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.