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.