Article by Mwenda wa Micheni
Published December 27, 2006
Cover of Thelathini
THELATHINI: 30 Faces 30 Facets of Contemporary Art in Kenya, a 144-page publication touted as the first book to immortalise creativity in Kenya, was launched in Nairobi, Kenya, on March 16, 2005. Then, it was said this book would ‘create ripples on the relatively calm backwaters of Kenyan art scene.’ MWENDA wa MICHENI reports.
A result of what was said to be a three-year project, the book was said to be documenting ‘Kenyan art’ despite its inclusion of the works of many Kenya-based foreign artists like Jak Katarikawe, Jony Waite, Mary Collis, Teresa Musoke, and Nani Croze. This raises the question of just what ‘Kenyan art’ is.
THELATHINI, an easy read, is divided into three parts: the words, the works and the artists. It is the ‘works’ section that easily attracts the full attention of the reader. This section gives a sample of full colour works by each of the thirty artists that are included in the book.
But it disappoints to see the team that selected the pieces of art turn an otherwise noble idea upside down. The book that claims to feature contemporary art takes the reader many years back when what was said to be ‘Kenyan art’ depicted Africa as a primitive continent of gloom and doom.
The issues tackled range from acute poverty, wildlife freely roaming the vast grasslands, indifference to life and primitive cultural practices, themes that racists have all along enjoyed associating with Africa.
Rosemary Karuga’s collage
The choice of the artists for inclusion in the collection also seems to be deliberately slanted, with artists subscribing to the old school of ‘primitive art’ and ‘tourist art’, which was highly promoted by foreign gallery curators in the 1980s, getting a priority. They include Kivuthi Mbuno, Jackson Wanjau, Timothy Brooke, Jimmy Ogonga, Rosemary Karuga, Nani Croze, Joel Oswaggo and Jak Katarikawe, among others.
Though publishers Kuona Trust hide behind their apologetic remark to the effect that the book is not an exhaustive or definitive study of modern art in Kenya, the deliberate move to lock out contemporary Kenyan artists like Peter Elungat and Mary Ogembo, among other artists who depict Africa in its true light, is clear. It is also disappointing to note that some artists like Samuel Wanjau and Zacharia Mbutha who no longer practise are included in the catalogue as contemporary artists.
As already observed, most of the paintings included in the book depict the stereotypical side of the Africa. They include ‘The Prostitute’, a painting by Zacharia Mbutha which is a witty depiction of immorality. The colourful painting of two men battling over a girl tells of their deep-seated desperation to overcome the sex urge. Others like ‘Tourist in Town’ by Jak Katarikawe, and three untitled paintings by Kivuthi Mbuno depict the African as an ape living in the jungle. ‘The Old Man’ by Joel Oswaggo is a portrayal of the African as a hopeless person who sits in despair waiting for the mercies of God to salvage him. Other annoying paintings in this book include Elephants and Vultures by Kioko Mwitiki that end up portraying Africa as a land where wildlife seem to prevail with human beings only remaining on the sidelines.
Artwork by Kioko Mwitiki
The book claims to be a kaleidoscope of contemporary art, but ends up including so many pieces from a few artists, locking out many other talented artists.
It is also not clear what the selection committee defined ‘contemporary art’ as. Most of the art pieces included seem to have been done in the early 1980s and 1990s while others are not even dated.
But there are a few works that do not get into the entrapment of this school of thought. They include Chain Muhandi’s ‘Let Us Plan’ where a couple has decided to take control of their lives; ‘Those Dancing Shoes’, a graceful piece by Jak Katarikawe, and ‘Twins at Play’ by Zacharia Mbutha.
Though THELATHINI carries biographies of the artists whose works are covered, it is generally lean on information on Kenyan art: historical development, issues, and anything that would suggest trends as the pieces have been selected haphazardly without any strict criteria in place. In fact, even the biographies included seem to be reproductions of information that is to be easily found in other publications
With the launch of the book, questions on what Kenyan art is, vis-à-vis art that is fronted by Westerners who are the biggest consumers of Kenyan art seems to come back.
It also rekindles the heated debate that the launch of Artistic Perception of Home, a book written by Jean Michel Kasbarian in December 2003 sparked. However Thelathini, unlike Artistic Perceptions of Home has interviews done by some local art critics, art lovers and curators; it avoids any controversial essays on the art or any information on the art and the artists.
During the official launch of the book, Najib Balala, the then minister of state in charge of National Heritage, said that he was very proud to be associated with the book. According to him, the book is a souvenir for him to carry around the world in his official trips abroad.
Africa in the eyes of Kahuri
To the embarrassment of many, the minister went on to display his ignorance when he went on to recite his words included in the foreword:
He referred to the book as a timely publication that ‘coincides with Kenya emerging from a long period when arts and culture have not been valued among the important elements of life.’
Balala referred to the publication as ‘the first book to immortalize creativity in Kenya’. He seems to have forgotten that Artistic Perceptions of Home, by the French Cultural Centre and Bamburi Cement had been released ahead of THELATHINI: 30 Faces 30 Facets of Contemporary Art in Kenya in 2003.