“…Tell me where the light comes from,” says the man to the boy, referring to the candle. The boy blows out the candle, and in the darkness, says to the man, if you tell me where the light went, then I‘ll tell you where it comes from…” Sufi Parable
On 29th December 2007, Kenya was finally awoken to a critical realization that there were fundamental flaws within the society they lived. The rest of the world was in the least, stunned – as if not already fatigued by the sporadic eruptions of high fatality conflict and coups characteristic of the past decade. From neighboring Uganda, Rwanda, Somalia and even South Africa, who had sought refuge & support to their struggles and conflicts, to nations which barely knew of the existence of this east African state, the violence following the elections was in the least unexpected. Or wasn’t it?
Kenya, similar to other post-colonies, exists as a deceptive emotional landscape, characteristic of the continents modernity and its aftermath. Its urban spaces manifest as areas of fermented unresolved conflicts, voyeuristic indulgence, social experiments and lethargic livelihood.
Life, in its fundamental sense, in these urban spaces is a paradox; the greater population is in a constant struggle to survive from one generation to the next, carrying forward memories of Colonial legacy and post-colonial reinvention. At the same time, new outlets of globalization, its related hegemonies and consumption persist among small pockets of the city’s suburbs. Nairobi city remains, as AbdouMaliq Simone points out, ‘…inscribed into a narrative of continuous development. Whether it is from the experience of transmissibility, or from the perspective of change, life within the city urges…’
As Subsequent generations living in Kenya, we believed in a hype, a highly refined and sophisticatedly packaged cocktail of propaganda. Our entire educational & socialization systems are abridged on fictitious arguments. And an entire infrastructure built to support these fallacies, created in the colonial and post independence era. In the 60’s, after the proclamation of independence, we still believed the hype of the colonizers superiority & sense of mission as our saviors from ourselves. We continuously indoctrinated these ideas into the fabrics of our codes. We never deconstructed the colonial cultural, educational, religious & social systems, instead, inherited these from one generation to the next, morphing into a more complex form of chauvinism, enslavement, and re-perpetuated the colonial encounter through the misdirection of a pack of dazed leaders, with blackness as the sole criterion for their terms of office.
We never asked ourselves how, as a colonized people, we could emerge, exorcise ourselves from multiple traumas. We inherited the colonial vision – or lack of it – including its entire inefficiencies, its cyclical disillusions & its neurotic insecurities. We failed to discover that the colonial encounter required a reinvention of ourselves the colonized, and to begin a deliberate reconstruction of our past; we accepted, and even perpetuated to be, in Cesaire’s words, “thingified”.
Even though we remembered an abstract African trans-territory, as people who occupy it, we failed to question and challenge the established boundaries and other dominant forms of geopolitical and social demarcation, and from that we failed to share a common vision as a common people, as an independent African state.
We accepted to be come a source of raw materials, a source of cheap labour and a market for Europe’s products; we believed in the hype of a “free enterprise system”, whose fundamental perspective, as recited from Adam Smith’s theories, which stated that “self interest and competition leads to social prosperity as the act of competition creates incentives that motivate people to persevere and be creative, innovative”. However, what we never thought out is how a competition-based economy invariably led to our current predicaments; strategic corruption (cronyism, nepotism), power and material consolidation (wealth gaps), social stratification (social, racial, economic class systems), technological paralysis (restricted access to technology & related resources), labor abuse (exploitation, slavery) and ultimately, a covert form of government dictatorship (wealthy hierarchical ruling elite).
Therefore, we set the stage to live in a space that is culturally locked-down. Cities & social nuclei which hold much potential, but yet untapped – holding onto stagnant positions, where relationships between the spectator and the action are confined to fixed positions as a security measure for keeping our imaginations sterile. So much of what we experienced passed through us unchanged; and we, in turn, were unaffected. No physiological vibration took place. We admired from afar, but could not bring it to originate within ourselves. Gradually, these cities failed to act as transformative areas, spaces where the docile & passive existence of its inhabitants have been fabricated, brutally instilled, encouraged – and even rewarded, and then systematically taken advantage of.
As Indian philosopher, Veena Das asks, “…how does one bear witness to the criminality of societal rule, which consigns the uniqueness of being to eternal forgetfulness, not through an act of dramatic transgression but through a descent into everyday life? Thus, how does one not simply articulate loss through a dramatic gesture of defiance but learn to inhabit the world, or inhabit it again, in a gesture of mourning? It is in this context that one may identify the eye not as the organ that sees but as the organ that weeps…”
Cultural stimuli which cause humankind to question the moment and formulate complex answers to guide his existence are much more elusive than is often realized. The question should therefore be; how do we ensure that this essential spirit of culture is born or revived, and henceforth remains permanently awake? How do we create tangible possibilities when our collective thinking is confined to a dysfunctional system, which ensures our ideas are always at risk of being still-born? How do we overcome within a neurotic society, enslaved, and subjected to its knees by ignorance, monetary dictatorship, political gangstarism, generational discord, outdated social structures – including cultural organizations, who in their stupor, act as local authorities and self-appointed guardians of the status quo – sheep that no longer need a sheep dog to control, as they can effectively control each other – ostracizing those that step out of the norm? And yet again, What elements, then, let a re-appropriation of the city by its citizens? How do certain cultural dynamics stamp on post-colonial cities, and moreover on its social and political organizational structure, codes of identity and contemporaneity? What are the artistic expressions through which such representations are shown?
If this is to change, if a snap has to happen, then we have to determine and imagine spaces for cultural ritual within our habitats; to create situations where catharsis may happen.
When Antonin Artaud called for a ‘theater of cruelty’, he was suggesting for no less than a total breakdown of cultural security codes. It is to walk into the space where others wait, or are afraid to walk. It is to create sets of alternatives, spaces not yet in existence, for the younger generations of artists and active audiences to produce and present their works, engage anew with contemporary audiences and design fresh relations with their societies. It is to corrupt the zones of silence. It is to invent curiosity where none exists. It is to go back to the ruins and provoke memory, to highlight it, in its varying manifestations.
Among the emergent contemporary artists in Kenya, a fearless experimentation is starting to transcend the technical and thematic convention – showing in a new wave of disturbing new works by some of the more prolific Kenyan artists – all of them less than 40 years old. Artists like Peterson Kamwathi, Ato Malinda, James Muriuki, Otieno Kota, Mimi Cherono Ngok, Denis Muraguri, Arlene Wandera, Cyrus Kabiru, Myriam Syowia Kyambi, Otieno Gomba, John Kamicha and Richard Kimathi to mention but a few, are gradually re-mapping the contemporary cultural landscapes. There is common ground between these artists: They all live in the capital city, or wander from one metropolis to another; the layers of personal and collective memory; the obscure dynamics of gender, life and death; the nostalgia of the origins; the restless body as an expression vehicle; the eccentric communion between the disgusting and the beautiful; the paradox of education or ways in which our sociocultural codes affect and are affected by everyday realities.
Photograph From Mimi Cherono N’gok’s Home Series
The old formulas seem not to be useful anymore in expressing the new and complex visions about our sociocultural reality.
It is through such surges, borne out of intense conversation and profound confrontations continuously happening in places like Bamako, Johannesburg, Addis, Dakar, Cairo that built up initiatives such as the Amnesia party – which from the outset, rejected the post-minimalist, post-conceptualist language of “biennials”, “festivals” or “thematic shows”.
In addition to the immediate local relevance, The Amnesia Project arose from the fundamental strategic urge for a stagnant, banal city to undertake stronger efforts in establishing horizontal circuits that could act as cultural life spaces; zones which could contribute to pluralizing and internationalizing culture in the real sense; legitimize it in its own terms, construct new epistemes and unfold new actions.
In this vein, exchange platforms between Kenyan artists and other artists such as Andrew Tshabangu, Donna Kukama (South Africa), Billy Bidjocka (Cameroon/France), IngridMwangiRobertHutter (Kenya/Germany), Aida Muluneh (Ethiopia), and Moataz Nasr (Egypt), worked to spark these reactions. Concurrently, Curator Simon Njami, worked with cultural writers & commentators with an explicit aim of sharpening their literary, intellectual & visual prowess, providing skills and possibilities for outward mobility, in preparation for the bulk of work in the immediate future.
These new waves of urban shamans are defying the traditional definition as “makers of objects”, the artist-craftsman linked to a studio in which the work of art is produced. Instead, this new contemporary artist is slowly sagging towards multiple extremes, carting out the figure of an international resident, some kind of roaming seer, an installation artist, a global nomad who wanders from one city to the other, his/her juju-case packed with the elements for a future work of art or the tools to produce it in situ. They are transforming objects by means of language & meaning – daring to see and imagine their societies differently from what it has always been conceived, utilizing media like video, installation and digital tools, and at the same time, becoming negotiators, hosts and guests to festive sessions under re-created round-tables, where global issues are sorted, meanings coined, things said.
Narratives articulated from a departure of the “early years” are growing, describing that unique moment of an artistic biography when one remains ‘naive’ and is only starting to learn from one’s own existence, but is at the same time at the height of one’s authenticity, independence and heroism – an exercise based on the concept of moving slightly into the future and using that futurist perspective to look back to the time of the great beginning, in a search for a history fitting for a founding myth, and from these myths, set the stage for the proverbial yet unpredictable, highly influential cultural black swan.
As someone in an audience in Nairobi lamented, “…when he (Bidjocka) talked, and then later I saw the work in the show, it was overwhelming. I felt that he was saying something I’ve always known but never consciously acknowledged… What I find interesting is that we can use these stories to shape what our next story will be – like taking a horrific nightmare and transforming it into this vivid, futuristic dream…”.
It may be that from these strategies, we will start acquiring a more lucid and wholesome vision of our realities then be able to reinvent ourselves by means of vibrant and transgressive expression. Gradually, contemporary art is just beginning to have its moment in Nairobi. Some artists’ names are becoming locally and internationally recognized, and their practice — previously ignored or misinterpreted — benefits from a wider understanding and acceptance.
New artist-founded initiatives are emerging, and creating functional, strategic linkages with each other. DESTA – Addis Ababa, Douala art & Art Bakery – Douala & Bonendale, PICHA – Lumumbashi and DARB 1718 – Cairo are classic examples.
There seems to be a genuine search for concrete terms appropriate to describe the emergence of these seemingly eccentric art movements, of actual artistic, political and social discourses, amid the collapse of obsolete meta-narratives which had made the western canon’s hegemonic nature a subject of dispute for decades.
In parallel or in continuum, as these waves unfold, we have to develop the necessary structures that bear it support. Its is important to continuously internalize it; document it, critique it, theorize it, publish it, preserve it, share it – to the extent that the very concrete and psychological obstacles that keep us isolated – even from one another – are overcome.
Such collaborative initiatives featuring artists, curators, writers and audiences from here and there, all brought together by a common moment in the past, are creating interactions between an international language and local manifestations, between perceived centers and imagined peripheries in a process of continuous interplay could provide fresh impetus for the formation of diversified languages, institutions and international functions that make perceptive communication possible on a global scale. The lines that clearly inscribe differences of status, resources, and opportunities have to be erased. It is a means to reconfigure the places to which a given people belong and open-up new possibilities for becoming more than they are (a people in the making). The generation of power, then, rests in the specificity of how intersections are conducted and the effects of the conduct that ensues.
Old fashioned institutions – the gatekeepers of yester years – are grappling to keep up with these new developments, wandering aimlessly (but lavishly) with plump euro-accounts, in circles through the fields of institutional self-reflection, deficient in the enthusiasm, versatility and vocabulary of Africa’s playfulness. In their attempts at survival, or to preserve their illegitimate worth, they may endeavor to imitate the new movements, to replicate what is happening, they labor to speak the language or intimate that they are part of it in one way or the other, to “play the game”, as they say.
But without the conviction, the sincerity and the philosophical basis – intensely embedded elements that exist in the deep recesses of human consciousness, they can do nothing. Nothing but pretend. Even though in their posturing, they innocently open up their minds, spaces, institutions and resources for artists, new contemporary art forms, ideas and discourses.