Monday, March 19, 2012

Abuse of Office

Of all the occupations known to man, none operates without a code of conduct that stipulates the acceptable rules and regulations. This also includes consequences should these be breached. All, except one. The doctors have their Medical Practitioners & Dentists Board, the lawyers – Law Society of Kenya, lecturers – University Academic Staff Union, hawkers too have something like Nairobi Petty Traders Association!

Visual Arts, a career that falls loosely between a job and a divine calling, one full of royalty, and geniuses, and those whose places are reserved next to the almighty, is governed by… NOTHING!

Before you cast your first stone… let’s make this clear: I am not advocating for ARTIST CENCORSHIP!

When an artist abuses his privilege (freedom of expression) and creates work that is culturally, socially, or religiously offensive, how is the audience supposed to deal with it? If in an attempt to create a sensation, the artworks become an insult, how is the intended audience supposed to react?

It is known that artists (not only the creators but their groupies who include curators, dealers, theorists, historians etc) enjoy any publicity. This includes any outrage as a result of offensive work.

Damaso's controversial painting.
In July 2010, South African artist Yuill Damaso reveled in the limelight after making a painting depicting the autopsy of Nelson Mandela. Abomination! Can the same artist depict his father, or mother, or girlfriend dead?! Or did he just need the world’s most popular sage to help his selfish cause? According to Damaso, that was his way of paying tribute to Nelson Mandela!

Similarly, Danish artist duo Surrend ( which comprises Jan Eggesborg & Pia Betelsen) depicted the Danish Royal family in a pornographic cartoon that even the bluest of blue film industry will not be able to achieve in the near future. 
Surrend's cartoon
When does the artist cross the social commentary/entertainment/protest line and blur the focus turning into a subjective, insulting, sensation seeking wanna-be? Or are they just hirelings of a third party? Sometimes I think most of these artists are just victims of handouts for which they will do anything the hand that giveth asks. Talk of “He who pays the pipe calls the tune.”

Back home, Kenyans have been marveling at a series of graffiti of what should have been a subject in school. The interesting thing about it is that it loosely falls in the guerilla art movement and hits the Kenyan politician with bare knuckles. It makes for a very successful artwork without being offensive and it’s probably the artwork that has gotten the most attention recently (debatable).

Graffiti by Anonymous artists in downtown Nairobi
Another artist (who I can’t stop calling a moron) has used the same instruments (spray paint), the same platform (public wall space) and the same subject (the Kenyan politician) and expects me (and you) to salute him at the guerilla parade! This artist has trashed the whole philosophy of social responsibility by artists and expects Kenyans to forget a good lesson urging us to vote wisely – by telling us to vote for the same vulture we’re being warned against! Sadly, it’s not one (bad) painting. Not two… maybe twenty spread all over Nairobi. 

Some of the texts by 'mercenary artists' in Nairobi
As a consumer of this horrible art, who do I complain to? How can I talk to the artist to tell him how I feel about his (bad) artworks? How do I deal with the visual pollution? Should I go see the Mayor/Town Clerk? Am I supposed to get him/her through the politician who commissioned him?

This is just one (pathetic) artist… or maybe just one (body of) work that is offensive… one that you cannot describe using one positive word. But as creative people – artists, curators, writers… how many times have we subjected our audience to something offensive? Artworks that are irritating.

Since we don’t want to be censored, maybe it’s up to us not to abuse our office by engaging in “silly commissions” and soberly being considerate to our intended audience. As a man I considered not very wise once said, “There’s a very thin line between thought-provoking & outright insulting.”

I moved him from the “not very wise” box to the “somehow wise” one.

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