WHO CONTROLS KENYA’S CREATIVE ECONOMY?
By Margaretta wa Gacheru
Kenya’s creative economy will grow and expand by leaps and bounds when Kenyans themselves control their own artistic output. Until then, it will be handicapped by outsiders, often ex-patriot residents, who have their own agendas and their own interests which, though they give lip service to helping grow our creative economy, actually deplete artists’ incentives specifically because they are not in control of their work, where it goes and how much is paid for it.
These are the sentiments of a number of smart Kenyan artists who have gotten tired of dealing with middle men and women who some see as conniving crooks, others claim are merely well-intentioned do-gooders who don’t see the damage they do to Kenya’s creative economy..
Not all ex-patriots in the cultural field are crooks, says Shine Tani, director of the Banana Hill Art Gallery. A man who has been approached by numerous ex-patriots (and a few Kenyans) who want to offer him piecemeal ‘projects’ to complete which will earn him pennies, meanwhile the one with the proposal gets a minimum of ten times what he would earn if he controlled setting the value of his own artwork
Often Shine has even seen ex-pats coming to ‘interview’ him, when in fact, he feels they are milking his mind for new, original ideas, as if he were a cash cow.
Then when they come back they have refashioned his ideas into a fancy donor proposal that will earn him a big bundle as well as a reputation among fellow ex-pats, both here and abroad, for now being a so-called ‘expert’ in contemporary Kenyan art.
How does he know this trick, especially when Kenyan artists on the ground rarely see the completed project proposal, leave alone the budget and funds to be allocated to the artists who agree to work with the proposer?
Good question, but as Kenyan artists have gotten more savvy as to the ways these middle men and women work, they have found their own means of investigating and unearthing proposal documents which are often kept secret and carefully hidden from the locals’ eyes.
Such information is not always concealed since some middle men/women can’t help feeling proud of their achievements and put their project ‘success stories’ in publications and other documentations that one can find, for instance, on the Internet.
One disgruntled Kenyan artist who had been working at one of the foreign-funded art centres based in Nairobi went to complain to the donor (a former middle man on the art scene in the late Nineties), but as he sat in the waiting room for the donor he found a photograph of himself on one of the promotional newsletters of the organization’s East African regional office.
“It was the caption under the photograph that made me really angry,” said Wanjohi Nyamo, a scrap metal sculptor, formerly working at Kuona Trust when it was still at the Nairobi National Museum. He subsequently went to work at Mamba Village in Karen.
The caption referred to all the hungry street children who were being given skills and an unprecedented opportunity for a new life thanks to the donor’s funding of one particular art centre.
“I have never been a street boy,” said an irate Nyamo. In fact, he had been living and farming in Nyeri when he read an advertisement in a local daily paper inviting anyone interested to come learn artistic skills for free at that art centre.
“I took seriously the story in the paper and decided to travel to Nairobi and learn new skills, which i did,” Nyamo continued, explaining tha sense of betrayal at his discovery had been almost overwhelming.
But it taught him an important lesson, namely the need for locals artists not to become donor dependent and to start seriously thinking how best to take control not only of their creative output, but also the wider Kenyan art world.
A number of Kenyan artists have had similar epiphanies, startling awakenings that have sometimes been painful to swallow, but also got them thinking more about how to effectively combine their art with a stronger sense of entrepreneurship.
A number of local artists reject getting too involved in entrepreneurial thinking. They claim they are purists who are only concerned with self expression and cultivating their own original ideas. If they have to work with a middle man or woman who either takes charge of their finances or offers them a percent of the sales of their art, they don’t mind. They claim it is a bargain for them to leave the marketing of their art to the middle man/woman, especially as he or she could have international connections with East African art collectors who are willing to pay premium prices for their work. In the process such artists feel they could also obtain more of a global art profile.
The purists as i will call them often are those who have already made names for themselves and could even be one of the new breed of Kenyan contemporary artists who not only survive by the sales of their art; they could even be thriving but not so much because they have a deal with a middle man/woman but because they are amazingly talented and original artists with fresh ideas and cultivated skills. Among them are gifted artists like Peterson Kamwathi, Peter Elungat, Beatrice Wanjiku Njoroge and Richard Kimathi.
But then there are those artists who have spent several years working with art dealers, and who have subsequently woken up to the extent to which they have been “had” or frankly exploited. Admitting that they hadn’t known better at the time, nor had they seen the way the dealer was making a minimum of 10 percent, maximum 100 percent of what the artist got paid, some of these artists begrudgingly admit they would have starved or given up art altogether if it hadn’t been for the art dealer buying their work at throwaway prices.
“Sometimes those artists who sold their work for pennies were alcoholics and earned just enough to buy the cheap booze they were addicted to. It was a vicious cycle that few of those artists broke out of,” said Kenyan painter Patrick Kinuthia.
“i was one of those guys for a while, but i managed to break out of the cycle and now i don’t work with any middle men,” added Kinuthia who today describes himself as an Independent artist who picks and chooses where he exhibits and who he sells his popular portraiture to.
There are a number of other so-called Independent Kenyan artists who have understood they need to take charge of their finances as well as their artistic productivity. Artists like Joseph Bertiers Mbatia falls into this category. What’s more, he feels so strongly about not only the value of his own art and his ability to sell it himself but he also has chosen to share his insights with other aspiring artists who he has organized and regularly instructs. DARTS the art organization he self-funds and sustains philanthropically has already begun holding group exhibitions and a number of young artists are visibly emerging under Bertiers’ tuition.
But then there are artists like Shine Tani who has been painting since the mid-Eighties but in 2009 announced he was no longer an artist but a businessman. Being manager of Banana Hill Art Gallery had inspired him to take seriously the business of promoting and marketing promising artists from all over East Africa. Since then he’s had a number of successful exhibitions exposing unknown (to the Kenyan public) East African artists who have attracted wide ranging interest.
Fortunately, Shine returned to painting in late 2013 and held his first one-man show late the same year. Yet Shine is an exception to the rule that too many Kenyan artists are still dependent on donor and middle man/womn support.
Increasingly however, as artists are coming to see the connection between their own creative output and the need to develop Kenya’s creative economy, greater numbers are waking up to see it’s not a hindrance to their artistic development to think more entrepreneurially. They still have a ways to go, but many have become more like Shine who believe Kenya’s creative economy will only grow once local artists are in control of their own indigenous art world.