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!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Kenya Art Fair 2015

This last fortnight has been quite interesting.

I took a week off my studio practice. Lazyism. Secondly, I met a lot of interesting folk and spent a lot of time listening. Especially at the 2nd annual Kenya Art Fair.

The Kenya Art Fair is modeled along the conventional fairs like Frieze, Joburg, 1:54 etc as a platform for artists, curators, galleries, patrons and everyone artsy to congregate and make money; only difference being that in other countries, fairs are highly capitalist and put together by astute business people while this is an initiative of not-for-profit organization, Kuona Trust.

This is a very good initiative – I found myself there all the four days it ran at the Sarit Center. Was good catching up with all folk I’d not seen in a while. I enjoyed the art and liked some stalls more than others. I loved Brush Tu’s booth. It was well thought out and I admire these not-so-young guys’ (Boniface Maina, Michael Musyoka, Wawero Gichuhi, Elias Mungora) energy and vision. I enjoyed Nairobi Bag Factory’s enthusiasm, popularity and ability to professionalize merchandizing. It’s where I’d dump my stuff as I enjoyed the fair - where I was guaranteed a seat as I devoured my take-out lunch and must commend Michael Soi’s hospitality (I won’t mention the Hidden Agenda tab). My favourite stall award went to Samantha Ripa di Meana’s Roots Contemporary. Very chic.

All that art and artists in a single space was really something and without taking away from the organizer’s efforts, I ‘d personally tie a few loose ends in  an attempt to better and professionalize the event.

Firstly, I’d remove the tiny triangular booths and discourage artists from leasing stalls. I must admit this years’ Art Fair was an improvement from last years. The movement between stalls was fluid except when one got to the triangles. They are also very small offering limited display space so most vendors (mainly artists) tried to compensate for that by cramming paintings on every available space. In most reputable fairs, artists have no business renting stalls and space is reserved for invited galleries, highly regarded curators, not-for-profit institutions and educational entities. The two previous fairs could be used as practice and It’d be a good idea for Kuona to think of appointing a fair curator should they pursue the idea of Kenya Art Fair 2016.

The Kenya Art Fair 2015 (Photo Courtesy Anthony Wachira)
Once the idea of sorting out exhibitors is sorted, the organizer should demand a certain set of standards from every space. This can be summed up by Roots Contemporary. Every artist or gallery has a tonne of work in their studio or vault – you don’t have to hang all of it during an event. Roots had a minimalist approach showing works by 6 artists in a well thought out presentation. They gave just a little bit and it made the audience want more. Everything was professionally done – the texts, the labels, the catalogues. Every thing. It’s a stall that could stand out in any fair globally. They had prepared! The thing with most artist-ran stalls is that they thought/believed the organizer was going to bring in a lot of buyers and had a lot of items on sale that they totally forgot to well prepare their spaces. I was abit let down by some reputable outfits that had spaces you’d grade as ‘below average.’ This is supposed to be Kenya’s Premier Fair for Modern & Contemporary Art.

I was somewhat disappointed when Roots Contemporary didn’t scoop the award of the best stall… But I have this strong feeling a lot of people learnt a thing or two from them about presentation and that half the stalls at the next Kenya Art fair will want to be like that, which is a good thing. No?

The Wasanii Exhibition (Photo courtesy Anthony Wachira)
The fairs strongest segment was the Wasanii Exhibition, a mixed bag of artists who submitted work for selection. Some of the work was really good and generally the show was visually appealing. If stalls are taken away from artists, this exhibition may become stronger since artists save what they perceive to be their ‘best works’ for their stalls. Also it’d deal with duplication of an artist having a stall showing their work and also exhibiting in the main exhibition. Wasanii exhibition would be a good platform to ‘discover’ and award one of these young fellas. A ‘small’ cheque and a title with a nice ring to it - something like “Most Promising Artist” would go a long way in validating a young artist’s practice.

My favourite segment was the talks though. It was quite interesting to note that there was a huge presence of newish artists who were very curious and clearly want a stake in this burgeoning art scene. Artist who, rather than sit and wait, are doing things for themselves.  What do we have to offer them though? I didn’t sit in all talks but was quite a shame that most mid-level and established artists missed the ones I sat in. Some because they had to run their stalls and some probably disinterest. This disinterest is one of the reasons artists don’t collaborate in such ventures as this. A lot of local artists have been to major fairs and biennales and have info that could add value to an event like this. Why do they instead become passive participants or give it a wide berth?

How African Contemporary Art Fits Into The Global Art Trends (Photo Courtesy Anthony Wachira)
 All in all, it is good to see another new event to look forward to and alongside other consistent annual art fixtures like the Godown Art Center’s Manjano Art Exhibition & Competition and Circle Art Agency’s Modern & Contemporary Art Auction should be supported. It was also flattering to have a whole posse of Ugandan artists who drove to Nairobi just for the Art Fair. Kenyans should borrow a leaf from that.

Different folk will have different opinions of how it was. How it should be. Or the direction it should take. But everyone agrees  this event is vital. A little work needs to be done for it to live up to its tag line and for it to highly achieve the general objective of all art fairs. ‘We’ must raise the standards without being elite and locking out people. But it all depends on everyone’s goodwill. This way, we shall find all the artists we consider ‘important Kenyan artists’ showing at the fair and have all reputable art institutions committed to it.

 It’d be good to one day mention the Kenyan Art Fair in the same breath as Frieze. And Joburg. Art Basel. India Art Fair. ArtRio. Art Miami… Long shot but attainable.

Finally, congrats Kuona Trust, but don’t rest on your laurels! For everyone else remotely associated with The Kenya Art Fair, we have our work cut out for us.

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.