Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Artist Collectives

An artist collective loosely refers to a group of artists working together, usually under their own terms & conditions, towards a shared vision while sharing ideas, costs, opportunities, risk, and benefits that would sometimes be overwhelming when confronted individually. There is no universally set purpose of an artist collective but the most common thread historically, is the support system it offers members while catering to the needs of the artist within a specific (time)frame and context. This can range from securing funding and sharing space; to sharing ideologies; or similarity of artistic platform; or sometimes, just circumstances.

Artist collectives have existed throughout history, with (probably) the most prominent being the group that later came to be referred to as The Impressionists - a 19th C art movement that originated with a group of Paris-based artists (Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Manet, Pissarro) whose independent exhibitions brought them to recognition during the 1870s and 1880s. During the 1860s, the Paris Salon (Paris’ main event) jury routinely rejected most of the works submitted by Monet and his friends in favour of works by artists faithful to the “then approved style”. In 1873, they founded the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers) to exhibit their artworks independently. A society/collective formed out of protest.

Contemporary artist collectives may be smaller groups intent of production of work; either collaboratively or as individuals, or toward exhibiting together in gallery shows or public spaces. Some are quite organic and are formed from loose friendships while others are well structured models run almost like business entities. Often a collective will maintain a common space, for exhibiting or as studio facilities.

In Kenya, an almost non-existent visual arts infrastructure/support system in the fifties and sixties meant that artists were forced to work privately with almost no access to artistic information and opportunities. Some visionaries set up institutions like Chemi Chemi Creative Arts and Paa Ya Paa  to plug the gap. More recently, almost similar conditions have forced artists to work together. Artist villages like Ngecha and Banana Hill became prominent in the 80s and 90s and continue to churn out artists. Institutions like Kuona Trust and the Godown Arts Center also have studios that facilitate people working together. However, consciously constituted collectives are arguably a (relatively) new concept. Kibera’s Maasai Mbili would probably be up there as the big brother/sister of these outfits. There is also The Lake Basin Artists from Kisumu, Brush Tu Artist Studios in Buruburu and more recently Joel Lukhovi & Sarah Waiswa trans-African art project African Cityzens.

In most instances, unless an artist is fairly confident and/or quite (financially) established, it becomes quite a challenge to work independently – renting/building private studios, securing relevant tools & equipment, negotiating contracts or getting the necessary visibility. Pooling resources together as a collective enables artists to split costs and responsibilities. Also, everyone comes in with a different set of skills to complement the other. The element of constantly exchanging ideas coupled with (probably) carefully deliberated discussions before decision making means that the risk of making irrational decisions is minimal. Well structured collectives also improve not only members’ artistic practice but also their collaborative/participatory social skills.

An artist collective has more bargaining power compared to an individual when it comes to negotiating projects/commissions/tenders and in most instances are given more air time compared to individual artists as most institutions – both government and private always give that lazily choreographed phrase “We do not transact with individuals!

As much as these collectives are important as artist-led initiatives, the flip side is that the alpha artist almost always gets his way. In some cases, not-so-confident members have been known to ‘follow’ or ‘agree’ with everything the main artist says or does and they stop being collaborators and become just participants. There are also instances where the lines are blurred and individual identities lost because of the compromises members have to make. This translates to artists within the collective losing their individuality as the collective becomes easily recognizable while the artists are swallowed by it.

With the Nairobi contemporary space getting more competitive and highly commercialized, there are a handful of artists who can afford to work privately - away from the donor-aid set up of ‘subsidized studios’ with a few extra freebies and art dealers who ‘reserve the right of admission’. As for the others too intimidated to set up shop on their own, getting like-minded individuals – who’re probably at their level of practice and having similar aspirations, being a member of a collective is the most logical way to go.

Folk like Nigeria’s Black Box and Depth of Field (DOF); Congo’s Génération Elili and New York based Guerrilla Girls are shining examples of the power of artist collectives where the group remains relevant while the artists’ individual profiles are also raised.

Though still not commonplace around here, artists should realize that such groupings highly enrich both their studio and out-of-studio practice as they continually inform and educate each other through peer-to-peer discourse; gives them more bargaining power as a group; and above all, gives them self satisfaction of belonging to an outfit they probably initiated - one that stands for what you believe in while helping on your journey towards artist empowerment.

Finally, it was good to see Maasai Mbili (M2) celebrate their fifteen years of existence with an open day. From two eccentric street artists - Otieno Kota and Otieno Gomba to a collective of 14 artists – Anita, Tolla, Kevo, Rabala, Mbuthia, Defere, Ronics, Clarence, Musa, Victor, Shanivulle, Greenman, Muthoni & Gomba… Congrats and continue enjoying the ride. 

As for Brush Tu! We’re watching. Discreetly.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Voice of Kenyan Art Limited… VOKAL – Right of Reply

It’s not what you do; it’s how you do it. It’s not what you say but how you say itBlack Uhuru (Utterance)

I just learnt of a new clandestine art outfit in town. Its agenda is unknown. So is its founder(s), member(s). Or whether it’s a one man show. A lone ranger. It seems to be operating as an anonymous outfit. And looks like the person behind it really likes Julian Assange. Or Edward Snowden. Vokal Vokal thinks they’re a whistleblower. Maybe they are!

Someone just accused an institution of what they refer to as a “myriad of wrongdoings.” Long list. Not sure of authenticity of the accusations but some are quite non-factual and common knowledge in the general scene. Some though, are stuff straight outta  the Cosa Nostra.

These allegations are serious! On a normal day, I’d take them very seriously. The only problem I have is the channel the author uses. Someone seems to have had an almost credible source of information but driven by bile lost the plot. My two cents forensics points to someone subjective driven by malice. Anger maybe. But I could be wrong.

I don’t know who VOKAL VOKAL is and care less about his tirade but can offer him/her/them some unsolicited advice.

You see, the local art industry has very strange loyalties. Where a person’s identity – name, face and work almost supersedes what has to be said (most of the time). It is earned over years of relationships that sometimes span whole careers. In a space where there are only a handful institutions, cultural managers have to shuttle within these same institutions to advance their practice. Circumstances have forced us to accommodate each other. We’ve been here before. We’ve loathed each other. Disrespected one another. Taken the competition for granted. But you become mellow when you get up everyday and realize the only people stuck in the game with you are the ones you disrespect. And the ones to complete your transaction are the ones you dislike. It’s made us realize that sometimes the only person that can offer the service you require, is the one you were bad mouthing during the previous night’s drinking session. We have learnt to be professional enough to see beyond personal sexual preferences and political alignment - to act professional and keep our end of the bargain. And if someone errs, you tell them to their face. Over a beer they’re paying for.

We can’t have two sets of rules – where you act juvenile and hide behind cheap pseudonyms yet you accuse others of being unprofessional. We, or rather I can’t allow you to sit at your ivory tower criticizing other peoples efforts while hiding behind false identities to evade questions and scrutiny.  I’m not the accused person’s lawyer but I’m quite disappointment that in this day and age we still have grown folk who want to be taken seriously yet their modus operandi is akin to terrorism. If you stand by your allegations, please do it above board - with your name as we all know it and through your official email that you use when seeking the services of those you accuse. Then maybe, I will take you seriously. Why punch in the dark? What are you afraid of? Victimisation? That’s exactly what you’ve done to those you’ve referenced! It’s all or nothing I suppose. You can’t have your cake and eat it. And expect us to let you enjoy the pie too. In an era where the local scene is advocating for intellect filled discourse and objective/organized criticism, you have chosen guerilla warfare. Terrorism. There’s no difference between you and those bad folk. You may have had genuine grievances but you spoil it by hiding behind a fake I.D which turns you into a mudslinger. A whinger. A cry baby dragging the rest of us to his/her fights.

You seem to know this outfit really well and maybe have/had relations with them, why didn’t you write when all was rosy? You’re also quite informed and try to write well (by my standards) - I wish it’d be for the good of the arts but you’ve lowered yourself to the class of the social media bigots and faceless bloggers who hide their identity because they don’t believe in their cause.
How is the accused supposed to respond to your allegations? Maybe they’re not supposed to because your accusations are subjective. Good manners dictate that if you’ve got beef with someone, you tell them. Maybe that’s why I’m upset. Your text lacks basic etiquette. You made your accusations while hiding, and then? You’re probably happy when everyone suspects the other. And when folks forward each other your text. We’ll spend time trying to figure out who you are, then that’s it. Maybe that’s all you want. But when the sun goes down, it’s back to loyalties – Right now there’s an artist dropping off their work at a gallery. There’s a curator driving into an artist’s studio. And there’s a dealer running to the bank to cash a client’s cheque. Why? Because almost all the time, it’s about the artist’s work and involved parties contractual obligations. Keep your end of bargain, I keep mine. Not what I do outside that. Not who I’m in a relationship with. Not if am a deadbeat parent. Not even my choice poison will come into play.

You seem to know the scene well so you should know that we don’t (necessarily) work with people we like but with those whose abilities to further our cause (whatever that means). I don’t have to like my dealer. I complain about high commissions. And I wish I could bypass VAT and I’m sure they know because we’ve had this conversation. I won’t be shocked if they don’t like me either but we’ve learnt to enjoy our relations and respect decisions agreed mutually. Yes we have unscrupulous dealers. Not because of their race or political leanings but because they’re just ill mannered. And we shun them. You don’t send anonymous emails. I treat every (business) partnership like a romantic liaison. If you’re not getting what you signed up for, you don’t blog about it; you handle your biz. Ama?

Finally, if you were candid enough with who you are and offered us another option, there’d be a queue at yours right now but artists have mouths to feed, schools fees to deal with, mortgages to service etc and like other citizens with a lot to deal with, your text goes beyond the arts. It is very Kenyan in context. It feels quite sensational – like the Anglo leasing. Or Goldenberg. Where sometimes there seems to be no substance beyond the sensation – unprofessional conduct, financial impropriety, tax evasion, fraud, intimidation, racism/nepotism, conflict of interest… You even pull a George W. Bush card (when he invaded eye-rack) - the “Coalition of willing versus the axis of evil” where you expect us to take sides. Honestly, how do you side with a faceless person in this? I’d have believed you and your intentions but I come from a place where the only invisible person/being you side with is God. Sorry I’m not on your side in this.

I’m good and ready to join hands in fighting good fights – artist enlightenment, artist empowerment, artist education, artists’ rights … not personal vendettas. Sorry.

On a lighter note, it seems I shall never show in the said outfit since they “suspiciously feature only artists married to foreign wives & husbands.”

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Someone Please Bring Back the Arts in Schools

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

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

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

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

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

Off went Art & Craft, Home Science and Music!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.