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Kenya's artistic renaissance

Energetic new talent is emerging in Kenyan art. Who, and why has it been so long?
Selina Cuff
12 February 2010

African culture has cachet around the world. Whether it is films from South Africa, music from Nigeria, artefacts from Egypt, interior designs from Morocco, Africa as a continent has provided the world with some iconic and inspirational staples of our world culture. Yet East African countries have remained somewhat absent from this international attention. Now, however, there is a rumble of energy coming from Kenya.

“Beneath the dying infrastructure and the traffic jams, Nairobi has been going through an important cultural revival if not renaissance.” Says Simon Gikandi, Kenyan-born Professor of English at Princeton University, who is best known for his work The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature. Gikandi is a child of the Literature Revolution that happened in Kenya during the 1970’s, when a group of East African writers including Kenya’s most famous literary figure, Ngugi wa Thiongo’o, overhauled the education system of Kenya to include the critical study of African literature.

The 1960’s and 70’s,  energised by independence, were a time of cultural and intellectual expansion, similarly experienced in other African countries undergoing decolonisation. However Kenya, the forerunner of the cultural awakening, failed to enter into the globalised cultural world like its fellow African nations. In a poll of the Greatest African Artists featured in the Independent (UK) newspaper in 2006, Kenya could only boast two entrants, whilst Nigeria and South Africa had eight each.

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Sitting Allowance

Artists, writers and historians trace Kenya’s failure-to-launch to the 24-year rule of Daniel arap Moi, who during the 1980’s and 90’s managed to muffle the country’s creativity with his repressive regime. Many of Kenya’s greatest artists- including Ngugi- went into exile. Many more sought freer societies and education, leaving their homeland for South Africa, Europe and America. For those who did not flee, Kenya was a country in creative lockdown.

Peterson Kamwathi

“I have been wondering for a while now, why are we so detached from a cultural thread, unlike West Africa. And part of it is the Moi era, Moi created a cultural vacuum.” Says artist Peterson Kamwathi. Kamwathi, one of Kenya’s up and coming artists, is gaining international attention for his critically-acclaimed “Sitting Allowance”- a collection of charcoal depictions of the institutions involved in the post-election violence of 2008. His work is now touring Europe.  The artistic community is hoping that Kamwathi is paving the way for Kenyan Arts.

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Ato Malinda. Performance from Dans Mon Brun Kamwathi is not the only one blazing a trail, performance artist Ato Malinda has taken her unique live and film performance art on the road, exhibiting elsewhere in Africa as well as Europe. Jimmy Ogonga has been involved in years long projects to correct the ‘cultural amnesia’ of a decolonised Africa. And many more artists and writers are gaining attention. There is creative hope once gain.

Hope is fleeting in Kenya. Back in 2002 when the Moi regime ended, the country was brimming with it. Those who had fled were coming back, and it looked like Kenya may now come into its own. It was in 2002 that writer Binyavanaga Wainaina, returning from South Africa, won the Caine Literature Prize- the African sister of the Booker- with his novella Discovering Home. The following year, another Kenyan writer, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, repeated his success by winning the prize for her short story published in Kwani?- set up by Binyavanga to encourage the Kenyan creative voice. It looked like Kenya was finally ready to enter the world that its cultural forefather, Ngugi, had broken into back in the 60’s.

But once again, after the initial excitement surrounding the Caine wins, Kenya’s creative expression seemed to stall. To date, no Kenyan writer has managed to produce a full-length novel that has crossed the country’s borders let alone the continent's coastlines. In 2003 Kenyan writer Stanley Gazemba won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature for his novel The Stone Hills of Maragoli. Despite critical-acclaim, the book is not available in shops within the country, and has not made it internationally. A simple Amazon search shows its obscurity- the site does not even recognise its title.

Kenya’s obscurity is not due to lack of talent. Mikhail Iossel, founder of the Summer Literary Seminars (SLS), says “Kenyan literature has great potential, it has a fair concentration of very good writers, and there is a tremendous amount of creative energy.”

Iossel decided to host SLS- a world-wide programme of literary workshops- in Kenya, after being impressed with the talent in the country, the ‘aura’ of Binyavanga and the work of Kwani?. Iossel believes that of all the countries SLS operates in, Kenya is the most vibrant. He jokes that the sunshine plays a big part in this, but he adds “The colours are brighter. The sun is hotter. You are more in touch with existence in Kenya.”

“It is the right time for writers, musicians, visual artists. There is a lot going on.” Billy Kahora, managing editor of Kwani? says. Besides SLS, Kenya hosted Stormoja Hay Festival in 2009, part of the international Hay Festival- mostly famous of which is the annual Guardian Hay Festival in Wales. International curators are turning their attention to East Africa, looking for new, unexploited markets. The artists themselves are evolving: producing more conceptual pieces- both in art and literature- that focus on social and cultural issues. The talent that has always been there is becoming less raw.

For Sam Hopkins a British-Kenyan contextual artist, it is clear something is brewing in Kenya. Hopkins co-initiated the multi-media project Slum TV, with fellow artists Alexander Nikoki and Lucas Pusch. Slum-TV, is an audio-visual project based in one of Nairobi’s slums, Mathare, that helps locals depict their lives on film. The project is ground-breaking in Kenya, where filming of the slums is usually the domain of NGO’s and journalists who often only disseminate one particular representation. Hopkins works closely with young people, providing them with artistic skills but also gaining unique insight to the future of Kenya’s art scene.  “It is the young guys- the next generation- that will determine if it is something more than just a few talented individuals.” Sam Hopkins says.

Those involved in the Kenya art scene believe, that for the next generation to carry Kenya’s culture torch forward, what is needed is better domestic support and infrastructure for the Arts. According to Danda Jaroljmek, Director of Kuona Arts Trust, it is the lack of governmental support for the arts that is holding Kenya back. Jaroljmek says the reason for Nigeria and South Africa’s success is the grants, councils, lottery funded investment and art education. All of which Kenya is lacking.

The government claims support is coming. March is expected to see the adoption of a new Constitution in Kenya. The draft constitution, released in November 2009, recognises ‘culture as a foundation of the nation’ and declares the responsibility of the State to promote cultural expression in the arts. However it has been received with scepticism by the artistic community. “Having read the 'culture' section of the latest constitution draft, I think it will be interesting to see what exactly is applied to the ‘promotion’ of culture. An Arts Council would be nice!” Ato Malinda, a live and film performance artist said.

Regardless of whether the government fulfils their promises, the time is ripe for Kenyan Arts and the hope must be that this time their talent will not again fall into disuse. Equally those outside Kenya should dip their toes into unknown waters and join in the excitement of the excitement of discovering the energy in these new voices and visions.

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