I love the Kenyan art scene! It’s (probably) all based in Nairobi – the big city in the (currently very hot) sun. This may be due to the fact that whatever infrastructure that exists for the arts, is city based. Also, a large chunk of the direct consumers of Kenyan contemporary culture is tucked in the high-rise blue chip companies and multinationals or the leafy suburbs that house the countless expatriates who ply their trade with the UN.
Indigenous Kenyans too are slowly starting to ‘partake’ of art though this is limited mainly to the Yuppies – Young Upwardly Mobile professionals who make up a great percentage of the rapidly growing middle class.
With this scenario on an upward curve, there seems to be a ‘boom’ in the art business locally and just like the California gold rush of 1848 - 1855, no one wants to miss the gravy train.
Artists are – (un)fortunate (for luck of a better word). With or without a boom, they have to open their studios daily. They have to be inspired to create. They have to respond to their spaces. They have to interrogate humanity – socially, politically etc. It is their duty. And this loosely translates to – New artworks being created daily.
Sometimes the artist understands and can articulate the Whats? and Whys? about their work. Sometimes they do go the whole nine yards and even curate their projects. Most of the time though, they let the professionals do it. And that’s my beef for the day!
Professionals? Who are these professionals? You see, Art is strange. Stranger than love. Than Religion. Than Science. The artist is (supposed to be) God! He is the creator. But there are others who hover around him. Those, who live off him. They, who are irrelevant without the artist but have somehow managed to convince themselves that in the contemporary art hierarchy, the artist is at the bottom of the food chain! (Read Seven Days In The Art World by Sarah Thornton)
They come in different forms, shapes, colours and titles – Art Dealers, Curators, Art Theorists, Art Historians… the list is endless. With all due respect, I have many a friend (or rather know many people) falling in this category and some I hold in high regard. Unfortunately back at home (read Kenya), Hmmmm! The situation is fluid – these are deemed as ‘cool occupations’. A mechanic bored of popping them hoods, becomes an Art Dealer. A retired Montessori teacher catches the curatorial bus… anyone whose career is going through a rough patch finds a safe haven in the arts!
That’s okay. It starts being un-okay when you have 20 curators doing incoherent projects all over town. When you have uninformed ‘art historians’ and ‘theorists’ who are clueless about the Kenyan art scene now, and what it was like 5 or 10 years ago. It stops being okay when you have intellectually lazy people carelessly using respectable titles doing silly (again, for lack of a better word) projects that equate to nothing. Those that, are not at all relevant/useful within our context. People who are not intelligent enough to interpret/articulate the conversations from the global podium within the local stage.
If a city has 10 art dealers, 5 curators, 3 theorists… and 3 dozen artists, you expect it to be abuzz with a handful of good curated exhibitions, maybe an Annual Art Fair and probably one or two intellectually nourishing journal/newsletter/book – whatever!
You’d expect to feel the Kenyan presence in Biennales & International Art Fairs – because that’s what the real curators I know do.
But what do we have? A handful of dudes with fancy titles, living off artist commissions from sales of artworks in small cafes and corporate corridors. People with no medal whatsoever to show for their several years of fancy titles. Not an event. Not a text; Like a singer without a song. Or a painter without a painting. People who prey for any social gathering so that they have another chance to introduce themselves while attaching buzz words/titles to their names… Ogonga Thom, Independent Curator… Michael Soi, Art Dealer Extraordinaire… John Kamicha, Art Theorist & Critic etc.
This makes the local art scene feel like a circus of wannabes. And with every sunrise we have to navigate a field full of fakes, counterfeits & cheap imitations.