Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Understanding The Art Ecosystem

It's been a while. I've been well, thanks.

I recently encountered an esoteric debate on social media. And coupled with artists jamming my whatsapp with pictures of their work at strange hours of the night, it enhanced my belief that most of us practicing in the contemporary art industry do not fully understand our roles, strengths & expectations, and how the rest of the players in the art ecosystem plug into it.

Depending on your academic background or where you went to school, they never teach you this. So how/where do you learn? As artists practicing in the 21st century, I believe our careers are 40% studio practice and 60% 'white collar'. Our unique ability is to create. We are knowledge producers with art production the only thing no one else in this whole art chain can do better than us no matter what. That mainly happens in the confines of our safe spaces. Studios. That is the forty per cent.

Immediately you show the next person your output - be it actual artworks or just images, it gets into the white collar. This is where you start contextualizing your work, explaining the philosophy behind your practice and packaging your art in ways the viewer understands what is paraded before them. Any artist whose practice is more than a year old should have a solid narrative about this and is required to have written documents supporting it. Texts like biographies, artist statements, curriculum vitaes/resumes and profiles accompanied by images/videos/sound are what constitutes a basic artist portfolio. In this age of modern technology; with smart phones and tablets, artists have no reason of not having a power point presentation in their hand held devices. Once you have this done, you will start the journey into understanding your practice more, and knowing how to present your work.

Who do you present your portfolio to? Why is it important to them? And what is your expectation of them?

Once an artist is armed with their folio, in a space as small as Nairobi, you'd be interested in working with a curator, gallery, art merchant or cultural institution. However in the more established international space where the web is bigger and the roles more defined it may include museums, residencies and special projects applications etc. It is prudent to understand everyone's role and if they are a value addition to your practice. The easiest way to achieve this (not cast in stone but it works for me) is to go knock on doors. Every available door.

The power dynamics in the art world are very skewed, and place the artist at the bottom of the food chain (according to Sarah Thornton's 7 days in the art world). And like any relations, the powerful guy sits behind the big desk and the other one has to book an appointment at an appropriate time to seek audience. Most of these spaces don't know you exist. And if they do, they wont come looking for you unless you're extremely brilliant or guarantee them good commissions from sales. Get out of your studio and social media, make that call then drive/walk to the gallery. Find out as much as you can about them by asking them about themselves. Their interests. Their vision. And how they see themselves getting there. If you do this successfully, you will be able to gauge if you're interested in working with them, or them with you. For example, it could be a gallery only interested in wildlife and conservation while you're an artist working on identity and geopolitics and it shall save both of you a lot of time, and possible confrontation from not knowing what you both do, or expect from one another. No matter what you feel about the space, always show them your portfolio and leave them a copy if you can. It is very important for you to make others aware of what you do, even if they wont work with you. That is how the possibility of collaborations and referrals happen.

If you live in a city with, lets say 20 spaces, the 60 percent out of studio practice dictates that you should have visited all of them. They should be aware of your existence, be able to identify your work and would be super if they remember your name. It doesn't happen in a week though. It is a continuous professional relationship. It helps if you're curious and if you're constantly going to see artistic events. Not just the openings where free cocktails are served but that random rainy Wednesday. Also be that pleasant human being. You'll be surprised at how good manners can open doors for you. I know artists who are banned from setting foot in certain art spaces because they are out rightly annoying.

You also have to understand the differences between spaces. In Nairobi for instance the Museum and the Nairobi Gallery are (probably) the only public institutions. They are government funded and are supposedly all-inclusive (terms & conditions definitely apply) and we have a right (whatever that means) to complain/picket if we feel disenfranchised. However how do you navigate within a privately owned gallery? Like any private outfit, the management entirely reserves the right of admission. You have to find clever ways of negotiating this space while understanding that it Is their prerogative to work with whoever they want to. Cultural centers also fall in this category as they have their own agenda. The bottom line however is for an artist to understand what these spaces stand for and what they can offer him/her.

When we do, we will do away with ranting on social media and do the only thing no one else can - make good art. And in the process, know the institutions and personnel than can add substance to whatever we're offering. It is the epitome of understanding and respecting each other’s space and role in our space of operation. Keyboard activism works in certain spheres of life but in contemporary art, you are judged by the relevance of your work and your ability to rationalize your practice. Also, you draw attention for all the wrong reasons. If a curator or gallery has your five-minute attention, let it be looking at your portfolio, not reading uninformed accusations directed at them. Don't be that frustrated artist angry at the world for your lack of trying to do the right thing. 

Don't seek sympathy by forcing yourself into a disadvantaged group. Get up, make that call and go engage them. In a respectable way. On your terms but as equal partners. And see how wonderful it is to practice in a space where you understand institutions and personalities supposed to support your practice. You may even find yourself being sympathetic to their handicaps. And that is when as artists we start stepping into other roles - writing, curating, teaching etc to plug the gaps. After all, we're supposed to be batting for the same team. And a strong team is to everyone's benefit.

So if you've drank tea, coffee, wine or beer at a gallery and they've never seen your portfolio, that's a bloody good place to start. Stop hiding in the crowds and punching in the dark and let's see how many doors you can unlock by the end of 2018. You'll be one happy artist when you attain this.

Good luck.  

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Bora Art Fair, ama Art Fair Bora

With most internationally renowned art institutions getting more elite and trading exclusively amongst themselves, shrewd business people and small commercial galleries have reinvented the global contemporary space and gotten themselves into the lucrative market using the not-so-new global phenomenon that is Contemporary Art Fairs.

An Art Fair typically is that non-pretentious and non-apologetic space where all the rhetoric about the object presented is discarded and it becomes a commodity for sale. This is possible because in most fairs, someone has done a lot of (behind the scenes) work to present a very coherent series of exhibitions that the audience trusts. In most of the major fairs, the curator or gallery’s reputation notwithstanding, everyone has to make an application detailing the artists being presented and number of works they intend to show to a known committee who then decide if it ‘makes the cut’.

Some of the most important fairs in terms of reputation and foot traffic are 1:54, AKAA, Joburg Art Fair, Frieze, Art Dubai, FIAC Paris, Volta, The Armory Show, Art Basel, ARCO Madrid and Artissima among others.

Fairs are very vital. The fact that most are opened up beyond the normal sophistication of the white cube makes them more attractive and is a good place for the uninitiated to go for a typical intro on who’s who doing what where artistically.

Kenya too has an Art Fair!

Conceptualized by Kuona Trust and having just wound up the fourth one last week, The Kenya Art Fair was full of promise. It was quite good in terms of idea and content but needed to be spruced up and remodeled along what reputable contemporary art fairs stand for. The second and third happened and most people felt that rather than building on the first, they actually went a step down. That is debatable depending on which angle you look at it from.

Then the Kenya Art Fair 2017 happened.

Firstly, because of the going ons at Kuona Trust (the organization that started it), it ended up being a loose collaboration of Sarit Center as the hosts, Text Book Center as sponsors and Kuona Trust’s resident artists. That should be a good thing thinking that it’d have been an artist led fair. The only problem is when the folk supposed to pull this through have probably never seen any proper fair thereby having no solid reference and not comprehending the basic expectations from them as the hosts. At the end of it, it seemed like it was just a fixture that was supposed to happen.

Time and again, I have reiterated how artists have no business having booths in an art fair and the need to draw a line between craft fairs/boot sales and a contemporary art fair. I respect every artists work and opinions but artists have to know when their presence somewhere doesn’t add value to either the event, or their practice.
Yes, it’s an art fair. About your art. Not about you. Then you get your posse to fill up the booth so that people can’t even see what is presented. This is a business place. A place where you’re supposed to be sober, tidy and articulate when talking to prospective clients. Not a carte blanche location for you show off to your friends on the opening night and then disappear leaving an unmanned booth half the time during the event.
Free advice, you’re not supposed to have a booth but if you must, behave well and be present before the first guest walks in and leave after everyone else does.

Second, this event was christened the “Kenyan” art fair. I expected to see the regular industry players but alas! Why weren’t the institutions that enjoy the fruits of the local scene year in year out not present? Were they not allowed to participate? Was it a boycott? Where was Circle Art Gallery? One Off? The Art Space? Shifteye Gallery? Red Hill Gallery? Banana Hill Gallery? Goethe Intitute? Alliance Francaise? Kenyatta University? BIFA? Roots Contemporary? ArtLab? Maasai Mbili? The Godown Art Center? Diani Beach Art Gallery? It’s a shame that these outfits that literally rule the roost somewhat are a no show. The only present gallery was Little Art Gallery.
Also, 80% of (prolly) the most prolific Kenyan artists this year and maybe last gave the fair a wide berth. Who was the most important Kenyan artist in this fair? Importance in strength of work - conversation and relevance locally, maybe internationally. Not the highest grossing financially in the commercial circuit. I am very sure the numerous artists whose work I love but didn’t feature would make the fair better. Where was Maral Bolouri and Mung’ora Elias who only last month were trending for their feats with Barclays L’Atelier in South Africa? Why did go ahead without all these people/institutions? I think these are conversations that should be had for this event to improve. How Kenyan is a Kenyan Art Fair if some of our most dynamic artists avoid it. Could it be that it’s a fair for those artists who are unable to exhibit elsewhere during the year. Or for artists who do not have representation by proper galleries?
Even our Ugandan family skipped it!

Finally, event planning is something you learn over time. It works well if you have a good team. Money, tasks (division of labour) and timelines are key. The run up was very silent. There was absolutely no text – press release and publicity material for this event. It’s good there’s a catalogue but is it a good catalogue? The quality of the paper, print and imagery is superb but what about the content! It feels abit like the art diary without the dates. How does it inform the audience? We need to be a little more ambitious. A little bit more daring. There are practitioners who have been part of international fairs and I’m sure a phone call or a coffee with them will leave one more equipped on how to approach this type of event.

On a whole, the Sarit Expo Hall had a lot of dead space and anyone keen enough would see a lot of afterthoughts. Having a fair is important. Having a not-good fair is unnecessary. We always complain of lack of funding and assistance but when we do get a little, we have nothing to write home about. A very wise (wo)man once suggested to that “You are as good as your last perfomance.” On a scale of one to ten, how do we rate ourselves with this?

If we want to do fairs, let’s look at what others are doing and borrow from them. If organizations/institutions don’t want to be part of it, maybe it’s time to think of an artists’ only fair. But even this has to be regulated. We have to be meticulous about everything and be honest to ourselves. It’s not about having everyone in as all inclusivity always translates to “anyone with anything remotely resembling art can come dump it here.” It’s more about having people who meet a certain threshold. That way, those that don’t will work towards improving and making the cut. And this can only mean that the standards improve.

The organizers have a year to plan the next. I’m personally tired of half-baked presentations. We have no reason for doing things badly. Let us start doing things professionally and stop making excuses for mediocrity.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Proximity To Power: Again, This Is Not An Exhibition Review

“Proximity to power deludes some into thinking they wield it” – Frank Underwood (House of Cards)

A week ago most Kenyans had no idea who Muthiora Kariara was. This is the young banker who presented himself for scrutiny in the media organized presidential running mates debate. I must admit he is very brave.

Over the next 48 hours, Kenyans praised his intelligence, eloquence and agreed on how qualified he was. He even got invited for (other) live TV interviews et al. I have no problem with that. What I have a problem with is that we are lying to Muthiora. Like we lied to (Peter) Kenneth in 2013.

We’re the specialists of social media sophistication and popularity contests where we parade the likes of Muthiora and applaud their feats yet at the back of our minds, he just provides entertainment before the real deal. When we get to that ballot that’s supposedly secret, true story checks in. That is when we conveniently recall he is not our kind. I suppose that’s why the main candidates didn’t show up. They already have their ‘tribe’ in the bag.

This is the backdrop of Proximity to Power. In Africa, a whole tribe is in power when its tribesman is the ruler.

What started off as a class assignment, it is a curatorial project that uses contemporary art to interrogate Kenyan voting patterns while trying to understand why we have repeatedly let the ruling class chaperone us into ethnic enclaves with politicians cutting deals on the account of their ethnic populace; and the common perception being that all Luos will vote for Raila Odinga, while all Kikuyus will automatically vote for Uhuru Kenyatta. It interrogates how the prospect of a person from our tribe ascending to political power influences our choices making us conveniently compromise our moral values/standards and congregate with ‘our own’ regardless of their reputation. It is an objective confrontation of the rising xenophobia in Kenya.

While everyone openly took sides, the media set up platforms bringing the opponents to ‘argue’. Local TV and print media is awash with Pro-Jubilee and NASA die-hard political commentators, analysts, communication experts etc. whose main role seems to be sugar-coating the ugly truth that these coalitions are just tribal outfits where the candidates sole agenda is to their tribesmen - “ Let’s retain this power lest we suffer in the hands of others” or “This is our best shot to seize power from them.”

This exhibition looks at how the Proximity to Power syndrome has been used as a strategy to ascend to and retain political power with the illusion that ‘one’ shall benefit more if someone from ‘their’ community ascends to political power while looking at how ingrained hate for the ‘other tribe’ has created prejudices and a discriminative culture and stereotypes that we use to justify the fear we have for the other ethnic group.

Installation & Exhibition General View
It was conceptualised 9 months ago and was meant to coincide with this years campaigns and general elections. It has been an interesting journey. The ideal couldn’t happen so we made major adjustments.

We initially had 5 artists but one didn’t come through. Peterson Kamwathi, Onyis Martin, Longinos Nagila and Nicholas Odhiambo were commissioned to make artworks with Carrey Francis Ronjey & Craig Halliday presenting texts. These types of projects are a bit like blind dates – The curator has a very clear concept in their mind and the artists while here on merit are trying (probably struggling) to articulate and present visuals. Just like waiting for the date you’ve never seen but not sure if they’re who they said they were.

Peterson Kamwathi's "Six Piece" Installation (Mild Steel & Mixed Media Drawings)
The artists had 3 months production time and had a free hand on what to present as long as it fit within the project brief and would be accommodative of the 4 other artists’ works in the intimate space that is Circle Art Gallery. I trusted them and knew what they were capable of as artists whose everyday practice is research based and draws from history, philosophy, migration, consumerism & geopolitics. It was a bunch of confident but (not corky) artists. Nicholas stood out as the baby of the group but wasn’t fazed by the task ahead. His body of work included a series of drawings that deal with different ways that power can be used to seduce & manipulate and also how the same power can constrain people’s capacity to act. He explores the relationship between ‘leaders’ and their ‘followers’.

Nicholas Odhiambo's Graphite on Paper Drawings
The challenge of (such) exhibition making locally is that as much as we have dynamic artists of high intellect, the post-production support system is almost non-existent. There’s a huge deficiency of curators, critics, historians, reputable academics etc… long story for another day.

Longino's Nagila's "Descent of Monuments into Mountains of National(ism) Garbage" (Photographic Prints & Highlighter on Paper)
Also, (almost) every space markets itself as a ‘commercial gallery’ thereby (un)knowingly locking out exhibitions that may form part of very important artistic interventions locally. These spaces may also end up being non-participants in these very critical conversations. Institutional spaces like the National Museum are (somewhat) self-censoring as they’re government-funded and would most probably not be interested in these types of presentations.

Onyis Martin's "The Society of Spectacles" (Etching on Plexiglass, Reclaimed Wooden Doors, Fiberglass & Soil)
Conceptual art practice is relatively new locally and was not well cultivated when spaces like Kuona Trust had (some) funds for such. They provided artists a limited production budget and common practice was that one had to build a gimmicky object in the middle of the room and project an incoherent video at one end. This has to change. We have to find ways of presenting avant garde museum quality shows locally. Global artistic platforms have set high standards of presentation and we must attempt this at home. It makes no sense for us as cultural practitioners spending half our time in air-conditioned airport lounges transiting to the next biennale/fair if we can’t import just one good aspect from them. And duty free chocolate, cologne & scotch don’t count.

Also, we need to have the ability to tell our stories in ways only us can so that we stop complaining when they’re mistold. That is probably the one thing we have that no one else will ever have over us. And we have to tell them in memorable ways otherwise our families and friends will never live to see properly curated shows unless they leave our space and get into someone else’s.

Once again, this is not an exhibition review. It is also not ‘the show’ but an attempt at a properly curated exhibition. It was a lot of fun directing a project that is so close to my heart and wouldn’t have been possible without the partnerships of Goethe Institut – Kenya & Circle Art Gallery.

To the technical team – Jamine, Jonathan, Levi, Kui, Steve, James + Ruth. Thanks for making the show go up while my feet were up and hands in pocket

Finally, Handa the Don, asante for holding it together.

"Proximity To Power” is part of the Goethe-Institut Kenya’s work in the field of contemporary art which is conveyed by the exhibition series 'Sasa Nairobi' and is currently showing at Circle Art Gallery - 910 James Gichuru Road, Lavington, Nairobi til 12th August 2017.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Venice Chronicles – Day 3

Yesterday was a long day. Seeing 5 pavilions and hanging out abit into the night, somewhat derailed us. Started late and left the house when ’twas already hot.

The plan was to see the South African Pavilion and like many, the specific address is not on the info pack. Just says Sale D’Armi, Arsenale, Venice. With our limited knowledge of Venezia we set out, got lost and frustrated before we ‘accidentally’ found it. Stumbling upon things has been a key element of this trip.

There’s a lot happening at Sale D’Armi. One half of the main Venice exhibition Viva Arte Viva is happening there. Also there are the national pavilions of Albania, Singapore, Turkey, South Africa, Peru, Mexico, United Arab Emirates, Macedonia, Tunisia, Argentina, New Zealand, Latvia, Ireland, Slovenia, Georgia, Kosovo, Croatia, Macedonia, Indonesia, Tuvalu, Chile and Philipines. It also happens to host the biennale sessions and education secretariat.

So here we are at Viva Arte Viva – the Venice blockbuster. Which the curator Christine Macel says, “is a biennale designed with artists, by artists and for artists, about the forms they propose, the questions they ask, the practice they develop and the ways of life they choose. Quite flattering for an artist. No?

Adrenaline’s pumping as we walk in. I see my partners in crime 4 hours later but in between I experience strange emotions/sensations.

Rasheed Araeen's "Zero To Infinity in Venice" (l) and Lee Mingwei's "The Mending Project" (Photos Courtesy Michael Soi) 
You know a show is great when the first artwork is you encounter is by Rasheed Araeen. He of The Third Text. Those guys you want to be when you grow up. I shall not embellish his achievements for he is who he is. I rarely get star struck but Rasheed’s work and a few (if I were to be honest, a lot) other artists do the trick (another long story for another day, hopefully).

A walk through the exhibition feels like a kid a candy store. Or our 10 year old having a fifteen inch Hawaiian pizza all for himself.

Francis Upritchard (Photos Courtesy Michael Soi)
I get to see a lot of artists whose work I know but there’s this indescribable feeling of seeing great work by artist you’ve never heard of, who’ve got great philosophies behind their practice. This somewhat feels like that favorite class in art school.

The only not-pleasant thing I can say about being in this space, just like in any blockbuster exhibition in these times is the annoying number of ‘viewers’ who want to take selfies when you’re having that ‘serious discourse’ with a an artwork. I had at least 10 rude requests to move so that I don’t photobomb someone’s perfect selfie. It’s a compliment to artists when it gets to that and it’s good for the money-men when the visitor count is that high but it’s infuriating for someone who just wants to enjoy the exhibition.

Nicholas Garcia Urubiru's "Coloration Urubiru" (l) and thu Van Tan's "overly Forced Gestures, From Harvest To Fight"
Viva Arte Viva is a great show. Venice seems to be going monumental – everywhere you turn the works are huge. A constant however, is the commonalities in issues artists are addressing - human rights, geopolitics, migration, consumerism and environmental concerns.

My personal favourites included Lee Mingwei’s ‘Mending Project’, Nicolas Garcia Uriburu (Coloration Uriburu), Thu Van Tran (Overly Forced Gestures, From Harvest To Fight), Anri Sala (All Of A Tremble – Encounter) Huguette Caland (Christine) and Maha Malluh (Food For Thought “Amma Baad’). There is also a good presentation of videos but it’s a shame I skipped a lot of them. I’m one of those who can’t watch TV in a dark room. And just a peek into the darkened cubicles with those 60ish inch UHD TVs was enough to remind me of the consequences of televisions and dark rooms.

Huguette Caland
It’s a show anyone remotely interested in contemporary art should see. Artists especially – it is important to be aware of what other artists are doing and how work is presented in such platforms. It’s also one of those projects curators or anyone involved in art presentation should use as a benchmark. One of those ‘when I grow up shows.

It’s overwhelming as I leave the show but there’s a little energy still left in me and have 30 minutes before the forecast rains start pounding Venice so I do a quick dash to the South African pavilion. I find Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Singapore and UAE before I get to RSA. It’s not what I expected. I mask my disappointment and try to get to Canal Grande before the rains.

A beer with my partners in crime while reviewing the show is when Amanda informs me that I missed my friend Jelili Atiku’s work! Not sure what else I didn’t see. Another good day.

The other part is in Giardini. Thursday plan.