Tuesday, September 29, 2015

What Are We Afraid Of?

Been working from a communal art space the last couple of months after a long spell on my own in dusty Kabete. It’s okay…ish so far. The waking up to ‘go to work’ is annoying. Am also yet to get used to unannounced guests coming in to steal into precious work time. On the flipside, I can work uninterrupted without having to play about with the princess or being forced into endless duels on X Box by the brother when school’s off. Badala ya kazi.

This posse-style studios have re-introduced me to hitherto temporarily forgotten art space shenanigans – where your studio practice is somewhat intertwined with the space calendar/time table. Most of these are daily-run-of-the-mill which is easy to pass. Some however, I find quite vital to an artist’s development – both technical and intellectual. The Artist talks.

Artist Andrew Mwini talking about his "Visceral" Exhibition in Kuona Trust
These come in different formats but the common thread is usually contextualizing an artist’s practice. Some are attached to specific projects – like exhibition post mortems/discussions while some are just talks – artist presentations mainly by visiting artists and guest curators.

These platforms are quite important I think as they are the ice breakers and introduce art practitioners to each other not just on a personal level but also on a professional platform that opens up the doors for possible collaborations while understanding each other’s philosophy behind practice, technical aspect of production and even challenges encountered and possible platforms of showing the process/final work. In our principally non-formal schooled art space, it turns out to be a school away from school half the time.

I have sat in some great and some not-so-inspiring presentations recently. I have listened to artists I have known for a while but never listened to seriously - and left quite inspired as I (thought I) understood them more, and looked at their work with a more informed opinion. In my other life, I need to know as much as I can about other artists and I find presentations/talks as a short cut to it. This has made me look forward to every discussion I can sit in or even participate. However, not all artists feel the same.

I recently sat in one where we were just about ten folk in an art space with a daily turnout of about forty. And I was disappointed. Not by the content, but by lack of interest among ‘us’. The presentation was very good. The presenting artists  talked passionately about what they do. Deeply conceptual guys. Artists using modern technology to make their art. Artists willing to collaborate and share their skills and knowledge with their peers in Nairobi. But I could see the disappointed in their faces as they kept asking, “Are more people coming?” It’s not the first time that it has happened so I wonder – why aren’t we curious? Why are we so lethargic in our quest to find knowledge from anyone willing to share theirs with us?

I recall the first time Simon Njami jetted into Nairobi and we all thought the only conversation we could have with a curator was to show him our works so that he’d take it to all art fairs and biennales. The disappointment! When Bisi Silva had a free hour for us but we’d rather sit in our studio waiting for that elusive buyer/client. When N’Gone Fall came knocking and we in our minds believed she came to see the clever artists. Not us the less clever – the unclever! What are we afraid of? It is understandable if someone has a previously confirmed (important) engagement or when an emergency calls but how the hell do you sit out of another creative practitioner’s free knowledge sharing experience just to bask in the sun or have your siesta because you’re bored. If artists can’t engage professionals having talks in their spaces, who should? Doctors? Matatu drivers? Policemen? Others?

Ethiopian curator Mifta Zekele discusses the Ethiopian art scene during "Addis Contemporary" at the Circle Art Gallery
I have heard a lot of lame excuses. How it’s “not important”. How “I have gotten to where I am without listening and travelling”. How it’s all rhetoric. A lot of very lame excuses that just confirm why we are all big fish in small pond. Whales in swimming pools. We’ve done it for so long that we actually believe ourselves. So long that we don't realize we lack understanding of a certain (necessary) vocabulary yet, we pretend we don’t care. It’s an attitude thing. Most of us know how to make very coherent art and how to talk to the person buying it but are not equipped to build a comprehensive and professional portfolio explaining our practice to present to a curator or gallerist. Or even to make an application for a residency. Kuona trust has a budget for small conceptual projects and it’s quite a shame very few people apply for it. Most will cite very little money but what happened to “the coat and the size” saying?

It’s not just an artists’ thing as the cultural managers/directors don’t fare so well either. It good that they facilitate travel & stay and work behind the scenes but don’t you want to know if the person you brought in is a fraud? An imposter. Don’t you have anything to learn from these people? Don’t you want to understand what my practice is? Don’t you want to know my expectations and frustrations as an artist working within your jurisdiction? This I think is a big contributor to the disconnect that currently exists in the Kenyan scene.  A practice that is not adequately informed or equipped to participate in any meaningful engagements to the extent that we can’t even define our own relationships. Where artists seem unsure of their expectations from spaces and vice versa. Where those in charge of the industry are not equipped enough to take a seat in (relevant) regional podiums. The fairs. The Biennales. I shall conveniently not talk about Venice coz as the rest of the world is making applications for 2017, we’ve got our heads buried in the sand waiting for someone to blame.

Arists engage Jide Adeniyi-Jones during Kuona Trust Wasanii International Workshop in Naivasha (2011)
It’s funny how much engagements that start small and appear trivial can achieve. But unless you know the value, they remain just that. Engagements. Communal spaces are supposed to be the ultimate for supporting this peer to peer support and collaborations but their Achilles heel is that there is high risk of taking each other for granted because you see each other daily. This may be as a result of getting caught up in individual practice or just natural competition among peers. Of course everyone aspires to be the king of the hill.

The spaces have to continue supporting these discourses but artists have to be on the forefront. To stop allowing institutions to treat us like babies. Case study - I get an email on Monday. Then a text on Tuesday. Then someone has to literally pull me from my studio at 20 past two on Wednesday for an engagement that was supposed to start at two pm Wednesday. Someone has to force me participate. For my benefit. But if alcohol and nyama choma is involved, I set a reminder on every blank space I got. No comment!

Those activities called artist mentorships ought to be made compulsory - by someone who’s not me -and should probably include more diverse aspects. Not just art theories and philosophies, but maybe health. Finance. Psychology. Honestly, folks need help. And it’s not in subsidized studios or shuttles to events five minutes away. Or artworks being exhibited in shopping mall atriums. Serious help to change attitudes. And lifestyles… long story for another day!

Artists should ditch this ‘self taught’ tag and claim their stake at the table to engage their peers. It’s only then that we shall boost our knowledge and confidence. There is no harm in acknowledging that you don’t know. That you don’t understand. That’s the beginning of the long journey called learning… after all, I don’t even know what am writing about. And I’m not ashamed of saying it. Tukuwe Serious.


  1. Both schooled and self-taught artists tend to resist getting accustomed to the middle ground of informal (yet informative) art talks and discussions fearing (as if they are forced) to acknowledge in the future that these talks played a role in their art development.

    I find the talks very important especially when they are organised (at Nafasi we call them Hang Outs) because we discuss as a collective (egos and success sit aside). And help each other grow.

    Sometimes we think all we want is the skills we can copy from a workshop, to compare whose practice is better. What you learn should not necessarily feature in your work. But I think the essence is to learn from each other and help each other stay sober.