The launch of Artistic perception of home, a book on art in Kenya on December 6, 2003, generated a lively debate that is still going on almost three weeks later. OGOVA ONDEGO reports.
While Gallery Watatu curator Morris Amboso dismissed the publication as ‘French book that has little to do with Kenya,’ Xavier Verhoest, an expatriate promoter of art not only questioned the aim of the exhibition that led to the publication of the catalogue but also said some of the art works in the book were not relevant to the theme of the exhibition, home. Still artist Geraldine Robarts said that although art is about feelings, ‘no feelings come through Artistic Perception of Home.”
” Admitting that many artists had a problem interpreting the bilingual theme, ‘Artistic perception of home’–writer Jean-Michel Kasbarian simply said, “How do artists in East Africa respond to theme-guided exhibitions?”
Kasbarian’s argument that the French ‘art de vivre la maison’ and the English ‘Artistic perception of home’ mean different things to Francophone and Anglophone speakers, led Philda Ragland Njau of Paa ya Paa to remark that the East African concept of home was also different from the English and French ones; that it meant more than just the way ‘people live in a house’ in French or ‘the interior of a house’ of the English. “What is the East African meaning of home?” she threw the ball back to the audience gathered at the Serena Hotel where the catalogue was being launched.
Artist Tabitha wa Thuku took the challenge saying home means nyumbani, one’s own rural home that one does not have to pay rent for. “To us Africans home isn’t just a house but the spirit of the people who inhabit a house and the totality of everything else in it,” she said.
And thus the launching of the 114-page book cataloguing the work of 36 artists in Kenya not only came to be but also confirmed the French Cultural and Cooperation Centre (FCCC) as the leading institution in Nairobi that relentlessly promotes artists and art in Kenya regularly.
Artistic perception of home is a follow up to the French-Kenyan Millennium Calendar that FCCC published and distributed to galleries, museums, collectors, artists, and art critics across the world in 2000. Its aim, said Jacques Depaigne, the then French ambassador to Kenya, was to “engender the necessary interest in the exposure and promotion of Kenyan art and open up new markets for Kenyan artists.”
The 12 paintings featuring on the desk calendar had been selected from more than 140 submissions received from more than 50 artists. Unlike Artistic perception of home, the French-Kenyan Millennium Calendar featured mainly black Kenyans. Didier Tressarieu, the managing director of Bamburi Cement Limited that put up funds for Artistic perception of home, says it was the indifference of Kenyans to their culture that led his company to team up with FCCC on this project in an attempt to help modify the negative attitude. While he and his wife felt obliged to support art in Kenya, he said at the launch, “it is upon Kenyans themselves to present their interpretation of what their art and home are.”
This catalogue is a commendable effort in documenting and putting creativity in Kenya on the global agenda.
Kasbarian, an inspector of French schools now based in Beirut, begins by comparing and contrasting contemporary African art and its Western counterpart.
Whereas the former tells stories, staging character and questioning their nature and social behaviour without severing links with the past, he contends, the latter is often an abstract interpretation of the world. “In spite of colonisation which has forced Africa to regard its own cultural production through the eyes of foreign anthropologists (the Natural History Museum) or of aesthetics (Negro Art), and in spite of globalisation which has turned art into a market in which works are distributed, contemporary art in Africa has resisted the uniform patterns imposed by global images and ideas,” Kasbarian writes.
But one feels these sweeping statements about African and East African art are not doing the catalogue any good. Where, for instance, can “Western modes of art (abstract impressionism, cinetism, figurative realism)” that have nothing to do with Kenya and which Kasbarian has included in the book be placed? Are they contemporary Western or contemporary African art? If, indeed, “contemporary art in Africa has resisted the uniform patterns imposed by global images and ideas” as the author says it has, then how does he explain the works of art that have no reference to Kenya yet they are created by Kenyan or Kenya-based artists?
Kasbarian points out that Kenyans are not living in a vacuum as the worldwide communication has exposed them to global ideas. This would then contradict his view that African art tells stories and keeps close to traditions. How does he explain his own observation that some artists in Kenya create what sells rather than art for its aesthetic value? What exactly is modern or traditional African art? The author avoids this question.
The arguments presented by the author in his four-page introduction to the book beg more questions than it answers. This takes us to the next question: who is the target audience of the catalogue? The ordinary exhibition-goer or the Western-schooled art connoisseur?
Each copy of this full colour glossy catalogue arranged thematically in six chapters retails for Sh2000 (about US$27).
FCCC had in January 2002 invited artists in Kenya to submit artworks on the theme ‘Artistic perception of home’ or ‘art de vivre la maison’ for an exhibition that was to be held three months later.
The linguistic dilemma notwithstanding, more than 100 artists from Kenya’s multicultural society sent in some 250 artworks from which 80 paintings, photographs and sculptures that best represented the aesthetics and relevance of the theme were selected.
The artworks were installed against a background enhanced with furniture and crafts from various designers that transformed the Maison Francaise galleries into harmonious living spaces that showcased contemporary Kenyan art.
Kasbarian, a French art critic, connoisseur and collector of East African art, who was then based in Kenya, was commissioned to compile an art book memoir of the exhibition.
That Kasbarian did a great job is not in doubt. However, his references to Western artists, lifestyles and quotes has removed the publication from its goal, helping the exhibition-goer to appreciate contemporary art in Kenya, and turned it into an academic tome that can be enjoyed only by readers with Western academic abilities and training. But must one have Western education in art to appreciate or practise creativity in Kenya? Why should the writer make Occidental references on a book focusing on art in Kenya? Why, pray, can’t African artists be their own yardsticks without having to be compared with virtually unknown but great (so we are told through Western literature) European artists?
Perhaps the writer should have worked with a local art critic who focuses on art without textbook references that may alienate artists and art lovers who know nothing about Paul Gaugin, Pierre-Marc Biasi, Brasque, Cubism, Mediaval Period or even Picasso?
One also feels that one cannot claim to tackle contemporary art in Kenya without giving full attention to younger, active, prolific and well selling artists like Peter Elungat. Why are paintings done in 1995-1999 by ‘rare’ artists, included in this catalogue when a lot more recent artworks are excluded? It is nice to see artworks of Anthony Okello, Jimnah Kimani, Peter Walala, Samuel Githui, and Richard Kimathi in the publication, but their inclusion appears to be more like footnotes than anything else.
African (or Africa-based) artists who exhibit in the West are said to fit preconceived frames of reference in which they are cast. Their work, too, is predictable.
The author, like Shaila Darr and Taryn Childs who romanticise the Maasai and Samburu, appear to live up to this billing.
Darr describes Maasai morans as ‘the nomadic warrior community [without] houses’. One may also question the relevance of a Himalayan mountains art piece being included in a book on contemporary art in Kenya. Why and how did Darr’s Courtyard Kullu Valley come to be included in this book?
Kasbaraian wriggled through this by saying: “I simply worked with the paintings given to me. I didn’t choose them. I did’t want to be seen as an art critic as the time for writing the book was too short while I wanted to help educate exhibitiongoers.”
But questions were just too many for the two-hour period of the debate and cocktail launch.
While some people sought to know how artists have developed their work and artistic consciousness from the many workshops and exchanges organised by institutions like FCCC and Kuona Art Trust over the years, others wanted to know what effect the vibrancy of Gallery Watatu, Ngecha Association and Banana Hill groups of the 1980s and 1990s had had on the emergence of modern art in Kenya.
Does Kenya have enough art training institutions, and what would be the effect were self-taught artists to receive art schooling? Who are the custodians of art in Kenya? What is the role of the National Museums of Kenya in the provision of facilities to documenting and archiving modern art? What incentives does the government of Kenya provide for local and international corporations to invest in Kenya and, is the art sector being sustained by a dependency on expatriates and tourists? How can a sustainable local art market be created?
Other questions were over what was contributing to the increase in the number of venues exhibiting art without the emergence of galleries, and whether contemporary art in Kenya was stagnating and becoming monotonous. Too many questions! These. Kasbarian did not explain how a balance could be struck between aesthetics and the market so that the artist makes salable art without compromising on aesthetic value as is currently happening in Kenya.
As one reads through Kasbarian’s writing, one encounters so may questions begging for answers: Just what constitutes contemporary or modern art in a continent whose traditional art history is yet to be documented? Why would Kasbarian include “works that have no Kenyan context and which refer explicitly or implicitly to Western modes” as he says some artists have done in a book on the perception of home in Kenya?
Appearing to be more confused than enlightened from the debate, Elimo Njau of Paa ya Paa gallery asked rhetorically: “Who is the audience of this book? Where is the Kenyan identity in it?” He then suggested the title of the catalogue should have been ‘Artists’ perception of home’ as such rendering would have committed creators to only making art works springing from themselves rather than the impersonal Artistic perception that gives them freedom to create the art they think other people mean by home. Even then, Njau went on to endorse the book as being Kenyan to the chagrin of journalists like Francis Ilahaka of Kenya Times who demanded to know why he was accepting the book and on whose behalf.