president mentioned my work with the Blamadon Center for Arts, and my leadership in organizing the Council and said ‘now is the time’. I assumed she meant she was giving favorable consideration to our request. Perhaps we will receive a formal response during the impending Annual Message.
5. What role do you desire the private sector to play in support of the Liberia Arts & Culture Council as has been done successfully in other countries?
The ACCL is finalizing a Declaration on the Role of Arts and Culture on National Development that should be proclaimed shortly. In that Declaration, we describe the role of the private sector in paragraphs Sections 4, 6, and 7 of CHAPTER VIII: OUR CALL TO ACTION:
Section 4. We call upon the private sector to promote arts and culture by increasing its direct support to artists of this country who work tirelessly to create, preserve, and protect their creations for posterity.
Section 6. We call upon the Government of the Republic of Liberia to establish institutions, which support the creation of art, the study of arts, the public access to art, and research of our traditional and contemporary arts so that our emerging culture is inclusive, relevant and responsive to our contemporary existence.
Section 7. We call upon the international development community of Liberia to broaden their development agenda to include recognition that a people without a strong sense of cultural identity can never truly perceive nor sustain genuine development.
6. Can you comment on the approximately $300,000 dollars from the government and the private sector to the Lone Star football mobilization committee for them to play just one game against the Super Eagles—which it lost 6-1—at a time when our traditional arts and cultural heritage suffer neglect?
Look, sports is important. I played it in my youth; in fact I played several sports, so I do not begrudge the government or the private sector for supporting the Lone Star. But I want both government and the private sector to understand that arts and culture is much more critical to the fundamentals of national identity, self-confidence and the broader question of national development than sports. Arts and culture engenders and supports love and passion for Liberia. It provides the most basic justification for why we should unite to develop Liberia, it provides a platform for equitable sharing of the nation’s wealth by its entire citizens. Over the years, and especially with this present government, which is generally considered one of the most enlightened Liberian governments in recent times, arts and culture has been completely neglected. The current Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism recently revealed that his Ministry has no budget for arts, culture and tourism. This shocking revelation leaves one to conclude that arts and culture is not a priority of the Sirleaf Government’s development agenda.
7. What have been your major challenges since the Council embarked on this key effort of an arts & cultural revival?
Our major challenges during these formative years of the ACCL are the same as would attain to founding and developing a new entity. We are still debating what the broad mission of the organization will be: providing support, advocacy, resources to artists and arts institutions or actually the ACCL itself recreating art. Most seem to agree that doing the later would be counter-productive as it would tend to replace or duplicate the role and responsibility of the individual artists and art institutions, leaving a huge void in the areas of support for public policy for arts and culture, public advocacy, support to individual artists as well as institutions, and resource mobilization. I side with the later view. I think we will come to an agreement on this matter very soon.
8. Do you have any knowledge if Kendeja will be revived, or if we will see a new national arts & cultural center?
I have seen a few structures on the site on the Marshall Road designated for the new Kendeja. However, there is no public information on what will be on the site, timetable for completion etc. More importantly, the process is inadequate in the sense that there were no public meetings to solicit and encourage diverse views on the design and function of this major public institution that played such a vital role in the cultural life of Liberians for 30 years. In the absence of this open public hearing, I am pessimistic the facility constructed could be ill-conceived.
9. You have been in the vanguard of arts and culture since the 1970s. Can you tell us what have been your greatest joys and disappointments?
Among the joys are: The modernization of the National Cultural Troupe and establishment of the Junior National Cultural Troupe (mid 70s), the Kotati television series (an achievement of the Blamadon Theatre Workshop in the late 70s), and the documentary, “No More Selections We Want Elections!” For the disappointments my list includes: Destruction of the national Cultural Center, destruction of the Kotati series tapes by the late T-Kla Williams, who succeeded Chauncey Cooper as Director General of the Liberia Broadcasting Service [LBS]. The destruction took place just when UNESCO had expressed interest in the series, and the US actor John Amos (of Good Times, Roots, Coming to America, and Die Hard 2 fame) had visited Liberia to discuss with me a version of the Kotati series for a US television.
10. Efforts such as The Revelation in the 70s and more recently Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings have all been impacted by lack of government and public supports. Why do you think this is, and what do you think can be done to generate passion for the arts throughout society?
Magazines such as the Revelation and especially Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian writings are immensely important to arts and culture, and the creative process. The absence of these kinds of magazine in every sense accounts for the poor productivity of Liberian artists, and the equally poor quality of their products, and lastly the lack of support from the Liberian people, because support often is the product of awareness of promotion. The absence of Sea Breeze Journal is a tremendous loss, because it provided a platform to share art and enjoy it.
11. Thank you for making time for this interview despite your busy schedule. Are there any last thoughts you would like to end with, specifically to those of us in the Diaspora?
I cannot end these thoughts without thanking Stephanie Horton, a wonderful Liberian writer, a passionate lover of the arts, a committed spirit who has drunk very deeply from our ancestors’ gourds of inspiration and provided support and inspiration to many.
It is my hope that the writers and artists of Liberia will unite for the arts, it is also my expectation that the president, her cabinet, and the Legislature would embrace a passionate cultural awakening and that they will begin to support the one thing Liberia has in natural abundance, and of which we should be rightly proud: our unique arts and culture! Jackie Kennedy, the former first lady of the United States in opposing the demolition of the Grand Central Station in New York City reportedly said, “If we destroy our past, something dies in all of us.” This was true then, and it is true today. It’s universal and applies to all humanity.
I am also grateful for the interest in our efforts and thank you for giving us your time and space to talk about something which we are unabashedly passionate, and unapologetic—our arts and culture!