SMITHSONIAN-KENYA FOLKFEST: WHERE DID KENYAN CULTURE GO?


By margaretta wa gacheru. unpublished
Back in 2012, when we heard from the Kenya Cultural Centre Managing Director Aghan Odero that Kenya had been picked to partner with the Smithsonian Institution, [the largest museum complex on the planet, based in Washington DC] for a full 10 day cultural festival in July 2014 on the massive Mall just outside the White House, we were thrilled.
Aghan had gone to DC with the Permanent Secretary for Culture, Dr. Ole M who had been wholeheartedly supportive of this ambitious initiative which promised to put Kenya on the global map of leading cultural venues that the public, particularly the American public, needed to know.
For whether Kenya had previously been known as the Cradle of Civilization, the Land of the Big Five or the site where Meryl Streep and Robert Redford’s award-winning film Out of Africa had been shot—the public partnership with the world’s largest constellation of five star museums was bound to explode all the stereotypes and bring a post-colonial perspective of the country to the world’s attention.
Unfortunately, things have changed quite a bit since then. First, the brilliant Maasai PS was shifted out of the Ministry of Culture to a different ministry. Then the project was taken over by another sector of the Ministry, the one now involved with Kenya@50 celebrations, and the Museum staff member who Aghan had invited in to assist him with organizing the cultural festival became part of the Kenya@50 project while he remained to do his job as MD of KCC.
Now, we wonder what has happened to the program which by the middle of March, with just three months to go, had not yet made provisions for including Kenyan films, Kenyan visual art, Kenyan literature or Kenyan theatre in the Smithsonian program.
Instead, at a meeting with members of the ad hoc group of artists and writers concerned with Kenya’s creative economy, Ms Elizabeth Ouma, the Museum staff relocated to Kenya@50, explained that 120 people had already been picked to represent Kenya at the Smithsonian Folkfest in late June, early July. Since then, that number is said to have been reduced significantly.
According to other Kenya Government sources, the focus of Kenya’s contribution to the Folkfest has shifted slightly from its cultural emphasis to concern for finding prospective investors keen to the country’s many infrastructural projects.
Today, it’s members of the Kenya Federation of Manufacturers, Brand Kenya, and the Kenya Trade Authority among others that reflect the government’s economic interest in the prestigious festival which is theoretically meant for the partner country to present its finest cultural attractions.
The other huge difference between this year’s Smithsonian cultural fete and those of years past is that not one but two countries will now be partnering with the Smithsonian—Kenya and China!
How China came into the picture is unclear. All Ms Ouma could tell us was that China would be given half the Mall during the ten-day festival and Kenya the given the other half.
It’s demoralizing to say the least, said several Kenyan artists who recall the recent Venice Art Biennale in which Kenyan art was represented by eight Chinese artists and curated by two Italians who have a gallery somewhere at the Coast.
How that could have happened is a mystery to this day, except it would seem the Ministry of Culture was fully aware that the thriving Kenyan arts scene would be represented at one of the most prestigious art fairs in the world, not be award-winning Kenyan artists but by unknown Chinese who have nothing to do with representing this country.
“I believe the Government sold its share of the festival to the highest bidder who turned out to be  Chinese,” said one cynical Kenyan artist who believes some members of the government are not above selling their fellow Kenyans down the river if the price was right.
Could it be that the Smithsonian event will be yet another occasion where the government chooses to sell its people short rather than appreciate the true meaning of civil service, which is to assist in their people’s advancement and success.
With less than three months to go before ‘the best’ of Kenyan culture is meant to be showcased in Washington, DC, observers close to the organizing efforts fear the government may lost an opportunity of a lifetime when June roles around and very little that reflects the true creativity, originality and dynamism of Kenyan culture fills half the Washington, DC Mall.
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