It's been a while since I last did an exhibition and had (temporarily) forgotten some of the (not so pleasant) questions I have to deal with when put on the spot. Making (what you want or what you perceive as) art is easy (for most artists). It's fun. Almost playful. I am yet to meet an artist who doesn't enjoy his practice. Every artist loves his job. Every moment of it (except shopping). What most find challenging is probably writing up a coherent artist statement that is relevant to their practice.
Having gone through the hard part of being an artist; early mornings, shopping sprees at Sciencescope, late nights in seedy joints, many interrupted painting sessions, selection of work that felt cohesive, getting them into the space & letting everyone know the mischief we were up to, I guess I thought the opening would be spent smiling, accepting compliments and topping up my beer mug.
I was wrong!
First, I realized that my artist statement was not adequate! It was too short. My partners in crime (aka the artists), know me. They are part of my practice. They therefore understand my work; content & philosophy. So, no need of having long winded explanations. A few people are okay with seeing the work and being pointed the direction of the artist from a distance. This is okay.
Some want a piece of you or expect you to bare it all. From the cliché "What inspires you?" to the technical process, to how long it takes and how you intend to change the world by painting drinking couples. The - why you do what you do. It’s almost a bad way of asking you to interpret your artist statement or simplify the exhibition write up.
Most of these conversations are good. Very good. They make you see your work in way you'd never thought. For once, all the artsy vocabulary - context, threshold, interrogation, commentary, identity, inquisition, process ... is thrown out of the window and you interact with your audience in a language they understand. On their terms!
Most people are of course polite. And curious. Once they understand where you're coming from, they are like they've known you forever. However, a couple of words keep coming up. Words whose intentions are good in every way (I think). Words supposed to be compliments but those I find rather abstract. If it were my call, they are words I'd ban from the art lexicon! Words like…
|Selection of Ogonga Thom's paintings on show.|
Amazing! (causing great surprise or sudden wonder) How can a painting be amazing? Back in my primary school, there was this big girl called Grace. She was so strong she'd beat up even the strongest boy. We called her Amazing Grace (I hope she doesn't read this lest I get in trouble). So when you say a painting is amazing, I see Grace! Or try envisioning a painting that causes me sudden wonder!
Someone shouted ‘cool’ from behind me and on inquiry was told that Magical Kenya by Michael Soi was a ‘nice’ (definition - pleasing; agreeable; delightful; amiably pleasant; kind). I laughed and gave my definition of cool (temperature) and nice (weather) and the person thought I was too old fashioned for my 'tender' age. They gave me an English lesson and I agreed that maybe the painting was agreeable. Or just delightful.
|Paintings by Michael Soi|
An adjective like beautiful should never find its way into an art space. Unless of course it’s being used to describe the model in the artist's studio. Terming a painting beautiful is (almost) an insult to the artist! I am yet to meet an artist whose intended final artwork is a beautiful artwork. We use beautiful models, bright colours that are visually appealing, precious metals but that does not mean the final artwork is necessarily beautiful. As much as beauty is visual, it should be confined to vanity - a beautiful car, house, lass... Mona Lisa, the lady who sat for Leonardo of Vinci was very beautiful. The painting titled Mona Lisa is breathtaking! Leonardo's skill is astonishing.
Words like Interesting, Awesome... are often abused by people who dislike your work but feel it's polite to compliment the you. We don't need flattery, we need your truthful opinion. And if you can't be honest, please Shut Up! Honesty is the best policy but silence is always a better substitute. Just as girls see through us when we pretend to like their fake hair, artists laugh at you when you say their work is nice, awesome or pretty.
So many words can be used to describe an artwork. My English is limited but in my limitless Sheng, it could be painting kali, noma, zii, imechapa. Or Installation mwenda. Maybe sculpture ya uduu! Or picha imetokelezea. Perfomance haijanibamba! So next time, avoid a faux pas and please use words like impressive, radical, captivating, sexy, forceful, boring, vivid, harrowing, moving, breathtaking, hilarious, dramatic, shocking, provocative, but not NICE!