Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Five Years, And Still Showing

I always have trouble starting articles. This may be due to the fact that as much as I sometimes want to give my alternative opinion on art related issues, I may at times be too angry, maybe too subjective. And that's not why I do what I do.

I like talking. I also love listening. In my line of work, am always caught in the studio-family cycle so much that any reason to break that routine and have a ball is always welcome. These, come in many forms; Whisky Saturdays with the bikers, Public holiday barbeques in the chochoro, football weekends, adults taking over kids’ birthday parties. And, exhibition openings.

The last couple of years have seen exhibition openings become cool events as a result some of Kenya's most prolific artists becoming regular fixtures in the local scene. This requires artistic spaces (read galleries, and especially public + semi public) to be up to speed so as to have a healthy turnover of exhibitions while satisfying both art practitioners and consumers. With very few spaces and numerous creatives, the question is, How long should a show run for?
I guess it's easy. For as long as the space custodian wants to. But after how long does a show lose relevance? (For lack of a better word, I use relevance).

Any Kenyan, or anyone remotely connected to Kenya doesn't need to be reminded of the year 2007. Alot of things happened. I almost got married. Manchester United won the English Premier League title... But those matter little. It was election year in Kenya. The campaigns were hot, the elections charged and the results disputed. The aftermath was catastrophic. We descended on each other. Kenya was like a video clip from bob Marley's 'burning & looting.'
This went on for 3 months.

Every Kenyan was ‘affected.’ Some, more than others. People told their stories - on TV, in newspapers, online and artists in whatever media they best respond to.
Lots of art-related events happened in Kenya as a result of what is until now referred to as the 2007/8 Post Election Violence, but three I personally believe were head and shoulders above the rest.

Not in any particular order, Kuona Trust marshalled artists and put together a brilliant exhibition to raise funds for direct victims of the chaos. The monies collected were handed to the Kenya Red Cross and I believe were used for the intended purpose.

The Kibera posse, Maasai Mbili which comes from the settlement that was arguably the most affected led their community in a series of healing workshops that were held in the burnt down settlements. Solomon Muyundu aka Solo 7 had peace messages written all over the sprawling slum while Otieno Gomba led the rest of the gang painting within ‘the ruins.’ This noble gesture put the Kibera artists on the global pedestal. The outcome of their activities was almost instant.

Finally, press (and a handful of amateur) photographers, those who witnessed the action first hand, brought to us an unedited version of what was rated X on TV through the Kenya Burning photographic exhibition. It had a chilling effect!
Most of us middle (and semi-middle) class folks had no idea what was going on as we were behind our relatively safe houses protected by razor/electric wire with an armed response gang stationed outside the gate (with a dog) watching the going ons on gagged TV.

The exhibition at the Godown Arts Centre was very graphic. Gruesome. The stories were surreal. They were not (supposed to have been) made in Kenya. Whatever message the exhibition (with a caption Never Again) wanted to pass, was passed. It was quite a successful exhibition, I believe. Back in 2008.

And then it moved. First to the late RaMoMa, and then to the Kenyatta International Conference Centre. It also showed in Eldoret, Mombasa, Kisumu and Zanzibar. And then this year in January, it came back home to the Godown. It is still on 8 months later! 
Last week, a second one opened in the Nairobi Gallery. Wow! Two exhibitions, same content in the same city. Never happened before. This is probably the exhibition that holds the international title of longest running & touring exhibition! It can also be summed in one word. OVERKILL!

In search of answers, I asked myself why this exhibition is so important to us as Kenyans, as artists, as space custodians?

It's so very true that we butchered each other, raped 'our enemies' daughters/ mothers/ sisters, looted and burnt property... So what? In the exact moments of mayhem, there were our very own heroes - who saved lives of perceived enemies, tended their wounds, fed them, clothed them... those who put their lives on the line by helping those from 'the enemy'. But these are not good enough stories I guess. They are not sensational enough I bet.

These are images from (almost) 5 years ago and as we approach an election which has been pushed to next year because we ain't readyTana River was on fire. Why? Tribalism. Mombasa was rioting. Why? Religious intolerance as a result of a murdered Sheikh. Mombasa Republican Council is threatening cessation. Why? A whole list of grievances that contributed to Kenya burning in the first place. All these lead me to the same question. What happened to our social responsibility as creative people? How can we use the platforms we control for the greater good? How can we use what we have to prevent Kenya Burning Season 2?  What do we gain by showing one exhibition for 5 years? Showing it in two spaces at once. Absolutely nothing. Am sure even the photographers in the exhibition have new photos they'd love us to see. I saw Kibera in March 2008. We stood in a burnt down pub during the Maasai Mbili project. When I went back to there in May, the bar had been re-built, operational and we had a beer in it with the gang. Why don't we want to tell these (slightly) positive stories?

People lost lives and property and most are still living in squalid conditions. This mayhem taught us words and phrases that we’ll probably never be able to use in any context outside Kenya. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), Post Election Violence (PEV)… What are we trying to achieve through this exhibition 5 years on? What satisfaction are we getting from displaying other people’s prolonged pain and anguish? When will it stop? Nothing personal but i think we've all had enough of it. We messed up big time and if we’re not in any way trying to right the wrong, we have no business even talking about it. I bet no woman wants to be reminded of the day they were busted cheating on their spouse just like no man writes in his diary the date he was arrested soliciting for sex from a prostitute.

From a very-selfish-practicing-artist point of view, it's not rosy either. All the months such an exhibition takes, holds up potential exhibiting space denying a platform for showing local artists' recent work - some of which is interrogative of pertinent issues Kenyans need to deal with to avoid a repeat of 2007/8. That explains why we've never seen a show by Kim at the Nairobi Gallery or Mary at the Godown or Omari at KICC.

But then again, this is just an alternative writer, on an alternative platform using so many words to say, “Yes, Kenya burnt. Part of it has been rebuilt. Part is still being built, albeit slowly. The only part that is beyond salvage is our souls and we’re daily confirming it by constantly dwelling on the flames, the displacement, the murder, the pillaging, the hate speech and pledging our allegiance to the merchants of death, 5 years on. Tutashindia Hapo?!"

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