Section1: Technical Published 2013 ÂŠ Kuona Trust All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in material form (in including photocopying or storing it in any medium by electronic means or whether or not transiently or incidentally to some other use of this publication) without the written permission of the copyright of Kuona Trust. Application for the copyright holderâ€™s permission to reproduce any part of this publication should be addressed to Kuona Trust Likoni Close, Likoni Lane off Dennis Pritt Road, Hurlingham P.O. Box 4802-00506, Nairobi, Kenya Phone +254.20.2405960 +254.721.262326 +254.733.742752 info @ kuonatrust.org www.kuonatrust.org Design and Layout by: oldboy Ventures Printed by Iprint Printers P.O Box 123333 Nairobi, Kenya www.kuonatrust.org This project have been made possible through the support of different organisations but to RNE, your generosity and support goes a long long way.
Table of Contents Preface by Wendy Karmali ...............................................................................................................vii section 1:technical.............................................................................................................................2 A Whole New Breed.....................................................................................................................................................3 Kuona Trust: Why, Where, When & How ....................................................................................................................6
section 2:discovery............................................................................................................................14 Kuona at the Godown.................................................................................................................................................16 A Person in Charge of a Museum, Art Collectionâ€Ś.................................................................................................18 Art In The Forest 2007...................................................................................................................................................20
section 3: conceptual.........................................................................................................................24 Artists...........................................................................................................................................................................26 Cyrus Kabiru..........................................................................................................................................................26 Dennis Muraguri.................................................................................................................................................29 Peterson Kamwathi. ..........................................................................................................................................32 Studio Systems...........................................................................................................................................................38 The exhibitions...........................................................................................................................................................40
Section1: Technical Introduction
. . . the beginning The Kenyan arts scene in the early 1990s was stirring with a new sense of purpose: the elections of December 1992 had seen the introduction of the multi-party state after decades of stifling Big Man leadership. Optimism was in the air and, after years of censorship (a lively Swahili language production of Orwell’s Animal Farm was once cancelled at the Nairobi National Theatre for fear of its ‘subversive’ content), the prospect for the arts was positive. Writers who had effectively succumbed to “the policeman in their heads” were beginning to grapple with subjects previously not touched on since Kenya’s best known international writer, Ngugi wa Thiongo’s escape to exile to the US. But whilst the literary world had been in the doldrums for so long, the fine arts had somehow continued to make statements, perhaps because the ruling powers never really took them seriously. The notion that a picture was worth ten thousand words was barely considered. The collapse of the East African community in the 1970s had seen the potential development of the fine arts adrift in the spaces between Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Kampala.
The tripartite structure of the universities of the three countries had allocated Uganda the department of fine arts, so Kenya had no tertiary level art school apart from the odd commercial enterprise or doggedly committed schools like Shauri Moyo run by the YMCA. In this seemingly barren ground, however, the seeds of artistic endeavour were flourishing. The lack of formal training was no barrier to the ambition of Kenya’s young artistic hopefuls. Self-taught artists were creating striking and original work using whatever materials came to hand. The cost and availability of imported art materials was prohibitive, but resourceful Kenyans made use of scrap metal, household paint, brown wrapping paper, board – the lack of Windsor & Newton paints could not contain their artistic outpouring. These were the days before conceptual art had been much heard of in Kenya, or the first installation had been seen. Kenyan practitioners at the time were primarily concerned with painting and sculpture. Many were inspired by the quirky and colourful wall paintings so prolific in Kenya’s village bars and shops, advertising local wares and services, but often with a sly political message included. This (now almost defunct) wall art was one of the few opportunities offering any kind of visual art experience available to the majority of people for whom a visit to an art gallery was unlikely.
section3: Conceptual [Arvind Vohora has recently published a book of his photographs documenting this Kenyan folk art phenomenon; see bibliography.] The Gallery of Contemporary East African Art at the Nairobi National Museum had been established in the late 1980s with the aim of encouraging the work of young local artists by giving them a place to exhibit, and, equally importantly, to give other Kenyans to chance to see that work. Every year busloads of Kenyan students troop through the doors of the museum. For thousands of schoolchildren over the years, their whirlwind tour of the galleries brought them through the art gallery and, often, their first encounter with paintings and sculpture by fellow East Africans. The GCEAA ran on a shoestring budget: paintings were sold (primarily) to the throngs of tourists that visited the museum. The gallery charged a small commission for such transactions unlike the hefty percentage taken in the commercial galleries. For many of the artists on display, this was the first time they had received money for their work. Every day young artists would arrive at the gallery with paintings rolled up in newspaper, carefully carried in the press of a matatu. v
For these aspiring practitioners, the possibility of hanging their work in the gallery was a huge incentive. Not all were much good: some showed great promise but had had little chance to develop, others optimistically churned out what they thought had merit but clearly did not, and very occasionally a star would appear. vi
â€œThe need for some kind of regular technical/aesthetic training for such artists was pressing. â€œ
The need for some kind of regular technical/aesthetic training for such artists was pressing. Painting or printing workshops run by established artists had been organised by the GCEAA from time to time in whatever suitable space we could find around the museum but it
section3: Introduction Conceptual was all rather ad hoc. Young artists were encouraged by this contact with experienced workshop leaders to explore new directions in their work and to make more use of cheaply available materials. Painters experimented with printmaking and sculpture; instruction on how to stretch canvases or how to mount and frame work introduced useful new skills to complement their artistic work. Then at last, after much lobbying, in 1994 the NMK Director General gave us the room we needed in a pleasant old colonial-style house in the museum grounds. The place was simply refurbished with a small grant from a local motor company and an exhibition of women artists launched the new space. At this point, it was clear that for this valuable new place to be run effectively, it had to have a separate identity from the GCEAA. Rob Burnet with his exceptional experience of arts administration and workshop organisation took on the job. Rob’s energy and commitment was the key – he founded Kuona Trust with a handful of trustees including myself and the redoubtable Arvind Vohora who is now the sole survivor of that first group and who continues to be an essential player in Kuona’s continuing development. The Gallery of Contemporary East Africa Art is no more – the Nairobi Museum has been massively renovated and the gallery was a casualty of that remarkable reconstruction. Kuona Trust has also moved on as its brief in the training and development of local artists expanded, in particular offering affordable working studio space which would have been impossible in the old premises. Art still thrives at the museum in new spaces, however, and the grounds display numerous striking examples of East African sculpture, many of which were created by the artists of Kuona Trust.
section 1: Technical
the first Kuona Home
…a whole new breed of young creatives…
n its first year of inception, Kuona Trust, based at the Nairobi Museum, managed to do what other institutions that were culture related had miserably failed to do: to be in a position to offer the Kenyan and East African art scene a whole new breed of young creatives.
table and a lot of white clean walls that confused aspiring artists because Kenyan artists were supposed to be untidy, messy and got away with everything. I got to this space in April 1996.
Kuona Trust, as Rob Burnet (‘de Nero’) would later tell us, was a place where young and upcoming artists from Nairobi and its environs would be given space to work and interact with fellow artists. Who needed space anyway? We were there to make art and sell art,
My own personal take on it is that in the late 80s and early 90s, the Kenyan art scene was firmly situated in the capital city, Nairobi, and its vibrancy was influenced by the market which was at that time provided by expatriates and tourists visiting the country. The lack of formal education in the arts and curatorship did not aid the development of art in Kenya at this time because we were living in an era where the “greatest” artist was one who sold loads of work. Gallery Watatu was then the only semblance of an organised commercial gallery in Nairobi, but had a strict policy on who they represented, and what has come to be known as the second generation of Kenyan artists was absent from that list. Early days at Kuona were interesting because a lot of the young artists who found themselves at the place back then did not really know what to do with it. It was a hall with a 3
and, as a lot of the early birds at Kuona would testify, the number of tourists who passed through the Museum at that stage was huge and acted as a great motivator for the aspiring artists working there. The most notable development that no one seemed to realise was that there were art institution graduating students there at the same time that Kuona Trust was opening its doors. The Kenya Polytechnic and the Creative Arts Centre was releasing some notable names onto the art scene, among them the likes of Patrick Mukabi, Richard Kimathi, Mary Ogembo, Jimnah Kimani 4
and myself. Many of these names constituted the first bunch of artists to try and see what Kuona had to offer. The first years were never easy because we needed our careers to take off quickly; we had expectations, and some of us had just graduated from art school and it was time to make a quick buck. All in all, as I have come to realise since I set my foot in that place in 1996, Kuona Trust no doubt provided us with an education in the arts that no university in the region could even fantasise about offering. It was
the university of hard knocks for many of who are called the second generation of Kenyan artists. Kuona was a birth place, a home and an institution that has gone ahead to produce some of the most prolific visual artists in the East Africa region. Back then young artists suffered from a great deal of social and artistic isolation on the Kenyan art scene for a variety of well-documented reasons. Kuona Trustâ€™s key success was to create a technical and creative space for these artists. Studio space was unaffordable
Section1: Technical During these early years, the challenges were there and we all had to grapple with them once in a while. Materials were hard to come by, and the technical workshops were godsent because we had spare materials left over to use when the workshops ended. We basically relied on each other to prosper, and it is my belief that the fact of just being there with all those young creatives played an important role. Availability of work materials depended on who could sell a piece of art. This also made some young artists venture into other forms of art: if I did not have paint, then I would print or sculpt because wood was readily available. Artists develop their careers subconsciously â€“ like me, who slowly turned away from wood sculpting to painting, something I have stuck to up to now. Michael Soi
to young artists because most had no access to money to pay rent, or even pay for their bus fares. Kuona Trust presented the biggest gift of all: room in which to work. Rob Burnet had a solid idea of what he wanted to do with the space in the Museum grounds, and how he thought he might change the Kenyan art scene. Kuona at this point was
providing technical workshops for young artists to equip them with the necessary skills, and a chance to learn something new that would help them improve their artistic vocabulary. Master artists like Morris Foit, Francis Kahuri and Theresa Musoke among others conducted some of the workshops.
Aids subsequently), he came and did a workshop on framing and stretching canvases.
An interview of the founder,Rob by the current Director, Danda
Wendy and I then tried to see whether we could use the building full time. We went to see the museum director, Dr Isahakia (who is now the Permanent Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, a very powerful guy) and he was interested. We had got our hands on a copy of the master plan for the National Museum which said in their mission statement that the Museum should pay attention to contemporary culture, but obviously they weren’t doing much in contemporary culture which they had to acknowledge. So we said “We have done a couple of workshops, there will be an article in the Nation, it will be good publicity for you and won’t cost you anything. Why don’t you let us keep the key and we will try and do more there?” And he agreed - no loss, no risk.
Why, Where, When & How
Danda: Where to begin? At the beginning... how did Kuona get started? Rob: It was around the time I got to know Wendy Karmali, who was running the art gallery at the Nairobi Museum. She had got the Museum to lend her an old empty building in the grounds - Ainsworth House, it used to say on the key ring. I believe Ainsworth was the colonial Provincial Commissioner for Nairobi. When we got there it was more or less abandoned; there were a couple of rooms at the back occasionally used by a group of University lecturers, but it was basically an abandoned space. There were rooms with doors locked - nobody really knew what was inside, and some of the ceilings were hanging down. Wendy had managed to get the Director of the Museum to lend her that building for workshops. So we held two or three workshops in that space - Theresa Musoke taught one; there was a great guy called Philip, his company was called Franex Studios and he did most of the framing for the museum art gallery (he was a lovely guy who died of HIV 6
Danda: Was it straight away or did it take a couple of months? Rob: No, he decided almost immediately after consultation, but I remember it being a nervewracking meeting to see whether he would agree and we had to come with the evidence that we had actually done these things. Danda: What happened next? Rob: We had the key, but we hadn’t got a
Section1: Technical name. Our legal advisor, Ishan Kapila, told us the best thing was to form a Trust to be run by a small group of trustees. In addition to Ishan and Wendy, we had a PR guy with good media connections; there was a woman who was a big money-hitting financial consultant, a Museum representative, and of course Arvind Vohra. Danda: Who’s still a Kuona Trustee today… Rob: Yes. I remember driving around at night to their houses to get them to sign different copies of the Trust Deed so that I could take it to the bank to open an account. Then I remember standing in Arvind’s office, wondering what to call this Trust. He said “ What’s the Swahili for ‘see’ or for ‘looking’”? I said “Ku... ona - right, that’ll do!”. Not a great name when you think of it, but a name that Arvind and I came up with under extreme pressure. And there we were - there was no money left, as the small amount we had raised from a local motor company had all gone on basic renovations. At the time I was playing regularly in a band and sometimes when we got paid, we put some money in an account for giving to good causes. So I approached the guys in the band and asked if Kuona could be a good cause, and they kindly gave us Ks.14,000. That basically paid for us to buy a telephone and get it connected - I remember the number was 751515 and it was a good number.
We then needed someone to answer the phone and run the office, and after a couple of disasters, Patricia joined Kuona. We started raising money a bit here and there: from the British Council to do some women’s workshops, led by Theresa Musoke; we got a bit of money from Serena Hotels through one of our trustees because he was well connected there. We got a great project with the Commercial Bank of Africa: we started putting artwork in the windows of their bank downtown on Wabera Street, the head office. They gave us their window display so we had a regularly changing, very public exhibition of art work from Kuona. It was all good but there were just little bits of money. Danda: When did the artists start coming in? Rob: The artists started coming in immediately, and my philosophy was, let’s leave the door open and hang a sign which says Artists Welcome and see what happens. Danda: And that’s what you did you said: Artists Welcome? Rob : Yes, Artists Welcome, and sure enough they started trickling in. I had this idea that we should be selective, not just have anyone. So I formed a notional committee with artists who were friends like Meek Gichugu, Sane Wadu, Elijah Ogira and Omega Ludenyi. The deal was that before you could use the studio Fred abuga in the communial studio
Section1: Technical space you had to present at least three pieces of your work to demonstrate that you were an artist and that you had something to show us. You hadn’t just seen a sign and walked in; there was to be some sort of minimal standard. So we assembled a number of folders with samples of people’s work and then we had a big reveal - the day when we had to look at the work and decide who would be the lucky artists - and we had maybe 25 different artists’ work. I remember going through it with some of the committee, Ogira and Meek, finding much of it really bad, but they argued that if the work was bad then the guy really needed to be given a place because he really needed our help. I’m pretty sure that we only did that once, and after that the idea was basically to bring three pieces of your work and demonstrate that you had made some earlier commitments to making art and that’s it, that’s the only criterion that we are going to use; you just have to have something that says that you did not invent yourself as an artist this morning. Danda: And how did people know about you? Rob: It was word of mouth. But we worked hard those days to try and get stories in the 8
Nation and the Standard and we were committed to build a really good press file. There was no art criticism then, there was no analysis; it was just description. We were doing it because we had made promises to commercial companies - the only people we had backing us then were mainly commercial companies and they wanted newspaper coverage. So I worked really hard and spent a lot of time on the phone trying to persuade editors that there was a great story coming, and that they really needed to put it in the paper - and we were relatively successful at it and we got quite a lot of coverage. At that same time, Wendy was still running the museum art gallery though she was absolutely part and parcel of Kuona. We were really collaborating. As Kuona grew, more and more artists began to make use of the space and there was a tighter relationship between the gallery and Kuona. Slowly but surely we expanded and took over another room here and there in the building and a little veranda that adjoined the room with the door that was locked which we opened up. We cleared the old garage at the back which was a big breakthrough - there were snakes in there, it was terrifying. When we opened it up, Ogira and other people started to work from there full time.
Danda: Who were the artists that you remember clearly from those early days who came in and started working with you? Rob: Simon Muriithi was very much involved; he was really helpful. He was very much on the scene as a ‘doing’ guy. Soi [Michael] arrived early on but I can’t remember exactly when. Thom [Ogonga] came quite a bit after that. Meek [Gichugu] left and went to France and hasn’t really come back. Kevin Oduor definitely came early on. Elijah Ogira for a long time based himself in one of the garages and then he moved on. The garage just filled up with people’s work. It’s a nightmare - you know, it was supposed to be a studio space and it became just a store for abandoned sculptures. Danda: Yes, we know quite a lot about that, it seems to happen everywhere we go. Rob: Exactly, no one wants to give it away because there’s that remote possibility that it might still sell. Danda: When did jimmy [Ogonga] come? Rob: The first time I clearly remember Jimmy was for the first Wasanii which was ’97 I think. Rob: Up until the first Wasanii, we were living on thin air. We had a little bit of money from here and there, maybe 100,000 shillings, and
Section1: Technical perhaps 6 months later, another 100,000 bob. Danda: Did you have to pay electricity and any other bills? Rob: We didn’t. We never saw a bill and I remember we didn’t know if we were ever going to get a bill from the Museum. But we had to pay our phone bill. Danda: And pay Patricia and yourself something? Rob: I didn’t get paid at all for the first two years, I don’t think. I lived entirely off playing music. Gor: Did you give your money to fund the workshops? Rob: I was in two bands. I was playing most weekends in a really commercial band that was popular at the time and we did a lot of gigs. I wasn’t paying any rent at the time. I was living with a friend whose company was paying the rent and he let me stay in his huge house. I had difficulty running a car so I very often didn’t, and I used to hitch hike to work.
Thanks to Robert, things really scaled up from then on. I think that what Robert thought about me when we met was that here was someone who is interested in the process. He’s not a dealer, not interested in the selling but interested in the process. This is the guy who can help us to bring Kenya - which had been quite isolated at that time - into the Triangle African network. Meek, Wadu, Theresa Musoke and Ogira and others at that stage all had started to attend workshops in places like Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. By the time we got to ’96, it was surely time to have our own workshop. We had a core team who had workshop experience so would be able to set the tone and help with the preparations. We started to look for venues. We got a bit of money from the British Council who said they would give us seed money to get started.
The turning point came when I went on holiday to Europe to see my parents and I flew through Brussels. I was in touch with Robert Loder [of Triangle Arts Trust] by fax - those days it was all by fax. He had suggested contacting an organisation called HIVOS. There was also the Gate Foundation which was in Amsterdam not very far away by train from Brussels. I tried to meet the HIVOS contact but she wasn’t available. I was able to get an appointment with the Gate Foundation which was run by a woman called Els van der Plas. So I went and had a sandwich with her and then got back on the train. Though I didn’t get a chance to meet the HIVOS people at the time, nonetheless I made an application to them in The Hague for the first Wasanii workshop. I had the backing of Robert Loder to say, “ If you can make this thing happen, I will help you find interesting artists to attend”. 9
Then HIVOS gave us something like 13,000 guilders which was approximately half of the cost of the workshop. And they did it blindly. I remember being amazed that they were willing to send us money without any prior meeting. Later, I finally met the guy who was the Programme Officer at the time and saying to him, “ You sent us money and you never came to check?” And he said,” Oh I did check”. When I asked who would have been
able to vouch for us, he told me he’d spoken to a woman called Els van der Plas who said she’d met me. So because of those shared sandwiches in Amsterdam, they had the confidence that we did exist, we were for real, were genuine; they sent us the money and we had the workshop. HIVOS giving us half the money meant we really had to hustle for the other half. That hustling was one reason the workshop was such
a success. We had to tap so many friends; we had to guarantee so much media coverage; we had to pull in so many favours to raise the rest of the money that by the time we actually had the workshop there wasn’t anybody we knew that wasn’t in some way involved in it. When we had the Open Day, hundreds of people showed up, and when we did the exhibition, it was packed to the windows - you couldn’t have fitted another person in there. That launched us and suddenly Kuona was never the same again. I remember my pitch to the journalists on that occasion was: “Kenyan artists are getting to be so good that all of these international guys want to come and meet them. So you may not yourselves understand what these Kenyan artists are doing but the fact that all these international artists are jetting in from all over the world just tells us how ignorant we were; so you’d better inform yourself of what is going on here, that it is important and interesting. The world is starting to notice so you’d better notice too.” That was the argument I used to get the media to pay attention to our first workshop. Danda: How did you get Oserian to support you. It was at Elsamere? Rob: It was at Elsamere. I remember ringing the one person I knew in Naivasha and asking who we should be trying to get help from.
Section1: Technical We desperately needed tents, welding equipment, metal, so much stuff. The suggestion was Oserian [large floriculture organization]. So I called their MD, Mrs Zwager, and she agreed over the phone to help. Once the tap was opened, they became really helpful sponsors: they gave us safari tents, so much kit. They gave us access to their workshops - they had an amazing metal workshop and gave us raw material, all the off cuts we wanted from their huge scrap heap, we just picked whatever we wanted. It was brilliant. They also bought a lot of artwork that came out of the exhibition. Afterwards Mrs Zwager asked what else they could do for us - they wanted to be involved more. She then offered to lend us a little house which was close to Elsamere, but no money. And we needed money. Shortly after Wasanii I, I went to the Ford Foundation and said, “We’ve got a cottage in Naivasha which is worth 100,000 dollars a year that’s been given to us. So we’ve raised 100,000 dollars a year towards the cost of running an international residency programme, and Triangle is ready to help us connect with interesting artists from all over the Western world. All I need now is some cash to lubricate this thing. I have raised a lot and I need the other half”. And Ford gave us
180,000 dollars which totally and completely changed the game for us. At the same time HIVOS – who liked Wasanii I - came back and started giving us full support, so we never looked back after that. Now we were no longer limping along on the scraps that we were getting from the local commercial companies, great though they had been.
Danda: And what about the projects that helped the artists apart from the international stuff? Rob: All through this period we were running monthly artists’ workshop and it was all about technical skills. My position was very much that if artists said they needed skills training, we would try and provide it, but we’re not going to create any sort of curriculum, or dictate what a painting should be, or which direction an artist should go. Just let the artists work 11
Section1: Technical and leave the door open. With the benefit of hindsight, I don’t know whether that was the right approach or not.
Rob: Some of them were outrageously good: Claudette’’’’’’’’’’’ - now a global star. Atta Kwami, …a fantastic guy from Jamaica ..
Danda: We still don’t know. There is a discussion at the moment that art is becoming a bit too academic, forcing theory etc. on the young artist… Rob: As a result we did very basic stuff like woodcut workshops, led by Theresa Musoke, or drawing, framing, or sculpture workshops; it was the artists who were slightly ahead who were trying to bring up the skills of those who were slightly behind. We did etching workshops - we brought Robino from Tanzania a couple of times - really beautiful etchings came out of that.
Danda: Shez the one who did the signs, the one who went into Kenyatta market? Rob: Yes. She did the insides of shops, beauty salons. She made two beautiful pieces of work which are in the Ford Foundation offices.
Danda: And who did that, can you remember which artists? Rob: Chain Muhandi, John Njenga, Simon Mureithi. Danda: And who suggested who did what? The artists? Rob: It was a process where guys were coming in and offering to teach, to do workshops and very often they did but we always tried to put in new people. When we got the residency programme going in Naivasha, that allowed visiting artists to combine several weeks in Naivasha with two or three weeks back in Nairobi where there would 12
be an exhibition in the gallery, and then they were asked to do a public art project - like as a payback. The challenge was to do a public art project that would bring a new audience to art, and so we took applications on the basis of whoever had a bright idea for something that would make a splash. Danda: And some of those projects were very good…
Danda: So then most of the public art projects were from residencies? Rob: Yes they were, but our local artists were doing them too - Wanjau (Jackson Wanjau, not Anthony Wanjau) made the sculpture that is still at the Museum - that sculpture was a great thing. There was a fantastic woman from Thailand called Mitaya Uware Oriko. She made metal chairs which still sit in the park in Jevangee Gardens. It’s like a half circle of them -they were inspired. Atta Kwami made a beautiful archway there too which was unfortunately temporary but it was also brilliant. Claudette made the Askari sculpture on Aga Khan Walk. Is it still there? Danda: Yes. What exactly was that piece about? What did it say? Rob: At the house that we were lent in Naivasha, the guy assigned to guard the place was a Samburu from Isiolo. Immediately
Section1: Technical upon meeting him, he would pull from his uniform pocket photographs of himself dressed in his Samburu traditional clothes, saying “This is not me (in his askari uniform), this is me”. Claudette was amused and befriended him as he was always there at the house. Her sculpture was about him, and we brought him to see it, and I took a photograph of him standing next to the sculpture. The idea was, here is the sculpture and here is the real Thomas, he lives in the city but his heart is still at home Danda: Was he delighted? Rob: Yes he was. It was a brilliant piece and a great place for it. Around the same time we had set up this big billboard installation with a Dutch painter. He was travelling, but other artists did a new painting everyday on the billboard. Patrick Mukabi and Thom Ogonga took up the project and continued for a while after the Dutchman whose concept it was left. The billboard was near the Dutch Embassy by Uchumi House so we could get a wire from the Dutch Embassy to power the lighting. Danda: Is that when did the Dutch Embassy started supporting Kuona? Rob: It all happened just after Wasanii I. Their new programme officer offered to fund us to hire and train art administrators and to run a few projects. It was mostly running costs we needed, and that enabled me to hire Lina Karingi and Judy Ogana as our arts administrators, and it gave me a salary as well. He funded a course that was run at the museum by S. African university tutors to train art administrators. There were about 24 people, most of them were museum staff with Judy, Lina and
Patricia from Kuona. The thing that strikes me now, and even then at the time, was that very quickly we started dealing with a completely different community of artists. I hadn’t really thought who would use the space, then soon there were people who I hadn’t met before, people who hadn’t yet made any commercial success in the art scene. Danda: Like Richard Kimathi, for example, when did he come? Rob: He came quite early on. Theresa Musoke brought him. She was a good friend from the beginning; she welcomed the thought of an alternative art setup; Kuona was a new kind of space which was very well situated, active, and where lots of people who visited the museum would flood in and out. It was easy to attract people and to get visitors to come. The traffic wasn’t so bad those days. It was just great and it was incredibly fortunate, the thing that happened to that young next generation. Danda: Soi calls them the second generation… You are a third now (to Gor). Rob: The second generation, exactly they came from nowhere and discovered there was a place they could call
home. Here was a place where you could make it. You could find a buyer. You could make some congenial friends, and if you were any good, you might find yourself on a trip to Zambia. It went far beyond a lot of guys’ expectations. Danda: You didn’t give hand outs. Rob: No, we didn’t. We didn’t do that, but maybe we should have asked a little bit more from the artists because one of the reasons Kuona went through a really difficult time a few years later was because we had so few rules and it really wasn’t clear really whose was Kuona. Was it an Institution? Was it a club? Was it just a building? Was it the artists themselves? I think we failed to define that either for ourselves, or for the people who became part of the community there. There was a core group of guys there everyday, and then there was this very large group of people who would come and go. Danda: Who were the core? Rob: All those guys I mentioned: Thom, Jimmy, Kyalo, Ogira to some extent.
section 2 : Dicovery
16 section2: Discovery
Kuona at the Godown …access to private studios within a larger, vibrant arts space… The turn of the millennium brought with it radical changes in the Kenyan art scene especially amongst what was termed the second generation of Kenyan artists. In 1999, the first artists from this group travelled abroad and these contributed a lot to what happened over the next decade. Patrick Mukabi did the two-week Khoj Workshop in India in 1999, followed by Jimmy Ogonga’s three-month residency at Fordsburg Artists’ Studios (The Bag Factory) in South Africa. Before this, most artists were content with making “safe art” for sale and the news brought back by the two about how seriously other countries took art was too much. Soon all artists wanted to go “out there” and see for themselves. The next couple of years, aided by the rapid growth of internet access, saw about 15 young artists travel to the developed world for different art opportunities. One common reaction upon their return was seeing the urgent need to professionalise their practice. There was a general consensus that setting up effective studios modelled around the Gasworks (London), the Bag Factory (South Africa) and Vermont Studios (USA) would help their growth spiral upwards. After a series of meetings and as luck would have it, in Nairobi’s industrial area, the Godown Arts Centre was born.
section2: Discovery The Nairobi art scene, by now split in two, had artists willing to participate in small local fairs and one group willing to be part of the growing African brigade trying to find their rightful place on the global podium. The Godown offered the best place for this. For the first time, artists had access to private studios within a larger, vibrant arts space. From being in a communal space with someone in charge, it was now everyone for themselves, running their own space and in charge of their own activities. This created an atmosphere of healthy competition and raised the bar of the local art scene several notches higher. The six subsequent years at the Godown saw, for the first time, international artists in residence working alongside local artists. This helped build networks in which there was a direct peer-to-peer knowledge and skillsâ€™ exchange. It was probably also the first time Kenyan artists were properly introduced to conceptual art practice.
This phase saw some high-flying young international artists - Uchechukwu Onyishi (Nigeria), Ugochukwu Smooth (Nigeria), Yukinori Yamamura (Japan), Matt Franks (UK) and Philip Donstov (Russia) - put up a number of remarkable conceptual and interactive exhibitions. This period was also a classic phase of a six year journey of artistic discovery where for the first time, we saw Kenyan artists participate in Dakâ€™Art Biennial (Senegal), Vermont Studio Centre (USA) residencies, and Kenyan artist Mary Ogembo won the prestigious Commonwealth Art and Crafts Awards. Thom Ogonga
18 section2: Discovery
A Person in Charge of a Museum, Art Collection… Nairobi as a vibrant cultural capital is filled with art theorists, art critics, and of course the quack artist who infiltrates the arts waiting for an opportunity to open up. In a time when world economics are so unpredictable, people are turning their hands to many different things for both fame and fortune. When it comes to the Kenyan art scene, a number of ‘artists’ have been seen to adopt curatorial roles to tap in on the funding that is available in Africa for the more sophisticated elements of the arts. This is merely economically motivated and in my opinion will never take Kenyan art to the heights we all want for it. Curatorial practice in Kenya is still in its infancy. Working as an artist in Kenya for the last 17 years, I can comfortably say that this is one aspect of the Kenyan art scene that needs addressing. There is a very small number of credible curators who have done this and that, and are mostly foreigners resident in Kenya. The local curators, in my view, are selective and only confined to artists who serve their purposes and those of their funders in a field that, I believe, will never work: art and development, or, 18
art as a tool for development. Before going further, I think it is important to make a clear distinction: the term “artist/curator” is employed here to describe artists who curate. This function may be purely pragmatic, for instance, if there is no one else to do the job in the cases of exhibitions like Art & Graft (Michael Soi), Stereotypes 1(Kamicha John) and Ziba Ufa (Peterson Kamwathi), or if they perceive a distinct gap in the work being presented and exhibited by other curators and institutions. The presentation of the three exhibitions mentioned, held at Kuona Trust, was interesting in the fact that the above three artists did not want to be described as “curators” but rather as people who put up a group of practicing Nairobi artists and created work that was themed. They would rather be seen as facilitators because we all know the responsibilities and weight that comes with the term “curator”. The term “artist/curator” can also be used to describe the work of artists who employ curatorial impulses, gestures and practices into their projects: for instance, gathering and displaying the work of other artists, and providing interpretive frameworks such as didactic texts or publications as was the case with Peterson Kamwathi and the exhibition, Ziba Ufa. I personally believe Peterson is one of Kenya’s most promising artists,
and as stated before, he assumed the role as only he could best put forward the idea in his head. I can fully understand Kamicha Johnâ€™s lack of interest in being referred to as a curator because he knows the implications that come with the title, and is careful enough to state that he is just an artist putting across an idea through collaboration with other artists who he fully understands and knows.
The Kenyan art scene is ready for more curatorial practice and since this is not available right now, artists will continue taking it upon themselves, and when asked to choose between curatorial duties and their art, I am sure most will want to fall back to the title â€œartistâ€?. MICHAEL SOI
20 section2: Discovery
Art In The Forest 2007
Like any Triangle Workshop, Art In the Forest brought together a group of artists from different backgrounds, to work side by side in a shared space for a limited time, to make art and conversation, to share ideas, techniques and inspiration.. . How can I describe this hothouse of creativity? As if that’s not enough, how do I explain the mystery, silences and ancient spirit of the Ngong Forest? It’s impossible - so I urge you to try it yourself! I was thrilled and excited to be invited to the 2007 Kuona Trust Workshop: Art in the Forest. I arrived in Nairobi to be warmly greeted and whisked into the city past a game park with – yes! giraffes calmly going about their business. There was a tantalizing glimpse of bustling Nairobi, a quick glance at the Kuona Studios and then it was time to meet some of the other artists. Kenyan participants were Anthony Okello, Peterson Kamwathi, Beth Kimwele, Samuel Githui, Richard Kimathi, Michael Soi, Thom Ogonga, Mary Ogembo, Caroline Mbirua, Esther Mukuhi and Beatrice Njoroge. Visting artist were from Sudan - Yasir Ali, UK - Max Mason , Lebanon Ginou Choueri, Zambia - Nezias Nyirenda, Ethiopia - Mulungeta Kassa and South Africa – Janet Ranson. Kenyans are wonderful hosts. Throughout the workshop we were supported in our work with home comforts, fantastic catering and good humor. Everywhere I went, from the workshop to the guest house to the local supermarket, people asked if I was enjoying Nairobi and made it clear that they thought it was their job to make sure I had a good time.
section2: Discovery First Impressions The artists gathered in the Ngong Forest Sanctuary to meet, eat and begin the workshop. We left the sprawling city, passed a gate, a river, a stand of magnificent fever trees and some thicker woods. In a grassy clearing stood a tented rest area with a team of beaming chefs – the legendary Lunch Camp. On the first day of the workshop we explored paths near Lunch Camp. There were traces of works from previous workshops, quietly collapsing back into the environment. We were given spades, carving tools, wheelbarrows and string. A team of foresters was on hand to provide us with branches and dead wood, and to help fetch materials. We were briefed to use only natural and found materials for our works. We would make works that would enhance the site, and would ultimately sink back into the forest. At first glance our peaceful camp and forest studios seemed an eternity in space and time from the teeming streets of Nairobi. Yet the forest is under pressure from the rapidly-expanding city. It is completely encircled by settlements, some of them extremely poor. As we explored the forest paths, we began to see evidence of illicit tree poaching. It shocked me to learn that this magnificent forest of stately trees, looped with spectacular vines, suffers almost daily poaching. Developing ideas I began wandering the forest paths, with no specific plan in mind. As Anthony Okello says, ‘like most artists, I don’t know where I’m going to end up when I begin a work’. This approach is often productive in a workshop, where artists are willing to allow the site to guide them. I took the opportunity to wander from one ‘studio’ area to the next, getting to know the other artists a little better. 21
22 section2: Discovery again to discussions of environmental threats, as the evidence was right before us every day. By day, we saw hundreds of mute tree stumps in the forest, evidence of illegal logging. Some artists chose to make work in direct response. Zambian Nezias Nyirenda carved one of the painful-looking stumps left by poachers into a ‘Don’t Cut Trees’ signpost.
Esther Mukuhi, Caroline Mbirua and Beth Kimwele chose to work in a shady clearing, weaving elaborate string and stick structures celebrating nature and home. Some artists were carving wood, plaiting twigs and spinning string, while I sketched and doodled. Each evening our ‘art world’ talk was enlivened by artists’ presentations of their own work. We enjoyed a fascinating range of art interests and practices, from political critique to existential jokes to celebrations of culture. My own impressions and notes from these evening slide shows include many comments that resonate with my own practice. Meanwhile, our art discussions ranged late into the nights, from the inheritance of colonialism to the uneasy politics of the day, to comparisons of the art scene in our home countries. Our conversations returned time and 22
Used as I am to hiking in nature reserves, I was astonished to find that the Forest Sanctuary is seldom used for recreation. There is a real fear of meeting dangerous poachers. People are also still nervous of the spirits who might inhabit the forest. I was told that ’The spirits of the dead can be heard playing music. Beware of answering them if they call you.’ I hope that Nezi’s work Forest Spirit might protect us. ‘People are rather afraid of the forest, so they don’t use it for walks and picnics. ’ I was told. How sad. My own project evolved into an attempt to create a space that felt as safe as our own workshop. I began to invent friendly forest guardians, hoping they might watch over any the trees, and any people who came to hike or picnic. A buzz of creativity: Artists celebrated the Forest Sanctuary in different ways. Yasir Ali built a great entrance to the forest, Nature Is Our Home. Mary Ogembo decorated a small Tree of Life with red paper ‘flowers’. Some people chose sites close to base camp, others deeper into the forest, such as Mulungeta Kassa’s sculptural assemblages and hanging works over the stream. He created a shrine-like space, Free Growth, Humans, Animals and Plants. Ginou Choueiri’s large floral dream-catchers were in a similar reverent mood. Beatrice Njoroge focused on the microcosm with her Camouflage spider webs and drawings in maize on the ground – white shapes which the ants quickly removed. Janet Ranson installed
section2: Discovery stick frames beside the path, to draw attention to the marvelous views in her Challenge to the Pictorial. Some artists made more uncomfortable works. Anthony Okello’s Forest Massacre was composed of hanging (or perhaps hanged?) figures. Life size stick people, draped in hessian rags and daubed in red mud, haunted the trees. Beatrice Njoroge’s Camouflage seemed, at first sight, to be quite abstract: an enormous cone woven of sticks. When she explained that it was based on the structures woven in her grandmother’s village, to hide the children from soldiers, the forest at once seemed more ominous. Installations in the shape of graves were another somber reminder of issues dividing Kenyans. Caroline Mbirua’s Fallen Tree Man also hinted at disaster. Thom Ogonga’s 2010, a ravaged field of tree stumps, made timeous comment on the environment. Samuel Githui used fire and smoke in a performance entitled Global Warning. Petersen Kamwathi inserted carved spikes into blunt sections of tree-trunk, creating a circle of beautiful yet dangerous-looking sculptures. His other work seemed much more playful and whimsical: large wooden hoops hung on long sticks in an open field. Yet they were dwarfed by the giant trees behind them, and seemed to hint at some sort of mismatch between mankind’s size and grasp. Janet Ranson’s work commented on the environment more humorously. Head In the Sand was a giant face, sunk to the nose in the ground, ‘refusing to think about the world’s problems’.
Animals were included, too. Michael Soi conjured a bullish giraffe of sticks and sacking. Janet Ranson built a large forest ‘guardian’, Horton: a life-size elephant or mammoth, made of rammed earth and covered in living grass. Koko Kang’oroti made a festive playground in honor of the local wildlife: Monkey Point. Max buzzed around the forest at high speed, photographing the forest and the artists. She can be seen in everyone else’s snapshots, climbing higher than the monkeys to get a better view. Our day trip to a game park was one of the highlights of the workshop. Spectacular mountain scenery, wildly bumpy roads, glimpses of rural life and a wealth of game - all seen from the comfort of the grooviest Nairobi taxi. We returned to Nairobi quite giddy, ready to work hard than ever on our forest installations. The results of 2 weeks of feverish creativity in the forest were annotated and mapped for the Open Day. Hundreds of people walked the forest trail and engaged with the artists. Workshop participants acted as guides, and enjoyed chatting to the visitors. Ginou presented guests with mask necklaces made of leaves. It was wonderful to share such appreciation for art, from young and old. All too soon it was time for a farewell party, with DJ Max, and a last chance to dance with our new friends. Then it was time to fly home, to spend years digesting all that we’d learnt at the workshop.
section 3 : Conceptual Artists Studio Systems The exhibitions
…the artists are Kuona
I am Cyrus Kabiru, an artist from Kenya. I do sculpting, painting and I also design my Glasses and I love what I do. Q: How long have you been at Kuona? A: It’s been about three years now. I joined Kuona at the end of 2006 up to now and am happy being at Kuona because of the contact and working together with the other artists who I believe are Kuona. Q: Do you like the space? A: I can work anywhere and the spaces are good depending on where you are. The space I work in, I think is a good place. Q: Where were you before Kuona? A: I used to have my own studio at my own place. A home studio - I used to do painting and a bit of sculpting but because of the size, I preferred to do painting. When I joined Kuona that’s when I started working more on sculpting. Q: Who influenced the sculpting at Kuona or was it just because of the space? A: It wasn’t just because of the space. Earlier I was a toy maker, and I really never had anyone I would have told that I wanted to make 26
section3: Conceptual sculpture. Even now the sculptures am making are like the ones I used to make before but I changed them a bit. So I have grown while making them because I used to make toys using metal and I am still using metal now. Q: Do you feel as if working with the other artists in the space has influenced your art style? A: Yah, that’s why I love coming to Kuona because of the other artists. First I listen to their comments about my work. When I make something, I like to hear from them their comments as they help me develop my work. Q: The work that you do is unique. Is it influenced by the modern contemporary world? A: I think most people think that but, for me I don’t know how to differentiate modern from old. I believe it is modern art, and that it is our turn to change the art scene a bit, not just paint and do sculpting like using glass. We need to also come up with something new. That’s why I am saying it’s up to you to define whether it’s modern but I believe it’s modern because we need to come up with new ideas to think out of the box. Q: The world is changing so much and the art world is changing too; we are going toward digital art more and more. Is that something you think is influencing your work or will influence your work in the future?
A: I don’t like digital and neither do I believe in it. Our generation has a hard time because of technology and we don’t know where we are heading because of it; because everyone is working with computers and machines, this makes me not know where we are heading - because we can either end up doing good with it or it might destroy our art and that’s why am telling you I don’t believe in it.
Q:Are you willing to learn about digital art to see if you can move with these trends, or are content with what you are doing now? A: I am content with what I am doing. This is because I have a lot am doing like the sculpting, painting, working with the Glasses and I don’t think that I could enjoy learning about digital as I am okay with what I know now. If I add digital, I might end up getting confused and I will be an artist prostitute who wants to do everything, and I don’t want to be that. 27
section3: Conceptual Q: Maybe we should talk about some of your successes. I know that the Glasses have become very popular. Maybe you can talk about the successes that have made you really proud? A: I think they are not yet so successful but maybe a bit successful, and the reason for this is because I did the international exhibition. This was my first International exhibition. Q: Where was it? A: In Tilburg, Netherlands and I enjoyed it. I have been documented by MTV and have appeared in many magazines and a few newspapers as well as the local TV channels. It’s making me known by many people and I think that what most artists need is publicity. So nowadays people are talking about me, and collectors are looking for me, and designers and many people who I thought I would never meet want with to work me and this is making them a bit successful as I had said earlier. Q: So they are getting popular? A: Yes. . Q: What do you see as the future for Cyrus’ art? What do you look forward to in terms of your art, or hope for? A: When I do art I don’t think much about the future because if I start thinking much about the future and I miss my dreams - it’s like I don’t have dreams. 28
Q: You must have dreams? A: If I have dreams and I miss them, I will be really disappointed and that makes me not think about my future and that makes me live just like… Q: Day to day? A: Just like me. Q: But it’s good to plan ahead? Like what if your success is in the Glasses? A: Let me just say this, for me what I want to see for my art, not me, is for it to be somewhere, let’s say international, and to be known by many people. It’s like what I used to tell people when I did a workshop in Holland, and I kept telling the students that if you keep asking them what they want to be, they say they want to be an artist like Van Gogh and I would tell them they don’t need to be an artist like Van Gogh, but that they need to be their own person. Because it’s like everyone wants to be like Abby Carson but for me I want to be me with my own way. So you just want to be recognized as Cyrus? Yes and not like someone else and that is how I joined art because I joined it as Cyrus, and not as someone who wants to be known because of someone else. I want my art to be internationally recognised. Q: Do you have anyone who inspires you in the art world or that you admire?
A: I am inspired by everyone and everything - more so by funny things and even nature, and as I have told you, I want to be an international artist. I am not just a Kenyan artist, or an African artist, I am an artist from Kenya. If I say I am a Kenyan artist it will be limiting myself, therefore I am an artist from Kenya, an artist from Africa and therefore an artist of the world. Q: Cyrus, you know you are considered one of the important new contemporary artists in Kenya, and in the art scene here in Nairobi .How would you compare your generation of art to the older generation who has been there for years? A: When I joined Kuona Trust I met the older generation, and because of the way they treated me, I don’t think I found the older generation inspired me. But they also made me who I am because of the way they used to show me that am still young and that am still not established and that am down there - they made me work extra hard to reach the top so that I would know how it feels to be at the top - although I don’t believe there are artists who are at the top and up there while there are artists at the bottom. I believe we are all artists. I think because they are of the older generation artists, their thinking is old fashioned. So with that said, I don’t believe they inspired me in any way.
: My name is Dennis Muraguri and I’m an artist based at Kuona Trust at the moment. I do…well, what I have done mostly is sculpting, painting…that is why I prefer to say I am an artist because if I don’t feel like doing something then I am limiting myself if I say I am just a painter or a sculptor, so I can’t do that. That is why I simply want to be an artist to do whatever I want, whenever I want. If my inspiration leads me towards a certain direction, then I don’t have to say this is not what I do. Q: How long have you been at Kuona? A: I joined Kuona in 2007 or 2008, I’m not very sure. Q: Was that straight out of college or had you worked somewhere else before? A: I had worked before, outside Kuona, but before Kuona I never really knew much about the local art scene. I used to do my own things and I managed to sell my work before I came to Kuona, but when I joined Kuona, the most I have got from it is interaction with other artists and space. There is better space than working from my mum’s house. Q: So you like the studio space? A: I like the studio space and the interaction with other artists and I think it is because of this that I grew from being a painter to being a sculptor to being able to do anything because of being exposed to other artists and other art forms. Q: In the time that you have been with Kuona who do you feel has been of great influence to you among the other artists that you have worked with? A: I think for me I can’t pin it down to one artist - it’s just the whole vibe that goes on in here. I can’t say that this is the artist who influenced me. For me 29
section3: Conceptual at the GoDown, they were constructing there, so there was a lot of junk around. It’s not something that I had worked out when I began making them, it’s those thoughts that you have when you pile up things in your mind. One moment you feel like - why not try it now? - and then I did it and though it was not supposed to be - it was something I was doing to relax from painting, but it ended up taking its own course. Q: Are you still painting? A: I am still painting. I do print-making. I do a lot of things Q: Do you want to talk about your matatu art? A: No!
anyone who I have met has influenced me. Q: Let’s talk a bit about your work and the influences on your sculpture, for instance. You said you started doing sculpting when you came to Kuona. You weren’t doing it before. How did that come about? A: It was born out of boredom - painting was becoming monotonous, and it wasn’t something I had planned. There was a lot of debris 30
be linked to photography. I also take videos of matatus and all that. Sometimes when am sculpting, it can be limiting in terms of how much you can communicate if it is communication you are after, so all these other mediums are just options one can chose to communicate better if there are ideas that are too grand you can’t put them in a painting or a sculpture so that’s when you can decide to do a video, photography or whatever
Q: What about contemporary movements in art and the use of digital art that is coming about these days. Do you feel that that has any influence in the way your art is growing and is going to grow? A: Okay for me I think, the more the options the better. I have tried working with… maybe I have done the video, I have done some installations. For me it’s just like I began sculpture. I did not know where it was going, it was not supposed to be what it is now. In my mind it was supposed to be something I’m just doing to relax but it grew into something else and that is how I take all other mediums. For instance you had asked me about the matatu art. What I do can
medium you feel is most expressive. For me it’s just like painting, sculpting with a chisel. They are just tools to me. Q:You have done work with other artists, collaborations on different installations. I would like you to talk a bit about that, and how you feel about installation art or conceptual art, and does it play a big part in your art? A: I like to experiment with anything and everything and, about conceptual art I would argue there is no such thing as conceptual art because everything begins as a concept before you lay it out. If you are doing a painting, it doesn’t start when you pick up the brush. Sometimes it begins as something you have thought about, as a concept. When people try to detach and separate conceptual art from other forms of art, I feel it is just a contradiction. When you do photography, you must have a concept before you go out. For me every art form has a concept, so when people try to separate and say there is conceptual art and other forms of art, it doesn’t make sense. It’s just a tool, like installation that is another technique of putting over what you want to convey. Maybe if the idea is too grand to be put in a painting and you want to come up with something like a documentary, then photography would do it better instead of painting.
Q: There are a lot of changes in art these days; there is a lot of digital art starting up, people being more experimental with digital formats. Do you think that will influence the way you will work in the future? A: I can’t quite say if it will influence me or not. I still like doing things hands on. I still like building things, but if I come to a point where I run into something that excites me more than building things, why not? But sometimes I think people use it as a scapegoat and for me it doesn’t make sense what people do. Q: You find it lazy? A: I find it lazy. I find it . . . how do you say this? Well the more you don’t make sense of something the better one is at it. That’s how sometimes I feel. Q: How do you compare the older generation art forms and the modern generation art forms? A: Their art form was to come up with a technique that related to them and just keep at it. If you see art work from an old artist from back then and you see the work now, it is still the same. Their work is more stylistic…for them I feel like they have reached a point that their work has become more of a craft.
section3: Conceptual inspires you, or that you admire? A: First of all when I got into the art scene, the first thing I felt is that they scared me because of how they were living. They had big names but whenever I met them they did not match up to the hype. I would say mostly financially and their lifestyle. I expected to find people who are living good and matching to the names and the hype but whenever I met them they were mostly complaining and to me it felt like they were bitter and some still are as they are always complaining about something and it scared me because I thought if this is what I am now, it means this is what I will end up being. To me they were nothing to look up to. Q: Do you think they would have been different if they had had a place like Kuona, a place where they could grow? A: I think maybe it’s what they lacked . . . for us, we had them as an example and it is not really their fault because we had them to compare and contrast but for them it was just them. They were the first people to do it and they did not look into the future. They thought everything would be fine.
Q: Is there anyone in that generation of artists that you feel you could look up to or who 31
section3: Conceptual Q: briefly, in your own perspective, the role of the artist taking up this role of the artist as curator. And talk about experimenting with media.
and Gor 2008 was a watershed in contemporary art history in Kenya. Specifically the Stereotype I and II exhibition series were arguably the first shows to be conceptualized and executed locally by Kenyan artists. It was a reaction to the political upheavals- 2007 PEV. John Kamicha, Thom Ogonga, Anthony Okello, Michael Soi and Sam Hopkins. It sought to interrogate issues to do with tribal and cultural stereotypes inn the Kenyan society, and how these have been used to entrench tribalism in the 32
country. The artists went on to interrogate the subject matter through a wide ranging visual vocabulary; voice and sculpture installations. The feedback from the audience already traumatized by the brutality of the PEV was tremendous. This show, may not have been the first curated show, but certainly represented the marked attempt by Kenyan artists to embrace a more proactive role with regard to putting up exhibitions. John Kamicha was the foreman; his modest way of saying he was the curator.
A: There are things where I really don’t know where to start, because on one level, I think there have always been initiatives by artists to expose their works and to expose the work of others and if that opens up a space where they have to be identified as curators then I don’t know…and part of the reason why you have this culture-and it’s not new, it’s just that now you have a lot of cutting age expression accompanying it. But the structures that have existed within the Kenyan system is such that, for instance Kuona Trust has been the one that has for the longest time fulfilled the role of a training space whereby artists come in, and am talking about the Museum studio model with a lot of technical workshops- learning how to use oil paints, painting using acrylics, to cast- you know whatever- nonetheless at the end of it all you are left with a skill whose output is not absorbed or passed along in line onto another of structure. Of course there have been, and still are small galleries, but we all know what is happening with the galleries. Ramoma shut down- there are very few commercial gallery spaces. Gallery Watatu is going into exclusive representation – so this is a good system that is good to have but it does not satisfy the demand that is there.
section3: Conceptual Q: This demand I take it is in regard to the artists’ need, and not the demand of the audience, or both? A: Well, I can’t speak for the audience needs because I haven’t looked at it keenly. But what I do know is that there is almost a parallel effect that if you have more spaces, then it covers a broader spectrum, a broader area- it doesn’t just cater to one mailing list, it caters to different people and their contacts- so I suppose that when Ramoma closed, there were people who would have gone to Ramoma to see exhibitions and now probably don’t do that now, there only contact with the artist world and the artist work was through that space. Now Watattu probably has the same thing, it has people who would frequent Watatu, but would not take a seven minutes’ drive to Kuona because it’s not part of their sphere.
space, there has been a concerted attempt to open up the space to different audiences, you know; with the exhibitions open days, artist presentations. Previously focus was just on artist skills and improving the same. The model now and am talking as an artist who has practiced in the studios here, and currently as one of the old boys. This, I think is
the current focus and it is a good thing, where you are creating a space for artists to express themselves, and also as a meeting point between the artist and the audience- those who would consume what the artist creates.
Q: For fifteen years, Kuona has filled a unique niche, if I may, acting as a space where an artist can work and interact with their audience. A: I think that this general direction is a pretty recent thing- looking at the museum studio; it was primarily a space for artists to create, and when tourists happened to wonder down the slope to the studios to see what’s happening there, well and good. However since Kuona moved to the Godown, and more so this 33
section3: Conceptual Q: within the past fifteen years, Kuona has moved from the Museum, to the Godown and to the current space. All these moves perhaps coincided with evolution in programming its activities; perhaps because every shift coincided with the Centre’s gaining more control of its programs. What was the effect of this evolution on your personal practice? A: Well, I think the physical changing of spaces was to a certain extent destabilizing, but then there was an upside to it in that it also brought in another dimension for me to function in. You can actually grow stale when you exist in one space or with the same program for too long…. Q: It was a constructive destabilization… A: I think it was... It was constructive, especially the first move from the NMK studio to the Godown because it broke this model of pure communal studio. At the Godown you ended up having artists renting individual studio spaces, shared spaces which prior to that was not very common in the Nairobi art scene. It also brought in some kind of energy. Of course a lot of things were also lost along the way- we lost this strong, very intense communal setting where everyone functions in one space, there was a lot of cross over. The problem with that was that you ended up having a lot of hybridity- I remember one time at the NMK when we started dissecting each 34
other’s work and the way people draw noses had kind of crossed over into others works. Nonetheless, the thing I remember about the NMK studio, and which set it apart from other artist collectives in and around Nairobi is there was this desire for individual artists to find their own visual unique visual expression. But then of course on a subconscious level, there were all these references, be it in the shape of certain forms, the use of certain colors, or the use of certain tools in painting or sculpture, certain finishes… Q: In content..? A: You could actually find a distinct identity whereby this is your individual expression. But then was a very deliberate attempt by people. There are a lot of things I really appreciated about that space. Nonetheless, hybridity in the sense that sometimes when you all try to be so different, the processes end up being the same, and the outcome inadvertently similar- and this is one of the arguments I have with conceptual art practice in Europe at the moment. You desire to be so different, but that difference feels the same. Q: Speaking of conceptual art practice in Europe, these trends have crept into our visual vocabulary. Some may even say we are trying very hard to be ‘conceptual’, and the hypothesis is that with the Kenyan scene con-
necting at an unprecedented level with the global art scene, especially Europe, there is a flow of this kind of visual vocabularies- Is this is why we have what was basically the same role acted by certain artists being redefined by what you termed ‘cutting edge expression’ and calling it curatorial? A: What I meant, to expound on that a bit, is that we had a situation where we didn’t have spaces to show, and artists would mobilize themselves in groups of two, three and approach spaces or people who had spaces, propose to have exhibitions in those spaces, they would have to go through the process of transporting their works there, work on the publicity which at the time meant sending out cards in envelopes….with stamps- now of course you get everything through e-mail. Of course Kuona would do this too, which brings in another aspect of the NMK, the exhibitions once, twice or thrice a year. I think part of that process where we didn’t have a gallery system, and instead people would come into your space, frame it, hang it and do the publicity and all you do is end up showing up at the exhibition opening, or directing the hanging process. Q: is the difference therefore, between those days and now that exhibitions are more like the result of critical research project, whereby an artist, or a group or artists come up
section3: Conceptual ad a hypothesis, and investigate a certain with social or political issue and execute it? A: That process is new, but then I suppose it is not only a reflection on the Kenyan, but also the global side of things, whereby it is important to find threads… relationships and join the dots. As someone who is standing aside and looking at the proper picture, you find that this element works with this element, this artist with another, this work relates to this concept, to this theme…this is my idea and a particular work actually functions within it. So that process is new…now people have become more critical with their expression and we try and find places where our expressions fit. Because on one level a curator also needs to have a creative edge, which means he has an idea, a thought, but he also needs to manifest, to materialize it. If I were a curator, I am not a curator, but if I were, your current paintings would probably fit into a certain idea, and another artist’s drawings would as well, so it is would be up to me, as curator, to see and present those threads. That’s all it is, its presentation… Q: What do you think about this evolution from simply hanging up work on a wall to the current critical, concept based exhibitions…I don’t think you would be agreeable today if I asked you to bring work to go hang in some restaurant in town just like that?
A: Maybe I would if I was broke- well, I am broke. Maybe I would if my landlord was knocking on my door; I don’t know…maybe I would. I don’t think I would at this point though, I don’t know about the future. Q: Am glad you brought that bit about the economic or is it financial dimension which informs our actions as artists….? A: ….That is the linkage I wanted to bring in, which is that the process has changed, but then also the motives behind the processes.
To a certain extent the idea; creating a painting on canvas, a meter by meter was all the conceptualization that I needed to do- I think any process of artistic expression, be it writing music or theatre- whatever, begins with an idea, which gives way to a concept. This is because a concept looks at the structure. You have an idea, a spark, and the concept is how that idea links up to the real world, or even to the world of fantasy. But then, the execution and the kind of interaction you want your audience to have with 35
section3: Conceptual the work will determine how you present it. In a way you are looking at modern day exhibitions being more interactive rather than just pure…you know…one way… a Monet on a velvet wall. Incidentally I intended a workshop which was looking at the idea of feedback. What is the kind of communication that takes place between the object that is being expressed, and how does that feed back to the artist, and how does that in turn feed back to the object- you know, the whole cycle. But then the commercial, and this is what I was trying to look at, it’s a pointer that once am done creating on my 100 by 100, and it is stretched well, and it is even framed, whatever responsibility I have ends there. So the only thing that remains is putting into a space whereby it has to translate into cash. One of the things you also realize is that there are less solo done- I remember there was a time when artists were really scared of doing solos because if you didn’t sell then you felt like you were a failure. Success was measured by how many paintings you sell at an exhibition. So if you sell a lot, Peterson is the thing, if not, Peterson is not a good artist. And that was a culture that was not only ingrained within the artists themselves, but the audience also picked up on it to the point where the only relationship I have with my clients is their wallet and not what I have to say. 36
All work was social, I always say that. A lot of expression in Kenya is social in nature in terms of it comments on the space we live in, the things we see with our eyes, how we internalize those things, which is a bit less…. The idea of silent art is hard to imagine. It is impossible for art to be mute on its context. Q: It is language; it has to say something, however personal, however sensitive. A: Politics is not the only social things there is. Now, the shift is that now we are getting to a point whereby we also felt that that was not enough, and you have a generation where we felt that we could always make money through other means if we had to, but for me the idea of communicating is important- so now we had exhibitions coming up whereby they were exhibitions which engaged the society but were really channeled towards communication rather than the financial. When you have installations, for instance, no one is going to buy that, we can’t afford to, nor have the space for them, but it just the desire and that whole passion of trying to say something and hoping that what am trying to say can translate form the media am using to the minds and hearts of whoever is looking at it. Q: the business side of art, is it a business A: I don’t entirely agree that art is a business, and I have a lot of argument with some
people who say art is a business-it might be a business, but I am someone who express things. Now there is someone who is good at handling that expression and converting it into money…I don’t have those skills. Q: This forced role, this gap that needs to be filled, between finishing work and getting to the audience. It is an added responsibility, on top of being an artist; you are forced to take up the role of curator. Is this an advantage? A: What I meant earlier when I talked about art being created and staying as it is, I was trying to illustrate the different kind of spaces that Kuona has existed in within. Of course the lack of structures that are curatorial in nature within the Kenyan artistic system is a major contributor. That if we did have active people who chose to be curators, who chose to find these threads, expound on them, pull them out and make them visible to the rest of the world, I think we would probably have less artist initiatives in that direction. But then because this vacuum exists, and no one seems to have the guts to walk in that direction, we kind of tow this line, kind of have our feet in both spaces. I wouldn’t ever call myself a curator, because if I was one I would have to be super ruthless in how I decide to work with people. But what I have done is, and which I think other people are doing too is that you find there is a certain thing to be said, and no
one has said it, and it is important, you just can’t sit and wait for someone to materialize. And I think that is the direction things are heading, there are going to be more artists initiatives towards highlighting the different thoughts, ideas, trying to fill out the different unchartered regions of our practice. Q: does this weigh you down, or it’s a case of slow painful growth for the art scene. A: Probably I won’t be the rock star artist, but if I fight some of the battles that I am able to fight now, they won’t have to be fought in the future- so someone else will deal with another issue. It’s interesting to be able to do this, to play the puppet master, and be the puppet at the same time, that you can actually switch these roles. The problem is that it comes at a cost; your time, your relationship with people because then you have to do things that might not sit well with people, when you fail it becomes a reflection on you. I usually say that the one place that I know, that I am most aware of is my studio space, but when I step out of it I am in wild water, in the jungle in the sense that it is all new, all stimuli so that when I get back into the studio it is the only place I can manipulate things into units I can absorb, it is the one place where I can take what I have encountered out there-keep what I have is necessary and trash what isn’t.
Q: it is a space of reflection A: but it comes at a cost, it takes time, reflects on you, it kind of also strains relationships, but the upside is that it also opens new frontier and new relationships. Many people are doing these things, and I hope many more keep doing these things so that either some of us become so good at it that some other artist would have time to fully be themselves and know that there is that connection with this other space instead of having to be the one connecting this space. Q: how is life as an old boy? A: it is has to be progressive, you know, it’s cumulative in nature. It is a tragedy when one gets stuck in one place- there is a certain kind of helplessness. The transition is great, am having a great time at the studio. Prior to making the move I really second guessed myself because it’s nice being in the collective setting, when you are not having fireworks in the studio, you can just step out and have a conversation and lie in the grass. I miss the space, but I think am having so much fun at the moment that I couldn’t have it any other way. I can’t speak for the future though, but I hope the fun doesn’t run out, and if it does I will see what to do. With regard to the structures, what I am working with is actually structures that I have developed within this context, so I think it is important for artists
section3: Conceptual to actually develop those networks, contacts, connections, keep relationships with institutions like Kuona, I don’t entirely disengage. But I realize that it’s the same way I was communicating with people at Kuona is the same way I am doing out there, it’s only that I have to put more effort. Q: and of course your move creates a chance for younger artist to get a chance A: That’s the thing! I realized that I have been a beneficiary of this structure of so long, but then the problem is that if I don’t make the effort to propel myself to another stage, then I clog the system, and I think it is important for you to realize that this is not the end, this is just a transition stage, you are developing your relationships that will push you to the next level. Q: Geographically, your move opens up the Nairobi art scene geographically. A: It does, my studio has added something to the Nairobi art scene, a geographic diversity, and the next person and the next person, and it allows the younger guys to have a studio where they can pay affordable rates.
THE KUONA TRUST STUDIO SYSTEMS The Kuona Trust studios have come a long way and has evolved just like Kuona Trust. The last seventeen years have seen the evolution process of studios from a prefab communal to what can be termed as private studios. The first Kuona Trust Studio was a communal space which also served as an office and a gallery. This was an empty building in the Museum grounds which, by then was called - Ainsworth House. (Ainsworth was the colonial Provincial Commissioner for Nairobi. This was the beginning of good things to come as an exhibition of women artists launched the new space. Later the same studio space was used for the first 3 artist workshops by Theresa Musoke and Philip of Franex Studios who did a workshop on framing and stretching canvases.
The Kuona exodus into The Godown offered the best place for the studio evolution process to continue. For the first time, artists had access to private studios within a larger, vibrant arts space. From being in a communal space with someone in charge, it was now everyone for themselves, running their own space and in charge of their own activities. This created an atmosphere of healthy competition and raised the bar of the local art scene several notches higher. The six subsequent years at the Godown saw, for the first time, international artists in residence working alongside local artists in the new studio system. It is from the networks that were built during the peer to peer knowledge and skill sharing that resulted into conceptual art practice.
section3: Conceptual At the current space in Kilimani area, the conceptual art gained momentum due to the options that were offered by the wide range of studio systems. Starting from the sheds, the communal studios and the private studios, one was a t the liberty of experimenting on anything and thus the diversity of contemporary visual art that Kuona basks at. Currently, Kuona offers 3 types of studio systems. The sheds are mostly used by sculptor. This is because at times they need bigger and open space. The communal studios usually hold 4 or more artist. Usually, new artist being inducted at Kuona operate from the communal studios and this facilitates their learning about Kuona. Personal studios are usually used by seasoned artist and international residents. This whole process has been made possible through the support of different bodies, embassies, companies and individuals of good will.
Regular exhibitions at Kuona were held in the formal Gallery at the Museum and the Go-Down as well as non-conventional spaces including CBA bank halls and Royal Netherlands Embassy complex. Some of the exhibitions held in the Museum and at the Godown were Gebrellu’s Exhibition, Mavuno exhibition, Print Exhibition ,Maggie Otieno’s exhibition, and Uchechukwus’ exhibition at Godown .
section3: Conceptual Through the years, Kuona has developed a Concept based exhibition programme that encourage artists to look at conceptual practice and to address issues close to their hearts. Kuona has seen a need to demonstrate how art can be used to educate and inform and make powerful statements. These exhibitions attempt to do this sort of thematic work is still rare in Nairobi, as artists are forced to make more commercial work on a daily basis to survive. Kuona aims to develop thematic exhibitions on all sorts of issues that affect Kenyans with particular interest to certain social themes, encouraging artists to work in different ways and many of the artists who have benefited from this have made break throughs in their practice after these exhibitions and workshops. The Exhibitions are aimed to create an ideal and excellent tool for education and awareness raising. Most of these Concept based exhibitions are installed in the Kuona art Gallery in Kilimani. Examples of some of these exhibitions are Management Reserves The Right of Admission, \ Thom Ogonga, Peterson Kamwathi, 2010 Art of Politics & The Politics of Art, Beatrice Wanjiku, Dennis Muraguri, curated by Ato Malinda, 2010 Dumpside Dandora, Otieno Kota, 2011 Hysterical Injustices, artists at Wasanii: Gor Soudan, Jason Barka, Kevvo Sterro, 2011 Tableau 1, Mbuthia Maina, Anthony Wanjau, 2011 Eyes on Animation, Peterson Kamwathi, Andrew Njoroge, Patrick Mukabi, 2011 Angry Birds, Gor Soudan, 2012 Existence, Kevin Oduor, 2012 Freedom of Movement, Dinesh Ravenkar, 2012 41
This project has been supported by:
in conjuction with: