Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Built on Quicksand, Sustained by Hype

I never met Ruth Schaffner!

I must also admit my work has never found its way into Gallery Watatu with the exception of it passing through for framing by Owino - the late resident framer, en route to other spaces for exhibitions. Most of the (not so) young artists probably sail the same boat as I in that they also have never exhibited there; whether it’s by choice or by being locked out is a story for another day! From Kyalo, Mukabi, Michael Soi, Jimmah Kimani, Peterson Kamwathi, Beatrice Wanjiku, Anthony Okello, Peter Walala, Jimmy Ogonga... a large percentage of those referred to as 2nd generation Kenyan artists.

So, when last week a local daily carried the story of the “major auction and final closure" not many tears were shed! It was comparable to this week when 2 politicians died and the political class are busy turning well known villains into instant heroes.

Flashback... A little over 40 years ago three artistic friends -Jony Waite, Robin Anderson and David Hart - created a privately-owned space they named "Watatu" - Swahili for 3 people. It is not very clear (or well documented) when it changed hands but the new owner became Ruth Schaffner, a German-born American collector of post-war art.
With Ruth at the helm, Watatu was an instant 'hit' and was home of what was loosely referred to as créme de la créme of indigenous Kenyan (read naive) art. Artists like Jak Katarikawe, Ancent Soi, Sane + Eunice Wadu, Wanyu Brush, Elijah Ooko, Kivuthi Mbuno, Samuel + Jackson Wanjau & Chain Muhandi among others soon became overnight celebrities.

One thing everyone agrees with is that Ruth Schaffner was an art dealer extraordinaire!

Urban legend has it that artist villages, Ngecha and Banana Hill sprouted as a result of Ruth's patronage. Young and ambitious guys out of college would walk into the gallery, head held high armed with a diploma/degree and they would leave crestfallen as they'd be told, "They weren't good enough unless they painted like Sane, or Brush, or Muhandi..."
The strong and maybe too proud, never came back and carried on with their practice minus Watatu. The weak, tried to be like Sane! like Meek Gichugu... and even got cool names to boot!

People 'got rich' and for once Kenyan art 'was on the world map' and then it happened in 1996!
Ruth Schaffner died! There was pandemonium in the art scene. Grown men cried! They did not sob. They wailed.

This was around the same time Kuona Trust and One Off Gallery were starting and all those who never got into Watatu were having alternative spaces to show (and sell). For most of us, Watatu was never an option. It simply wasn't there. For most, the connection was Owino, the framer.

Fast forward and we heard rumours of watatu being broke and some staff hawking artworks to make ends meet but that was private property, and we weren't supposed to trespass!
Then this year - I guess shit hit the fan! Watatu crumbled, and is now falling.
That Watatu is obsolete and going under was never the issue. It was HOW this was happening that most had a problem with. An auction had allegedly taken place and another one was scheduled yet no information was forthcoming. It felt like someone was keen to tie up a good deal in a hush. Fate had it that through social media, information leaked and was shared.
On the day of the second auction, two dozen people in the arts were there, some to claim what was rightfully theirs, some for curiosity, maybe a handful for moral support, some to buy expensive work cheaply and some to just heckle. The gods of creativity got us a reprieve and the auction was postponed to 16th June.

We have accepted that closure is inevitable but does it really matter?
Our beloved RaMoMa 'died' recently. We never mourned and moved on like it never was. Today, Watatu is in High Dependency Unit and we're already shopping for a coffin! A glimpse at gives an indicator on who the gallery represented. You won't find the names of the young, prolific award winning Kenyan artists shifting the dynamics of the local art scene. Why? We may never know.
Maybe, before we get all emotional and use words like History, Heritage etcetera, we should define the relationship we had with Watatu, with the institution, with they that ran (down) the space. And when I personally do that, I can say with my head held high that, "I'm not gonna lack sleep over Gallery Watatu's closure."

We have other art spaces/institutions that have gone the same way. We get all mushy when they are in the red then amnesia creeps in immediately they're unable to stay afloat. Is it lack of strategy? Are our institutions too elite? Could it be the personnel? Or is it that we don't support each other? Maybe one day we'll find out. Maybe.

I love quoting strange artists that I meet and a wise one summed it up well... "The old order empires built on quicksand and sustained by hype, are finally crumbling.”
And as this happens, another one inhales on his ciggy, reflects, and as he exhales, with the smoke comes the words, "Nothing, I feel absolutely nothing."

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