When "Gentleman's Club" opens on Sunday 24th June, it will not only be just another show but a celebration of how far we've come. In terms of technical ability, intellectual capacity and freedom of publicly showing work that was unexhibitable just a couple of years ago.
For most artists, compiling a decent body of work is very fulfilling. Selling is nice (as it helps sort out our material obligations) but getting to show it in a good exhibition is ultimate. Nothing beats the feeling of having your peers in a space - conventional or otherwise as your work takes centre stage accompanied by the clinking of wine glasses, smell of fresh samosas + spring rolls, a handful of red dots next to the art on show and (semi) intelligent conversations as people gather to celebrate your hard work... or laziness. That to most artists is probably the one and only objective critic session they'll ever have (of course before the brain + alcohol become buddies).
Over the years, our art scene has been labelled as conservative. Meaning we have been afraid. So afraid of what we've called taboo subjects - politics, nudity, religion, sexuality... and anything we put in the box labelled UnAfrican! This translates to some artworks never getting to see the light of day for what are deemed 'cultural reasons'. A polite way of saying your work makes certain people uncomfortable.
You see, artists are... Strange! (for lack of a better word). We live in the same city, go to the same schools, shop in the same stores, read the same books, agree on most things arty but are very individual in our creations. The thing that sets us apart is the one we call inspiration.
Some people are inspired by nature, others religion, others politics, maybe love or fashion or just women. Others seek inspiration in the night.
Spaces, depending on their custodians, have had their fair share of challenges in dealing with all the diverse subjects that come out of artist studios making them sometimes go for the easiest option politically. Censorship.
Not sure who has been a culprit or victim before my time but a handful of times I've been witness and victim.
First was in the year 2001; Patrick Mukabi, Peter Klashorst and myself had worked long & hard to put up what to us was supposed to be a blockbuster show at the East African Contemporary Gallery (Nairobi Museum). All went well till the works got into the space. Curated by Gert Meijerink of the Amsterdam Institute of Painting, the show was titled "Nairobi Day & Night Club" and was a black & white interpretation of the title. Panye had beautiful paintings of graceful women during the day. Klas had very good ones of the not so good people of the night. I had the in between.
Word spread quickly and the management decided to edit the show and remove the culturally offensive work. Protests, blackmails and compromises later, we had a show. Not as blockbuster as we'd have loved but among the few conceptualized shows at the Nairobi Museum.
Come 2005, an artist and dealer got together a posse of artists and put up a show of nude works at Le Rustique restaurant. It was a big hit and someone thought it a good idea to move it to Karen. The works were put up in a high end restaurant till someone called the cops to complain about pornographic stuff in their club.
Some of the paintings were arrested! Not sure what the charge sheet read or how they left the cop shop but knowing Kenya, someone gave and another received. The show ended prematurely!
More recently, Michael Soi aka the Snakedoctor was to have a show whose content was the going ons in the mushrooming Nairobi strip clubs. He couldn't show the work as the 'expected audience' would be offended. I was personally offended as it was censoring within a creative space. Soi has not been so lucky. He booked and confirmed a show in an upmarket pub & restaurant. The owner soon discovered he intended to show politically motivated paintings and as fate would have it, the show never took off as a regular patron was a big man.
Fast forward and coming Sunday is the opening of the "The Gentleman's Club."
It is a juxtaposition of the two artists’ view of Nairobi with a bias toward the night. Both have been accused of degrading women by portraying them negatively and supporting the vices that come with the still of the night.
Whether they do or not we'll never know (or is irrelevant for now). One thing however is that what happens in Nairobi does happen. Art imitates life. The Nairobi night is perceived as dangerous, heathen, black, ugly & full of sin - gambling, crime, prostitution, bar brawls etc.
Amid all the madness, there is happiness/fun. It is when you enjoy your favourite dinners. When your spouse, or brother or sister is earning their daily bread (honestly). When you're running across town to catch those annoying night flights. When in a bus heading to the village. Or when you make a trip to The Gentleman's Club! At such times there's alot to see! Some of us close our eyes because what we see is not pretty. But some open them wider, and stare! Because they know they shall reference those moments in their work. When making their art.
Those that closed their eyes (and they that were seen) will be upset by the artworks generated from those moments. They will do all in their power to stop the work from being seen. They shall burry their heads in the sand and believe that these things did not happen. But come morning, they shall replay these nightly topics discussed graphically on their home radios and car stereos, truly enjoying these taboo subjects.
Maybe the power of a picture (read painting) is so overwhelming and plays with our conscience hence the resistance. We're okay with having strip club adverts in our daily newspapers and at bus stops (high density public platforms) but it's not okay for artists to exhibit works inspired by this culture in (semi) public spaces. Don't know why, but one thing is for sure, come Sunday, for the first time artists have a rare chance of going all out - all guns blazing & bare knuckled to show their studio output without being worried about censorship & terms like sensitive audiences, culturally offensive blah blah blah! And it’ all for arts sake.
It's not often that artists are ‘Free To Decide’ what to show as someone else's opinion carries the day. So am really looking forward to the vernissage on Sunday. Cold beer on the Snakedoctor if you can find your way to One Off Contemporary Art Gallery #16 Rosslyn Lone Tree Nairobi.