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.”

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Someone Please Bring Back the Arts in Schools

I had a very insightful conversation with a teacher during a recent private schools expo.

Part of it was on the government’s intention of launching a new curriculum for its 8-4-4 system. There have been endless debates on whether 8-4-4 should be discarded and replaced with something else with most Kenyans (I know) of the opinion that imports like IGCSE and GCE should be considered. I may not agree with them, but that doesn’t mean that I disagree with them either.

I am a product of 8-4-4 and a government school. Growing up, nine in ten of us went to schools within the neighborhoods we lived in and schools were indeed free. We were issued with free books, rulers and pencils all branded Kenya School Equipment Scheme. The icing on the cake was ‘free’ milk thanks to the benevolent (or so our young minds thought) Prezzo Moi. The schools that were not government, were religious-institution-based schools; most of which had the prefix ‘Saint’ or ‘Our Lady’ or community-sponsored schools – Arya Samaj, Agha Khan, Guru Nanak etc.  

The 8-4-4 was a good system methinks. Was. It has potential to be good again. We studied twelve subjects examined as seven test papers with a possible maximum of seven hundred. Half the subjects were the normal run of the mill – Math, English, Religious Studies, Geography, Science, Swahili etc - quite boring for an ordinary young mind but the practical subjects were fun – Agriculture, Home Science, Music, Art & Craft. By the time I completed my primary school I had ‘cultivated my plot’ and grown sukuma wiki, spinach and potatoes. And harvested. I had sewn a handkerchief, a table cloth, a pair of pajamas (though this remains my toughest task to date), could bake a cake, make a pretty decent beef stew & white rice thanks to Mrs. Mwangi’s Home Science class. I had painted, made a drum, a tin lamp, a book stand, a wandindi, a sisal mat. All these by the time I was thirteen! In high school it was pretty much the same – art & design, technical drawing and woodwork alongside the major subjects. Add some sport & theater/drama. Learning seemed more important than the final grade. And we turned out pretty decent young folk.

Then some government technocrats decided that the workload was too much and was a deterrent to making young minds score straight A’s in ‘core’ subjects and discarded all creative subjects.

Off went Art & Craft, Home Science and Music!

Someone saw these as a waste of time (and resources) and accorded Sciences more airtime. In an attempt to streamline 8-4-4, someone denied kids as young as six an opportunity to be kids and have fun while learning. They have since been indoctrinated to believe that life is all about Math and Science. To complicate matters, the Kibaki-Raila led NARC administration came into power in 2002 declaring free universal primary education for all kids in government schools. What was meant to be a good thing stretched the limited resources to a point where these schools almost stopped being centers for learning. Teachers were overwhelmed. Frustrated. Almost hang out to dry. It became commonplace for classrooms built to comfortably hold 30-40 pupils having close to a hundred kids with no increase in teaching staff and resources. With these came a new fixture – perennial teachers’ strikes! (Long Story for another day)

This got the kids (and their parents) caught between a rock and a bloody hard place. With the quality of government education highly compromised, some entrepreneurs saw the opportunity and there has been an influx of private schools all over the place. This means the competition for pupils is very high – and it’s not because anyone cares for our kids’ quality education but of the cumulative figures commanded as tuition fees. Schools have become obsessed with (science & math) inspired mean scores that they go to ridiculous lengths to attain the highest. It is no wonder that there are numerous documented cases of exam officials (and teachers) selling/leaking exams to pupils so that their institutions score highly and are perceived to be among the best. So as to attract more kids (read tuition).

The irony of this all is that like is typical around here, the curriculum developers and ministry officials who come up with these policies don’t have their kids in these government outfits. Their offspring attend proper (mainly international) private schools where learning is holistic and not just about mean grades. Sometimes I wonder. No, I wonder all the time, do these folk really believe they are doing the best they can for Kenyan kids?

Primary school education is supposed to be free yet am sitting here racking my brain trying to figure out if there’s any of my friends or family whose kids attend a free school. None. Yes! None. Why? Because we all know this education system is messed up big time! Twisted curriculum. Ill equipped institutions. Badly remunerated tutors. Pedestrian Instruction. And perennial teachers’ strikes/go slows. Who shall save us? Who shall save our kids who’re being referred to as the digital kids for all the wrong reasons? Teenagers who know how operate the latest gadget without reading manuals/instructions and to X-box online yet can’t sew a button onto their shirts/blouses. Those who think the internet is Facebook, Instagram and Facetime.

I am not a ‘specialist’ in matters education and curriculum development but I know when am being taken for a ride. I don’t know what the government has up its sleeve but it can start by bringing the mojo back to the system. I want my little people to continue being little ones. I want them to study Art. And Music - to be able to play a musical instrument. And sew their initials on their school jumper just like I used to. I want them to study Science too. And hopefully they enjoy it in school like they do enjoy Richard Hammond’sScience of Stupid” and Jason Silva’sBrain Games” on TV. I’d like their school principal to be less obsessed with this ‘Mean Score’ and let them learn without the pressure of being an Aeronautical Engineer or Actuarial Scientist (for the record, I have got nothing against these professions & I’d prolly be proud if one of my little one became either).

A lot of research have come up with findings that these creative subjects play an integral part in early childhood development - How art enhances creativity, imagination and self-esteem. How it encourages cognition and critical thinking. How reading and playing music ignites a child’s intellectual, emotional, motor and literacy development. How sport and outdoor activities impact on the physical and mental wellbeing and are the biggest deterrent to obesity.

Our current education system places too much emphasis on academic excellence while ignoring all these. It is ruthless in that thirteen year olds who do not attain a certain ‘pass mark’ are discarded from the system. Where do they go from here? There are so many grownups discussing kids’ affairs and they’re not getting it right. That’s probably why 8 in 10 news articles in Kenya pertaining to kids are not so nice – drugs, alcohol, sex, truancy. Because school is not fun anymore! Coincidentally, it’s mainly the government/free education/8-4-4 axis. We’re more obsessed with corporal punishment and holiday tuition that we forget why we send kids to school in the first place. Meanwhile, the biggest stakeholder in education – the parents, seem either clueless, too intimidated or too busy/detached to be seriously involved in making decisions regarding their offspring. Strangely, there’s a Kenya National Association of Parents whose only evidence of existence is their office location (somewhere in Gikomba Market ) online. No mission or vision. No membership. We’re treated to their shenanigans on TV every once in a while whenever teachers announce a strike. Most recently in regard to hiked school fees. Shame!

I don’t know whose door I have to knock on but if anyone is listening, “Please bring back Art to schools. Not as a club after lessons, but as a lesson itself.” Otherwise, we shall all continue struggling to put our kids in high cost private institutions we can barely afford yet in the eyes of our government, education is indeed free!