Thursday, June 20, 2013

Kenyans Own the Titles, Foreigners do the Work!

(This text is neither intended to be racist nor show prejudice to anyone in any way. it is the writer's observation of the sometimes painful happenings of the Nairobi contemporary scene)

It's difficult to tell how many artists live and work in Nairobi. Some will say five hundred. Others two, but my census (according to my phonebook) puts it somewhere below a hundred. It's a big...ish industry me thinks. Which calls for a good supporting cast. This support system is made up of those that take over outside the artist's studio - the dealers, critics, writers... In Kenya, anyone involved in any aspect of the arts that's not production is loosely referred to as a stakeholder (twisted to sound politically correct). These are those that head all ‘important' (government & not for profit) art institutions. Talk about government portfolios, art schools, spaces, cultural institutions and the top job comes with cliché titles like “the director,” “the founder,” “the curator”, "trustee", "patron"… A common thread among these stakeholders is that they are (mostly young) Kenyans. This should be a good thing. It is. No?

However, there has been an interesting trend over the last couple of calendars. There is a new breed of players (for lack of a better word). I like referring to them as the New Sheriffs in Town. Common thread - they are all foreigners. And mainly women (with the exception of three, maybe four). They may not have the government's ear but they make up for that by having artists' goodwill. A look at the last ten major...ish art events suggests majority were either organized or hosted by expats. Most do a commendable job and their interaction with artists ends with a firm happy handshake... long story for separate text... but one with a dodgy history in Kenya pulled a fast one far away in Italy while we all... including the stakeholders slept!

The recent going ons on the international art world has not only left kenyans wiping sludge off their faces but has also reminded us of the harsh reality that is the creative industry in Kenya. The whole debate of who owns the title versus who does the work once again rared its ugly head. For those uninformed, The Venice Biennale (Biennale di Venezia in Italian) is a major contemporary art exhibition that takes place once every two years (in odd years) in Venice, Italy. It was founded in 1895 with the main goal of establishing a new market for contemporary art. For its history and grand scale, it is referred to as The Art Olympics.

This year’s edition (with artistic collaboration across borders and disciplines as a sub theme) was labeled as important for Africa. Angola won the Golden Lion Award for the best national participation. Nice.

For the first time, there is a 'Kenyan' Pavilion!

Sounds like good news, no? The Italian-curated show displays the works of eight Chinese artists. Yes, Chinese. One Italian, one Italo-Brazilian and only two Kenyans - Kivuthi Mbuno and Chrispus Wang'ombe Wachira.

This got African art practitioners (and non Africans genuinely interested in Art… whatever that means) in endless debates online about the authenticity of the Kenyan Pavilion. The irony of these debates is that we have cultural practitioners from across the globe giving their two cents contribution but I hear no Kenyans! Except practicing artists! I expected these Kenyans with authority to step up! I would have expected to hear the 'stakeholders' show concern! I am still expecting them. No. I am waiting for them to respond!

Rather than get angry and like every Kenyan, shout telling everyone else that the Kenyan pavillion was not Kenyan, I tried to keep calm and ask myself why someone would use our name and ‘his folks’ to gain entry into the art Olympics while flying the Kenyan flag. Did he know we'd not give a damn? Are we too busy to do it ourselves? Don't we have money to pay for a pavillion? Is it that we are just lazy? Maybe we lack information and the required skill! Or confidence? Are we just used to swimming in the baby pool? Or maybe we're okay with it?

Yes, it has happened. What are we going to do about it? Is anyone in authority going to confront Paolo Popini and Armando Tanzini? Are we going to get our 'genuine' pavillion in 2015? One with Soi, and Beatrice, and Kyalo, and Emily, and Kimathi, and Kamwathi, and Ogonga... Do we want answers to these questions? And can we handle the truth? It is easy to blame the Italians and accuse the Chinese. It's okay to drop words like neocolonialism & multiculturalism while ignoring the elephant in the room but... the main questions should be – Why/How did it happen during our watch? And, what are we gonna do about it?
Good news is that there is a scheduled forum to try interrogating this debacle. Irony is, it is not Kenyan led! It comes from the new sheriffs in town. They seem to comprehend what's at stake, more than the 'Kenyan' stakeholders. I really would like to go, listen, participate and give my two cents worth of opinion but it is a real shame that we're either not equipped intellectually or not confident enough to do it on our own. We are content with visiting Dak'Art, Venice, Frieze, and Jo’Burg Art Fair as tourists... but we're not confident enough to confront the logistics to ensure Kenya's participation there.

While we were busy doing... whatever, someone took our ‘name’ and 'identity' and ran away with it. How do we get it back? The sheriffs are trying to do it for us while we play 'wait & see'. I sincerely hope (even if a not-so-wise man said hope is for fools) that we can move from esoteric conversations & cultural sophistication on social media and use this as a wake up call to step up.

Yeah! 50 years of 'independence.' Walking with our heads held high because we have all the (cool) titles... but still foreigners do the work.


  1. I tried to give an explanation on FB but was sent off. Red carded :)

    The culprits just found a niche and used it, confronting them will have no use. I think the organizers of the Venice are the ones to be confronted so that they don't allow this again - hijacking a coutnry pavillon.

    Scenario is I guess the following: few rich guys want a pavilion at Venice... they found out that some countries are not representing, they checked the list and chose Kenya (because Kenya sells, touristic-posh destination). They registered the pavilion, put fake names. Proposition is reviewed by Venice organizers and approved. That's it, they can sell their Chinese painting !!

    Knowing the price of a pavilion, not sure it is a good investment and way forward to move Kenyan art to international scene. It is very very expensive !! So even if Kenya had the money, not sure having a pavilion at Venice is the best thing.

    As for the sheriffs in town, agree with you. Art should be for the mass and well-priced to get local market... and not seen like an expensive, hyped utility for elitists... as for how to do it, I think it starts with the artists themselves, produce, produce, produce and sell, sell, sell and stop seeing your art as a one-off masterpiece but as merchandise.

    But that's my opinion and as you said, the Sheriffs will decide and act :)

  2. Thom, thank you so much for this well-written and interesting article. And especially for asking those questions. I experience the same in Namibia - for some reason we do not stand up for ourselves, pull up our sleeves and work hard at becoming professional and do what needs to be done. Instead we wait till somebody from outside (often with little or no knowledge of the arts or local arts scene) does something and then either happily hail them as the "new sheriff in town" with no questions asked or alternatively, if we do not like what they are doing, complain bitterly about them hijacking whatever we have. I wish I/we had an easy solution, but i guess it needs a big soul-searching on our part and the will to start doing and stop blaming others... Vultures are out there all the time, if you do not guard what is yours, it won't help blaming them for coming for it. So let's stand up and show everybody, that we are better than that and claim our true place in the art world ourselves.

  3. thanks so much for bringing this debate up gor. i am really disgusted with this whole thing. shouldnt we be asking the kenya government? isnt the ministry of culture the real culprit? or no? how else would the italians have gotten involved?? but this is truly insane!! 8 chinese who??? not nai ni who? but chinese and italian who?? who the hell do they think they are?? i wonder how they had the nerve to claim they represent kenyans!! thank you again for making noise, dear Gor. we need to get to the bottom of this because who was watching?? thanks to joyce n. who wrote a rude but accurate disclaimer to the shenanigins for the italians so called curators. when kenyan artists ....i mean KENYAN artists are going to much artistically and advancing so creatively, that this sort of thing would happen is great, only because artists must rally and make MORE NOISE and insist this never happen again. this is the sort of thing the Arterial Network kenya chapter should take up and challenge powers that be. i hope they do. also the kenya visual artists network...and of course, you!!!