At the prime age of 45, Kenyan artist and art instructor, John Diang’a Obaso, resigned from his teaching job to concentrate on running a cultural centre he had set up in the remote part of a country where professionals prefer spending Sh6 million (US$75000) on a four-wheel drive luxury vehicle to buying a Sh10000 (US$125) painting. It was inconceivable how this man could abandon a stable career with a sure income for the unknown.
Fifteen years later, Diang’a is going against the grain again: he is calling for the establishment of an arts centre in Kisumu close to his Maseno-based Esiapala Cultural Centre. ArtMatters.Info’s Ogova Ondego caught up with Diang’a in Kisumu in June 2005 during the maiden Lake Victoria Festival of the Arts, LAFESTA, where he talked about his vision and involvement in the contemporary arts of East Africa as a trainer, practitioner, collector and researcher.
Would you please start by saying how you got involved in the arts?
It started from my childhood, at the age of 10, when I took to clay modeling and pottery though I began taking art seriously in intermediate and secondary school. When the headmaster of Maseno School noticed my talent in fine art, he gave me a small corner in the school compound where I could practise. He bought me materials like water colours and paper and encouraged me to start an art club in the school. It was out of this club that I began to take art much more seriously with the organisation of annual secondary schools art shows. A Mr Munuhe discovered my talent and published some of my paintings in a book when I was in Form 5 (Grade 12). This marked the beginning of my art-selling career that continues today.
You run a cultural centre, gallery, and studio in Maseno. When did you embark on this project?
I came up with the idea in 1977 after we returned home from the pan African Festival of the Arts, FESTAC, in Nigeria. I was encouraged to put up something that could promote local art on the Kenyan market. I began with a small studio before expanding it. Then I put up a small gallery and studio. Soon after this I built a larger gallery that was completed in 1981 and started with a collection of my own works. Before then, I had been selling mainly through galleries like Paa ya Paa, Gallery Watatu, and African Heritage but stopped after I realised how much the ‘middleman’ was taking from me. Private collectors started coming to me directly at home and what they paid for my work enabled me to build an open theatre, a children’s park, field chairs, and monumental sculptures around my home.
To a business-minded person, it would make a lot of economic sense to be based in Nairobi where the art market is. Is your being in Maseno philanthropic?
I wanted to open up my community, to bequeath something to the people of western Kenya, to encourage younger people to dabble in art. I was looking at the future and the development of art in Kenya. The reason was not to make money otherwise I would have stayed in Nairobi.
When you look at foreign cultural agencies like Alliance Francaise, Geothe-Institut, British Council, Italian Institute of Culture and private galleries, do you consider them as ‘middlemen’ as far as art is concerned?
While private galleries are fleecing Kenyan artists, foreign cultural centres are exposing local artists to French, German and Italian cultures. They treat Kenyans better than the private galleries.
So what should be done?
Kenyans should start their own galleries to avoid being colonised in their own country through foreign cultural centres that are also taking our art out of the country. The government should consider having a permanent collection of art through a well-defined cultural policy.
How comfortable is it to be an artist in Kenya?
You have to work extremely hard, marketing yourself. Creating works and managing them at the same time is not easy. This is why young artists are selling their paintings even before the paint on them has dried up. This partly explains why unscrupulous business people fleece them. Many of these painters are desperate and have no alternatives to fall back on. I saw it coming and opted to return home. I produce my own food from my farm and therefore have no problem with sustenance.
You don’t seem to talk much about your theatre group. What happened to it?
The theatre group was very active till 1992. We used to work with secondary school teachers, gathering in Maseno to enact school literature set books. Transport was cheaper and I could accommodate them at home. Then the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) came in and threw a spanner in the works. The teachers gave up and I suspended the group for a while. My wife, a theatre producer, is still involved in AIDS awareness programmes and we take plays to villages occasionally.
Ruth was a wonderful woman, an aggressive art promoter. She promoted many Kenyan artists. On the other hand, she failed younger artists because she made them believe making money from art was easy. They got so complacent that when Ruth died, they too died with her. They didn’t know how to survive without her. Several years later, they haven’t recovered from the shock and the abject poverty that has come with it.
Did Schaffner have any hidden agenda, or did she dictate to the Ngecha and Banana Hill artists on the kind of art to create?
No, Ngecha and Banana Hill artists were free to create whatever they wanted though she preferred naïve art that she knew the western world was interested in. Although not quite pleasant-looking, the work sold well.
Recently Kuona Trust published an art book titled Thelathini on the so-called thirty prominent Kenyan artists. Your name is not included despite the fact that you have played a big role in the creation of both art and artists as an art teacher, artist, collector, promoter and researcher. What do you say about this?
That was a stupid project done by a few self-conceited individuals with not much grasp of the art scene in Kenya. I don’t think I have much to say about this.
The healthy man with clean collars is John Diang’a In your panel discussion on ‘art as business’ today at Aga Khan Hall, you called for the establishment of an arts centre in Kisumu. Why are you doing this and how sustainable is it?
If you look at art as a means of making money, then it isn’t sustainable. But if you look at it as the exploitation of the wealth of a people in creative activities, then we need it. From here we could build a sustainable programme that will prevent creative people from western from migrating to Nairob for perceived better prospects in life. Most players in the arts in Nairobi are from this end of Kenya. However, I am not looking at the centre as something that will make immediate money for artists. If the Kenya Tourism Board helps to open up the region for its western tourism circuit, then creative people will also benefit.
Kakamega town has no museum, gallery or theatre, yet it is estimated that out of every three artists in Nairobi, two are from Western Kenya. How comes?
It is the craving for monetary gain and survival that lead them to Nairobi
Could it be true that artists in Kenya are living in the future, ahead of their contemporaries who haven’t reached the higher levels of aesthetic value?
Do they understand what aesthetics are about? I think we are creating people who don’t understand the value of art. How many of these people around here understand what art is about? You could see during the panel presentation this afternoon that even people who have reached the pinnacle of learning “as Prof Owino Rew did” could refer to me as a sculpture because they don’t understand.
So are artists living beyond us, lesser mortals?
Artists have a vision in this country and no one wants to understand them. The community doesn’t understand artists and the art they are creating. It needs to be educated.
It is only the white expatriates in Kenya who buy art.
Most of the works bought from us end up abroad. I have witnessed only one Asian “Manu Shah” spending money on art in Kenya. He has commissioned lots of wire sculptures in many parts of Nairobi including at Kasarani Sports Centre, and Industrial Area.
Why don’t Kenyans, even those who earn well, buy art?
They don’t understand. They don’t see any value in a painting. I think it has to do with the way we are brought up and the education system we go through. We don’t understand what aesthetics are about. We’d rather put calendars and family portraits on walls than paintings.
What can be done to inculcate the appreciation of art, creativity, and aesthetics, in the minds of Kenyans to make them start buying art?
The first thing is to create awareness about the need to buy our own products. Artists should also sell their creations at affordable prices to local buyers. If you come to me and asked to buy my painting but couldn’t afford the marked price, I would ask you how much you are wiling to pay and accept whatever you offer if I am all right with it. This is what I do with lots of people who come to my workshop to buy art. If I see they are serious about what they are saying, I sell the art to them at whatever they can afford.
Would you estimate the annual budget for Esiapala Cultural Centre?
No, it isn’t easy to estimate. You can only do so if you have lots of money or have a source funding your activities. I live one day at a time.
Do you ever regret quitting formal employment at your prime?
No. I am freer, work as long as I want to, and receive no orders from any one. I have enjoyed my freedom over the past 14 years. And as you can see, I look healthy and the collars of my shirt are clean and intact.
What genres of art do you specialise in?
Painting, sculpting and print-making. These are the three basic things I do. The last time I made what you can call “good money” was from print-making. This was through commissioned work by Ruth Schaffner and Kenya Commercial Bank.
The Kenya Government, UN agencies and financial institutions have commissioned you to create for them. You must be doing very well financially.
Although the government doesn’t pay well, it keeps you afloat. Private companies pay well when they commission you.
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Where and when have you held art exhibitions in Kenya?
In 1981 we held an exhibition sponsored by the Department of Culture in Nairobi. The Department assisted in the logistics while we collected artwork from all over Kenya. This prompted us to request the government to create a Kenyan gallery at the National Archives but we were rebuffed very badly by Charles Njonjo, then cabinet minister in charge of the docket for National Archives.
Which schools did you attend?
I went to Eluhobe Primary School (Standard 1-4), Sekwanda Intermediate School (Standard 5-8), Maseno High School (Form 1-6) and University of Nairobi.
What did you study at university?
Fine art with majors in sculpture and graphic design
Have you done any graphics since graduating?
Print-making is part of graphics.
Say something about your formal employment after graduating from university
I was posted to Siriba Teachers College where I worked for nine years before moving to Kagumo Teachers College to establish the diploma level programme in Fine Art. I was again here for nine years. When I turned 45, I sought early retirement because I wanted to come back home. The Ministry of Education thought I was desperate for home as I was away in Central Province. Instead of accepting my retirement request, they posted me to Kisii Teachers College to be nearer home. But I had already made up my mind to return home. I reported to Kisii to assess the situation and resigned six months later. It is 14 years since this happened.
Would you consider taking up a lecturer’s job at university level?
I am still a teacher without a classroom. I do informal teaching with schools that visit this centre. Nangina Girls School will be here on July 2. I talk to them about art and conduct demonstrations in my Classroom without walls.
Do you have any one to manage your art or are you doing it yourself?
The moment you get someone to manage your work, you are looking for a middle man. It’s a tricky affair. If I need to organise an exhibition, I do it myself with gallery owners. Exhibitions are very expensive affairs and you can’t afford to put them up all the time. You have to look for cheaper places if only to keep your name afloat. My home is the main source of my market. I know who’s buying my work and at what price.
What is your last word?
Young artists in Kenya are in too much of a hurry. They are desperate, giving up easily. They ought to realize that artists are warriors who are constantly in battle. They must keep the spirit as one wins some battles and loses others. Very many young artists run around with art works trying to sell them. When they fail to make quick sales, they give up and often resort to drugs.
The healthy man with clean collars is John Diang’a.