Friday, July 21, 2017

Proximity To Power: Again, This Is Not An Exhibition Review

“Proximity to power deludes some into thinking they wield it” – Frank Underwood (House of Cards)

A week ago most Kenyans had no idea who Muthiora Kariara was. This is the young banker who presented himself for scrutiny in the media organized presidential running mates debate. I must admit he is very brave.

Over the next 48 hours, Kenyans praised his intelligence, eloquence and agreed on how qualified he was. He even got invited for (other) live TV interviews et al. I have no problem with that. What I have a problem with is that we are lying to Muthiora. Like we lied to (Peter) Kenneth in 2013.

We’re the specialists of social media sophistication and popularity contests where we parade the likes of Muthiora and applaud their feats yet at the back of our minds, he just provides entertainment before the real deal. When we get to that ballot that’s supposedly secret, true story checks in. That is when we conveniently recall he is not our kind. I suppose that’s why the main candidates didn’t show up. They already have their ‘tribe’ in the bag.

This is the backdrop of Proximity to Power. In Africa, a whole tribe is in power when its tribesman is the ruler.

What started off as a class assignment, it is a curatorial project that uses contemporary art to interrogate Kenyan voting patterns while trying to understand why we have repeatedly let the ruling class chaperone us into ethnic enclaves with politicians cutting deals on the account of their ethnic populace; and the common perception being that all Luos will vote for Raila Odinga, while all Kikuyus will automatically vote for Uhuru Kenyatta. It interrogates how the prospect of a person from our tribe ascending to political power influences our choices making us conveniently compromise our moral values/standards and congregate with ‘our own’ regardless of their reputation. It is an objective confrontation of the rising xenophobia in Kenya.

While everyone openly took sides, the media set up platforms bringing the opponents to ‘argue’. Local TV and print media is awash with Pro-Jubilee and NASA die-hard political commentators, analysts, communication experts etc. whose main role seems to be sugar-coating the ugly truth that these coalitions are just tribal outfits where the candidates sole agenda is to their tribesmen - “ Let’s retain this power lest we suffer in the hands of others” or “This is our best shot to seize power from them.”

This exhibition looks at how the Proximity to Power syndrome has been used as a strategy to ascend to and retain political power with the illusion that ‘one’ shall benefit more if someone from ‘their’ community ascends to political power while looking at how ingrained hate for the ‘other tribe’ has created prejudices and a discriminative culture and stereotypes that we use to justify the fear we have for the other ethnic group.

Installation & Exhibition General View
It was conceptualised 9 months ago and was meant to coincide with this years campaigns and general elections. It has been an interesting journey. The ideal couldn’t happen so we made major adjustments.

We initially had 5 artists but one didn’t come through. Peterson Kamwathi, Onyis Martin, Longinos Nagila and Nicholas Odhiambo were commissioned to make artworks with Carrey Francis Ronjey & Craig Halliday presenting texts. These types of projects are a bit like blind dates – The curator has a very clear concept in their mind and the artists while here on merit are trying (probably struggling) to articulate and present visuals. Just like waiting for the date you’ve never seen but not sure if they’re who they said they were.

Peterson Kamwathi's "Six Piece" Installation (Mild Steel & Mixed Media Drawings)
The artists had 3 months production time and had a free hand on what to present as long as it fit within the project brief and would be accommodative of the 4 other artists’ works in the intimate space that is Circle Art Gallery. I trusted them and knew what they were capable of as artists whose everyday practice is research based and draws from history, philosophy, migration, consumerism & geopolitics. It was a bunch of confident but (not corky) artists. Nicholas stood out as the baby of the group but wasn’t fazed by the task ahead. His body of work included a series of drawings that deal with different ways that power can be used to seduce & manipulate and also how the same power can constrain people’s capacity to act. He explores the relationship between ‘leaders’ and their ‘followers’.

Nicholas Odhiambo's Graphite on Paper Drawings
The challenge of (such) exhibition making locally is that as much as we have dynamic artists of high intellect, the post-production support system is almost non-existent. There’s a huge deficiency of curators, critics, historians, reputable academics etc… long story for another day.

Longino's Nagila's "Descent of Monuments into Mountains of National(ism) Garbage" (Photographic Prints & Highlighter on Paper)
Also, (almost) every space markets itself as a ‘commercial gallery’ thereby (un)knowingly locking out exhibitions that may form part of very important artistic interventions locally. These spaces may also end up being non-participants in these very critical conversations. Institutional spaces like the National Museum are (somewhat) self-censoring as they’re government-funded and would most probably not be interested in these types of presentations.

Onyis Martin's "The Society of Spectacles" (Etching on Plexiglass, Reclaimed Wooden Doors, Fiberglass & Soil)
Conceptual art practice is relatively new locally and was not well cultivated when spaces like Kuona Trust had (some) funds for such. They provided artists a limited production budget and common practice was that one had to build a gimmicky object in the middle of the room and project an incoherent video at one end. This has to change. We have to find ways of presenting avant garde museum quality shows locally. Global artistic platforms have set high standards of presentation and we must attempt this at home. It makes no sense for us as cultural practitioners spending half our time in air-conditioned airport lounges transiting to the next biennale/fair if we can’t import just one good aspect from them. And duty free chocolate, cologne & scotch don’t count.

Also, we need to have the ability to tell our stories in ways only us can so that we stop complaining when they’re mistold. That is probably the one thing we have that no one else will ever have over us. And we have to tell them in memorable ways otherwise our families and friends will never live to see properly curated shows unless they leave our space and get into someone else’s.

Once again, this is not an exhibition review. It is also not ‘the show’ but an attempt at a properly curated exhibition. It was a lot of fun directing a project that is so close to my heart and wouldn’t have been possible without the partnerships of Goethe Institut – Kenya & Circle Art Gallery.

To the technical team – Jamine, Jonathan, Levi, Kui, Steve, James + Ruth. Thanks for making the show go up while my feet were up and hands in pocket

Finally, Handa the Don, asante for holding it together.

"Proximity To Power” is part of the Goethe-Institut Kenya’s work in the field of contemporary art which is conveyed by the exhibition series 'Sasa Nairobi' and is currently showing at Circle Art Gallery - 910 James Gichuru Road, Lavington, Nairobi til 12th August 2017.

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