Monday, February 6, 2017

Who Will Save Kuona Trust?

A lot has been said about Kuona Trust, started in 1995 and modeled along the Triangle network studios to give opportunities to local artists while raising the profile of the arts, first regionally and recently, globally.

It was registered and has operated as a trust since its inception. The early years were easy. Its major challenges were funding and trained personnel deficiency. Being a fully dependent on donor funding institution, it’s come a long way from being housed at the museum where its core activity was providing studios for barely-out-of-school artists and occasionally offering technical workshops facilitated by then masters. Most of us walked through the doors in the nineties equipped with a single raw skill and moved on with multiple abilities thanks to training by the likes of Robino Ntila, Theresa Musoke, Elijah Ogira, Ugo Giacometti, Francis Kahuri, The Late Joseph Opiyo… list is endless.

Most artists branded as ‘second generation’ got their first international travel opportunity through Kuona Trust and its Triangle partners – Gasworks (London), Bag Factory & Greatmore (South Africa), Partage (Mauritius), Thapong (Botsana), Pachipamwe & Batapata (Zimbabwe) & Khoj (India) among others. These platforms also introduced us to prolific artists from other countries which has led to friendships and cross-continent collaborations that go back over 20 years.

Kuona’s fast growth coupled with the Nairobi Museum’s renovation and expansion meant that it had to get a new home. It had a brief stop at Jacaranda Designs en route to the more spacious Godown Art Center in 2004. Here Kuona flourished - 8 private studios, a larger resource center and a more comprehensive programme. Life was good and naturally, Kuona had to move to its own space and in 2008 settled at their current location. It was all rosy – very reputable institution, guaranteed donors, almost enough studios & vibrant space. There were murmurs but nothing serious. Then out of the blue, crisis! And people bolted.

The irony of all this is that when the institution was in a good place, there were so many stakeholders’ and ‘consultants’. There were a lot of folk interested in the welfare of Kuona (or so we thought) til the cookie crumbled. There have been a lot of disappointing moments but the lowest was when electricity was disconnected for a week for non-payment.

The structure of the trust is that it’s governed by a board of trustees and run by employed staff answerable to the board. All the employees but one was made redundant. Word has it that the others are not being very helpful and have not even returned office laptops and documents. The official story is that they are suspended and under investigation but they laugh it off and tell everyone willing to listen that it’s all over and ‘they’ve moved on.’

Most of us are past the ‘How did we get here?’ question and are more concerned with ‘How do we get us out of this s**t?’

Clearly, it seems like artists are the only ones keen on retaining the space and sometimes they feel like they are on their own. (Unless others are supportive chini ya maji!) Stakeholders & consultants are out of sight. It is very frustrating when legalities and ‘conflict of interest rhetoric’ are thrown around when artists want to take control but when it comes to the true story – securing the space, paying rent & salaries and dealing with creditors, it’s okay because artists ‘own’ Kuona.

Kuona is a pale shadow of its former self thanks to financial impropriety and impunity. Structural failures are also not doing the institution any favours. Add to these, employee arrogance and trustees who seem to have ‘given up’. I am yet to understand what hold the former employees have on the board. Why do we still have five laptops (documents & probably other equipment) with former employees? Why is the former director’s office still secured with ‘her stuff’ just as she left it if she’s resigned?

The space is operating at about 30% considering what it’s capable of with only artist studios and PK’s frame shop active. Periodical exhibitions, outreach and education were Kuona’s forte back in the day but I’m yet to understand why resident artists are not keen on doing proper shows there. It may stem from the culture that became embedded that the space can only be used for donor funded projects loosely referred to as ‘conceptual exhibitions’. Outreach projects that catapulted collectives like Maasai Mbili to superstardom became avenues for politically correct artists to obtain funding for non-existent projects. Education in the arts, which is probably what everyone is looking at now, has been non-existent yet about five years ago, Kuona was the only African country participating in the Unilever sponsored and Tate Modern produced Turbine Generation. Right now, we sit and wait for that random private school bus to drive in with 10 students paying a hundred bob per head for a tour of studios with absent artists. The library that was once touted as the most comprehensive art library in the region remains closed since most people only check in to use the internet (which is disconnected). The shop is closed. It’s the classic case of ‘How not to run an art space.’

Between the board and resident artists are people equipped with over 500 years of professional practice and human resource management. It’s very difficult to understand how guys don’t see this as a problem. The space is currently in the trustees hands with an artist committee ‘guiding’ the gang. It’s supposed to be a democracy and at times meetings feel like parliamentary sessions. It’s good to see artists attempt to be in charge but come on! You can’t run an institution that way. Hard decisions need to be made. Somebody needs to step up. There’s need to start programming even on a shoestring budget, or even no budget. A little momentum has started – Kuona Reloaded was a good start. Wrong Number exhibition got good reviews at a difficult time followed by Michael Soi’s current show (which got us some money). We can’t afford stand still. The next show should be in advanced stages of planning. Some of the most prolific local artists operate in the space. Do something to raise the space’s profile, and not another open day.
Someone should be calling schools and artists need to invest more in the space. Investment is not just money. It is whatever resource someone can offer. What skill do you have that can add value to the outfit? Unfortunately, most of us just want to be passengers.

Kuona Trust is too important to operate as it currently does and I’m embarrassed when I have flashbacks. Once upon a time we were told to wait for an audit which would give a way forward. We’ve just started the 6th month. People need to have honest conversations. Everyone who should be involved is mum like they’re waiting for it to go away. Why is it that only artists come back to help? Where are the former employees/staff? Where are the previous directors and trustees? Is it that they also moved on? Or that they don’t know? Or they just don’t care? Or was it 'strictly business' for them?

It’s not rocket science that Kuona Trust has been donor dependent all along. Is someone looking for funding? If not, are we looking for alternative ways of generating resources? Not hiking rent to pay for studios but trying to get back to 70% operations. The one person manning the desk cannot be tasked with doing work that was previously done by seven people and a couple of interns. There are a lot of things that need to be looked into and we can’t be creating bottlenecks because of money (or lack of it). The buck however stops with the ship’s captain. There’s an iceberg in the horizon - we can navigate around it or ram it. I’d like us to go around it but am just the midshipman and the captain thinks otherwise so I’ll just grab my life jacket and stand near the life boat. Just in case.

We all profess our love for Kuona. Some louder than others. Even those who got us where we are now. It’s time to walk the talk. Time to show the love. Otherwise we shall soon bury another institution just like that.

I don’t want to be telling my grandkids that there once was a Gallery Watatu. Or a RaMoMA. Or Kuona. Instead I want to take them wherever Kuona shall be and tell them I was part of the team that built and benefitted from that institution. That’s if I live that long.

Lastly, let’s get serious and give back to the institution that molded us into who we are. And goats don’t count (terms & conditions apply).

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Fear of Being Great

Kenyan artists have had a love-hate relationship with contemporary art curators over the last decade. This timid liaison is mainly due to lack of the general understanding of a curator’s role; aided by the fact that most of those who’ve come in have played celebrity curators and gone on to rub the local populace the wrong way.

In my brief involvement in the Nairobi contemporary, it was always the artist and the dealer/gallerist til about a decade ago when Simon Njami jetted into Nairobi through Jimmy Ogonga’s Amnesia (Imagining Afrika Without the Crisis of Historical & Cultural Memory) circa 2006. We went into culture shock! Our expectation was that Simon was coming to curate (and prolly sell our stuff) and when he sat us down to talk, we couldn’t comprehend why this curator was just talk. With a reputation enhanced by Africa Remix (Contemporary Art of a Continent - 2004), our reference I guess was a travelling catalogued exhibition. Not stories.

Amnesia therefore, almost single handedly was a game changer in our engagement with reputable curators. Over the next five years, more curators and important artists based in the continent – Thembinkosi Goniwe, Koyo Kouoh, Andrew Tshabangu, Ananias Leki-Dago, Aidah Muluneh, Amal el Kenawy, Moataz Nasr, IngridMwangi/RobertHutter, Bili Bidjocka and Nirveda Alleck visited and slowly helped us develop our art vocabulary. Anmesia climaxed in the Njami curated & Jimmy O. directed project Probe (2009). It’d taken us about 5 years to slowly understand a curator’s role in our practice.

Then this Africa thing started!

and everyone was crisscrossing the continent having to pass through Nairobi en-route somewhere. There was always a curator headed somewhere through Nairobi! Artists got excited. What of portfolio reviews? And possibilities of being part of this new Africa thing. Shock on us! Some were our friends and held our hands. Thanks, we shall forever be grateful. Most however, were the cigar and champagne type whose only claim to fame (around here) is rounding up artists to feed and inebriate them in Habesha and occasional til dawn escapades at The New Florida Night Club. Then statements like “There’s No Art In Kenya”, “I Only Saw Airport Art” and “Nothing’s Happening Here” became commonplace and down went many a curator’s reputation with no possibility of any engagement. Rather unfortunate!

Fast Forward a handful of years... Azu Nwagbogu and Chinovava Chikukwa came in for a curatorial workshop. These workshops have the same template for the participants and I gave as much as I got during the 5 weeks of sacrifice – a lot of fun and frustration. Insightful conversations, new partnerships, shifted perspectives. List is endless. However, the magic happened outside the formal workshop. They came after a particularly ugly incident with a reputable curator. They did studio visits, exhibition openings, presentations, critics; the whole nine yards that make up the curator’s ritual. They rekindled the artist-curator relationship that had been made frosty by curators artists thought were arrogant. Those that were okay with milking the cow and not feeding it, then claiming the cow was unhealthy.

It was fantastic to have highly reputable and important cultural operators from the continent spend five weeks in Nairobi. Artists were excited. The events that happened during that time were enriched. However, their local peers – those who we expect to operate at these curators’ level were absent!

Anyone working in a the Arts stands to benefit from interacting with these two. We’re caught up chasing our tails for lack of comprehensive knowledge of how to do things but when we get free lessons, we don’t appreciate them. Kenyans have gone through back to back Venice biennale fiascos and we for example had someone with a “Venice guideHow get a pavilion/to participate… again & again,” but we seemed disinterested. If a National Arts Gallery curator from another country comes to town, I guess our equivalent should be excited! When guys who present blockbuster art events check in, others in the business of doing the same locally should be curious. It was good to have all these participants who are artists and/or run smallish art outfits. But when those in positions of influencing policies or sitting in committees/panels supposed to, do not understand the value such individuals may add to their practice, it just emphasizes the fact that artists seem to be growing faster than the institutions supposed to be helping them grow. How can we assist artists when we portray lethargy towards learning how we could? Or what they may require from us. Why do we pass a golden opportunity of learning how to fulfill our moral obligation as cultural practitioners?

Once upon a time, our mandate was to nurture upcoming/emerging artists. Are we still interested in that or have they come up/emerged? Are we interested in developing the artist and the Kenyan arts infrastructure or are we just interested in being seen to seem to have an interest? Why are we thinking outside the box while still comfortably seated in it? The message we’re passing is that we’re afraid. Or too intellectually lazy to engage. Or both! And this is dangerous. Because it translates to being clueless of what is expected of us. Which in turn makes us embrace mediocrity. There are a lot of (art) events locally. Which one is worth talking about in 5 years? What is the last important publication that came from us? Where are we headed? We need to move beyond the rhetoric and start doing things properly. There’s no shame in admitting you don’t know, unless you want to always remain not knowing. It’s good to finally see Kenya’s presence in international Contemporary Art Fairs but it shall be even better to see its absence in the periphery of these annoying fair trade economic summits and conferences.

Sometimes artists are not confident enough or are in dire need to make that sale to get over a rough patch. It’s our duty to advice them that taking their work to decorate the next conference is not a value addition to their practice. But if we are not confident ourselves and can’t negotiate our terms of engagement, we take any monies offered to us.  Appear at any platform offered to promote our trade! And that equals kutoshanisha wasanii! Taking artists for a ride. As Mzee said, “Artists give us their soul through their work – joys, frustration, sorrow, triumphs, dreams. We can’t be curators, writers, critics & dealers if artists don’t make art.” Don’t even think about it. Let’s put more effort in how we present artists' work. This fear. Fear of doing memorable things. Fear of giving it your best shot. Fear of documenting our practice. Fear of working together. Fear of asking for help. Fear of being curious. It is holding us back big time. Everyone is trying to do something small in their own tiny corner with a limited set of skills/abilities thereby duplicating each others’ activity. This fear is making us present grand ideas in half baked ways. This fear of being great is a disservice to Artists. These artists whose work gives us everyday delight. Artists who enable us enjoy 5 star lifestyles.

Whether it’s a publication, an exhibition, an auction, a biennale or a fair; let’s make it memorable. Let what we do someday be mentioned alongside milestones like Magiciens de la terre (1989), Africa Remix, Documenta, The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa (2001), SENSATION: Young British Artists From The Saatchi Collection (1997) and other great ones that define our era.

Let’s give it our best shot so that one day when in retirement, we can watch the sunset, scotch and cigar in hand and claim (part) ownership of the blockbusters of yester years. But this s*#t can’t go down with our fear of being great.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Artist Collectives

An artist collective loosely refers to a group of artists working together, usually under their own terms & conditions, towards a shared vision while sharing ideas, costs, opportunities, risk, and benefits that would sometimes be overwhelming when confronted individually. There is no universally set purpose of an artist collective but the most common thread historically, is the support system it offers members while catering to the needs of the artist within a specific (time)frame and context. This can range from securing funding and sharing space; to sharing ideologies; or similarity of artistic platform; or sometimes, just circumstances.

Artist collectives have existed throughout history, with (probably) the most prominent being the group that later came to be referred to as The Impressionists - a 19th C art movement that originated with a group of Paris-based artists (Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Manet, Pissarro) whose independent exhibitions brought them to recognition during the 1870s and 1880s. During the 1860s, the Paris Salon (Paris’ main event) jury routinely rejected most of the works submitted by Monet and his friends in favour of works by artists faithful to the “then approved style”. In 1873, they founded the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers) to exhibit their artworks independently. A society/collective formed out of protest.

Contemporary artist collectives may be smaller groups intent of production of work; either collaboratively or as individuals, or toward exhibiting together in gallery shows or public spaces. Some are quite organic and are formed from loose friendships while others are well structured models run almost like business entities. Often a collective will maintain a common space, for exhibiting or as studio facilities.

In Kenya, an almost non-existent visual arts infrastructure/support system in the fifties and sixties meant that artists were forced to work privately with almost no access to artistic information and opportunities. Some visionaries set up institutions like Chemi Chemi Creative Arts and Paa Ya Paa  to plug the gap. More recently, almost similar conditions have forced artists to work together. Artist villages like Ngecha and Banana Hill became prominent in the 80s and 90s and continue to churn out artists. Institutions like Kuona Trust and the Godown Arts Center also have studios that facilitate people working together. However, consciously constituted collectives are arguably a (relatively) new concept. Kibera’s Maasai Mbili would probably be up there as the big brother/sister of these outfits. There is also The Lake Basin Artists from Kisumu, Brush Tu Artist Studios in Buruburu and more recently Joel Lukhovi & Sarah Waiswa trans-African art project African Cityzens.

In most instances, unless an artist is fairly confident and/or quite (financially) established, it becomes quite a challenge to work independently – renting/building private studios, securing relevant tools & equipment, negotiating contracts or getting the necessary visibility. Pooling resources together as a collective enables artists to split costs and responsibilities. Also, everyone comes in with a different set of skills to complement the other. The element of constantly exchanging ideas coupled with (probably) carefully deliberated discussions before decision making means that the risk of making irrational decisions is minimal. Well structured collectives also improve not only members’ artistic practice but also their collaborative/participatory social skills.

An artist collective has more bargaining power compared to an individual when it comes to negotiating projects/commissions/tenders and in most instances are given more air time compared to individual artists as most institutions – both government and private always give that lazily choreographed phrase “We do not transact with individuals!

As much as these collectives are important as artist-led initiatives, the flip side is that the alpha artist almost always gets his way. In some cases, not-so-confident members have been known to ‘follow’ or ‘agree’ with everything the main artist says or does and they stop being collaborators and become just participants. There are also instances where the lines are blurred and individual identities lost because of the compromises members have to make. This translates to artists within the collective losing their individuality as the collective becomes easily recognizable while the artists are swallowed by it.

With the Nairobi contemporary space getting more competitive and highly commercialized, there are a handful of artists who can afford to work privately - away from the donor-aid set up of ‘subsidized studios’ with a few extra freebies and art dealers who ‘reserve the right of admission’. As for the others too intimidated to set up shop on their own, getting like-minded individuals – who’re probably at their level of practice and having similar aspirations, being a member of a collective is the most logical way to go.

Folk like Nigeria’s Black Box and Depth of Field (DOF); Congo’s Génération Elili and New York based Guerrilla Girls are shining examples of the power of artist collectives where the group remains relevant while the artists’ individual profiles are also raised.

Though still not commonplace around here, artists should realize that such groupings highly enrich both their studio and out-of-studio practice as they continually inform and educate each other through peer-to-peer discourse; gives them more bargaining power as a group; and above all, gives them self satisfaction of belonging to an outfit they probably initiated - one that stands for what you believe in while helping on your journey towards artist empowerment.

Finally, it was good to see Maasai Mbili (M2) celebrate their fifteen years of existence with an open day. From two eccentric street artists - Otieno Kota and Otieno Gomba to a collective of 14 artists – Anita, Tolla, Kevo, Rabala, Mbuthia, Defere, Ronics, Clarence, Musa, Victor, Shanivulle, Greenman, Muthoni & Gomba… Congrats and continue enjoying the ride. 

As for Brush Tu! We’re watching. Discreetly.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Voice of Kenyan Art Limited… VOKAL – Right of Reply

It’s not what you do; it’s how you do it. It’s not what you say but how you say itBlack Uhuru (Utterance)

I just learnt of a new clandestine art outfit in town. Its agenda is unknown. So is its founder(s), member(s). Or whether it’s a one man show. A lone ranger. It seems to be operating as an anonymous outfit. And looks like the person behind it really likes Julian Assange. Or Edward Snowden. Vokal Vokal thinks they’re a whistleblower. Maybe they are!

Someone just accused an institution of what they refer to as a “myriad of wrongdoings.” Long list. Not sure of authenticity of the accusations but some are quite non-factual and common knowledge in the general scene. Some though, are stuff straight outta  the Cosa Nostra.

These allegations are serious! On a normal day, I’d take them very seriously. The only problem I have is the channel the author uses. Someone seems to have had an almost credible source of information but driven by bile lost the plot. My two cents forensics points to someone subjective driven by malice. Anger maybe. But I could be wrong.

I don’t know who VOKAL VOKAL is and care less about his tirade but can offer him/her/them some unsolicited advice.

You see, the local art industry has very strange loyalties. Where a person’s identity – name, face and work almost supersedes what has to be said (most of the time). It is earned over years of relationships that sometimes span whole careers. In a space where there are only a handful institutions, cultural managers have to shuttle within these same institutions to advance their practice. Circumstances have forced us to accommodate each other. We’ve been here before. We’ve loathed each other. Disrespected one another. Taken the competition for granted. But you become mellow when you get up everyday and realize the only people stuck in the game with you are the ones you disrespect. And the ones to complete your transaction are the ones you dislike. It’s made us realize that sometimes the only person that can offer the service you require, is the one you were bad mouthing during the previous night’s drinking session. We have learnt to be professional enough to see beyond personal sexual preferences and political alignment - to act professional and keep our end of the bargain. And if someone errs, you tell them to their face. Over a beer they’re paying for.

We can’t have two sets of rules – where you act juvenile and hide behind cheap pseudonyms yet you accuse others of being unprofessional. We, or rather I can’t allow you to sit at your ivory tower criticizing other peoples efforts while hiding behind false identities to evade questions and scrutiny.  I’m not the accused person’s lawyer but I’m quite disappointment that in this day and age we still have grown folk who want to be taken seriously yet their modus operandi is akin to terrorism. If you stand by your allegations, please do it above board - with your name as we all know it and through your official email that you use when seeking the services of those you accuse. Then maybe, I will take you seriously. Why punch in the dark? What are you afraid of? Victimisation? That’s exactly what you’ve done to those you’ve referenced! It’s all or nothing I suppose. You can’t have your cake and eat it. And expect us to let you enjoy the pie too. In an era where the local scene is advocating for intellect filled discourse and objective/organized criticism, you have chosen guerilla warfare. Terrorism. There’s no difference between you and those bad folk. You may have had genuine grievances but you spoil it by hiding behind a fake I.D which turns you into a mudslinger. A whinger. A cry baby dragging the rest of us to his/her fights.

You seem to know this outfit really well and maybe have/had relations with them, why didn’t you write when all was rosy? You’re also quite informed and try to write well (by my standards) - I wish it’d be for the good of the arts but you’ve lowered yourself to the class of the social media bigots and faceless bloggers who hide their identity because they don’t believe in their cause.
How is the accused supposed to respond to your allegations? Maybe they’re not supposed to because your accusations are subjective. Good manners dictate that if you’ve got beef with someone, you tell them. Maybe that’s why I’m upset. Your text lacks basic etiquette. You made your accusations while hiding, and then? You’re probably happy when everyone suspects the other. And when folks forward each other your text. We’ll spend time trying to figure out who you are, then that’s it. Maybe that’s all you want. But when the sun goes down, it’s back to loyalties – Right now there’s an artist dropping off their work at a gallery. There’s a curator driving into an artist’s studio. And there’s a dealer running to the bank to cash a client’s cheque. Why? Because almost all the time, it’s about the artist’s work and involved parties contractual obligations. Keep your end of bargain, I keep mine. Not what I do outside that. Not who I’m in a relationship with. Not if am a deadbeat parent. Not even my choice poison will come into play.

You seem to know the scene well so you should know that we don’t (necessarily) work with people we like but with those whose abilities to further our cause (whatever that means). I don’t have to like my dealer. I complain about high commissions. And I wish I could bypass VAT and I’m sure they know because we’ve had this conversation. I won’t be shocked if they don’t like me either but we’ve learnt to enjoy our relations and respect decisions agreed mutually. Yes we have unscrupulous dealers. Not because of their race or political leanings but because they’re just ill mannered. And we shun them. You don’t send anonymous emails. I treat every (business) partnership like a romantic liaison. If you’re not getting what you signed up for, you don’t blog about it; you handle your biz. Ama?

Finally, if you were candid enough with who you are and offered us another option, there’d be a queue at yours right now but artists have mouths to feed, schools fees to deal with, mortgages to service etc and like other citizens with a lot to deal with, your text goes beyond the arts. It is very Kenyan in context. It feels quite sensational – like the Anglo leasing. Or Goldenberg. Where sometimes there seems to be no substance beyond the sensation – unprofessional conduct, financial impropriety, tax evasion, fraud, intimidation, racism/nepotism, conflict of interest… You even pull a George W. Bush card (when he invaded eye-rack) - the “Coalition of willing versus the axis of evil” where you expect us to take sides. Honestly, how do you side with a faceless person in this? I’d have believed you and your intentions but I come from a place where the only invisible person/being you side with is God. Sorry I’m not on your side in this.

I’m good and ready to join hands in fighting good fights – artist enlightenment, artist empowerment, artist education, artists’ rights … not personal vendettas. Sorry.

On a lighter note, it seems I shall never show in the said outfit since they “suspiciously feature only artists married to foreign wives & husbands.”