As the countdown continues to the official launch of this year’s Venice Biennale art meeting on May 9, a small storm is brewing here in Nairobi over what local artists feel is the hijacking of the Kenyan identity in international art circles.
In Italy, pre-opening parties have already begun with a flurry and the central pavilion has also just opened, curated by the Nigerian art historian and critic Ekwui Enwezar and featuring world-acclaimed artists like Kenya’s own Wangeci Mutu.
But the burning issue of the Biennale’s hosting a “Kenya Pavilion” continues despite assurances in writing from one of the organisers that the wishes of the Kenya Government not to be associated with the pavillion will be fully recognised and respected.
That Biennale e-mail, seen by DN2, came in response to an April 23 letter by Dr Hassan Wario, Cabinet Secretary for Sports, Culture and the Arts, to the Biennale officials.
To most people the letter was nothing more than just an expression of concern over the association of the nation with the fully foreign pavillion in Venice, but to the small group of local artists that made noise over the same, it symbolised a bigger achievement.
RAISED A RUCKUS
They had received word in mid-March this year that, yet again, a Kenya Pavilion was scheduled to be set up in Venice during this year’s event. dubbed “The Olympics of the World’s Visual Arts”, and they had immediately raised a ruckus.
“It had happened twice before in 2013 and 2003, and we didn’t intend for it to happen again,” said Michael Soi, the controversial Kenyan painter whose graphic depiction of the Chinese and Italian artists supposedly going to Venice to represent the Kenyan visual arts community had a galvanising effect on local artists.
In fact, Soi’s explicit painting set the local art world on fire once it landed on Facebook and got shared among lovers of Kenyan art, not only locally, but also worldwide.
It wasn’t long after the satiric portrait went viral on social media that scores of Kenyan artists met at Kuona Trust to strategise on how to bring down the Kenya Pavilion, or at least have the Kenya name and flag removed altogether.
Cabinet Secretary Hassan Wario meets with representatives of artists to discuss, among other issues, the issue of the Venice exhibition in which no local artist had been invited to the Kenya pavillion in early April this year. Dr Wario agreed to cooperate with them in writing an official statement which would then be shared with the organisers of the Biennale, the Italian Embassy in Nairobi, the Kenyan Embassy in Italy, and Mr Tanzini. PHOTO |MARGARETTA WA GACHERU
Many of the artists felt aggrieved that Malindi-based Italian hotelier Armando Tanzini, the only individual who has consistently shown his driftwood art under the auspices of the Kenya Pavilion since 2003, felt entitled to represent Kenya with a European and Chinese team.
This year, word went round that there were two Kenyans selected to be in the Pavilion, but as it turns out, one is a Kenya-born artist living in Switzerland; and the other is Tanzini, who has stayed in Kenya for 47 years.
“A bit of racism”
When interviewed by Christopher Vourlias, writing for the online version of the Mail & Guardian of South Africa, Tanzini actually suggested his Kenyan critics were fueled by “a bit of racism”. But for most of the artists, race is not the issue; but representation and misrepresentation.
The Kenyan visual arts scene is currently vibrant and local artists are not only gaining wider appreciation among Kenyans themselves — like Charles Murito, a Google Kenya executive who currently hosts a monthly local art exhibition in his home — but also gaining worldwide acclaim — as, for instance, when Peterson Kamwathi’s artwork was recently bought for the British Museum’s permanent collection, or the other Kenyans who are exhibiting everywhere, from London to Brussels, Cape Town to Harlem.
Local artists’ reaction to the Kenya Pavilion affair is a sign that confirms the prevailing view that local art is undergoing an authentic Renaissance.
At what time in history, one might ask, did Kenyan art previously thrive? And the easy response would be that recent discoveries of 10,000-year-old rock art in Kisii and other parts of Western Kenya confirms a lot of creativity was being expressed by locals tens of thousands of years ago.
The current vitality of the local visual arts scene is evident not only in recent openings of new exhibition spaces like Shifteye Gallery, Circle Art Gallery, Red Hill Gallery, the Last Saturday Club and even the Sarakasi Dome, but also in the flourishing activity of artists who exhibit regularly at more established venues like One-Off Gallery, Village Market, Alliance Francaise, Kuona Trust, Banana Hill Art Gallery, and eateries and bars like Talisman and Que Pasa.
All this is to say that this time round, Kenyan artists were not going to take the mishandling of their name lying down. At the initial strategising meeting at Kuona, artists agreed on the way forward. They first formed a select committee to represent them.
It comprised Sylvia Gichia, professional photographer and director of Kuona Trust; Lydia Galavu, curator at the National Museums of Kenya; Judy Ogana, general manager at the GoDown Art Centre; and Wambui Kamiru, an independent installation artist.
They were asked to call for a meeting with the previously elusive CS, Dr Wario, to compel him to cooperate with artists and contact the Biennale officials and insist that the Kenya flag and name be removed from the Venice venue.
Artists understood the Kenya Government’s involvement was crucial, given that the Biennale’s own press and media relations officer, Cristiana Constaino, had stated clearly that no pavilion could have been set up in Venice unless it came “officially through government approval”.
Artists at the Kenya Cultural Centre (KCC) attending Official Press Conference with Dr Wario and artists' representative committee. PHOTO |Margaretta wa Gacheru
So the artists wanted their committee to prepare an official statement with the CS to ensure the Kenya Pavilion came down. That, though, could have seemed easier said than done since artists had tried to meet with Dr Wario several times in vain.
When DN2 contacted members of staff at the Ministry of Culture, we were also told the Ministry had nothing to do with the Kenya Pavilion at the Biennale.
So the Kenya Pavilion 2015 might have passed, just as did in 2013, when a few artists and arts stakeholders made noise but nothing was done on the part of the Kenya government to curtail what artists felt was the country’s and the artists’ gross misrepresentation.
What turned out to be significant this time round, however, was the quiet but clear-sighted role played by the Director of the Kenya Cultural Centre (KCC), Aghan Odero.
Aghan Odero, managing director of the Kenya Cultural Centre played a vital role in bringing artists and the CS together. Photo by Margaretta wa Gacheru
He had arranged a grand tour for the CS of the newly refurbished Kenya National Theatre in early April, and for that he had also invited artists and arts stakeholders to attend that tour, after which they would hold their first meeting with Dr Wario.
At that session, held in the boardroom of KCC, the CS listened to the artists and agreed to cooperate with them in writing an official statement which would then be shared with the organisers of the Biennale, the Italian Embassy in Nairobi, the Kenyan Embassy in Italy, and Mr Tanzini.
At a subsequent press conference held on April 14, the statement was read out in the presence of nearly a hundred local artists. At the meeting, Dr Wario was asked to give assurance that the statement would go to Venice, and to the relevant people, straight away.
What has come out of this controversy is, one, that the Kenya government’s Ministry of Culture has been compelled to take greater interest in the visual arts, and, two, that local artists need to keep up the pressure on the Ministry to ensure their interests are reflected by the government.
Something else interesting and more worrying has also come out; under the government of Uhuru Kenyatta, the administration of culture was lumped together with that of sports and the arts, and, according to sources within government, sports associations visit the ministry regularly to lobby for their interests. “That is what the visual artists need to do from now on,” said the government official, who preferred anonymity.
On April 14, artists were heartened by the joint statement hammered out by the CS and the artists’ committee, but they retained a wait-and-see attitude.
A week later, on April 23, they finally got the official word from Venice that the wishes of the Kenya Government would be recognised and followed.
The following day, the artists met again at Kuona Trust, ostensibly to celebrate their apparent success, but not all were convinced the issue was over and the Kenya Pavilion had come down.
“The Kenya Pavilion has been removed from the official website,” said Danda Jaroljmek, curator and co-founder of Circle Art Gallery, who is actually going to the Biennale to see the fruits of the artists’ labour for herself.
Several other artists intend to go, since some have questioned the wording of the Biennale letter as it does not make specific reference to the Kenya Pavilion, but only to the government’s wish that the flag and name be removed from all present and future publicity, apart from what has already been printed, like hard copy catalogues.
One reason for the skepticism is the cost involved in setting up a pavilion, a lump sum running into millions of shillings, so whomever invested that kind of cash in the Kenya Pavilion might not be inclined to pull it down.
One assumes that the reason curator Stagi got Chinese artists involved in the Pavilion was because they were going to help foot the bill.
In any case, the Italian Embassy in Kenya did participate with Dr Wario in speaking to the Biennale big-wigs, so one assumes the Pavilion will come down as agreed.
The painting by Michael Soi about the so-called Kenya Pavilion which was supposed to go to Venice Biennale 2015 until Kenyann artists rallied and refused to let the Ministry of Culture allow Kenya's name be misused by Italians and Chinese. PHOTO | COURTESY of the artist Michael Soi
SEEING IS BELIEVING
“The Italian embassy has also agreed to assist us with procedural issues so that we can start early to prepare for the Biennale 2017,” said Sylvia Gichia.
Additionally, new light has been shone on the origins of the original Kenya pavilion. According to sources, Armando Tanzini sent a copy of the official document confirming the Kenya government’s endorsement of his Kenya Pavilion concept to one member of the local artists’ committee.
As at the start of this week, when we finished compiling this story, the identity of that government official in the Ministry of Culture had not been revealed.
“It was felt that the name of the signatory should not be disclosed since it would reflect badly on Dr Wario, given that the person works within his ministry,” said a friend of the artists.
What that means, in essence, is that, officially, Tanzini’s Kenya Pavilion, which was being curated by another Italian, Sandro Orlandi Stagi, was actually sanctioned by the Kenya government and, as such, the Biennale organisers did not technically need to take down the pavilion.
But since the artists rallied and got the CS, apparently a higher ranking official than the signatory, to step up to the plate and support their community, the artists’ initiative has come through.
Be that as it may, Kenyan artists say they will only be convinced the ordeal is be over after their colleagues return with eyewitness accounts of the absence of a Kenya Pavilion in Venice. Until then, they are still on high alert and several are fundraising for tickets to Venice.
So, technically, the saga continues. The vigilance, now combined with the vibrancy of Kenya’s visual arts, is bound to ensure Kenyan artists’ role in the global as well as local art worlds is assured for many years to come.