Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Words that Should be Banned from Art Lingua

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!


  1. So true ! This is type of artist I really dislike, the one who must explain you every single piece he did... And there you are the usual blah-blah-blah about inspiration, etc. OR the spectator asking you the same bullshit "what inspired you".

    You like it, say it and/or buy it. You don't like, say it and/or trash it.

    By the way, you said "And if you can't be honest, please Shut Up! Honesty is the best policy but silence is always a better substitute." - I hear you and feel you but some artists don't like honesty

    "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!" - Is AMATEURISH an OK word for you ??

    If yes, then note that some artists would prefer you to shut up than say your personal opinion...

    When Africancolours asked us what can be done to improve their FB page, I said:

    "That you don't remove our comments when we criticize something, especially when it's about art... Enough said, don't censor critics and favor free speech, no ?? So, yes, if I call Soi's work amateurish work then let it be no ?? Thanks."

    After this com, I was again insulted by Soi and called "mentally retarded" (see the nice reply I got "it is wise for someone we suspect is terminally ignorant to keep his mouth shut than to open it and confirm our suspicions.") -

    So yes Thom, next time I am in front of Soi's work, I will just give him a "Nice, this is cool" because that's what he wants and deserves. Bas !!

    I fail to understand artists that can't not accept criticisms or personal comments; there are in the wrong boat

    So yes, Soi's work is nice and cool. I know you can't speak on behalf of Soi; but yourself, do you really want fair criticisms and personal opinions about your work, are you ready for this ??

    1. Hi Big Boss, I love your opinion + honesty.
      I think we artists are kings of double standards. We behave like politicians - we thrive in the company of those giving us (false) praise and kick out they that give us (genuine) criticism.
      I dislike the web coz it makes us intellectually lazy... we just hit 'thumbs up' and 'like' icons then type amazing!
      I can't speak for Africancolours or Soi but... for me, taking time out to look at my work, form an opinion & tell me is quite special coz I want you to see my work and that way, you've given me proof that you have.
      Thanks for reading + sharing your thoughts on this... I also loathe people who delete comments. It equates to distorting history.

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  3. i think most people comment on the general appearance of the work thinking thats what the artist was aiming to do -u know? impress with supernatural painting skills that not just anyone can do? then they think they r doing u a favor by declaring it a feast for the eyes or whatever?.... but then there will always be that random obviously irritated scizophrenic guest who comes by n says something abstract like "that guy in ur painting is totally pissing me off!!" ha ha ..sounds crazy i know but at that moment one forgets the previous luke warm compliments n is jus glad to be an artist! ha ha

  4. Interesting read indeed. From experience, I feel artist’s statement are never adequate and rarely very well written.
    As per comments on Art works, I don’t think there are any words that should be avoided or silenced. Words such as ‘Amazing’ or ‘Beautiful’ have their place in the vocabulary and if one uses be it... I have used them before when “amazed” by a piece and don’t feel ashamed at all... On the same subject, I have never described a piece as “breathtaking”... As a dealer, most of my clients-buyers will use simple-describing words before opening their purses... and too often, the non buyers always seem to use superlatives such as “breathtaking”, “so inspirational”...
    I beg to differ with you on two counts:

    1.Terming a painting beautiful is not an insult to artist. If an artist is offended by such a term, he or she should go back to the drawing board and re-think the way his or her work might appeal to people.

    2. (Artists) don’t need flattery, (they) need your truthful opinion. Oh My! Do they need flattery! Constantly...they thrive on it...they crave flattery of any sorts...even if that does not calm down their insecurities. As per receiving “truthful opinions”, artists hate them...loathe the fact one can not admire their work... I’ve met enough artists going berserk after one labelled their pieces ‘average’ or simply ‘technically shit’...

    Artists might laugh when one says their work is “nice”, “awesome” or “pretty”...if they do, they are the kind of artists I would not be interested in working with... Their arrogance would annoy me...

    1. Thanks.
      I agree with your observations on a well written and objective artist statement. It guides the audience. After reading & viewing the work, they should be pretty close. If they still aren't, then the artist missed something somewhere.
      However artist who 'laugh' (read smile) when you refer to their work as nice, pretty... are just masking their disappointment. I think. After looking at (let's say a) painting for 1/2/3... maybe 5 minutes, the conversation should be at least a couple of sentences - good or bad is another story. Those words shut down a potential conversation.