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Sh2 billion GoDown complex to give the art scene major facelift

Saturday March 9 2019

White Arkitekter impression of the new GoDown Arts Centre which will break ground in August 2019. PHOTO | COURTESY

White Arkitekter impression of the new GoDown Arts Centre which will break ground in August 2019. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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Ms Joy Mboya, the executive director of The GoDown Arts Centre, is amazed that my first question to her is whether the ambitious Sh2 billion new GoDown complex is pushing the boundaries of the impossible.

“I’ve heard the question: ‘Is it really going to happen?’ a number of times from Kenyans and I’m often amazed by it. Why start something that I’m not going to finish?" she says in her characteristic wit.

"The notion of possibility and impossibility for me is a question of capacity and belief and one of the things that this project is bringing to life is just how much we (Kenyans) don’t believe in our dreams.”

The new GoDown Arts Centre will break ground in August 2019.

Once completed in August 2021, it will be the first major public complex for performing and visual arts to be built since Kenya’s independence in 1963.



The complex is a ground-breaking mixed-use development on 30,000 square metres of built area.

It will deliver educational and stimulating cultural resources to Kenyan youth, Kenyan families, arts organisations, creatives and visitors.

Some of the resources include a 300-seat multipurpose auditorium, three storeys of art galleries, a two-storey library or digital resource centre, a children’s creative studio, a youth recreational centre and 20 visual art studios.

The new GoDown Arts Centre started with a dream.

And Joy knows a thing or two about believing in one’s dreams. The architect-turned musician was the lead singer of the all-girl band Musikly Speaking. They ruled the music scene in the early 1990s with hits like ‘Jamriambo’, ‘Lovers (Stop The Fighting)’ and ‘Saturday Nite’.

She worked as an architect during the day and a singer and songwriter in the evenings.

Ms Joy Mboya, the executive director of The
Ms Joy Mboya, the executive director of The GoDown Arts Centre. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

In 1993, she moved to Sydney, Australia, for a post-graduate diploma in voice at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts. She eventually came back to Kenya and co-founded The GoDown Arts Centre in 2003.

The centre is a non-profit facility that provides subsidised space for Kenyan artistes and public programmes for local audiences.

It sits on a renovated 10,000 square-metre warehouse with studios, rehearsal and performance spaces.

It is home to Nairobits, Buni TV, the Kenya Conservatoire of Music, Ketebul Music and The African Bonfire.

“Sometimes I wondered why The GoDown was not growing beyond what they were already doing. It’s about time. Who else would have done that better than them?” poses Ken Khero, a training coordinator with Nairobits.

One of The GoDown artists, Grace Muthoka, is equally excited about the project: “I am looking forward to see the transformation of that space and the impact, especially on the younger generation. I see this new area not only fostering a vibrant art community but also increasing public interaction by pulling many into its activities and platform,” she says.


But it was not until 2005 when they bought the space where The GoDown sits that Joy and her team started dreaming of a new art centre; a space for community, culture and creativity that would last for the next 100 years.

“We began to ask ourselves questions like: What is the role and place of The GoDown in the Kenyan society and how does the space work? What is the meaningful relationship that we can have with the city? We began to do things within the mtaas (hoods) of Nairobi. Projects like ‘Dunda Mtaani’ and ‘Nai Ni Who?’ were born of such conversations,” she says.

The old GoDown Arts Centre. PHOTO| THE GODOWN

Community artists predominantly occupied the stage in ‘Dunda Mtaani’, held in places like Korogocho, Kibera, Huruma, Kawangware, Buruburu, Riruta and California. ‘Nai Ni Who?’ on the other hand, was an exploration of the good, the bad and the possibilities of Nairobi through art.

“We asked ourselves: How does The GoDown, as a physical facility, also sit and locate within the city and, if we were to redesign it, how would it work?”


A Swedish partner and friend of The GoDown, Pratik Vithlani, was part of these discussions of the exploration of creative economies and they turned to him for links and advice on who, in Sweden, could walk with them in the idea of exploring cultural spaces within the city.

They asked him if he knew any architects in Sweden who would be willing to walk the journey of exploring the idea of cultural spaces within the city with them, and it turned out he did.

Pratik introduced The GoDown team to Ulrika Stenkula of White Arkitekter based in Stockholm, Sweden. The firm prides itself in creating resilient architecture to inspire sustainable ways of life.

“It turns out that the firm makes these trips around the world to understand best practices in architecture, issues and challenges and how do they as a firm engage with the question of cities and communities at a global scale,” explains Joy.

And Ulrika embraced Joy’s dream, too.

“I was engaged and inspired by Joy’s vision and spirit so we came in to support her vision of having a meeting place to explore creativity and their identity,” says Ulrika, comparing it with the Stockholm House of Culture, a symbolic building which is situated in the heart of Stockholm. The centre holds a number of culture, art and design events every year and is open to everybody.

“It’s an opportunity for Nairobi to add to its city centre,” she says, adding that architects from the firm work pro bono on the project as their contribution.

After five years of collaborating with White Arkitekter on questions to do with urban identity and sustainable urban design, and thorough, immersive research, The GoDown and White Arkitekter began work on a vision for a new GoDown, drawing on insights from their engagement with the communities around The GoDown Arts Centre.

Joy Mboya (in maroon jacket) with architects
Joy Mboya (in maroon jacket) with architects from White Arkitekter in Sweden and Planning Systems (Kenya) going over the new GoDown plans. PHOTO| THE GODOWN ARTS CENTRE

In 2016, Planning Systems Services, based in Nairobi, came on board as they had been involved in the workshops that The GoDown and White Arkitekter had been holding in Nairobi up until then.

“We are proud to contribute to the next chapter of The GoDown story: A vibrant culture space and living room for all Nairobians, Kenyans and their guests,” Ulrika adds.


The fundraising process started with The GoDown staff.

“Charity begins at home and The GoDown board contributed Sh100 million ($1 million) towards the project. It was then that we turned to the mwananchi (ordinary individuals) and did a series of fundraising campaigns to ask them to match that contribution.

We interviewed some of the Kenyans who gave towards the building of the new GoDown and one young lady said she gave because she loved H_art the Band, who had taken part in the promotional videos; where they spoke about why they were supporting the new GoDown Arts Centre. Sustainability will not come from international donors. We want to start to build the culture of envisioning, owning the dream, building it and then sustaining it,” adds Joy.

She has been inspired by the fundamental generosity of Kenyans while fundraising for this project and is still calling upon them to continue being part of The GoDown’s transformation.

The GoDown will target corporates and the Government next for financial support and the conversations will begin this year as they continue to nurture the international structures.

What scares Joy the most in this project is the lack of faith by those who don’t see the end of the project. She has never lost faith in it.

“This is part of my journey in life. It’s about what I’m enabling or facilitating in the art space. I can never lose that. That’s not how my head operates.”