Kenyan artists have had a love-hate relationship with contemporary art curators over the last decade. This timid liaison is mainly due to lack of the general understanding of a curator’s role; aided by the fact that most of those who’ve come in have played celebrity curators and gone on to rub the local populace the wrong way.
In my brief involvement in the Nairobi contemporary, it was always the artist and the dealer/gallerist til about a decade ago when Simon Njami jetted into Nairobi through Jimmy Ogonga’s Amnesia (Imagining Afrika Without the Crisis of Historical & Cultural Memory) circa 2006. We went into culture shock! Our expectation was that Simon was coming to curate (and prolly sell our stuff) and when he sat us down to talk, we couldn’t comprehend why this curator was just talk. With a reputation enhanced by Africa Remix (Contemporary Art of a Continent - 2004), our reference I guess was a travelling catalogued exhibition. Not stories.
Amnesia therefore, almost single handedly was a game changer in our engagement with reputable curators. Over the next five years, more curators and important artists based in the continent – Thembinkosi Goniwe, Koyo Kouoh, Andrew Tshabangu, Ananias Leki-Dago, Aidah Muluneh, Amal el Kenawy, Moataz Nasr, IngridMwangi/RobertHutter, Bili Bidjocka and Nirveda Alleck visited and slowly helped us develop our art vocabulary. Anmesia climaxed in the Njami curated & Jimmy O. directed project Probe (2009). It’d taken us about 5 years to slowly understand a curator’s role in our practice.
Then this Africa thing started!
… and everyone was crisscrossing the continent having to pass through Nairobi en-route somewhere. There was always a curator headed somewhere through Nairobi! Artists got excited. What of portfolio reviews? And possibilities of being part of this new Africa thing. Shock on us! Some were our friends and held our hands. Thanks, we shall forever be grateful. Most however, were the cigar and champagne type whose only claim to fame (around here) is rounding up artists to feed and inebriate them in Habesha and occasional til dawn escapades at The New Florida Night Club. Then statements like “There’s No Art In Kenya”, “I Only Saw Airport Art” and “Nothing’s Happening Here” became commonplace and down went many a curator’s reputation with no possibility of any engagement. Rather unfortunate!
Fast Forward a handful of years... Azu Nwagbogu and Chinovava Chikukwa came in for a curatorial workshop. These workshops have the same template for the participants and I gave as much as I got during the 5 weeks of sacrifice – a lot of fun and frustration. Insightful conversations, new partnerships, shifted perspectives. List is endless. However, the magic happened outside the formal workshop. They came after a particularly ugly incident with a reputable curator. They did studio visits, exhibition openings, presentations, critics; the whole nine yards that make up the curator’s ritual. They rekindled the artist-curator relationship that had been made frosty by curators artists thought were arrogant. Those that were okay with milking the cow and not feeding it, then claiming the cow was unhealthy.
It was fantastic to have highly reputable and important cultural operators from the continent spend five weeks in Nairobi. Artists were excited. The events that happened during that time were enriched. However, their local peers – those who we expect to operate at these curators’ level were absent!
Anyone working in a the Arts stands to benefit from interacting with these two. We’re caught up chasing our tails for lack of comprehensive knowledge of how to do things but when we get free lessons, we don’t appreciate them. Kenyans have gone through back to back Venice biennale fiascos and we for example had someone with a “Venice guide – How get a pavilion/to participate… again & again,” but we seemed disinterested. If a National Arts Gallery curator from another country comes to town, I guess our equivalent should be excited! When guys who present blockbuster art events check in, others in the business of doing the same locally should be curious. It was good to have all these participants who are artists and/or run smallish art outfits. But when those in positions of influencing policies or sitting in committees/panels supposed to, do not understand the value such individuals may add to their practice, it just emphasizes the fact that artists seem to be growing faster than the institutions supposed to be helping them grow. How can we assist artists when we portray lethargy towards learning how we could? Or what they may require from us. Why do we pass a golden opportunity of learning how to fulfill our moral obligation as cultural practitioners?
Once upon a time, our mandate was to nurture upcoming/emerging artists. Are we still interested in that or have they come up/emerged? Are we interested in developing the artist and the Kenyan arts infrastructure or are we just interested in being seen to seem to have an interest? Why are we thinking outside the box while still comfortably seated in it? The message we’re passing is that we’re afraid. Or too intellectually lazy to engage. Or both! And this is dangerous. Because it translates to being clueless of what is expected of us. Which in turn makes us embrace mediocrity. There are a lot of (art) events locally. Which one is worth talking about in 5 years? What is the last important publication that came from us? Where are we headed? We need to move beyond the rhetoric and start doing things properly. There’s no shame in admitting you don’t know, unless you want to always remain not knowing. It’s good to finally see Kenya’s presence in international Contemporary Art Fairs but it shall be even better to see its absence in the periphery of these annoying fair trade economic summits and conferences.
Sometimes artists are not confident enough or are in dire need to make that sale to get over a rough patch. It’s our duty to advice them that taking their work to decorate the next conference is not a value addition to their practice. But if we are not confident ourselves and can’t negotiate our terms of engagement, we take any monies offered to us. Appear at any platform offered to promote our trade! And that equals kutoshanisha wasanii! Taking artists for a ride. As Mzee said, “Artists give us their soul through their work – joys, frustration, sorrow, triumphs, dreams. We can’t be curators, writers, critics & dealers if artists don’t make art.” Don’t even think about it. Let’s put more effort in how we present artists' work. This fear. Fear of doing memorable things. Fear of giving it your best shot. Fear of documenting our practice. Fear of working together. Fear of asking for help. Fear of being curious. It is holding us back big time. Everyone is trying to do something small in their own tiny corner with a limited set of skills/abilities thereby duplicating each others’ activity. This fear is making us present grand ideas in half baked ways. This fear of being great is a disservice to Artists. These artists whose work gives us everyday delight. Artists who enable us enjoy 5 star lifestyles.
Whether it’s a publication, an exhibition, an auction, a biennale or a fair; let’s make it memorable. Let what we do someday be mentioned alongside milestones like Magiciens de la terre (1989), Africa Remix, Documenta, The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa (2001), SENSATION: Young British Artists From The Saatchi Collection (1997) and other great ones that define our era.
Let’s give it our best shot so that one day when in retirement, we can watch the sunset, scotch and cigar in hand and claim (part) ownership of the blockbusters of yester years. But this s*#t can’t go down with our fear of being great.