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 
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...


Government
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.


Events
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.



Monday, October 20, 2014

What Is This Creative Economy Isht?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what it this Creative Economy isht?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Kenya@50 - Celebrating Kenya's Golden Jubilee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Kenyans Don't Appreciate Art!


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

Kenyans Don't Appreciate Art!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After all, #WeAre(SupposedToBe)One.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Peculiar Kenyan Photographer



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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