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.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Venice Chronicles – Day 2

Tuesday 0500Hrs and coincidentally Bob Marley’s ‘Survival’ album is playing.

Soon we'll find out who is the real revolutionary, 'Cause I don't want my people to be contrary. And, brother, you're right, you're right… We'll 'ave to fight (we gon' fight)… Mash it up in-a Zimbabwe; Natty trash it in-a Zimbabwe; Africans a-liberate Zimbabwe; I'n'I a-liberate Zimbabwe.”

I quickly reconcile where I am and what am supposed to do so after a quick freshening up, coffee and fully charged gadgets, my partners in crime and I are off in search of the Zim Pavilion.

It’s a ten-minute slow walk to Santa Maria della Pieta Institute and we’re almost the first guests of the day. Zimbabwe is close to most Kenyan art practitioners thanks to earlier interactions with artists like Tapfuma Gutsa, Rashid Jogee, Chiko Chazunguza, Mambakwedza Mutasa and the pavilion curator Chinovava Chikukwa who recently facilitated a curatorial workshop in Kenya and offers us pro bono advice on matters art. For that we are eternally grateful.

We get to the second floor and after niceties with the pleasant hostess, tunafanya ile imetuleta hapa.

L to R - Charles Bhebe's 'Isndigo', Dana Whabira's 'Suspended in Animation', Admire Kamudzengerere & Sylvester Mubayi's 'Snail Crossing River' (Photos courtesy Michael Soi)

Have to give it up for the Zim team. They’ve been consistent over 4 biennales and are showing 4 artists – Sylvester MubayiCharles BhebeDana Whabira & Admire Kamudzengerere in their exhibition ‘Deconstructing Boundaries: Exploring Ideas Of Belonging.

It is a tight unit. The work shown, in relation to the space and how it’s presented works well. They even have a take-home glossy catalogue with all the information not only about the current pavilion, but also a history lesson of where they’re from artistically with recommendations on what to look at if interested more in them. Exactly why countries need to be on that podium. We leave happy with a bias to Whabira’s work.

Santa Maria della Pietta is home to 3 other country pavilions. We dash across to Mauritius as we have very good friends there. It’s a small space with not so friendly folk sitting in. Long story for another day on what kind of person should be in manning a country pavilion/exhibition.

L to R - Chimedjjor's 'I'm Bird' and Munkkh Ganbold's 'Karma of Eating'

Across the yard, is the national Pavilion of Mongolia. Their show “Lost In Tingri (Heaven)” has five artists exploring the urgencies of Mongolian contemporary society. It is well articulated and starts making sense as you engage the work. It’s a very minimalistic exhibition set in a small space but very strong content. It’s got all the fours of a good exhibition – beauty, seduction, tension & conversation.
As we leave, we now know there’s more to Mongolia than not-so-good football.

Next to Mongolia is the tiny principality with a reputation of being the European football whipping boys, but we shall stick to art. Andorra.

Eva Ariza's 'Murmur'
It’s a one-artist pavilion titled “Murmuri” and showing Eve Ariza’s work.
Murmuri is a reflection on a universal language, an in-depth research on the material in mutation and the origins of form and sound. Ariza works on the multiplication of the ceramic bowl as a container of truth and placidity. The project carries on the artist's battle against “bla”, the concept of overconsumption and overfeeding on images and sounds as tangibly the sole foundation of today's society
It’s a breathtaking installation that immerses the viewer deep into “bla”

It’s now hot, we’re hungry and everyone else is having that large beer while taking selfies at the restaurants next to Canal grande. Even us.

We find us at S.Stae at the Nigerian pavilion - “How About NOW?” It is their first ever pavilion and features 3 artists – Victor Ehikhamenor, Qudus Onikeku & Peju Alatise. Over lunch, the discussion had been on art from the African continent & gentrification and this show is somewhat an illustration to the conversation. I particularly like Alatise’s (and maybe Victor’s) work but I find the exhibition text quite embellished.

L to R - Peju Alatise's 'Flying Girls', Qudus Onikeku's 'Right Here, Right Now' and Victor Ehikhamenor's 'Biography Of The Forgotten. (Photos courtesy Michael Soi)
All the same, congrats 9ja.

We’re done for the day but stumble upon another pavilion. A stateless country referred to as NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst). It was conceived as a utopian formation, which would have no physical territory and would not be identified with any existing nation state. (

They have a very good set up where the floor slanting at about 30 degrees and the walls not upright which somewhat plays with your balance and makes it almost impossible to view the artworks.

The NSK Pavillion
Being stateless means their conversation is about migration and boundaries and the physically difficult space to navigate illustrates the bottlenecks of border crossings. It however changes when they start calling themselves ‘delegates’ and can’t draw a line whether it’s an art activity or sociological project.
They spoilt it more when they parade 2 young undocumented aliens from probably the most stable democracies in Africa to illustrate their cause. Another case of the sideshows spoiling the party.

By now, we’ve seen enough art and one of us is craving sugar free ice cream. It’s been a good day. Funny how you come with your to do list but the things you stumble upon end up being your most memorable.

South Africa & Damien Hirst are on today’s list but I am not underestimating Venice and its surprises. Maybe even Another Country.