Without setting up an extravagant (c)omission of inquiry or a globe-trotting task force, could the Cabinet Secretary for Sports, Culture and the Arts kindly offer this country a concrete explanation for why the Kenya Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale is being described as a “gag, to be avoided like the plague”.
These harsh and dismissive reviews are not from lazy international art critics or idle bloggers who are ignorant of the substance and quality of Kenya’s contemporary art scene.
They are a broadly shared outrage — locally and internationally — on account of the casual way in which an opportunity to represent Kenya at one of the foremost art events in the world has been hijacked by charlatans.
Since its inception in 1907 the Venice Biennale provides a platform for different nations to showcase their contemporary art.
This gathering is also an incredible opportunity for countries to give their artists the kind of mobility necessary to build dynamic international partnerships that further learning, creativity and economic enterprise.
Angola, like Kenya, was exhibiting for the first time at the Venice Biennale. Its exhibition was commissioned and supported by the Angolan Ministry of Culture and curated by local architects, Paula Nascimento and Stefano Pansera.
Their displays of urbanism were of such exquisite creativity that Angola beat 88 countries to scoop the exalted Golden Lion award for the best national pavilion.
The team of five judges focused on countries that managed “to provide original insight into expanded practice within their region”. So what did Kenya put on offer?
To begin with, the commissioner and curator of the Kenya pavilion is Paula Poponi, who is unknown in local art circles.
Did the Ministry of Sports, Culture and the Arts appoint her to this role? If she used personal enterprise and goodwill to acquire and fund a pavilion, did she seek the ministry’s approval before dubbing it the “Kenya Pavilion”?
Is Brand Kenya aware of this exhibition? Has it approved the image Poponi has curated, and has our Ministry of Tourism endorsed Poponi’s catalogue marketing “this is Kenya, where Nature IS”?
The Kenya exhibition is titled: “Reflective Nature: a New Primary Enchanting Sensitivity”.
There are no prizes for guessing the kind of vulgar stereotypic representations of primitive life that go with this commonplace theme!
The first location for the Kenya pavilion is at the San Servolo Island featuring a special project by Cesar Meneghetti, an Italo-Brazilian artist.
The second site is the main one at the Caserma Cornoldi where there are eight Chinese, one Italian, and the pastels and batiks of two Kenyan artists, Kivuthi Mbuno and Wang’ombe Wachira.
Yes, this is the era of globalisation and multi-culturalism and one of the biennale’s themes is collaboration, but did Kenya’s first-ever showing in Venice have to be so lacking in agency and self-representation?
The visibility of African art on the international stage has always been contested, filled as it is with dodgy high-priests, opportunistic brokers and outright racist interpretations.
Breaking down these barriers and giving African artists the space, voice, volume and the visibility they deserve has, in part, been achieved by a core of unrelenting artists, dynamic curators and outstanding intellectuals.
Kenya has more than its fair share of such dedicated minds of varying shades and colours. Their first commitment is always to tell our stories in our own voices.
Any opportunity to showcase the robust contemporary arts scene must exploit the staggering talent of our artists and curators who are too many for me to list here and whose work and reputation the ministry must surely be aware of.
I am not sure what can be done to repair the reputation of contemporary Kenyan art before the biennale closes on November 24.
But more than the explanation it owes us, let the ministry’s internal conversation on the Venice debacle lead to a clearly formulated Arts Policy that answers the basic question: “What conditions are necessary for artistic and cultural creativity to thrive?”
Laying down a coherent plan for how best to provide those conditions will save this country from misdirected outings of the Venice kind, and rescue our artists from random State support, which is sometimes worse than outright neglect!
Dr Nyairo, a former university lecturer, is a cultural analyst. ([email protected])