By Iminza Keboge
Published May 18, 2017
An art exhibition meant to mark the International Museum Day has failed to take off in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, after the paintings were declared as being ‘too graphic for children’.
Painters Michael Soi, Patrick Mukabi and Joseph Bertiers had been invited by the Kenya National Committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) to showcase their work at Nairobi National Museum from May 18 (International Museum Day) through May 30, 2017.
The show, to have been held in the Creativity Gallery from 11:00 AM on the theme, ‘Museums and other Contested Histories: Saying the Unspeakable in Museums’, was widely publicised as an ‘exhibition by artists who do not flinch from controversial issues’. The image in the official publicity from Nairobi National Museum was of two adult African men embracing and kissing intimately as if they were lovers.
Kenya Museum Society (KMS), one of the four sponsors of the International Museum Day 2017 alongside ICOM, National Museums of Kenya and ICOM Kenya National Committee, had on May 16 posted a publicity poster on its page on Facebook that said, “National Museums of Kenya and KMS are pleased to invite you, your friends and colleagues, to celebrate the 2017 #InternationalMuseumDay, through a series of exciting talks.”
The message on the poster with prominent pictures of Mukabi, Bertiers and Soi said that “An exhibition by Kenyan artists–Michael Soi, Patrick Mukabi, Joseph Bertiers and others–addressing social economic issues in both speakable and unspeakable ways!” would run at the museum May 16-30, 2017.
But a day later, on May 17, the exhibition was cancelled after the artists walked away from a meeting with the top administrators of the National Museums of Kenya protesting alleged censorship by Kenya’s house of culture.
Dr Mzalendo Kibunjia, the Director-General of the National Museums of Kenya, told BBC’s Focus on Africa news programme that the museum did not approve of ‘nude images’ as they were distasteful, particularly to children who comprise the largest segment of visitors to Nairobi National Museum.
Michael Soi told BBC’s Focus on Africa presenter, Audrey Brown, on on the same date that the museum had told him that his paintings were unpalatable to children who have impressionable minds. Soi explained his symbolic, not realistic, painting stands for the closeness of church leaders and politicians in Kenya, a highly religious country. With the church going to bed with politicians, one could not expect it to play its prophetic, and therefore adversarial, role in keeping the government accountable to the citizenry.
But the question that begs answers is why the four curators of exhibitions at National Museums of Kenya not only prepared the exhibition but also promoted it, using the ‘too graphic’ image by Michael Soi of the church cohabiting with the state, then called off the show at the 11th hour.
A source at Nairobi National Museum says the curators at the institution were “all along uncomfortable about the exhibition”, the initiative of ICOM. The source says ICOM had no problem with the three so-called ‘controversial’ artists as their work is in line with ‘Museums and other contested Histories: Saying the unspeakable in Museums’, the theme chosen for the International Museum Day in 2017.
But asked why the museum did not restrict the show to an ‘adults only’ audience and keep children away as has been done before, the source had no response.
Margaretta wa Gacheru, an arts critic, takes issue with National Museums of Kenya, accusing it of ‘insulting’ Patrick Mukabi, Michael Soi and Joseph Mbatia (Bertiers), “all of whom were specifically asked to prepare work for Thursday’s International Museum Day which is May 18th.”
In a hard-hitting post on her Facebook profile page, wa Gacheru argues that “Whoever made this decision should have informed the artists before they worked so hard to create works especially for this exhibition.Instead, they held meetings with the artists and encouraged them to do as the theme of the exhibition advised – to Speak the Unspeakable, which they did apparently.”
“Don’t wait for big brother to come with sweet words only to leave you high and dry,” she writes. “Shame on the National Museum.”
Commenting on wa Gacheru’s post, Ogova Ondego, who publishes ArtMatters.Info, says ‘gate-keeping is part of any society.’
“What bothers me, however,” Ondego writes, “is that the painters were asked to express themselves freely…Joseph Mbatia, Patrick Mukabi and Michael Soi were the focus of the show, the centrepiece of the exhibition. Their work was prominent on the publicity poster that describes them as artists who don’t flinch from saying the unspeakable. Art lovers were invited to see Soi, Mukabi, Bertiers ‘and others’ who remained unnamed. Is someone deliberately out to frustrate the three? I may not be a lawyer, but this is the sort of case I can bring to a court of law, defend and win … Not over Censorship, but Defamation that could lead to Loss of Business (and ‘Good Social Standing’ or ‘Reputation’!?).”