Monday, February 7, 2011

Art Reportage

Hmmm! Where to start? The beginning is boring and the end is far. How about this?
In my brief ‘
love affair’ with the arts – whether as a groupie, an artist, or just a dude with a desk job, I’ve been privileged to “rub shoulders”, share studios, have exhibitions or just hang out with some of the craziest minds alive, those that border on being genius.

It’d be like the who’s who of 21st century African artists with a sprinkle of the rest of the world;
Kim, Kamicha, Soi, Mukabi, Salah, Beatrice, Eltayib, Kamwathi, Tapfuma, Kyalo, Okello, Uma, Jimmy Ogonga, Loyiso Qanya, Jelili, Klashorst, Nirveda, Nayari, Emeka, Aditi, Ndasuunye…. And of course, myself.
This has enabled me be part of their process from studio to gallery during which I get to listen to the philosophies behind their works, why they do what they do and what they intend to achieve through their work.

Once the artworks leave the studio and are installed in an exhibition… hmmm! It’s like the artistic thought process is thrown out the door and replaced by the cliché of “

I think I can swear that am yet to hear an artist (in Kenya) say he enjoyed reading an article/review about their work/project/exhibition. And that’s my beef for the day!
For most artists, their artist statement is probably the most important ‘thing’ in their exhibitions after the work. Naturally, that makes it a must read during their projects and is the link between the work and the artist, telling us the artist’s intention and in most cases may come alongside the exhibition brief.

In a typical Kenyan scenario, a journalist comes to an art event, browses through and starts with irritating questions like;
• Now what is this?
• Who buys it?
• How much?
• How many can you sell in a week?
They then describe all the paintings physically in detail and in some cases summarize by how much the artist had made by the end of the night/day!
I guess most journalists/writers don’t put into consideration what the artist wants to say.

A wise (wo)man once said that a good journalist must put into consideration:
1. First & foremost, the artist’s point of view (through his artist statement and exhibition write up) and the curator’s (if there’s one).
2. His (journalist) own analysis - relationship between the artist’s ‘story’ and the work (content)… description & analysis
3. Probably his personal opinion of the execution of the exhibition (work in relation to use of space)… His/her interpretation & evaluation.
4. Lastly, a summation if it made at all any sense and probably an observation or two from neutrals (read the audience).

Unfortunately, most do not do a critical analysis. What they do is “report” what they saw in the space and casually “compare” the artist to an “Old European Master” - where you’ll probably will miss the connection.
It doesn’t take rocket science to be a good journalist but it takes a lot of research, listening and numerous studio visits to understand where the artist is coming from and the story they’re trying to put across.

Case study: 1st Feb 2011,
Kuona Trust hosted an Art Raffle to raise cash for building more studios (long story for another day). It would be worth noting to mention that 50 artists donated work for the worthy cause. The event was quite successful and a handful of journalists came in; The Star had a full page which had several “glossy coloured photos of the famous people all dressed up” and a rough estimate of the total amount sold but nothing to say about why the event was organized… yeah, true story.

Typical case of art reportage in made in Kenya.


  1. Hi Thom,
    you are absolutely justified in your complaint vs. reporters who apparently know nothing about art and can only ask very superficial questions that have no depth or insight into the creative process at all. Pole sana! But there is progress: for years the media hardly took time to show up at arts events so the fact that they show up is progress....not enough, of course. it may be up to you, dear Thom! I do agree with you that the raffle was an HISTORIC event both for the individual artists who contributed their work to the raffle and the wider Nairobi Art World, including the collectors/patrons and art groupies who stand by you no matter what! i wish i'd been there to make NOISE about what a great event this was! Thanks for chronicling it both visually at FACEBOOK and on your blog. Bless you! Margaretta

  2. I agree with Margaretta, social media is overtaking traditional media in giving us a bigger picture of the artist and his practice. And artists should take your call to let their written records be part of their art practice. Diana K