Disaster is a nightmarish way to be reminded of other people's humanity. In these early days of 2005, it is the tragic victims of the south-east Asian tsunami who tug at the heartstrings of the west. But more often than not in the British media, it has been Africa - Tony Blair's "scar on the world's conscience" - that has featured as perennially afflicted by catastrophe, whether "natural" or man-made. Images of famine, disease and warfare underline the reality that most countries in Africa are as poor as they were 40 years ago, trapped in a vice of unfair trade and debt. With the UK's new presidency of the G8 and EU, alongside its continuing role as head of the Commonwealth, Blair has declared a new focus on Africa as the priority, together with climate change. To this end, the Commission for Africa was set up last year, and the Gleneagles summit in July may yet change Africa's relationship with the rest of the world. Twenty years on from the ground-breaking Live Aid, 2005 could be a decisive year for the continent.
Against this political backdrop, with London as its focal point, Britain's biggest ever celebration of African cultures - Africa 05 - is about to begin. The wealth of contemporary and past cultures from Africa and its diaspora will be showcased in museums, galleries and concert halls.
It is the brainchild of the African art specialist Augustus Casely-Hayford, born of the realisation that despite almost 40 per cent of the capital's population being classified as black and minority ethnic, that group makes up less than 5 per cent of the audience for most national museums and accounts for only eight out of 500 curators - hardly a sign of commitment to diversity.
Casely-Hayford's vision for change will materialise in a collaboration with insti-tutional heavyweights the BBC, British Museum, Arts Council England and South Bank Centre, which are co-ordinating the nine-month season of events with more than 50 other partners. "Africa 05 is a watershed moment in the development and promotion of African arts and culture in the UK," says Casely-Hayford. "We are confident that the year will challenge people's preconceptions about Africa and place many African artists firmly within the UK and international arts scene."
Africa 05 will be officially launched in February, coinciding with the opening of "Africa Remix: contemporary art of a continent", a major festival at the South Bank Centre, including painting, sculpture, photography and video at the Hayward (curated by Simon Njami) and concerts by performers such as the legendary Baaba Maal and South Africa's Yvonne Chaka Chaka. Other noteworthy exhibitions will take place at the British Museum (ancient man-made tools sharing space with new commissions), the Horniman (notably the spectacular Throne of Weapons built from decommissioned Kalashnikovs) and the October Gallery (stunning installations by the Ghanaian El Anatsui). A still unfolding programme will cover an impressive range of creativity: film, literature, music, drama, radio, television, dance, craft, fashion, workshops, conferences and debate - at community level as well as featuring prestigious artists.
The Turner Prize-winning artist Chris Ofili has designed the logo, a silhouette of Africa rotated 52 times, once for every country. He explains: "The map has been rotated around Cape Town, the city that I feel has changed the most, evolving from pre-colonial village to apartheid bastion, to what it is today." A far cry from Jonathan Swift's quatrain:
So geographers, in Afric-maps,
With savage pictures fill their gaps;
And o'er unhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns.
So what will be the lasting effect? Cynics say that the (unrelated) Africa 95 ven- ture, for all its seeming audacity a decade ago, has left few footprints even on the internet. For the Tanzania-based film-maker Imruh Bakari, such extravaganzas highlight that "we need an ongoing engagement with the African creative process that is part of the community in Britain. And what happens in Britain has to make a connection with communities within Africa. When aid agencies talk about development, very little is spoken about culture; but none of those other things are going to function and be sustained unless you have a creative and innovative populace. The perception is that culture lies outside the realm of what is funded as development, so the mindset and the frame of reference remain the same. We continue to have Band Aid; people want to dig wells, but they are not talking about building communities with vision."
Casely-Hayford hopes that Africa 05 will lead to fellowships and new curatorial programmes to diversify the museum and gallery sector and make a difference in the way things are collected and interpreted. "And it's interesting that there are moves to bring African film-makers to Britain as consultants, because they make fantastic films with limited resources, equipment and funding. So it's about skills swapping; it's not just a one-way flow of empowerment." He goes on: "My hope is that, as a result of Africa 05, people will begin to see that Africa isn't this monolithic continent just full of problems, but that there is a huge array of discrete narratives and art histories and personal stories that are as interesting and potentially inspirational as those from any other country. People have been banging on the door from the other side, and my hope is that, once the door is opened, everyone will realise not only that African art is exciting, but also that there are audiences for it."
Africa 05 will culminate in October's Black History Month (often known as "black employment month"), but let's hope it will not all end there. In an ideal world, there would be no need for special seasons; Africa should be on the agenda every month, every year. Remember the sheer size of the continent - large enough to encompass Europe, the US, India, China, New Zealand and Argentina. That much humankind des-erves a lot more attention.
For further details of the events, visit www.africa05.co.uk