Tuesday, September 29, 2015

What Are We Afraid Of?

Been working from a communal art space the last couple of months after a long spell on my own in dusty Kabete. It’s okay…ish so far. The waking up to ‘go to work’ is annoying. Am also yet to get used to unannounced guests coming in to steal into precious work time. On the flipside, I can work uninterrupted without having to play about with the princess or being forced into endless duels on X Box by the brother when school’s off. Badala ya kazi.

This posse-style studios have re-introduced me to hitherto temporarily forgotten art space shenanigans – where your studio practice is somewhat intertwined with the space calendar/time table. Most of these are daily-run-of-the-mill which is easy to pass. Some however, I find quite vital to an artist’s development – both technical and intellectual. The Artist talks.

Artist Andrew Mwini talking about his "Visceral" Exhibition in Kuona Trust
These come in different formats but the common thread is usually contextualizing an artist’s practice. Some are attached to specific projects – like exhibition post mortems/discussions while some are just talks – artist presentations mainly by visiting artists and guest curators.

These platforms are quite important I think as they are the ice breakers and introduce art practitioners to each other not just on a personal level but also on a professional platform that opens up the doors for possible collaborations while understanding each other’s philosophy behind practice, technical aspect of production and even challenges encountered and possible platforms of showing the process/final work. In our principally non-formal schooled art space, it turns out to be a school away from school half the time.

I have sat in some great and some not-so-inspiring presentations recently. I have listened to artists I have known for a while but never listened to seriously - and left quite inspired as I (thought I) understood them more, and looked at their work with a more informed opinion. In my other life, I need to know as much as I can about other artists and I find presentations/talks as a short cut to it. This has made me look forward to every discussion I can sit in or even participate. However, not all artists feel the same.

I recently sat in one where we were just about ten folk in an art space with a daily turnout of about forty. And I was disappointed. Not by the content, but by lack of interest among ‘us’. The presentation was very good. The presenting artists  talked passionately about what they do. Deeply conceptual guys. Artists using modern technology to make their art. Artists willing to collaborate and share their skills and knowledge with their peers in Nairobi. But I could see the disappointed in their faces as they kept asking, “Are more people coming?” It’s not the first time that it has happened so I wonder – why aren’t we curious? Why are we so lethargic in our quest to find knowledge from anyone willing to share theirs with us?

I recall the first time Simon Njami jetted into Nairobi and we all thought the only conversation we could have with a curator was to show him our works so that he’d take it to all art fairs and biennales. The disappointment! When Bisi Silva had a free hour for us but we’d rather sit in our studio waiting for that elusive buyer/client. When N’Gone Fall came knocking and we in our minds believed she came to see the clever artists. Not us the less clever – the unclever! What are we afraid of? It is understandable if someone has a previously confirmed (important) engagement or when an emergency calls but how the hell do you sit out of another creative practitioner’s free knowledge sharing experience just to bask in the sun or have your siesta because you’re bored. If artists can’t engage professionals having talks in their spaces, who should? Doctors? Matatu drivers? Policemen? Others?

Ethiopian curator Mifta Zekele discusses the Ethiopian art scene during "Addis Contemporary" at the Circle Art Gallery
I have heard a lot of lame excuses. How it’s “not important”. How “I have gotten to where I am without listening and travelling”. How it’s all rhetoric. A lot of very lame excuses that just confirm why we are all big fish in small pond. Whales in swimming pools. We’ve done it for so long that we actually believe ourselves. So long that we don't realize we lack understanding of a certain (necessary) vocabulary yet, we pretend we don’t care. It’s an attitude thing. Most of us know how to make very coherent art and how to talk to the person buying it but are not equipped to build a comprehensive and professional portfolio explaining our practice to present to a curator or gallerist. Or even to make an application for a residency. Kuona trust has a budget for small conceptual projects and it’s quite a shame very few people apply for it. Most will cite very little money but what happened to “the coat and the size” saying?

It’s not just an artists’ thing as the cultural managers/directors don’t fare so well either. It good that they facilitate travel & stay and work behind the scenes but don’t you want to know if the person you brought in is a fraud? An imposter. Don’t you have anything to learn from these people? Don’t you want to understand what my practice is? Don’t you want to know my expectations and frustrations as an artist working within your jurisdiction? This I think is a big contributor to the disconnect that currently exists in the Kenyan scene.  A practice that is not adequately informed or equipped to participate in any meaningful engagements to the extent that we can’t even define our own relationships. Where artists seem unsure of their expectations from spaces and vice versa. Where those in charge of the industry are not equipped enough to take a seat in (relevant) regional podiums. The fairs. The Biennales. I shall conveniently not talk about Venice coz as the rest of the world is making applications for 2017, we’ve got our heads buried in the sand waiting for someone to blame.

Arists engage Jide Adeniyi-Jones during Kuona Trust Wasanii International Workshop in Naivasha (2011)
It’s funny how much engagements that start small and appear trivial can achieve. But unless you know the value, they remain just that. Engagements. Communal spaces are supposed to be the ultimate for supporting this peer to peer support and collaborations but their Achilles heel is that there is high risk of taking each other for granted because you see each other daily. This may be as a result of getting caught up in individual practice or just natural competition among peers. Of course everyone aspires to be the king of the hill.

The spaces have to continue supporting these discourses but artists have to be on the forefront. To stop allowing institutions to treat us like babies. Case study - I get an email on Monday. Then a text on Tuesday. Then someone has to literally pull me from my studio at 20 past two on Wednesday for an engagement that was supposed to start at two pm Wednesday. Someone has to force me participate. For my benefit. But if alcohol and nyama choma is involved, I set a reminder on every blank space I got. No comment!

Those activities called artist mentorships ought to be made compulsory - by someone who’s not me -and should probably include more diverse aspects. Not just art theories and philosophies, but maybe health. Finance. Psychology. Honestly, folks need help. And it’s not in subsidized studios or shuttles to events five minutes away. Or artworks being exhibited in shopping mall atriums. Serious help to change attitudes. And lifestyles… long story for another day!

Artists should ditch this ‘self taught’ tag and claim their stake at the table to engage their peers. It’s only then that we shall boost our knowledge and confidence. There is no harm in acknowledging that you don’t know. That you don’t understand. That’s the beginning of the long journey called learning… after all, I don’t even know what am writing about. And I’m not ashamed of saying it. Tukuwe Serious.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Omosh Kindeh - This Man I Know Him So Long…

Growing up in the nineties, there was a program on the government owned KBC radio titled Reggae Time. One of the signature tracks and probably the biggest hit back then was Winston Rodney’sThis Man.’ It is probably what endeared most of us to that kind of music. No big deal. Probably just peer pressure!

Fast forward ten…ish years later and slowly trying to establish myself as an artist at the then Museum Art Studio, another young lad came through the doors.

Straight out of high school, Evans Omondi joined the chaos that was the barely-outta-teenage posse. We all had different back stories but the common denominator was we were all young, skinny and broke. Everyone of us eventually had a nickname dictated by (the then) current circumstances. There was Red Wine – as a result of confidently ordering a presumably free glass of dry red during an exhibition opening that turned out to be for sale yet he couldn’t afford it! Then there was MaWeather – the artist who had not mastered his materials and blamed the weather for all his casting misfortunes. Shaka Zulu. Ma-Clay. We all had them and sooner rather than later, Evans had one too. Raised in the military barracks, he’d catch one of the numerous trucks to and from Kahawa. He was a lucky guy as he never lacked bus fare. However like most of us, there was still the issue of lunch and cigarettes to deal with. Kuona Trust provided (free) mid morning tea that someone intelligent suggested should be served at one o’clock to cater for the elusive lunch. Quite genius. Now the only handicap was the daily ciggy. One would be shared on a puff-puff-pass routine at designated times. Evans would come in late since the military truck would have a scheduled time table and as a result, he had to solicit for cigarettes. He playfully became known as the guy who often asked for a ten shilling coin – then known as a kinde, to sort out his own supply. Am not sure when it happened but by the time Kuona had to leave the Museum space for the Godown Art Center circa 2003, the name Evans had become just a government issue as the young guy from the barracks was in the art circles now referred to as Omosh Kindeh.

Our relationships post the Museum Art Studios took different paths. Some moved to the Mamba Village studios, others the Godown while those confident enough established their own private studios. When Kuona got its own space in 2008, there was a reunion of sorts. Some of us had had a turbulent three/four years as a result of a somewhat lack of solid institutional support. Kuona had previously spoiled us – free studio space, free regular exhibitions, periodical (well paying) outreach projects to cater for our emerging financial responsibilities etc.  Leaving the nest had been tough, but most of us held on. Kindeh even attempted to join the military but he was meant to be in the arts.
The new Kuona brought back guys more mature and slightly more resilient. By this time most of us were in too deep in the arts. The Nairobi Contemporary space was opening up more. There were more opportunities. Government agencies, private art spaces and cultural institutions were setting up competitions and awards and Kindeh emerged the overall winner in Manjano – Nairobi Visual Arts Competition 2013 for his signature city scape paintings. This earned him another name – city/urban planner.

Omosh Kindeh at his studio (September 2014)
Away from his work, I was his second opinion on gadgets - His consultant before buying cheap consumer electronics - especially  iPods. I must have helped him acquire at least four or five used iPods and his first point and shoot digital cameras from a quiet guy in downtown Nairobi whose name til now we only know as gadget boy. With every new iPod, we’d go through music and he’d select the same. Roots reggae – Bob Marley, Culture, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Gladiators, Steel Pulse, Burning Spear, Wailing Souls, Eric Donaldson, Israel Vibration, John Holt, I Jahman Levi, Don Carlos, Black Uhuru... And for this, his outdoor studio at Kuona knew no other music. Many a times we mocked him to play any other genre of music and his response would be “Kesho” – tomorrow. I never liked what was probably one of his favourite tracks – “Social Living” by Burning Spear. We disagreed on many other things too but…

When news got to us that he was unwell, I personally thought it was just one of those where he’d be in hospital for a day or two then get back to the reggae-playing love shack. But fate had other plans. It difficult to put in words how I feel. I don’t know how I feel. It easy to say how good someone was after their demise, but I won’t. People die every day but we’re very detached when it’s someone we barely knew or had no relationship with. But here goes a friend, a colleague, a beer buddy, a comrade. I think about the last conversation we had. The most recent moments shared. About the “Winter Warmer Exhibition” when I was boss and he was reporting to me. About the dark lanky dude who loved reggae music. And his smoke. Fifteen years! A lot of good times. A few bad. A handful outright embarrassing. But fifteen solid years!

Photo copyright Kuona Trust/Anthony Wachira
They say there is life after death (whatever that means). I hope you’re in a better place. Where there is reggae, art and the simple things you believed in – social living. I look t the last texts you wrote in your studio and one stands out, “The gods hide the beauty of death so that we can endure life.” One day maybe you shall tell us what you really meant. In the meantime, we shall celebrate your life. Enjoy your legacy. And tell your story. Many before us departed and we seemed to move on pretty fast that we let the world forget the mark they left on earth. Not you my friend! Not in our lifetime.
For now all we can do, is say goodbye with a heavy heart Evans. Fare thee well Omosh Kindeh. Omondi Peninah. City Planner.

See you at the cross roads. Mourn you til we join you OP.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Artist in Residence (AIR) Programs; To Have or Not To Have?

I have recently participated in numerous conversations in regards to artist residencies and from artists’ opinion of the same; I never really know how to feel about artist perception of them.

Artist residencies are programs created to avail opportunities and support structures for an artist to stay and work away from their regular studio. They have been going on ‘forever’ and sometimes are very institutionally structured or can take an organic and very personal form. The common misconception locally is that artist residencies must involve international travel.

Historically, artist-in-residence programs trace their roots in Europe with earlier documented ones in Germany and France.
(Circa 1860s) Edouard Manet and Claude Monet after rejection from the Academie des Beaux-Arts that held its annual exhibition at the Paris Salon started the Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters Sculptors and Engravers to exhibit their works independently. They at some point worked from Manet’s studio with his upper class status guaranteeing financial stability and access to a guaranteed space as Paris was being renovated by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussman. It became a regular occurrence in early 20th century with European artists travelling to America to imbibe culture and vice versa. Others travelled to gain specific skills and follow art movements while others just did pilgrimages.

Such informal and organic movements of visiting people/institutions and working together set the stage for the more structured residencies we know today. Most programs share the same ideals but none in same to the other. Most encourage artists to develop their creative skills – while some emphasize on skill development, others facilitate the exchange of ideas, knowledge and skills. As an artist, taking time out from your studio enables you to stand back and look at your work objectively. It also allows you to get away from your everyday hustle and work from an environment totally detached from your daily practice. This may be a time to study, look at other peoples work, develop an idea, explore a concept or just contextualize your practice. Residencies can also be flexible peer to peer arrangements. I recall John Kamicha and myself taking over Peter Klashorst’s house in Nairobi a couple of years back and am yet to take up an offer of a print hangout with a friend at his garage.

Getting in to residencies varies. While some are basic invitation only, some require a detailed application process with work samples, artist statements and a detailed statement of intent. Before the turn of the millennium, this was complicated as an application had to be a hard copy involving numerous slides and handwritten applications and the post office/courier services but this has changed as most programs take electronic applications. This process can be quite intimidating depending on your personality and could be the reason most local practitioners give residencies a wide berth.

With most Kenyan artists’ background of being ‘self taught’ or from art schools mainly teaching traditional art making techniques, there are a lot of practicing professional artists who are unable to articulate themselves. Most can’t navigate from a curriculum vitae/resume to an artist statement to a bio or even a statement of intent. With these being mandatory documents for any application, most will give up instead of seeking help. Add to this the fact that these are artists whose practice is probably over a decade and are already making regular sales and you get stubborn individuals who won’t even try! In this part of the world, whoever makes more money is Emperor. And who are you to talk about their new clothes?!
It’s these elements that create such uncomfortable situations. Artists tend to feel that their practice is under unnecessary scrutiny, of which they are not equipped well to handle. It’s even worse when the person receiving/reviewing the documents is younger/newer in the arts.

There are numerous courses/workshops labeled mentoring and artists like Maggie Otieno, Gakunju Kaigwa and Peterson Kamwathi among others are on the forefront on this. It is good to see younger artists interested in gaining this knowledge and participating but it should be pushed more. Methinks this is a stepping stone to understanding your requirements as an all rounded artist willing to claim their stake on the global podium. An artist who understands the theory part of their practice. An artists confident enough to ask questions and have a conversation about their practice. An artist confident enough to build a portfolio and make an application – whether a workshop, residency or just an exhibition. An artist ready to write their narrative.

I think that the fact that someone sees the need to find and puts together some money for an artist’s professional development is reason enough to be interested in a residency program. Whether the objective, philosophy or fine print agrees with yours should be the point of contention. But it is unfortunate when we use our knowledge handicap or lack of confidence as our defense mechanism to pretend that we’re not at all interested!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

I am Having Flashbacks Of Something That Never Existed

Martin Luther King Jr’s speech ‘I Have A Dream’ prolly ranks among one of the most famous ever recorded speeches. It has been used/quoted by numerous souls over the years to prove that anything presumed impossible is actually attainable.

American president Barrack Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ pre-election slogan borrowed a lot from it. So do the shenanigans that were a prelude to the 2015 La Bienale di Venezia.  Alot has been said about the Kenyan pavilion so I won’t go there. Instead, I am more interested in the vim - the passion with which we ‘claimed our space’. The intelligence with which we articulated our cause. The shrewdness with which we took up posts. The efficiency with which we exposed double dealing of our government agents. And then?

As any other cultural operative in Nairobi, I attended the meetings when I could. There were many of us. Whether or not our intentions were the same is irrelevant but I recall everyone being quite emotional about everything. Everyone cared about the Kenyan arts. Everyone was committed to righting the perceived wrongs. Some people worked more than others to get to the root of it all. Somewhere along the way, we were played by our very own government functionaries. They made us believe they were on our side - only for a letter written and signed from the heart of the Ministry of Culture, Youth & Sports to surface. The letter was written by a fella who sat in the gathering and feigned no knowledge of biennales and their significance. He played dumb to the extent that he would have admitted to not knowing there was a country called Italy. And we’d probably have believed him. He sat there with his boss; in front of tens of us and numerous cameras rolling – and lied to us without batting an eyelid that they didn’t know how the Italians acquired the rights to the Kenyan Pavilion. Did his boss know about this? Was he part of the plot? Was he covering for him? Stuff of urban legend. Questions I’d like someone in authority to address.

They told (or rather lied to) us that they truly cared. And that they had this grand master plan for the visual arts. That things would be better in 2017. That they’d help us find a way of getting to Venezia - yet all along they knew how to get there. My anger was pacified in that instance. I thought – screw Venezia 2015! I believed and quickly fast forwarded to 2017 and imagined a proper Kenyan pavilion – commissioned by Kenya, curated by a Kenyan or a curator appointed by Kenyans. Complete with truly Kenyan art practitioners. For a moment I discarded my skepticism and actually believed them til I was rudely awoken from my deep slumber. The letter surfaced. Not sure what emotion I felt. Betrayed?  Played? Angry? Stupid? Ambivalent? Nonchalant? I waited for someone to just comment about the letter. I didn’t hear it. No one came back to explain the letter. To disown the letter. To offer an apology. They sat mum. Like they are still waiting for it to disappear.

A committee that was formed to represent me is also not telling me anything. In the movies, they’d call this an open-and-shut case as the evidence is there for all and sundry but here we are with evidence that implicates a whole government department for f*@#ing up our industry and we’re just sitting on it. Doing nothing with it while patiently waiting for Venezia 2017. Ain’t we special? Unless  Wenslas S.A Ong’ayo, MBS operates like Jack Bauer in that he answers all enquiries, types all letters and sends them himself, secretly; it’s quite difficult to believe that he was the ‘lone gunman’ in this. Word has it that he has been ‘suspended’  (cute politically correct word that in Kenya means take a paid leave while we await another scandal to replace this, then come back) on his role in this fiasco. Has anyone asked Mr. MBS for his side of the story? Does it matter? Not me to decide but how we are handling this here and now paints a very clear picture of how we deal with stuff! Almost blindly. Groping in the dark. Not intent of confronting the hard truths. The Kenyan political structure taught us Kenyans only one way of dealing with things – the “Accept And Move On” philosophy. And that’s exactly what we’re doing here.

Venice is on. Some of us have visited the biennale. Some more will go there. Good for them. Culture trip. But who shall answer the hard questions? Who shall be held responsible for giving out/selling our pavilion? How do we ensure it doesn’t happen again? Are we happy with how things turned out? Do we have a closure? Will we? Is this our launch pad for the next biennale? Have we learnt anything from this?

From all these, all I have are fantasies of what I (fore)saw in 2017. When Kenya had its first ‘authentic’ pavilion. I have been there. I was there. I almost believed I was there. I’m not sure anymore. Whether they were just projections. Or actuals. Or fantasies. Doesn’t seem to matter anymore. The only apparent thing is that most of us don’t (seem to) care. We seem to be riding in a bus without knowing the ultimate destination. We’re okay as long as it’s moving. We seem to have finished with Venice 2015 and are sitting, waiting for 2017 to start this all over again. Then probably get angry all over again. It seems to be all hype. All social media sophistication with very little actual tangibles on the ground.

The only thing that seems real is that I am having flashbacks of something that never (actually) existed.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Biennale di Venezia… And Then?

A lot has been said about this years’ Biennale di Venezia especially the pavilion that’s supposed to be Kenyan. Anger has been spewed. Blames shifted. Frustrations, mainly triggered by certain perceptions have led to accusations – of bribery and possible ‘sale’ of our identity to non-Kenyans. 
What started as a small, non-sophisticated yet objective confrontation finally made the Kenyan government stop, listen and try to address this predicament that we find ourselves in for the second successive biennale.

A lot of noise made on social media and numerous texts internationally coupled with a handful of angry art practitioners seeking audience with government reps, finally made us realize there was an elephant in the room that needed confronting. Jimmy Ogonga, Soi Michael, Justus Kyalo, Danda Jaroljmek, Binyavanga Wainaina, James Muriuki and Maggie Otieno through  Odero Aghan, the Kenya Cultural Centre director, sought audience with Dr. Hassan Wario Arero, the Culture, Arts & Sports Cabinet Secretary. 
After a couple of false starts, it eventually happened. 
The CS gave a statement on Kenya’s (op)position on the whole saga. The Kenyan Art Fraternity demanded that the axis of Tanzini-Orlandi-Poponi desist from using the Kenyan name and flying the ‘our’ flag. That’s good. Pretty good. Kenyan Art just won the battle. No, a prelude to the battle.

However, there is still the battle… then the war. And probably a retaliatory attack (whatever that means). The government promised to start the process of having a genuine Kenyan pavilion in Venezia 2017. That is attainable methinks. There is a select committee appointed/annointed to spearhead this process. Which is good. However am afraid. Not of the committee. But that we may forget all else and get transfixed on the next biennale.

During a meeting with the CS, Fred Obachi Machoka, a reputable media personality enquired about “existing legal safeguards” and possibility of “setting up protocols” to avoid a repeat of this type of embarrassment. This was probably what stood out (for me) during the meeting but it’s easy to get caught up in the Venezia euphoria that we forget life exists outside Venice. I interpreted that to mean a ‘comprehensive ministerial structure complete with support documents’. If that’s the case, I agree with him in totality.

I have always believed (and made known my opinion) that it’s time we formulated a proper Cultural Policy relevant to the Kenyan practice. The folk in charge of it always defend themselves saying they are ‘currently working’ on a draft. This so called ‘work in progress’ has been ongoing forever. This leaves us under the mercy of the existing 2009 document which is a copy-paste from the UNESCO prototype with cliché words like ‘support’ & ‘promote’ without even defining what we as Kenyans perceive as culture. It’s time the government got people genuinely interested and confident enough to be involved in this process. People who understand not only the artistic language, but also the practice. I heard that there is also an Arts and Culture Bill (also a work in progress) coming soon. I can’t say anything about it as I haven’t read it but the brief conversation we had about it was not a very enthusiastic one.

Also, ad hoc committees are always a knee-jerk reaction similar to government formed commissions of inquiries after someone slept on the job and I think while this conversation is still on, it’s time Kenyans had a serious thought on forming a comprehensive National Arts Council. You can never emphasize the importance of such a body but in every country with a functioning arts scene, it is the Government linked organization overseeing the promotion and appreciation of visual arts within its territory. Most arts councils are both government & privately funded and are the link between artists, government and private/corporate sector. In most cases, a country’s National Arts Council is the one that is mandated with operations of a National Art Gallery and also build the country’s National Art Collection. As it stands at the moment there’s no structure at all. The only ‘official’ portfolios in the whole Ministry as it seems is that of the CS, his Principal Secretary and the Director of the Kenya Cultural Center. There is also no ‘official’ government owned visual art space or even a rep in the visual arts. That’s why when something needs to be sorted, we run around like headless chicken. Such a shame!

As it is, the ghosts of Venice have not gone away. The biennale secretariat (just) issued a statement confirming that the Kenyan pavilion is 'government supported' and is an internal (Kenyan) issue if Kenyans don’t agree with the setup. This further highlights that our problem is Not Tanzini. It’s our own shenanigans that have brought us here. Some incompetence here. Some corruption there. Promises and lies all over. Falling for the carrot on the stick. And the uniquely Kenyan ‘It’s my turn to eat syndrome.’ Someone somewhere is being bloody economical with the truth! Only time will tell. And like a great artiste once said, “You can fool some people some time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

Screen shot from correspondence on Kenyan pavilion by Head of Press & Media Relations. Source - Facebook.
Kenyans need to do some serious housekeeping! Do we seriously want to do it or do we want to be seen to be doing it? Do we have the passion, belief and confidence to carry out the required task? Do we even understand the nature/magnitude of the task? Do we have an opinion on this or anything else artsy? The picture is grim. I’d like to say there’s light at the end of the tunnel but we are yet to figure out whether it’s actually a tunnel or an oncoming train. We can’t be batting for the same team when we’re operating on half truths and mistrust. It’s prolly time to separate the chaff from wheat. Time to take sides permanently.

It’s quite simple and complicated at the same time. If we can’t proceed with you, we shall gladly dump you. But how far can we go without you? Tough choices. Sweet ones. But quite complicated. Abit like revolutions. Bolivar. Che . Sankara. Only non-political. Non-violent. But guerilla. Ideological good-for-the-arts movements is what we need. We may never be the beneficiaries of the outcome but we can’t have our offspring dealing with the same s**t 10, 20, 30… odd years from now because we were too complacent and didn’t pave the roads for them.

We need to get up, and do something. With or without Biennale di Venezia!

Monday, February 2, 2015

My Wish For 2015

2014’s gone. Whether it was good or bad is irrelevant. Personal. It ended with a bang and 2015’s here. Good manners dictated that the last couple of weeks I use the phrases “Happy New Year” or “Prosperous 2015’ every time I meet/or talk to someone. Whoever started the tradition I don’t know. I shall try to find out when am done with this text but if you do, please let me know.

January too is gone. The year has started proper.
What constitutes a happy/good (maybe prosperous) year? For me ; Me, not the whisky lover. Or the soccer hooligan. Or the guy who declines to be the neighbourhood-association-committee chairman. But me; the practitioner who operates within the confines of the Kenyan Contemporary space.

The Kenyan scene is growing fast. I wish it’d happen faster. I wish… I hope. Maybe pray (even if it sounds abit desparate) that 2015 can be happy and prosperous. For that to happen, I think all involved should ‘pull up their socks’ (I love this line from my primary school days – my English teacher would’ve been proud of me). We should all put in an extra shift for the good of the team. Here’s my suggestion of who? how? why?

Artists are important. Very important. The most important in the chain methinks. But in the Kenyan contemporary (more specifically Nairobi) there have been a lot of cases of artists behaving badly. Most of us think we’re divine. That we call the shots! Maybe we do. We believe we’re the main guys and when it gets to our heads, we get it all twisted. We behave badly! And give the rest a bad name. Everyone is tired of artists thinking they can get away with all sorts of misdemeanors just because they are artists. I am tired of people (other artists included) complaining of artists being too drunk or too stoned to honour appointments. Artists doing (unprintable) things (in publicly owned spaces) and not wanting to be held accountable. Artists with Diaper Mentality. I am disheartened by artists who cannot behave professionally. Those who have to be kicked out of institutions because they cannot keep basic rules. Those who call themselves professional yet don’t pay subsidized rent denying young-fresh-from-school-folk opportunities in fundedsusidized spaces. Those who don’t hold younger artists’ hands and show them the ropes.  I hope this year artists not only continue making good art but also add onto that some responsibility and a little self respect. I wish artists can own their practice (whatever that means) and reduce dependency on development-aid-institutions.

Art Writers
Hmmm! I still think there are too many artists and not enough written about them. Forget exhibition reviews and those “Joe Is The Best Artist In The World” or “Jane’s Work Fetched A Million Dollars At The Auction” type of isht!

I mean objective and informative texts. I long for a day I shall read a text, go grab a cuppa, then read it again. A day I shall open the paper and find a substance beyond sensation type of text. (Most) Artists are very clever. They are quite informative within the sanctity of their studios and are very coherent about the philosophy behind their practice. Unfortunately, you rarely read this on any platform. I wish they’d write more, but if they can’t, I hope those who do would write more informative reads and stop assuming their audiences are familiar with their subjects. That they’d be more educative. I hope we’ll see more works published by art scholars. I wish every art institution would have a monthly or quarterly newsletter/zine. I have this wild dream that one fine day an art text shall beat Njoki Chege’sCity Girl” on a popularity scale in the local dailies.

Art Schools
If there’s one thing one can hold against me is that the last time I visited a local art school was prolly 3 years ago. I wish the art schools would be less detached from the main scene. I (and a handful of other artists) have tried to initiate some sort of discourse but there seems to be a clear invisible line that’s not to be crossed. It always feels like a case of “we and them” which is quite a shame. I wish the schools could have activities that would allow artists in and they’d be more participatory in events outside their campuses.

It’s awkward that Kenyan artists are all over campuses in the west – Kentucky University, Fontys Akademie, Rijks Akademie, Mahatma Gandhi-Moka, Univervity of Namibia  etc for artists residencies and workshops but get almost no airtime in local institutions. How I wish local universities would start residencies. Self funded are fine. Or even start a system where practicing artists get credits (depending on level of practice & contribution to art scene) leading to shortened period in acquiring degrees. Or even honor pioneer Kenyan artists (instead of those annoying politicians) with doctorates – Imagine Dr. Ancent Soi, Dr. Etale Sukuro, Dr. Margaret Odundo...

I gave up on the government long ago but my stance has kinda’ mellowed as I get older. I won’t pull that “Tunaomba Serikali” line but I’d like to carry on a conversation from last years’ Kenya Art Fair. These government functionaries (no disrespect) should stop walking into art spaces expecting a fight. Radiating negative energy. We’re supposed to be ‘batting for the same team’ here. I wish they’d get more involved to comprehend what they’re dealing with.

I wish my minister would attend more art events, spend more time looking at art and that he’d stop reading those annoying speeches about a National Art Gallerywhen he does his rounds.’ I wish His team would sit down tomorrow and start drafting a proper/coherent Cultural Policy that is relevant to the Kenyan space and dynamics. They should be thinking of constituting an all inclusive, professional and non-partisan National Arts Council and do away with these so-called Task Forces after which we can start talking of a National Art Gallery. Then probably start having conversations about collecting art. Just imagine a Kenyan Government owned Permanent Art Collection.That would be a very prosperous 2015 for us all.

Art Spaces
A spot check suggests we have alot of art spaces but somehow we interact with only 4 or 5 all year round. Most of these art spaces are still boxed labeled as “Having alot of Potential.” They have beautiful walls with modern lights but with an almost non-existent programming. You wonder why they exist! I hope this year my itinerary will be more inclusive and that I shall attend an exhibition in every space labeled ‘gallery’ or ‘art center’ at least thrice. With about 200 artists practicing in Nairobi and its environs, it’s highly possible to fill up calendars of all these spaces all years round. That’d be a good year!

Other Practitioners
There are a lot of people whose practice is attached to art. Most of the time I hear them being referred to as ‘stakeholders’. I hope this year they enlighten me on their role so that I know where my practice meets theirs.

For a long time Nairobi had no premier art event. We’d be treated for a number of high profile solo shows coupled with a handful of quite innovative group/conceptual exhibitions. However, it’s rapidly changing. Last year was very promising – Godown Art Centre’s Manjano Exhibition, Circle Art Agency’s Modern & Contemporary E.A Art Auction and Kuona Trust’s Kenya Art Fair were probably the main events. Then there was the Museum’s Affordable Art Show, The International School Of Kenya’s Art Show & Sale and Godown’s NaiNiWho2. Quite impressive.

I hope they all happen again this year. That’s quite a number of events to look forward to. And I hope there are improvements too. Such fixtures are what raise the profile of art within a space. If we can get 4 or 5 right and probably get an ambitious posse to try out a Biennale. That’d be something. (though word on the street’s that ‘Nairobi Biennale’ & ‘Kenya Biennale’ are already registered as a persons’ individual entity so we can’t use those titles).

Pretty basic wishes for the year methinks. Someone once said ‘No matter where we’re from, your dreams are valid’ and I must admit I took her pretty seriously. I hope that alongside resolutions of losing weight, quitting tobacco & alcohol, making more money… there were a few of working harder and more efficiently and that we shall all aspire to make 2015 a good year for the Kenyan contemporary scene. It takes everyone pulling their weight to strengthen and make it more dynamic.

To call a year happy or prosperous is all semantics. What matters is when at the years’ end, we’ll be happy with the process and whether we shall have enjoyed the ride.  For all those willing to walk the talk, let’s make 2015 a not necessarily happy & prosperous one, but a GOOD YEAR.

Hii mwaka lazima iwe poa.