Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Kenya@50 - Celebrating Kenya's Golden Jubilee

I know people - Artists. Art dealers. Curators. Brokers. Cultural managers. Art teachers. Art reporters/writers. Cultural analysts. Artist groupies... Only problem's, I think they don't 'know me' back!
This loosely translates to me neither sitting at the 'big' table where policies are formulated or decisions made. Nor celebrating 'gains' and toasting to successful projects in exclusive parties.

Typical cultural parties in the Nairobi circuit have recently become glamorous. Champagne flows freely. Food is abundant. And conversation synthetic - mostly rhetoric. People neither saying what they mean nor meaning what they say. These are mainly followed up by after-parties in fancy lounges or shisha smoking joints in the suburbs and even crazier after-after parties in downtown Nairobi to toast to development of the contemporary culture in Kenya.

But these are the little parties. Small private word-of-mouth-invite-only gatherings whose evidence is only on social media the following day.

But there's a big bash coming soon! Bigger than Uncle Bob's birthday parties (No pun intended). One worth several hundred million shillings christened Kenya@50 - Celebrating Kenya's Golden Jubilee.
Kenya@50 is (supposed to be) an elaborate campaign celebrating Kenya’s greats, history makers, stories that made headlines hosted by the Kenyan Government with the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture playing the events planner. With the 'culture folk' in charge, it's only natural that we expect some bias towards the arts. Shock on us!

Someone somewhere thought it'd be good to celebrate our achievements as we mark our jubilee year. Quite noble I suppose. However, am quite dissatisfied by the lack of substance being generated. Six in ten discourses are politics-oriented. I can live with that, I think.
What I find hard to fathom is the lethargic involvement of those in the visual arts. The sports people are telling their stories. So are the writers. And the fellows in music. And the perfoming arts. And business. But not those in the Visual Arts! Why? Are they not worth telling? Don't we know our stories? Are we not coherent enough? Or are we just plain lazy? It's almost like we're spectating in someone else's event.

In three weeks, all hell breaks loose as different players get the chance to blow their own trumpets. The bash is on. Concert halls booked. Champagne on ice. Sound checks conducted. Dress rehearsals done. But haven't heard of any visual art thing happening as part of the big bash. But then again, maybe am just out of the loop. Difference between knowing people. And people knowing you - and sharing plans. Fifty years is a long time. Some of us can comprehend only the last ten. Others twenty. Others all the fifty. Am sure everyone of us who's been involved in the arts for even a year would have something to say about the little (s)he knows. I'd expect the long serving institutions; the Universities to have at least someone's dissertation on our art history published. I'd hope the Museum would dedicate an exhibition tracing/following the 50 years of the 'genuine' Kenyan Contemporary Art practice. I'd wish to have art writers with conventional platforms educate the populace by publishing articles relevant to this History. I must give it up to Daily Nation's Bill Odidi, who though not conventionally an art writer, has written some of the most (artistically) insightful texts in the Kenyan media this year. 

I'm still looking forward to indepth, well researched texts about Ancent Soi. Or Elimo Njau. Or Rosemary Karuga. Or Samuel Wanjau. Or Zacharia Mbutha. Or Gregory Maloba. Or Kamal Shah. Or Francis Kahuri. Or Timothy Brooke... Not the usual shallow praise because they just had an exhibition. Or because their works fetched a tidy sum in an auction. But because we honestly appreciate the obstacle they cleared for us some thirty-odd years ago. I still hope one of those who were there before me would offer us useful and accurate information on spaces like Paa Ya Paa, Gallery Watatu, The Gallery of Contemporary East African Art, Rahimtulla Museum of Modern Art... Why they were vital. And how they inspired the Kuona Trusts, The Banana Hills, The Godowns, The One-Offs... And probably the relevance of these current spaces (which I may offer my 2 cents worth for the current & future generations).

We always complain of our government's complacently towards the Arts. This could be the chance of giving Dr. Hassan A. Wario a dossier of what we've been up to without the government's help. It should be the time to get the government review its relationship with us. If at all we got one. It'd be a chance to let the government know that we're more than just a National-Art-Gallery-Rhetoric Industry. A chance to plead our case on why Art Education is as important as medicine. As good as engineering, secretarial studies or information technology. Better than political science.

With all the (wo)manpower and intellect at our disposal, we should at least be able to publish a chronology of our practice then slowly add 'flesh' to it. We must acknowledge those who were there then and have influenced where we are now. Create a reference for the kids joining this industry in the new year. It is the one chance we have to tell other Kenyans what we do, why we do it and probably why we think they should give a damn!

I believe a candid and objective look/conversation on Contemporary Kenya at Fifty will start important discourse on what's working & what's not. What requires amendment. Or what's broken and needs fixing. Am a firm believer that it'd be the best time to not only start objectively re-writing the Kenyan Art History but to also reevaluate and address issues like institutional censorship (the what can't show where, why?) and confront the ghost no one wants to deal with. That one of revising the Art Curriculum in our tertiary institutions.

It's a shame for all of us that we still have no information about us on any platform - including Wikipedia yet we're pros consulted to help other countries in the region manage their affairs. Some old general once said that every battle had a turning point. Our small battle with educating our peers, documenting our history and giving ourselves a pat on the back for our past triumphs while strategizing for the future should use Kenya@50 as our turning point, methinks.

I sincerely hope am wrong and that there's a suprise awaiting me. That there's a well researched book on the Kenyan Art History that has been published. One that mentions the great men & women before us. One that talks about spaces and institutions that shaped them while not forgetting the events that were inportant to them. That there shall be a grand exhibition to accompany the launch of the book. That we shall have a good bash. Not one judged by the amount of bubbly and caviar consumed but by the clarity of purpose. That'd be the bash with the sweetest hangover! Smiling your sore head away the next morning browsing through the pages of accurate Kenyan Art History... But then again, maybe am just high from secondary inhalation!

So the party's on. I got no invite and don't do shisha but will definitely crash the after-after party most prolly in one of the many Gentleman's Clubs in Nairobi. Or Mombasa. Maybe Kisumu. Here, I shall raise my glass and toast to those who left before us - Joseph Opiyo, Emmanuel Ondiff, Samuel Wanjau, Kefa Nyayiera, John Njenga, Peter 'Ma-Clay', John Mainga, Abel Keragori, Frank Odoi... and party with some of the true stars of Kenya's Golden Jubilee.

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