Crooks or do-gooders?
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 expat residents with their own agendas and 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 they 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. He should know, as he’s been approached by numerous expats (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 had expats ‘interview’ him only to realise halfway through that they’re more interested in milking him for new, original ideas, as if he were a cash cow. Then they return having refashioned his ideas into a fancy donor proposal that will earn him a reputation as a so-called ‘expert’ in contemporary Kenyan art among fellow ex-pats, both here and abroad. How does he know this trick, especially when most Kenyan artists rarely see the completed project proposals, let alone the budget and funds to be allocated to the artists who agree to work with the proposer? Good question, but as a number of Kenyan artists have gotten more savvy 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.
Actually, such information is not always concealed as 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 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), and as he sat waiting for the donor he spotted a photograph of himself on one of the promotional newsletters of the organisation’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 that the sense of betrayal following his discovery of the photo and caption 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 about 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.
Some 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 are often those who have already made names for themselves and might even be one of the new breed of Kenyan contemporary artists who are able to survive purely on the sale of their art. But sometimes the fact that they are thriving is 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 anywhere between 10 per cent (which is fair) to 100 per cent 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,” says 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,” adds 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 the need to take charge of their finances as well as their artistic productivity. Artists like Joseph Bertiers Mbatia fall into this category. What’s more, he feels so strongly about the value of his own art and his ability to sell it himself that he has chosen to share his insights with other aspiring artists whom he instructs. DARTS, the art organisation he self-funds and sustains philanthropically, has already begun holding group exhibitions and a number of talented young artists are starting to emerge under his guidance.
Meanwhile, Shine Tani, who has been painting since the mid-Eighties, announced in 2009 that 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 to wide-ranging interest.
Fortunately, Shine returned to painting in late 2013, and held his first one-man show late the same year. But Shine, Bertiers and Patrick Kinyanjui remain exceptions to the rule, and too many Kenyan artists are still dependent on donor and middle man/womn support.
Fortunately, 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 the fact that that thinking more entrepreneurially does not hinder their artistic development. Most still have a ways to go, but many are thinking more like Shine, and believe Kenya’s creative economy will only grow once local artists are in control of their own art world.