I must admit I have trouble putting a definition that I truly believe in to some of these artsy phrases. Public Art aka Art in public (and semi public) spaces is one very ambiguous statement in that you put together two words that would individually challenge any above average linguist especially when put in an artistic context.
Every time my English is challenged, I run to Wikipedia… according to them, the term public art properly refers to works of art in any media that have been planned and executed with the specific intention of being sited or staged in the physical public domain, usually outside and accessible to all.
Where I come from (read Nairobi), any ‘strange looking thing’ in any open space or next to a building is loosely tucked in a box labeled public art!
Historically public art was in the form of monuments and memorials with artists like Michelangelo and Gian Lorenzo Bernini being commissioned to create works that are still breathtaking centuries later. Recently however, it has become more conceptual with artists interpreting cultures, attitudes and lifestyles of the people in relation to the space coming up with interventions that are simply, spot on! (for lack of a better adjective)
In my index, among the most successful works in this category is the Charging Bull (also referred to as the Wall Street Bull or the Bowling Green Bull), the 3.2 ton bronze sculpture by Arturo Di Modica that stands in Bowling Green Park near Wall Street in Manhattan, New York City. The oversize sculpture depicts a bull, the symbol of aggressive financial optimism and prosperity, leaning back on its haunches and with its head lowered as if ready to charge. The sculpture is both a popular tourist destination which draws thousands of people a day, as well as "one of the most iconic images of New York.
|the wall street bull|
Also is Christ the Redeemer (constructed between 1922 and 1931), a statue of Jesus Christ in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; considered the largest Art Deco statue in the world. It is 39.6 metres tall and 30 metres wide. It weighs 635 tonnes and is located at the peak of the 700-metre Corcovado mountain in the Tijuca Forest National Park overlooking the city. A symbol of Brazilian Christianity, the statue has become an icon for Rio de Janeiro and Brazil. It is made of reinforced concrete and soapstone. It is now a part of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
|Christ the Redeemer watching over Rio.|
Back home?! Hmmmm! When monuments were considered public art, we had a few. Uhuru Gardens, Nyayo Monument... but artistically, we still lag behind. Way behind. By the turn of the millennium, Nairobi got a handful of public sculptures thanks to Kuona Trust’s International Artists Residency Programme. Jeevanjee Gardens in downtown Nairobi has sculptures by Kenyans Edward ‘Masakhalia’ Bulima (Portrait of Jeevanjee) & Morris Foit (Birth in the Garden) and Nitaya Ueareeworakul (Thailand).
The Nairobi museum also benefitted from hosting Kuona (1995-2003). Sculptures by Ugandans Francis Nnagenda, Kizito Maria Kasule, Kenyan Jackson Wanjau and Japanese artist Yukinori Yamamura makes it some form of mini sculpture park. Omega Ludenyi’s ‘Tree of Life’ also sits at the Sarit Centre car park.
However, we have no public artwork that is uniquely Kenyan or Nairobian! The space custodians – City Council of Nairobi have erected ‘things’ at the major roundabouts and the government through Kenyatta University is busy erecting monuments to ‘honour our heroes.’ First Dedan Kimathi and recently Tom Mboya (Ironically, history suggests both were terminated by the government).
|Dedan Kimathi (l) & Tom Mboya|
Most people admit that the government finding money to commission public art is a good move. Me too! However, those that sit down to decide the What? Why? Where?… need to style up! And pretty fast! What we’ve seen coming up recently is a big joke! The artist’s technical ability may not be in question, but the content is. If this is not checked, Nairobi will end up being a city where ‘freedom fighters’ cast in bronze stand high up on 15 foot pedestals looking down at us mere mortals.
|Sculptures at Nairobi Museum (r) Francis Nnagenda's Mother & Child|
The Nairobi Museum is not doing very well either. A sculpture by Jackson Wanjau (Kenyan sculptor extraordinaire) is tucked at a very bad place - literally between a rock and a very hard place! This happens while prime space along the main entrance is reserved to some sculpture that is… weak (I tried really hard not use the word ‘bad’). In terms of material used, and how it’s put together. The Achilles Heel of public art is that it should resonate with the public. Those who interact with the space. Every time I go to the museum, I don’t feel that piece. Neither do my friends. Nor my family. I wonder who does?!
The reason every Nairobian has been making a pilgrimage to the Vulture Graffiti in downtown Nairobi is simple. For the first time in a long while, someone has given them what they have longed for in terms of art in a (not so) public space.
Nairobi is starved of public art for two reasons; Money and bureaucracy at the council offices. But for anyone who’s overcome these challenges and is hitting the road to create another artwork in public (or semi public), please don’t give us another ‘freedom fighter on a pedestal'… and whatever it is, make it coherent and well thought of.