With most internationally renowned art institutions getting more elite and trading exclusively amongst themselves, shrewd business people and small commercial galleries have reinvented the global contemporary space and gotten themselves into the lucrative market using the not-so-new global phenomenon that is Contemporary Art Fairs.
An Art Fair typically is that non-pretentious and non-apologetic space where all the rhetoric about the object presented is discarded and it becomes a commodity for sale. This is possible because in most fairs, someone has done a lot of (behind the scenes) work to present a very coherent series of exhibitions that the audience trusts. In most of the major fairs, the curator or gallery’s reputation notwithstanding, everyone has to make an application detailing the artists being presented and number of works they intend to show to a known committee who then decide if it ‘makes the cut’.
Some of the most important fairs in terms of reputation and foot traffic are 1:54, AKAA, Joburg Art Fair, Frieze, Art Dubai, FIAC Paris, Volta, The Armory Show, Art Basel, ARCO Madrid and Artissima among others.
Fairs are very vital. The fact that most are opened up beyond the normal sophistication of the white cube makes them more attractive and is a good place for the uninitiated to go for a typical intro on who’s who doing what where artistically.
Kenya too has an Art Fair!
Conceptualized by Kuona Trust and having just wound up the fourth one last week, The Kenya Art Fair was full of promise. It was quite good in terms of idea and content but needed to be spruced up and remodeled along what reputable contemporary art fairs stand for. The second and third happened and most people felt that rather than building on the first, they actually went a step down. That is debatable depending on which angle you look at it from.
Then the Kenya Art Fair 2017 happened.
Firstly, because of the going ons at Kuona Trust (the organization that started it), it ended up being a loose collaboration of Sarit Center as the hosts, Text Book Center as sponsors and Kuona Trust’s resident artists. That should be a good thing thinking that it’d have been an artist led fair. The only problem is when the folk supposed to pull this through have probably never seen any proper fair thereby having no solid reference and not comprehending the basic expectations from them as the hosts. At the end of it, it seemed like it was just a fixture that was supposed to happen.
Time and again, I have reiterated how artists have no business having booths in an art fair and the need to draw a line between craft fairs/boot sales and a contemporary art fair. I respect every artists work and opinions but artists have to know when their presence somewhere doesn’t add value to either the event, or their practice.
Yes, it’s an art fair. About your art. Not about you. Then you get your posse to fill up the booth so that people can’t even see what is presented. This is a business place. A place where you’re supposed to be sober, tidy and articulate when talking to prospective clients. Not a carte blanche location for you show off to your friends on the opening night and then disappear leaving an unmanned booth half the time during the event.
Free advice, you’re not supposed to have a booth but if you must, behave well and be present before the first guest walks in and leave after everyone else does.
Second, this event was christened the “Kenyan” art fair. I expected to see the regular industry players but alas! Why weren’t the institutions that enjoy the fruits of the local scene year in year out not present? Were they not allowed to participate? Was it a boycott? Where was Circle Art Gallery? One Off? The Art Space? Shifteye Gallery? Red Hill Gallery? Banana Hill Gallery? Goethe Intitute? Alliance Francaise? Kenyatta University? BIFA? Roots Contemporary? ArtLab? Maasai Mbili? The Godown Art Center? Diani Beach Art Gallery? It’s a shame that these outfits that literally rule the roost somewhat are a no show. The only present gallery was Little Art Gallery.
Also, 80% of (prolly) the most prolific Kenyan artists this year and maybe last gave the fair a wide berth. Who was the most important Kenyan artist in this fair? Importance in strength of work - conversation and relevance locally, maybe internationally. Not the highest grossing financially in the commercial circuit. I am very sure the numerous artists whose work I love but didn’t feature would make the fair better. Where was Maral Bolouri and Mung’ora Elias who only last month were trending for their feats with Barclays L’Atelier in South Africa? Why did go ahead without all these people/institutions? I think these are conversations that should be had for this event to improve. How Kenyan is a Kenyan Art Fair if some of our most dynamic artists avoid it. Could it be that it’s a fair for those artists who are unable to exhibit elsewhere during the year. Or for artists who do not have representation by proper galleries?
Even our Ugandan family skipped it!
Finally, event planning is something you learn over time. It works well if you have a good team. Money, tasks (division of labour) and timelines are key. The run up was very silent. There was absolutely no text – press release and publicity material for this event. It’s good there’s a catalogue but is it a good catalogue? The quality of the paper, print and imagery is superb but what about the content! It feels abit like the art diary without the dates. How does it inform the audience? We need to be a little more ambitious. A little bit more daring. There are practitioners who have been part of international fairs and I’m sure a phone call or a coffee with them will leave one more equipped on how to approach this type of event.
On a whole, the Sarit Expo Hall had a lot of dead space and anyone keen enough would see a lot of afterthoughts. Having a fair is important. Having a not-good fair is unnecessary. We always complain of lack of funding and assistance but when we do get a little, we have nothing to write home about. A very wise (wo)man once suggested to that “You are as good as your last perfomance.” On a scale of one to ten, how do we rate ourselves with this?
If we want to do fairs, let’s look at what others are doing and borrow from them. If organizations/institutions don’t want to be part of it, maybe it’s time to think of an artists’ only fair. But even this has to be regulated. We have to be meticulous about everything and be honest to ourselves. It’s not about having everyone in as all inclusivity always translates to “anyone with anything remotely resembling art can come dump it here.” It’s more about having people who meet a certain threshold. That way, those that don’t will work towards improving and making the cut. And this can only mean that the standards improve.
The organizers have a year to plan the next. I’m personally tired of half-baked presentations. We have no reason for doing things badly. Let us start doing things professionally and stop making excuses for mediocrity.