Wednesday, April 24, 2013

This Is Not an Exhibition Review!

Two weeks ago I attended the opening of Kenya’s only art competition, MANJANO. At the end of the night, with a couple of beers in me and still licking the grease from the chicken wings off my lower lip, I must admit I was really pleased and happy for local artists. But this is not an exhibition review.

I normally don't rely exhibition reviews, because I love seeing the exhibition itself. I have attended (or participated in) shows then gone on to read what art writers/reporters/reviewers go on to say about them and most of the time, it feels like I went to a totally different gig!

Conventional art reportage dictates that Manjano's review has to mention the Three Hundred Thousand Shillings (Ksh.300,000) first prize cash award and tag a name to it. This should be the same to the other prizes. That is quite okay. However, in our capitalist society, it's very easy to remember the money bit and who got what instead of why there was a gathering in the first place.
Manjano Exhibition & Competition.
Before my time, Kenyan artists looked to Manjano like platforms for genuine recognition of their talent. I can recall the big boys ahead of me nostalgically talk about "Kenya Art Panorama" organized by Alliance Francaise and The HFCK Exhibition & Competition of the early nineties. These were the launch pads for most art careers. 

Then in the mid nineties, for three years The East African Industries Exhibition (and competition) became (probably) "the most important" exhibition in the artistic calender. Artists Sebastian Kiarie, Patrick Kayako and Richard Kimathi careers skyrocketed as a result of the recognition that came with being the winners.

This was followed by a one off Franco-German collaboration in 2006 in the name of Elsyee Treaty Juried Exhibition & Competition where Bertiers, Sam Githui, Fred Abuga and Beatrice Wanjiku walked away with the top honours. They have all continued with fruitful practice. I intentionally avoid the word ‘successful’ as this is only used in exhibition reviews.
All these events have a common thread. They are platforms that recognize artistic talent. All artists are talented me thinks. And all deserve a prize. But some do more than others. That's why these exhibitions that double as competitions are all so vital.

For almost 10 years, there has been a very slow growth in the number or new artists able to survive/stay afloat in the contemporary art scene. The reasons may be varied and many but that's a story for another day. 

During our time (as the art babies) we were very slowly absorbed into the system. Painfully slowly but there was some sort of support system. We had free studios at the Nairobi Museum (with tea and bread for break) thanks to Kuona Trust and a back door access to the Museum gallery. Wendy Karmali would decide who was ready to show there so that was our launch pad. From the Museum it was easy...ish to get to Goethe Institut & Alliance Francaise. Then most of us were ready to fly. Whether we soared or crash-landed is indeed another story for another day.

However, those who came right after us weren't so lucky! Frstly, there were no free studios and no direct access to any gallery so you had several young artists with no experience and almost no confidence, expected to survive on their own. That is the picture I remember the first time I visited Mukabi's studio in 2008 just after kuona moved from the Godown. There was a handful of unkempt juveniles all over the place running up and down when not trying to copy his paintings.
Andrew Otieno's Installation at Manjano
Fast forward to last week, ‘the juveniles’ were all grown up and full of confidence. The reasons are many – resilience and self discipline come top of the list but the recognition they get from platforms like MANJANO goes a long way in building their confidence. Artists like Alex Mbevo and Andrew Otieno (previous winners) are classic examples of this. They have added value to Manjano; from obscure nondescript up and coming artists under Mukabi to fully fledged artists among the first to step into the godown every morning. They are the success stories of Manjano and have made their peers aspire to be like them. As early as November, the gang of about fifteen was prepping for this competition. They all wanted to win. They all wanted to be part of the Manjano History. Like most respected artistic awards/fellowships, the organizers should use Manjano's alumni (and success stories) to raise its profile.

To an outsider (whatever that means), it's all for the money but for a young (and relatively new) artist, the money is good but being propelled onto the pedestal, albeit temporarily translates to "the coming of age," and it's sweeter because they are recognized in front of their peers. And the players in the scene. It is probably the first time 'that curator/dealer' will look your way or the first time 'The East African' will feature you as an artist (No pun intended). iIn the military, that'd be a medal on the chest! 
Manjano is a really good platform. The only one we have. But it can be better. I wish previous winners would be more involved and that it can be staged at The Godown Art Centre. but that's just a wish. Also, I honestly hope it stays for long. Very long. And as I congratulate the winners and organizers, I just want you to remember that this is not an exhibition review. 

I loathe exhibition reviews. because most, if not all the time, they just tell you how amazing and beautiful the work is and parade photos of this year's winners (holding dummy cheques) without finding out the competition's impact on the practice of previous winners.

Lastly, personal congrats Wikileaks & Wa Kenchic... not sure if I congratulated you then as the Tusker was taking effect. Nakujia loan next week.

1 comment:

  1. Cool piece. I was at the exhibition yesterday, and am kinda hoping to write about it. It will not be a review either :)

    It was my first opportunity to visit an exhibition, and going by last evening's evidence, it certainly won't be the last.