Monday, April 20, 2015

Biennale di Venezia… And Then?

A lot has been said about this years’ Biennale di Venezia especially the pavilion that’s supposed to be Kenyan. Anger has been spewed. Blames shifted. Frustrations, mainly triggered by certain perceptions have led to accusations – of bribery and possible ‘sale’ of our identity to non-Kenyans. 
What started as a small, non-sophisticated yet objective confrontation finally made the Kenyan government stop, listen and try to address this predicament that we find ourselves in for the second successive biennale.

A lot of noise made on social media and numerous texts internationally coupled with a handful of angry art practitioners seeking audience with government reps, finally made us realize there was an elephant in the room that needed confronting. Jimmy Ogonga, Soi Michael, Justus Kyalo, Danda Jaroljmek, Binyavanga Wainaina, James Muriuki and Maggie Otieno through  Odero Aghan, the Kenya Cultural Centre director, sought audience with Dr. Hassan Wario Arero, the Culture, Arts & Sports Cabinet Secretary. 
After a couple of false starts, it eventually happened. 
The CS gave a statement on Kenya’s (op)position on the whole saga. The Kenyan Art Fraternity demanded that the axis of Tanzini-Orlandi-Poponi desist from using the Kenyan name and flying the ‘our’ flag. That’s good. Pretty good. Kenyan Art just won the battle. No, a prelude to the battle.

However, there is still the battle… then the war. And probably a retaliatory attack (whatever that means). The government promised to start the process of having a genuine Kenyan pavilion in Venezia 2017. That is attainable methinks. There is a select committee appointed/annointed to spearhead this process. Which is good. However am afraid. Not of the committee. But that we may forget all else and get transfixed on the next biennale.

During a meeting with the CS, Fred Obachi Machoka, a reputable media personality enquired about “existing legal safeguards” and possibility of “setting up protocols” to avoid a repeat of this type of embarrassment. This was probably what stood out (for me) during the meeting but it’s easy to get caught up in the Venezia euphoria that we forget life exists outside Venice. I interpreted that to mean a ‘comprehensive ministerial structure complete with support documents’. If that’s the case, I agree with him in totality.

I have always believed (and made known my opinion) that it’s time we formulated a proper Cultural Policy relevant to the Kenyan practice. The folk in charge of it always defend themselves saying they are ‘currently working’ on a draft. This so called ‘work in progress’ has been ongoing forever. This leaves us under the mercy of the existing 2009 document which is a copy-paste from the UNESCO prototype with cliché words like ‘support’ & ‘promote’ without even defining what we as Kenyans perceive as culture. It’s time the government got people genuinely interested and confident enough to be involved in this process. People who understand not only the artistic language, but also the practice. I heard that there is also an Arts and Culture Bill (also a work in progress) coming soon. I can’t say anything about it as I haven’t read it but the brief conversation we had about it was not a very enthusiastic one.

Also, ad hoc committees are always a knee-jerk reaction similar to government formed commissions of inquiries after someone slept on the job and I think while this conversation is still on, it’s time Kenyans had a serious thought on forming a comprehensive National Arts Council. You can never emphasize the importance of such a body but in every country with a functioning arts scene, it is the Government linked organization overseeing the promotion and appreciation of visual arts within its territory. Most arts councils are both government & privately funded and are the link between artists, government and private/corporate sector. In most cases, a country’s National Arts Council is the one that is mandated with operations of a National Art Gallery and also build the country’s National Art Collection. As it stands at the moment there’s no structure at all. The only ‘official’ portfolios in the whole Ministry as it seems is that of the CS, his Principal Secretary and the Director of the Kenya Cultural Center. There is also no ‘official’ government owned visual art space or even a rep in the visual arts. That’s why when something needs to be sorted, we run around like headless chicken. Such a shame!

As it is, the ghosts of Venice have not gone away. The biennale secretariat (just) issued a statement confirming that the Kenyan pavilion is 'government supported' and is an internal (Kenyan) issue if Kenyans don’t agree with the setup. This further highlights that our problem is Not Tanzini. It’s our own shenanigans that have brought us here. Some incompetence here. Some corruption there. Promises and lies all over. Falling for the carrot on the stick. And the uniquely Kenyan ‘It’s my turn to eat syndrome.’ Someone somewhere is being bloody economical with the truth! Only time will tell. And like a great artiste once said, “You can fool some people some time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

Screen shot from correspondence on Kenyan pavilion by Head of Press & Media Relations. Source - Facebook.
Kenyans need to do some serious housekeeping! Do we seriously want to do it or do we want to be seen to be doing it? Do we have the passion, belief and confidence to carry out the required task? Do we even understand the nature/magnitude of the task? Do we have an opinion on this or anything else artsy? The picture is grim. I’d like to say there’s light at the end of the tunnel but we are yet to figure out whether it’s actually a tunnel or an oncoming train. We can’t be batting for the same team when we’re operating on half truths and mistrust. It’s prolly time to separate the chaff from wheat. Time to take sides permanently.

It’s quite simple and complicated at the same time. If we can’t proceed with you, we shall gladly dump you. But how far can we go without you? Tough choices. Sweet ones. But quite complicated. Abit like revolutions. Bolivar. Che . Sankara. Only non-political. Non-violent. But guerilla. Ideological good-for-the-arts movements is what we need. We may never be the beneficiaries of the outcome but we can’t have our offspring dealing with the same s**t 10, 20, 30… odd years from now because we were too complacent and didn’t pave the roads for them.

We need to get up, and do something. With or without Biennale di Venezia!

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