Me: Pssstt!…Let me buy you a drink/coffee/something next week? Say yes!?
Him: Yap. Coke zero.
Also Me : Um…Yeah. okay. Done!
7 days later…
It’s a partly cloudy afternoon, big dark threatening rain clouds look on from a distance. I make my way to the Dust Depo Artist’s Gallery at the Railway Museum to speak with him. Judging from this impending rain, I’ve got a solid two hours to accomplish my mission before I make we scatter.
I find him doodling with a marker pen on a huge piece of glass talking to a young lady whom I presume to be one of his students…he’s always got a bunch of young people here. Stuff I admire about him. I pull up a chair and unapologetically invade his space because…chills are expensive. Hugs are exchanged and Coke Zeros given amidst screams of “HIIIII!!!”(Of course from me).
************ brief history ***********
I met Mukabi in 2008. He doesn’t remember, at least I don’t think he does, but I do. See my groupie default settings remember every ‘somebody’ I meet. Back then, in 2008, I was in high school (put down that calculator!), and our Art Teacher felt it would be good for us, her students, to visit various Art centres to sort of inspire us to further our education in art and design once we were done with Form Four. We visited his studio, back when he was at Go Down Arts Centre, and I literally had to pep talk my shy self-obstructing ass into having a conversation with him. Long story short, that 1 minute convo led to 9 solid years of friendship and mentorship. So when his birthday rolled up this October, I thought I’d buy the man a drink.
*************** back to the studio ***************
THE FIRST HALF OF THE CONVERSATION IS THE CATCH UP. Hii ni yetu 😀
Me: So random question…I read this article by Thom Ogonga titled ‘The Fear of Being Great’ (first of all…it popped up on my timeline courtesy of a share), (written on his blog ‘The Alternative Writer’ on 2nd August 2016). He speaks primarily about mediocrity in the arts; from artists settling for less when it comes to art sales, to the lack of development within the Kenyan Artsphere.
In it Thom writes:
“Once upon a time, our mandate was to nurture upcoming/emerging artists. Are we still interested in that or have they come up/emerged? Are we interested in developing the artist and the Kenyan arts infrastructure or are we just interested in being seen to have some interest? Why are we thinking outside the box while still comfortably seated in it? The message that we are passing is that we’re afraid. Or too intellectually lazy to engage. Or both!”
See full article on http://thealternativewriter.blogspot.co.ke/2016/
Heavy? Truth often is.
There’s truth in this though. Going through the African Art Report 2015 (see link below), only 2 Kenyan artists are ranked amongst the Top 100 African Artists i.e. Wangeci Mutu and Bertiers Joseph, based on: their artist profiles, their turn over at auctions and the number of exhibitions they’ve had at museums and galleries. Any yet…AND YET! “Artists in Kenya “are enormously inventive….Just because they are not fetching £100,000 a picture does not mean they are lesser.” …words from Giles Peppiatt, the Director of Contemporary African Art at Bonham’s auction house in London.
However, I tend to think the cause of this lack of infrastructure is not just squarely on the shoulders of the Artists. Yes, they play the most vital role, but so do art spaces, the government and industry stakeholders.
Me: What do you think about Tom’s article?
P: There’s a lot of truth to it. A lot of older, more ‘established’ artists are not willing to share their knowledge when it comes to art. They prefer to thrive in the monopoly of being the ‘go to’ faction when art buyers, both local and international, want Kenyan art. Which is strange considering, being a creative, it is really up to YOU to stay relevant, to re-invent yourself, to have people buy your work without manipulating the system by playing an absent role.
Me: How come?
P: Look, they have established a clientele and their fear is that if they change how they create/their style of painting, they will lose their market. At the same time, teaching younger artists would widen the competitive gap. I’ve seen university lecturers try to sabotage their best students because of fear of competition.
Shame on you. Really. SHAME on you!
Me: But there’s a crop trying to change this, is there not? Are we all doomed?
P: There is. He refers to Waweru Gichuhi of Brush Tu and the collective. Shout out! /o/
Me: And yourself…
P: Yeah. I try. I don’t feel the need to hoard knowledge. My studio is pretty much open to young artists. The thing is, a developed industry will increase the competition, there’s no doubt about that, but in the long haul, it will benefit us all! We’ll have a much louder voice.
Me: So then how do you stay relevant yet here you are enabling the competition?
P: Well I work at re-inventing myself through the different media and style I use from time to time. (He tells me about an upcoming project he’d like to go into). I also try to travel and do a lot of public projects, some with the government, and I teach children when I get the chance.
Me: And clients?
P: I try to always get new clients, and when resources allow, I travel and expose myself to different art/artists. Get new clients. It’s good to have repeat clients yes, but keep trying to broaden your client base.
Me: But how are we going to travel when we are ‘struggling artists’?
P: I’m not asking you to fly to Denmark. It doesn’t have to be out of the country; The thing with exposing yourself is that you learn a great deal. You will see your art grow.
Me: What should we do differently then?
P: The struggling artist would be a thing of the past if we treated art as an occupation like some countries do. Countries like South Africa, Egypt, Denmark; they have galleries that send out their representatives to scout talent even in colleges. They get the talent and pay the artists on retainer. Interestingly, they go for the unknown guys, the underdogs, not the already selling artists. Not like here where to get such a contract you have to be pushing sales already.
P: YES! They have you sign a 3-5 year contract and for the duration of this contract, they provide you with a studio space, art supplies and a monthly salary and your work is to just create. Then every month they’ll require you to create a certain number of pieces that they will collect and sell.
Me: Ever see that happening here?
P: I’m hopeful that we will get to invest in our industry and nurture it instead of looking only for profits.
Me: What do you wish you knew when you were studying art in college?
P: How to expose myself. The reason we have so many young artists who come out of uni/college and struggle is because they have no idea how the industry works. They then quickly give up out of frustration and go white collar. What they don’t realize is that for your work to pick up, it will take 3-5 years before you start making solid returns from it. It isn’t easy. It’s just like any business. The first few years are tough so you’ve got to stick it through. Now just imagine how much easier it would be if you started taking part in workshops, exhibitions and the likes from your second year? By the time you’d be graduating, you’d be better off than most of your classmates and possibly have established a ready clientele.
Me: And do you think Universities are doing enough to teach their students the business of Art? Or are they also aiding in the churning out of clueless students?
P: Universities do not teach the business side of art. We have lecturers who haven’t even held their own personal exhibitions in years! How would such a person know what to tell their students about the industry and advise them on where to sell?
*let me hand you a cup of coffee as you take that in*
Sadly, they only teach the skill. Not how to make the money. Take a place like the US for instance, they have a mandatory policy for their art teaching staff to hold an exhibition every two years or get chucked! That’s the only way their staff can keep abreast with the industry and make any beneficial developments to it. Hellar!
Me: What about the government?
P: Did you know there is an artist’s fund in the office of the Deputy President dedicated to cater for travel of artists to just go out and expose themselves to different art? A kind of way to foster their continuous education?
Wot? Everything in me wants to hit up my Deputy President and be like “Bro dude, where the money at?”
But I have a feeling guy Ruto is a little busy ry naw, because you know, sham elections aren’t easy to plan…
(P Continues)…It would be great also if we could get a museum dedicated solely to art like South Africa which recently launched their Zeitz MOCCA , located in Cape Town. It is the first public institution devoted solely to Contemporary African Art on the entire continent. The place is massive. (Check it out here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2FNx60kuDc)
A museum of that sort if opened here would generate loads of income. Collectors would get to the showcase their collections and even charge a fee for people to view it. The beauty in that is that people would come from all walks of life to see work. Take a minute and think about the commotion you would cause if you opened your 13 original print Picasso works for public viewing? Secondly, money would be generated from the sales and the programs such an institution would run. Schools, both local and international, would easily come and learn the arts on a more informed level. It would be both a tourist attraction and cultural haven. Just because it was Kenyan wouldn’t only restrict the art in it to be Kenyan.
Me: What the hell is Contemporary African Art!!!?? Why everybody using this hashtag for? Is this a cool kid’s thing now?
P: *laughs* … you see…during Apartheid in South Africa, artists weren’t able to easily access art supplies. So they created art pieces with objects they could easily and readily find. The world started taking notice of this and its unconventionality and named it this.
I swear this explanation was longer but I may or may not have zoned…
Though….me here I read that Contemporary African Art is African art that speaks about the now, the present. . .but well…
It gets to about 4.30p.m and my little green notebook whispers to me to wrap it up! Mvua inakuja sis! And so I did.
Morale of this story: We each have a part to play in reaching the goals we want to reach.
To Artists reading:
Kiss the box goodbye. Test the boundaries. Keep re-inventing yourself and pay it forward. Hoarding is selfish. Organize yourself. Travel and expose yourself. Always build networks. Create. Bask in your truth.
To the Buyers/potential Buyers reading:
The importance of local buyers cannot be overstated if future generations are to bank on art as a profession. Support the arts. Visit exhibitions. Buy artwork-We have more young people with higher income and more disposable income now (Weren’t we the country that made 900 millionaires in 2016 alone? Pesa has not otasss-ed). Invest and encourage.
If you wish to move mountains tomorrow, you must start by lifting stones today
~ African proverb
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- Photos courtesy of Google Images.