Monday, October 20, 2014

What Is This Creative Economy Isht?!

The Kenyan Art scene is amazing. Yes, I’ve finally gotten to use the word ‘amazing’ in my text. It’s probably the single largest industry where rhetoric gets you places. Also the only existing one where you really don’t have to believe in what you say.

Minus the art making, it is prolly 10% business and 90% Non-Government/not-for-profit organizations. Aid. Development aid. The business part dealings are easy – product/item (artwork), cost, sale, commissions, chilled drinks, handshakes, been-good-doing-business-with-you. Voilla.

The not for profit? Hmmmm! This is where titles, buzz words and superficial intelligence reign. I’ve encountered numerous words/phrases that absolutely make no sense at all but are supposed to make a lot of it the more they are repeated. I’ve personally discarded them from my lexicon and is even thinking of putting up a disclaimer in my tiny space to the effect that you risk a broken nose should you use any of those words within the sanctity of my Cupboard Studio.

I was pretty successful until I encountered one of the many social media escapades where the ‘art stakeholders’ have a getaway to some remote/exotic place to discuss ‘really important things’ about the arts. The deliberations rarely get to Nairobi but the pictures reach us real time. I must admit that I have no trouble with it as it offers me my in-between-studio- practice entertainment via the World Wide Web. A not-so-recent one had participants deliberating our ‘Creative Economy.’ Nice. Today I’m using all the awesome words (pun intended). It reminded me of a ‘breakfast meeting’ with a former government functionary whose translation of the term Creative Economy sent (fellow) artists seething. I’m not sure if the art stakeholders got the definition right but all I recall is seeing a dubious art person (not sure if dealer, seller, connoisseur, groupie) person giving a power point presentation. Quite dubious!

But that’s not my beef. It happened, was labeled pretty successful and guys came back home. Irony is, the first joint project (a majority) of the summiteers undertook is the Kenyan Art Diary. This is a deadly concept that was long overdue alongside other merchandizing ventures that are now commonplace. I respect the brains behind the diary. I personally have never submitted my work for it since no one wants to answer my (not-so-hard) questions.

The first diary was a hit (whatever that means). Artists submitted work and even paid to be in it. Agreement was they’d be given (I think) two copies but when demand outweighed supply, some never got theirs. There are conflicting reports on how many were printed versus how much sold. Questions were asked on whether the proprietor could afford to offer some token of appreciation as artist compensation (long story). The second happened. Repeat. Most artists don’t ask questions and are okay with the arrangement since majority have never been published and this loosely translates to having a glossy image of yourself in a ‘best seller’. It’s only later when playing with numbers that they realize what might have been!

When I started receiving emails asking me to submit and pay for next years edition, I asked what they were offering me as artist’s copyright and/or royalties. Then the emails went cold. Good manners dictate you respond to questions asked whether you have the ‘right’ answers or not. It’s okay to say it ‘never crossed’ your mind. Or that you can’t afford it. Or that you don’t want to pay any copyrights. But if you go cold, it translates to you being a cold schemer in a well calculated move. Irony, the emails came back this week inviting me to the diary launch.

You see (I’ll try starting the next sentence without using ‘you see’), in this whole arrangement, the ART in the diary is what is the selling point yet the artist is at the bottom of the food chain. The photographer gets paid. The designer too. So does the runner. And the wine supplier. Yet the artist puts his money and his art into it so as to be promoted. To be supported. Assisted.

Most artists, driven by financial instability (not poverty) and (some by) intellectual incompetence get excited by ‘just prospects’ that they don’t set their own requirements or even re-adjust/edit whatever contracts are offered to them. Whose fault? We may never know. Every not-for-profit outfit is offering courses/classes with cliché titles like Business of Art, Art Entrepreneurship, Art Mentorship, Creative Management… etcetera. So where did the rain start on us? With art stakeholders who are ‘conversant’ with creative economy/economics and artists who’re shuttling between studios and five star establishments learning creative economy, you’d expect that the ‘goodwill’ from all these institutions and the numerous courses undertaken by artists, the odds would be better stacked for the artist in such ventures. Wishful thinking!

But it’s quite a shame that we still have institutions/individuals that thrive on preying on uninformed or desperate creatives and rather than have a conversation on important aspects of an artist’s practice (read remuneration/fee/pay), they run off. To me, this equates to not giving a hoot about the artists. Or his/her practice. It translates to you being clueless to the whole creative economy you’re making noise about.

So what it this Creative Economy isht?

You can’t keep talking of creative economy without understanding the creative industry as a whole methinks! For my bias to the visual arts, I shall conveniently disregard/ignore the other segments of this industry and ‘specialize’ (for lack of a better word) on the visual arts.
Everyone keeps quoting numbers (in millions of USDs) of what the Kenyan creative economy is worth. But no one can back how these figures come about. As in any industry, there must be some level of investment in the two (major) segments;

  • Pre-Production
- Art Schools, Artist Studios, (Public)Art Awareness, Art Supply shops, Comprehensive Cultural Policy & government goodwill.

  • Post Production
-Exhibition Spaces(Museums, Galleries, shops), Support Institutions (An Arts Council, A (functioning) Copyright board, National gallery, Competent Personnel (Art teachers, Historians, Curators) and clear & comprehensive intellectual property laws.

Ideally, most of these institutions should be government owned/run or partnered. And should be held in high regard by all segments of the industry with artist goodwill, and institution efficiency high up on their priority list.

With these in place, it should be fairly easy to join dots and figure out the actual scale in term of numbers of people (directly) employed and the actual figures of secondary effects like; turnover from museum visits, sales from publications & copyright remittances, commission from artwork sales, Exports revenues, value addition from permanent collections, cultural tourism & education fees.

From here, we may be able to attach the aesthetic value of our art to the monetary aspect of it. This in the long run will make us comprehend a more realistic value of our creative economy and will help in defining visual arts  and fitting it within the (most) relevant government agency - as opposed to forcing art in the same bracket as Youth & Sports.

Once we have this figured out, we can combine all the creative fields and talk with authority about this thing we keep referring to as Creative Economy. 

I love the arts. Probably more than it loves me back (pun intended). I however have made a conscious decision that if anyone has a noble idea that is good and beneficial to the team, I shall fully support it. But for some I consider half baked and somewhat detrimental to artist development, there are no two ways about it. The days when words like ‘promote’, ‘support’, ‘favour’ would clinch a deal are long gone. It’s time folks understood that it’s now business. Strictly Business. And that for some of us, Creative Economy translates to shillings and cents.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Kenya@50 - Celebrating Kenya's Golden Jubilee

I know people - Artists. Art dealers. Curators. Brokers. Cultural managers. Art teachers. Art reporters/writers. Cultural analysts. Artist groupies... Only problem's, I think they don't 'know me' back!
This loosely translates to me neither sitting at the 'big' table where policies are formulated or decisions made. Nor celebrating 'gains' and toasting to successful projects in exclusive parties.

Typical cultural parties in the Nairobi circuit have recently become glamorous. Champagne flows freely. Food is abundant. And conversation synthetic - mostly rhetoric. People neither saying what they mean nor meaning what they say. These are mainly followed up by after-parties in fancy lounges or shisha smoking joints in the suburbs and even crazier after-after parties in downtown Nairobi to toast to development of the contemporary culture in Kenya.

But these are the little parties. Small private word-of-mouth-invite-only gatherings whose evidence is only on social media the following day.

But there's a big bash coming soon! Bigger than Uncle Bob's birthday parties (No pun intended). One worth several hundred million shillings christened Kenya@50 - Celebrating Kenya's Golden Jubilee.
Kenya@50 is (supposed to be) an elaborate campaign celebrating Kenya’s greats, history makers, stories that made headlines hosted by the Kenyan Government with the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture playing the events planner. With the 'culture folk' in charge, it's only natural that we expect some bias towards the arts. Shock on us!

Someone somewhere thought it'd be good to celebrate our achievements as we mark our jubilee year. Quite noble I suppose. However, am quite dissatisfied by the lack of substance being generated. Six in ten discourses are politics-oriented. I can live with that, I think.
What I find hard to fathom is the lethargic involvement of those in the visual arts. The sports people are telling their stories. So are the writers. And the fellows in music. And the perfoming arts. And business. But not those in the Visual Arts! Why? Are they not worth telling? Don't we know our stories? Are we not coherent enough? Or are we just plain lazy? It's almost like we're spectating in someone else's event.

In three weeks, all hell breaks loose as different players get the chance to blow their own trumpets. The bash is on. Concert halls booked. Champagne on ice. Sound checks conducted. Dress rehearsals done. But haven't heard of any visual art thing happening as part of the big bash. But then again, maybe am just out of the loop. Difference between knowing people. And people knowing you - and sharing plans. Fifty years is a long time. Some of us can comprehend only the last ten. Others twenty. Others all the fifty. Am sure everyone of us who's been involved in the arts for even a year would have something to say about the little (s)he knows. I'd expect the long serving institutions; the Universities to have at least someone's dissertation on our art history published. I'd hope the Museum would dedicate an exhibition tracing/following the 50 years of the 'genuine' Kenyan Contemporary Art practice. I'd wish to have art writers with conventional platforms educate the populace by publishing articles relevant to this History. I must give it up to Daily Nation's Bill Odidi, who though not conventionally an art writer, has written some of the most (artistically) insightful texts in the Kenyan media this year. 

I'm still looking forward to indepth, well researched texts about Ancent Soi. Or Elimo Njau. Or Rosemary Karuga. Or Samuel Wanjau. Or Zacharia Mbutha. Or Gregory Maloba. Or Kamal Shah. Or Francis Kahuri. Or Timothy Brooke... Not the usual shallow praise because they just had an exhibition. Or because their works fetched a tidy sum in an auction. But because we honestly appreciate the obstacle they cleared for us some thirty-odd years ago. I still hope one of those who were there before me would offer us useful and accurate information on spaces like Paa Ya Paa, Gallery Watatu, The Gallery of Contemporary East African Art, Rahimtulla Museum of Modern Art... Why they were vital. And how they inspired the Kuona Trusts, The Banana Hills, The Godowns, The One-Offs... And probably the relevance of these current spaces (which I may offer my 2 cents worth for the current & future generations).

We always complain of our government's complacently towards the Arts. This could be the chance of giving Dr. Hassan A. Wario a dossier of what we've been up to without the government's help. It should be the time to get the government review its relationship with us. If at all we got one. It'd be a chance to let the government know that we're more than just a National-Art-Gallery-Rhetoric Industry. A chance to plead our case on why Art Education is as important as medicine. As good as engineering, secretarial studies or information technology. Better than political science.

With all the (wo)manpower and intellect at our disposal, we should at least be able to publish a chronology of our practice then slowly add 'flesh' to it. We must acknowledge those who were there then and have influenced where we are now. Create a reference for the kids joining this industry in the new year. It is the one chance we have to tell other Kenyans what we do, why we do it and probably why we think they should give a damn!

I believe a candid and objective look/conversation on Contemporary Kenya at Fifty will start important discourse on what's working & what's not. What requires amendment. Or what's broken and needs fixing. Am a firm believer that it'd be the best time to not only start objectively re-writing the Kenyan Art History but to also reevaluate and address issues like institutional censorship (the what can't show where, why?) and confront the ghost no one wants to deal with. That one of revising the Art Curriculum in our tertiary institutions.

It's a shame for all of us that we still have no information about us on any platform - including Wikipedia yet we're pros consulted to help other countries in the region manage their affairs. Some old general once said that every battle had a turning point. Our small battle with educating our peers, documenting our history and giving ourselves a pat on the back for our past triumphs while strategizing for the future should use Kenya@50 as our turning point, methinks.

I sincerely hope am wrong and that there's a suprise awaiting me. That there's a well researched book on the Kenyan Art History that has been published. One that mentions the great men & women before us. One that talks about spaces and institutions that shaped them while not forgetting the events that were inportant to them. That there shall be a grand exhibition to accompany the launch of the book. That we shall have a good bash. Not one judged by the amount of bubbly and caviar consumed but by the clarity of purpose. That'd be the bash with the sweetest hangover! Smiling your sore head away the next morning browsing through the pages of accurate Kenyan Art History... But then again, maybe am just high from secondary inhalation!

So the party's on. I got no invite and don't do shisha but will definitely crash the after-after party most prolly in one of the many Gentleman's Clubs in Nairobi. Or Mombasa. Maybe Kisumu. Here, I shall raise my glass and toast to those who left before us - Joseph Opiyo, Emmanuel Ondiff, Samuel Wanjau, Kefa Nyayiera, John Njenga, Peter 'Ma-Clay', John Mainga, Abel Keragori, Frank Odoi... and party with some of the true stars of Kenya's Golden Jubilee.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Kenyans Don't Appreciate Art!

I recently came across a statement I consider prejudiced towards Kenyans. And it makes me angry. Very angry.

Kenyans Don't Appreciate Art!

What nonsense?! What makes it even sadder is that nine in ten times, this allegation is made by indigenous Kenyans. Native Kenyans who earn their keep in the arts. Those whose responsibility it is to make other Kenyans appreciate art! It takes alot of balls (Oops! Sorry) ... Or naivety. Maybe both, to speak with authority, making such an ignorant statement.

Every other day, you hear art practitioners say that their biggest challenge/impediment is the lack of art appreciation by indigenous Kenyans. Bullshit! You see, on one side, we want to make art elite. Just for the rich. A cool commodity targeting the middle-class. We get them to our gigs expecting them to spend. What we forget is that the typical Kenyan middle class fella probably has a car loan & mortgage to service, a superficial lifestyle to maintain and an almost non-existent art awareness. Add to this the probability of a clande(stine lover) to maintian (pun intended). All over the world, art has never been a middle-class affair. At the end of the day, you're left with people more concerned about the car they're diving, the designer they're wearing or the drink they're sipping as opposed to the artist they're viewing. Then we put all Kenyans in this category. A society that doesn't comprehend anything artsy!

Had somebody taken time, they'd have realized that the immediate consumers of art is the artists' family - the parents, spouses, offspring, nannies, neighbors... This is because they're constantly exposed to it. As raw material from the shop/street/trash, the process, the narrative, the product... Putting up with the cliche anti-social artist behaviour and habits. But they're not cool. They most often don't have impressive titles before/after their names so they're most often never wanted in exclusive and cool spaces... These are the persons who can recite the artists statement in their sleep. Their life is one continuous art piece. Constantly interacting with other artists and artworks. Their triumphs and frustrations. Understanding the good days from the bad. When no sale translates to too broke to afford bread and a good one equals caviar & Moet at the dinner table. They can chronologically piece together the artist's timeline. They understand the value of the art, but they are not specialists.  If this is not appreciation (whether voluntary or forced is irrelevant), what is it?

These are the people we should trust with the mandate to spread the gospel. They understand it. They've experienced it. They believe in it. They can convert the non-believers. It's okay to chase the money but it's also very easy to miss it. And with it miss a whole lot of people who truly believe in the art. Those who see beyond the monetary value. The aesthetic, if at all anything like that exists!

Most Kenyan people who dabble in the arts, have this common perception than appreciation equates to direct buying. Which translates to affordability. I think all Kenyans would agree that Mercedes Benz is a great automobile yet less than 10% own one... Appreciation? I would think so.

I strongly believe Kenyans truly love art. We just lock them out when it matters then we blame them when we need artistically emotional support; Like when some middle class technocrat advise the government to kick art education out of the school curriculum. We take serious art to posh/cool places but what do we take to kawaida mtaa? Social work, incoherent murals and ridiculous art projects.

The lack of a free-entry public art spaces doesn't help much either. Most major cities - Paris (The Louvre), London (Tate), Windhoek, Lagos & Bulawayo (National Art Galleries) have public galleries/museums with sectional free entry that allow it's residents free consumption of art. For instance, anyone can walk into the great art cathedral, TATE Modern free of charge to enjoy what's on offer. It's a shame that the government owned spaces such as the Nairobi Museum or The Nairobi Gallery have no such arrangements. Imagine how many Kenyans would prefer looking at the Museum's permanent Art collection instead of sitting in the scorching Nairobi sun at Uhuru Park during the next public holiday - without the pressures of feeling that they are required to buy! Maybe during this years Kenyatta day, admission to Nyayo Stadium should be charged and entry to the Museum scrapped! Ama?

As Kenyan art practitioners, we should understand and sympathize with the Kenyan populace. Lack of (basic) art education coupled with an almost non existent physical infrastructure and energies geared towards an expatriate audience is not helping the cause.

Word has it that RaMOMA is re-opening in downtown Nairobi targeting a local audience. I wish them luck and hope that this starts the process of more Kenyans patronizing art spaces. But they need more than just luck. They need a machinery akin to political party propaganda. First to attract the Kenyan. Then to equip him/her with infomation that will gradually educate him/her that Art is more than a portrait or a beautiful landscape with the African sunset. Because, besides accessing Art, ordinary Kenyans have to understand it too. Tough but achievable.

An artist friend once quipped, "Waafrika huleta tu giza kwa exhibition/studio."  How low can prejudice and self hate get? I don't know about you but for anyone ready to open their mouth to blabber that "Kenyans don't Appreciate Art s**t", shut up, style up and take one Kenyan to an artist studio/gallery/exhibition and start them on the not-so-long journey that is art appreciation.

After all, #WeAre(SupposedToBe)One.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Peculiar Kenyan Photographer

My first experiences with cameras was... Special! So special.

I can still hear the bicycle bell ring from half a mile. Then the visual of Dominic on his pimped Black Mamba bike with his camera hanging around his neck. Dominic was probably the most powerful fella in my hood in the eighties. While our parents needed blackmail and spanking for us to sit down at the homework table, and the house help (auntie) cajoled and pleaded with us to ditch playing for lunch, Dominic would get it done in record time. It took 10 minutes to switch from dusty-football-playing brats to smiling well fed, showered and glossy from Vaseline petroleum jelly ready-for-the-shoot boys. No birthday or Christmas party was complete without Dominic. He was the only person who would make fighting brothers/friends embrace and smile as they posed for a photo. He was Superman!

That is how I grew up respecting the power of that black box with the name Yashica on it. Cameras were rare on my side of town and adolescence and peer pressure took my mind off photography till I met one Ashikoye Okoko in my professional life. This was before the digital photography era. The darkroom experience and the pretty young intern rekindled my interest in photography... long story!

Fast forward 15ish years later and digital photography has taken over. Everyone has a camera! The average urban Kenyan youth has three, maybe four cameras (or hand held devices with cameras). Add to this the fact that new technology has recently been embraced into the mainstream contemporary art practice and you get a whole movement of young gunz with titles like media/digital artist, photographer, blogger (a term I consider derogatory) etc. This is nice. Not good. Nice, because you have young idle Kenyans roving all over the place with high end Nikon & Canon DSLRs they know not how to use and when they do, is to take photos of disasters for social media... and recently getting naïve damsels to pose naked for all and sundry to access on similar platforms.
The problem is, my photographer's bar is pegged very high. Thanks to Dominic. And recently, interacting with young African photographers who are using photography to tell their stories and change/positively influence their societies. 

In Nigeria for instance, Depth of Field and Black Box collectives have churned out some of Africa's most prolific photographers. It's difficult to talk about Contemporary African photography without mentioning Emeka Okereke, Uche Okpa-Iroha, George Osodi, Uche James-Iroha & Andrew Esiebo. Others like Sabelo Mlangeni (South Africa) and  Baudouin Mouanda (Congo) are young artists who against the odds have taken photography to new levels with mundane stories. A handful of award winning African photographers have visited Nairobi through CCAEA's Amnesia Platform; Ananias Leki Dago, Aida Muluneh, Andrew Tshabangu and Billy Bidjocka went on to host very insightful conversations on their technical approach to photography with emphasis on their artist statements. This has been in the hope that the whole peer to peer sharing would benefit Kenyan photographers by exposing them to possibilities that exist for them as camera handlers while helping them develop their narrative.
Irony is, it's always the (same) small group of artists who make the audience. The new breed of Kenyan photographer seems content with attending social events where their discourse revolves around their toys - make, model, capabilities & cost. Not what they actually do with their gadgets!

I had given up all hope until a couple of weeks ago! James Mweu (aka Sir James) put up a photography exhibition at the One-Off Contemporary Art Gallery in Nairobi. It was a good show. It was simple. Not in technical ability or content, but subject. His artist statement resonated with the work and everyone who attended the show had that flashback moment and just smiled. Everyone had a favorite piece. Except me. The whole show was my favorite work. It reminded me of Dominic. Of how the living room would be laid out to look good in the photos. Of how it was a living room during the day, and a sleeping room at night. A genuine story. Unlike the peculiar Kenyan photographer, Sir James neither mentioned the make/model of his camera nor the editing suite he used. His photographs were genuine and had no absurd rhetoric to support them. They were photographs I can see again. And again.

When I got home and settled for the football match on TV, I remembered, Sir James was a contemporary dancer! How does a dancer (temporarily) trade the dance studio to create such a coherent body of work? Then I recalled. Interest. When Tshabangu, Ananias and any photographers with something to offer are in town, one of the permanent faces in the talks/presentations is Jamo. The informal whiskey sessions are also not complete without Jamo. It may just be the typical case of going to (an informal) school and putting to practice what you got from it. I hoped other photographers would go see his exhibition, and even tried to circulate the info to anyone I thought would have benefitted from seeing it. Or meeting him in the hope this would spur them to follow suit.

I know it's an individual choice on what pictures to take and what to do with them but some of the guys with cameras don't know where to start. Their reference may be wedding or celebrity photography. Blankets & Wine or the occasional sevens rugby. And the debauchery that accompanies these cool events.  If only they came to the table and shared, they'd be shocked by how easy it is! Photo blogs are okay but it's not the same as a well exhibited photo in a good space. Maybe it's time Kenyan photographers changed their narratives. Temporarily forget the digits embedded/embossed on your camera and just take photos. Some of the photographers I really admire; those whose photographs raise the hairs behind your neck - Rosangella Renno, Ananias, Akinbode Akinbiyi, Jide Adeniyi-Jones use cameras you'd consider are from the Flintstones' era.

My love for photographs continued long after my crush for the intern's faded and...

Every once in a while, I meet friends with cameras and talk photography. Go through the motions but deep down I wish their photos made sense (to me). That they'd accept adjectives other than amazing to describe their work. That they'd occasionally move their works from blogs to art spaces.

The last photo exhibition I mentioned was Kenya Burning (which ironically showed for 5 years) and am glad it's no longer burning and I hope it stays that way! What happened to simple stories about our spaces. Our culture. Our architecture. Our transport. Our food. Our lifestyles.

As I type away, a collective of (not so) young Kenyan photographers, One Touch, are on a road trip around Africa on a mission that has parallels to Invisible Borders. Through the internet, I may know what they are up to because I make it my business to. It’s a step in the right direction methinks. And I hope that upon their return, they shall offer us something to see. Enjoy. Consume. Talk about.

I also hope… (am not gonna use the word “hope” again) alongside them and folks like Joe Lukhovi, Sir James and a few young photographers (I think may be promising with some direction) we may be able to raise the profile of Kenyan photography from generic, cool & elite to serious, able to stand alongside serious contemporary African photography. Otherwise, our memories of influential Kenyan photographers will remain Dominic. And Karis.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

South Africa has Gerard Sekoto, Zimbabwe has Thomas Mukarogbwa, Namibia has John Muafangejo… Kenya has Ancent Soi!

A man I consider quite wise once suggested that the key to one’s future was knowledge of their past. My interpretation of this was that history is very important. I guess that’s where my fascination with history started.

History and Kenyan art/artists are strange bed fellows!

Three Sundays ago, we had an exhibition opening at One-Off Gallery with Ehoodi Kichapi, Harrison Mburu and Michael Soi. On the same day, the elder Soi, Michael’s father - Ancent Soi was having an opening at the Nairobi Gallery in downtown Nairobi. That was a great coincidence. I have always tried to get the son show with the father in the same space alongside other father-son possibilities like John Kamicha-Zacharia Mbutha, Anthony/Jackson Wanjau-Samuel Wanjau, Lucas Sande-Jak Katarikawe… This would not only be sentimental but would also raise the magic question. When did this whole Kenyan Art thing start? Who were the pioneers? What did they do? How does this affect the present scenario?

While helping with a text that was to trace the origins of Contemporary Art in Kenya, I realized that lack of documentary evidence and the will to do a comprehensive research had led to serious distortions of what is supposed to be history of Kenyan art. Most Kenyan art connoisseurs have an art history knowledge that selectively goes up to the birth of Kuona Trust in 1995. Strangely, they were all involved in the conceptualization and set up then they let other people manage it! Some can vaguely reference the seventies when Gallery Watatu was started but can only recall the last ten years of its peak (1985-1996 under Ruth Schaffner).

The arts scene pre-Watatu is the vaguest! Most of what is loosely referred to as the ‘1st Generation Kenyan Art’ actually attest to launching their careers at Watatu. So what was happening before Jony, David & Hart started it?

Quite a number of elderly creatives have stories about creating art pre-independence. It comes in different versions as it gets distorted every time it’s shared verbally. Some seem real. Some fictional. Evidence has been traced in some. While some have turned out to be myths - to make the story more juicy so as to satisfy the hunger created by demand of naïve African art in western museums.
However, a handful are quite coherent and have remained cast in stone for over fifty, maybe sixty years. The story of collagist Rosemary Karuga; born in Meru 1928 and graduated from Makerere (around) 1952 then went on to a long teaching career. Of Elimo & Philda Njau (of the Chemi Chemi Creative Arts & Paa Ya Paa in 1965 to date), Jak Katarikawe, Francis Nnagenda, Samuel Wanjau, Gregory Maloba (who started the Kenyatta University Art Department in 1965) and the extraordinary and ever consistent Ancent Soi – he of the Munich Olympics Poster of 1972.

Soi (the elder) is the typical self taught and resilient pre-independence artist who remained relevant post-independence and is still showing into the (not so) new millenium. Young lazy artists should learn from him!

Born in 1937, he started selling woodcarvings and paintings by mostly Tanzanian and Congolese artists for a politician friend in early sixties before venturing into art himself through tutelage of Congolese Banto, who he says was the best artist in Kenya then (sic).

Previous interviews suggest that the city market and the University of Nairobi were probably the only places practicing artists would show their work then. It was around this time that he entered a painting in the ESSO Calender completion judged by Joseph Murumbi and he won the first prize. His work was also included in the calendar. That is what marked the beginning of his long partnership with the African Heritage. (Source – African Heritage)

Soi’s career continued to flourish at the time when most African countries were getting independence and with the Munich Olympics (1972) approaching, Africans were allowed to participate in a competition to make the event’s poster. As fate would have it, Soi won the first prize (1971)! This got him worldwide acclaim as Kenya’s (and probably one of Africa’s) most talented artist.
Rumour has it that he was offered a lucrative residency in Munich in 1972 but cut it short to come back home for the birth of his first son towards the end of the year. That son is artist Michael Soi.

Through the seventies to the nineties, there was an influx of spaces showing and selling art – Paa Ya Paa, Gallery Watatu, African Heritage, French Cultural Centre, Goethe Intitute…
This came with a lot of global attention for art perceived as Kenyan and with it came a new generartion of post independent Kenyan artists. With the new demands, most old boys of Kenyan art slowed down with age. But not Ancent. 
While artists like Joel Oswaggo, Dianga, Samuel Wanjau, Francis Kahuri, Elimo Njau, Rosemary Karuga, Jak Katarikawe, Morris Foit (and some not mentioned) are vanguards, we must salute the Godfather of Kenyan Art. He was never a celebrity. He was never cool. But after all is said and done, he  was there when it all started and is still doing it – almost sixty years on!

His long career has made him probably Kenya’s most important artist

The show at the Nairobi Gallery is good but I wish (me and wishes!) we could honour Ancent Soi with a good well curated retrospective without all other artefacts. Just his work. His story. And the respect he deserves. So that we can all listen to hisStory. To help us know where we came from as that may give us a clue to where we’re going. While giving us a chance to write/edit our history.

In other places, they treasure their own. And they remind everyone that seems to forget how important they are. South Africa has Gerard Sekoto, Zimbabwe has Thomas Mukarogbwa, Spain has Valesquez/Picasso, Italy has Michelangelo, Namibia has John Muafangejo… Kenya has Ancent Soi!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Kenyans Own the Titles, Foreigners do the Work!

(This text is neither intended to be racist nor show prejudice to anyone in any way. it is the writer's observation of the sometimes painful happenings of the Nairobi contemporary scene)

It's difficult to tell how many artists live and work in Nairobi. Some will say five hundred. Others two, but my census (according to my phonebook) puts it somewhere below a hundred. It's a big...ish industry me thinks. Which calls for a good supporting cast. This support system is made up of those that take over outside the artist's studio - the dealers, critics, writers... In Kenya, anyone involved in any aspect of the arts that's not production is loosely referred to as a stakeholder (twisted to sound politically correct). These are those that head all ‘important' (government & not for profit) art institutions. Talk about government portfolios, art schools, spaces, cultural institutions and the top job comes with cliché titles like “the director,” “the founder,” “the curator”, "trustee", "patron"… A common thread among these stakeholders is that they are (mostly young) Kenyans. This should be a good thing. It is. No?

However, there has been an interesting trend over the last couple of calendars. There is a new breed of players (for lack of a better word). I like referring to them as the New Sheriffs in Town. Common thread - they are all foreigners. And mainly women (with the exception of three, maybe four). They may not have the government's ear but they make up for that by having artists' goodwill. A look at the last ten major...ish art events suggests majority were either organized or hosted by expats. Most do a commendable job and their interaction with artists ends with a firm happy handshake... long story for separate text... but one with a dodgy history in Kenya pulled a fast one far away in Italy while we all... including the stakeholders slept!

The recent going ons on the international art world has not only left kenyans wiping sludge off their faces but has also reminded us of the harsh reality that is the creative industry in Kenya. The whole debate of who owns the title versus who does the work once again rared its ugly head. For those uninformed, The Venice Biennale (Biennale di Venezia in Italian) is a major contemporary art exhibition that takes place once every two years (in odd years) in Venice, Italy. It was founded in 1895 with the main goal of establishing a new market for contemporary art. For its history and grand scale, it is referred to as The Art Olympics.

This year’s edition (with artistic collaboration across borders and disciplines as a sub theme) was labeled as important for Africa. Angola won the Golden Lion Award for the best national participation. Nice.

For the first time, there is a 'Kenyan' Pavilion!

Sounds like good news, no? The Italian-curated show displays the works of eight Chinese artists. Yes, Chinese. One Italian, one Italo-Brazilian and only two Kenyans - Kivuthi Mbuno and Chrispus Wang'ombe Wachira.

This got African art practitioners (and non Africans genuinely interested in Art… whatever that means) in endless debates online about the authenticity of the Kenyan Pavilion. The irony of these debates is that we have cultural practitioners from across the globe giving their two cents contribution but I hear no Kenyans! Except practicing artists! I expected these Kenyans with authority to step up! I would have expected to hear the 'stakeholders' show concern! I am still expecting them. No. I am waiting for them to respond!

Rather than get angry and like every Kenyan, shout telling everyone else that the Kenyan pavillion was not Kenyan, I tried to keep calm and ask myself why someone would use our name and ‘his folks’ to gain entry into the art Olympics while flying the Kenyan flag. Did he know we'd not give a damn? Are we too busy to do it ourselves? Don't we have money to pay for a pavillion? Is it that we are just lazy? Maybe we lack information and the required skill! Or confidence? Are we just used to swimming in the baby pool? Or maybe we're okay with it?

Yes, it has happened. What are we going to do about it? Is anyone in authority going to confront Paolo Popini and Armando Tanzini? Are we going to get our 'genuine' pavillion in 2015? One with Soi, and Beatrice, and Kyalo, and Emily, and Kimathi, and Kamwathi, and Ogonga... Do we want answers to these questions? And can we handle the truth? It is easy to blame the Italians and accuse the Chinese. It's okay to drop words like neocolonialism & multiculturalism while ignoring the elephant in the room but... the main questions should be – Why/How did it happen during our watch? And, what are we gonna do about it?
Good news is that there is a scheduled forum to try interrogating this debacle. Irony is, it is not Kenyan led! It comes from the new sheriffs in town. They seem to comprehend what's at stake, more than the 'Kenyan' stakeholders. I really would like to go, listen, participate and give my two cents worth of opinion but it is a real shame that we're either not equipped intellectually or not confident enough to do it on our own. We are content with visiting Dak'Art, Venice, Frieze, and Jo’Burg Art Fair as tourists... but we're not confident enough to confront the logistics to ensure Kenya's participation there.

While we were busy doing... whatever, someone took our ‘name’ and 'identity' and ran away with it. How do we get it back? The sheriffs are trying to do it for us while we play 'wait & see'. I sincerely hope (even if a not-so-wise man said hope is for fools) that we can move from esoteric conversations & cultural sophistication on social media and use this as a wake up call to step up.

Yeah! 50 years of 'independence.' Walking with our heads held high because we have all the (cool) titles... but still foreigners do the work.