I recently came across a statement I consider prejudiced towards Kenyans. And it makes me angry. Very angry.
Kenyans Don't Appreciate Art!
What nonsense?! What makes it even sadder is that nine in ten times, this allegation is made by indigenous Kenyans. Native Kenyans who earn their keep in the arts. Those whose responsibility it is to make other Kenyans appreciate art! It takes alot of balls (Oops! Sorry) ... Or naivety. Maybe both, to speak with authority, making such an ignorant statement.
Every other day, you hear art practitioners say that their biggest challenge/impediment is the lack of art appreciation by indigenous Kenyans. Bullshit! You see, on one side, we want to make art elite. Just for the rich. A cool commodity targeting the middle-class. We get them to our gigs expecting them to spend. What we forget is that the typical Kenyan middle class fella probably has a car loan & mortgage to service, a superficial lifestyle to maintain and an almost non-existent art awareness. Add to this the probability of a clande(stine lover) to maintian (pun intended). All over the world, art has never been a middle-class affair. At the end of the day, you're left with people more concerned about the car they're diving, the designer they're wearing or the drink they're sipping as opposed to the artist they're viewing. Then we put all Kenyans in this category. A society that doesn't comprehend anything artsy!
Had somebody taken time, they'd have realized that the immediate consumers of art is the artists' family - the parents, spouses, offspring, nannies, neighbors... This is because they're constantly exposed to it. As raw material from the shop/street/trash, the process, the narrative, the product... Putting up with the cliche anti-social artist behaviour and habits. But they're not cool. They most often don't have impressive titles before/after their names so they're most often never wanted in exclusive and cool spaces... These are the persons who can recite the artists statement in their sleep. Their life is one continuous art piece. Constantly interacting with other artists and artworks. Their triumphs and frustrations. Understanding the good days from the bad. When no sale translates to too broke to afford bread and a good one equals caviar & Moet at the dinner table. They can chronologically piece together the artist's timeline. They understand the value of the art, but they are not specialists. If this is not appreciation (whether voluntary or forced is irrelevant), what is it?
These are the people we should trust with the mandate to spread the gospel. They understand it. They've experienced it. They believe in it. They can convert the non-believers. It's okay to chase the money but it's also very easy to miss it. And with it miss a whole lot of people who truly believe in the art. Those who see beyond the monetary value. The aesthetic, if at all anything like that exists!
Most Kenyan people who dabble in the arts, have this common perception than appreciation equates to direct buying. Which translates to affordability. I think all Kenyans would agree that Mercedes Benz is a great automobile yet less than 10% own one... Appreciation? I would think so.
I strongly believe Kenyans truly love art. We just lock them out when it matters then we blame them when we need artistically emotional support; Like when some middle class technocrat advise the government to kick art education out of the school curriculum. We take serious art to posh/cool places but what do we take to kawaida mtaa? Social work, incoherent murals and ridiculous art projects.
The lack of a free-entry public art spaces doesn't help much either. Most major cities - Paris (The Louvre), London (Tate), Windhoek, Lagos & Bulawayo (National Art Galleries) have public galleries/museums with sectional free entry that allow it's residents free consumption of art. For instance, anyone can walk into the great art cathedral, TATE Modern free of charge to enjoy what's on offer. It's a shame that the government owned spaces such as the Nairobi Museum or The Nairobi Gallery have no such arrangements. Imagine how many Kenyans would prefer looking at the Museum's permanent Art collection instead of sitting in the scorching Nairobi sun at Uhuru Park during the next public holiday - without the pressures of feeling that they are required to buy! Maybe during this years Kenyatta day, admission to Nyayo Stadium should be charged and entry to the Museum scrapped! Ama?
As Kenyan art practitioners, we should understand and sympathize with the Kenyan populace. Lack of (basic) art education coupled with an almost non existent physical infrastructure and energies geared towards an expatriate audience is not helping the cause.
Word has it that RaMOMA is re-opening in downtown Nairobi targeting a local audience. I wish them luck and hope that this starts the process of more Kenyans patronizing art spaces. But they need more than just luck. They need a machinery akin to political party propaganda. First to attract the Kenyan. Then to equip him/her with infomation that will gradually educate him/her that Art is more than a portrait or a beautiful landscape with the African sunset. Because, besides accessing Art, ordinary Kenyans have to understand it too. Tough but achievable.
An artist friend once quipped, "Waafrika huleta tu giza kwa exhibition/studio." How low can prejudice and self hate get? I don't know about you but for anyone ready to open their mouth to blabber that "Kenyans don't Appreciate Art s**t", shut up, style up and take one Kenyan to an artist studio/gallery/exhibition and start them on the not-so-long journey that is art appreciation.
After all, #WeAre(SupposedToBe)One.