A society without the arts is empty

Kenya is a country where stories on the arts and culture tend to give the impression that we are stuck in a rut about our culture, that is if we agree that we have one

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There is a Swahili saying, “mwacha mila ni mtumwa”, that suggests that those who ignore their culture(s) are slaves. The implication of this statement is that culture is the pillar on which individual and collective identities are founded. Culture teaches us how to think, behave, eat, speak, love, bring up children, care for the old, respect elders and the young, treat those who are ill, host strangers, relate to our enemies, fight, make peace, bury the dead,  remember the past, dream of the future, etc. Art is often the expression of a people’s culture in words, body movements, signs and figures, and how we relate with the environment – physically or in the abstract – for today or posterity.

Yet, Kenya is a country where stories on the arts and culture tend to give the impression that we are stuck in a rut about our culture; that is if we agree that we have a culture. Why is this so? There are many reasons for this seeming confusion about the arts and culture in Kenya. The main one is because Kenyans tend to speak of culture, as if there is one culture in the country. No, there are many cultures in Kenya. If viewed regionally one would say there are 47 county cultures. Linguistically there are more than sixty languages in the country, which naturally do stand for some cultural worldview.

And so, when we speak of Kenyan art, we are speaking of several ways of expressing the philosophies or worldviews, and creativity, of several cultural groups. This is the sense that one left with from the Kenya Art Fair, 2015, which took place at the Sarit Centre from Friday 13 – Sunday 15 September 2015. Indeed, there were several exhibitions of modern and contemporary through ‘curated works of art from artists and galleries, public performances and installations” as well as “daily conversations about all things “art” in the region,” as promised by Kuona Trust, the organisers of the event.

There is no doubt that the Kenyan art scene is alive and thriving. There were art pieces and installations from old hands, middle-aged artists and new hands in the art sector in Kenya.
This was not just an exhibition of sculpture, sketches or digital; it was also a show about the beauty of Kenya, the creativity of Kenyans, the cultural and artistic richness of the country, the dreams and realities of Kenya, and so on. It is not surprising that the First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta, implored Kenyans to, “… support our artists by buying their products, encouraging and rewarding them for their work” for “through art, we tell stories, preserve our culture and heritage, and pass our tradition on to future generations.”

For me, the sad thing was not to see enough people at the exhibition. How could Kenyans not be at such an event? Was it poor publicity? Was it the venue? Was it the abstractedness of some of the artwork on display? Was it because young and old Kenyans aren’t just familiar with the world of arts and culture?

Or is it that art doesn’t count in the everyday lives of Kenyan women and men? I couldn’t ask the artists these questions because I felt they had done their work. It was upon me and others who went to the exhibition to grapple with. I did wrestle with some of the questions on September 14 at a forum that discussed the relationship between the arts, the media and the public.

The burning questions in the forum included: what role do the media play in the promotion of the arts; are art critics necessary for the growth and circulation of art in the country; what can be done, generally, to make Kenyan art more prominent in the public? There was a lot of handwringing about what to do about this conundrum in which those who write about art are often unsure how to do it. But there were also ideas about how to bring the artist and the critic together, in order for them to seek ways of mutually appreciating each other.

But there are always nagging questions around this subject. Maybe the value of Kenyan art and artists is in their remaining out of the public eye. Maybe art is on the extreme lower end of the needs of Kenyans today, and so we shouldn’t spend too much time discussing whether it is appreciated enough or not. But, maybe, it is actually important for the media to publicise Kenyan art.

Why do many people in different parts of the world admire Italian art or French cuisine? It is because of their artistry. By buying an Italian suit or ordering a French meal, aren’t we appreciating the artistry of these two cultures? Aren’t we saying that there is something in the spirit of Italians or the French which we have a high regard for? It isn’t true that the Italians do make better shoes, cut better suits or build better houses, than anyone else in the world. It is just that they have, over time, invested their artistry and sense of aesthetics into how to make shoes, sew suits or erect houses, and appreciate these investments first, after which they sell that appreciation to others.

In the past, it was books that carried and disseminated the arts and cultures of others. Artworks – sculpture, painting, poetry, dance etc – were often physically carried or expressed by those who travelled. Today the media has multiplied the means by which art and culture from one locality to can be relayed and consumed elsewhere.

What is significant about this “travelling” of culture through the media is that it significantly acts as a means of teaching one group of people about another’s culture and worldview. Media is a great teacher today. Journalists encounter experiences, interpret them – relative to other prior experiences – and translate them to readers.

It doesn’t matter what forum the journalist will use but it is expected that should they wish to mediate between the artist/cultural producer and the audience, they have to learn the most effective language of speaking about the art and culture in way that is understandable to the uninitiated. If done correctly, art criticism does not only introduce the ways and languages of artists to the uninitiated public but it would also help to cure many Kenyans of the enslavement to foreign arts and cultures.

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