By Raphael Chikukwa
Published February 20, 2012
Zimbabwean Raphael Chinovava Chikukwa (pictured left), then an independent art curator and graduate student in the UK, interviewed Kenyan creative and cultural entrepreneur and arts critic Ogova Ondego (pictured below) on the status of contemporary art in Africa, the role of critics and who should represent the arts of Africa on the international platform. Chikukwa has since been appointed Chief Curator of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. Here are excerpts from the interview that took place in March 2009 but that nevertheless remains current.
When I arrived in Nairobi you had just left for work in Nigeria and we missed each other yet again when I was flying out of Nairobi; can you tell me a little bit more about your background before working as an art critic in Kenya?
I once worked as a secondary school teacher of English, Kiswahili and History before pursuing Communication and Journalism and then working as an investigative reporter. I have also been a ‘business writer’. I later settled for ‘cultural’ and ‘creative’ journalism later out of protest. I just could not stomach the flippant treatment that so-called mainstream media were giving to issues one can describe as ‘cultural’, ‘creative’ or ‘artistic’. On the other hand, ‘political’ and ‘business’ issues were receiving all the attention. After working as a cultural journalist for several years, I quit mainstream journalism to pursue my dream online and in books, journals, magazines and other derivative works. I also have specialised training in film production, event planning and presentation, critical appreciation of creativity, and in creative economy.
What role does a critic play in the contemporary art scene in any community?
A critic is a flash light, mirror, historian, archivist, scribe, guide, prophet and watchman of society.
Who is behind ArtMatters.Info and where do visual arts fit in your publication?
ArtMatters.Info is published by ComMattersKenya. As the name suggests, the arts–in all their possible manifestations–are the centre-piece of ArtMatters.Info website, magazine and e-letter.
Founded in 2002 to publicise, promote and place creativity and lifestyle in their rightful position in eastern Africa, ArtMatters.Info now flaunts creativity of all kinds in Africa, the Diaspora and good practice globally.
You have taken part in a number of forums in and around the continent, especially in film festivals; the last time I met you it was during the Zimbabwe International Film Festival. What is your relationship with the visual art scene in Kenya and the whole of East Africa?
Having specialised in the journalistic coverage of fine art and sculpture, ArtMatters.Info was meant to focus on this area but this could not be done sustainably as these art forms are still in their infancy in my part of Africa. Hence I decided that ‘culture’, ‘heritage’, etc and other art forms–music, dance, fashion, film, literature–be incorporated in the vision. So, naturally, ArtMatters.Info covers the arts in their entirety in eastern Africa. But, I must hasten to add, I now specialise in mass media (especially film and cultural journalism) and their relationship with children, youth and development in Africa.
Is there an understanding of the role of an Art Critic in Kenya?
Sadly, no. But this ignorance is not confined to Kenya. It appears to be an African problem from my experience in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and South Africa where I have been privileged to conduct workshops and mentorships. Many Africans take art criticism (or is it critical appreciation?) to be synonymous with ‘praise-singing’.
What do you think should be done to bring about an understanding of critical discourse not only in Kenya but in Africa?
We need to conduct seminars, workshops and in-house training for practising journalists; festivals and other cultural events ought to incorporate seminars and workshops for the eyes and ears of society–journalists–in their programmes. Media schools would do society justice to come up with new curricula that offer courses in critical appreciation and evaluation of the arts.
What role did Ruth Schaffner and her Gallery Watatu play on the Kenyan art scene?
The late Ruth Schaffner promoted ‘fine art’ through her links with galleries in the West, particularly the USA; she ‘taught’ artists that they could earn a living from their work. But, unfortunately, she appears to have been more concerned with creating artists who were dependent on her instead of learning how to fend for themselves. The sage of Africa say that it is better to teach someone how to fish instead of giving them a piece of the delicacy every day. The reality of this sank in when Schaffner died and the artists who had dependent on her found themselves with nothing.
If Gallery Watatu owner was still alive, do you think there would be room for young artists at Gallery Watatu? If not, why do you think so?
Of course there would be room, depending on her programme. She, not any one else, knew what she wanted and she went for it: she invited people who had not painted before to her gallery, gave them paint and brushes and set them working. This applied to both young and middle aged people.
Most Gallery Watatu artists arguably are no longer as prominent as they used to be; why is that? Can they come back into the limelight?
True, most of them ‘died’ when Ruth Schaffner died. They can come back in the limelight if selfless arts promoters and the government set up programmes to support art.
What are the main challenges facing those artists working and practising in Kenya? Do you think those working and practising in the Western world have any advantage over those in Kenya?
The biggest challenge is lack of market for their works. Without a market, they cannot create. The only people who buy art in Africa are white expatriates and tourists. Without them there would be no art in Kenya. There is no arts council, policy on things cultural and creative and no financial institution can lend money to art ventures.
Is there any censorship in the arts in Kenya or artists have freedom of artistic expression?
‘Censorship’ as we knew it in the political sense does not exist in Kenya though it sometimes rears its ugly head covertly; sometimes there is also ‘self-censorship’ if one wishes to curry favours with the powers-that-be.
What are the challenges of critics in Africa today?
Many Africans cannot subject themselves to criticism and view critics as enemies hell-bent on destroying their ‘master-pieces’. I know of many critics who have had to be kicked out of theatres/cinemas/book launches by creatives who were unhappy with what they had said previously.
Criticism is not yet a recognised profession/career in most parts of Africa. This means that any one may moonlight as a critic and thus ends up giving the profession a bad name. Also, one cannot be gainfully employed as a critic, the art not being formally recognised. So how can one meet one’s basic needs, let alone travelling around the world to attend festivals, seminars, workshops, conferences without a decent salary from one’s career?
Do you think national institutions in Africa are playing their role in promoting African art in and outside the continent?
No. Which national institutions? Kenya does not, for instance, have a national arts gallery while the National Museums of Kenya is more of a house of heritage than “art” in the way we define art.
There has been a number trip by a number of Curators to Nairobi; Simon Njami, for instance, has been here more than three times. Okwui Enwezor has also been here. Do you think Kenyan artists have learnt much from these curators?
I do not think Kenyans are learning much from such professionals. Art is yet to occupy its rightful space in Kenya while ‘critics’ and ‘curators’ are not just ‘elitist’ terms but are also not well understood, let alone accepted. Only a handful of people may learn from these professionals, sad as it may sound. However, I hasten to add that this heightened interest of curators into Nairobi will definitely result into something positive even if the result is not visible now. By the way, the ‘developed’ world ‘that usually sets the agenda for the rest of the world ‘is now starting to talk about ‘creative industries’, ‘creative entrepreneurs’, etc. The visits you have touched on could be taken to be in line with this “new” discovery.
There has been an increased number of artists coming for residencies here in Nairobi; which one was your best experience among all of them and what are the advantages of these residencies to the local art scene?
Residencies are important in the sense that they enable locals and visiting artists to exchange experiences that enrich them. For me, I thoroughly enjoyed a Kuona Trust residency at which Namibian installation artist Shikongeni and Zimbabwean sculptor Gutza participated. I think it was in either 2000 or 2001.
Does Kenya have an association of art critics and if no, how do you foster any critical debate in the arts?
Kenya does not have a national association for arts critics. I think that would be like putting the proverbial cart before the horse. However, ArtMatters.Info came up with a professional body for arts critics in 2005. It is through this ArtMatters.Info Critics Guild/Mentorship Programme that I have been able to conduct internship/mentorship for young writers in Kenya and seminars/workshops in arts criticism in eastern and southern Africa.
A group of journalists have also been trying to come up with a Nairobi Critics Guild but it is yet to take off.
What are the challenges in the arts scene in Kenya at the moment in terms of exhibition space and the contemporary Kenyan art scene?
Perhaps the art work to exhibit? Curators? Critics? Definition of “contemporary”?
Nairobi now has lots of space and venues exhibiting contemporary art: Nairobi National Museum, The Go-Down Arts Centre, Sarakasi Dome, etc.
The issue of who should represent who in terms of African art seems to be a bone of contention these days. Who should represent African art? Do you think Africa should redefine itself in terms of its contemporary arts instead of it being defined by the Western World?
I think Africa should define its own art but that can’t happen due to the power–economic, social–that western institutions wield. Africans themselves should represent themselves
Does Africa have modern art history, and if it does, can you explain more on your thoughts and who is best to talk about Modernism in Africa?
This is a contentious subject. Terms such as ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ suggest that more than one thing are being compared If you talk about ‘contemporary’ and modern art in Africa then one is talking about western concepts.
What do you think should be done to get East African artists on the international map?
Promotion at festivals, trade fairs, tourism and travel fairs; development of robust culture policies, arts councils, national galleries, training of professionals to embark on the promotion, appreciation of African identity, new school curriculum that recognises art at primary, secondary and college level, etc.