Ross Franks is the art director of XYZ-Show, and thus, he is responsible for designing the show’s main characters. The show runs on Kenyan TV at one of the better time slots, and deals with developments within Kenya’s political landscape in a humoristic way. We talked to Ross in his studio at GoDown Arts Centre.
Interviewers: Nadine Lorenz and Michau Kühn
Ross, could you briefly introduce yourself, please?
My name is Ross Franks. Originally, I come from Australia, but I have lived in Germany for about twenty years. There, I had worked on "Hurra Deutschland!", a show that was broadcasted by German TV-station ARD from 1989 to 91. The show was mainly political satire carried out by human-sized puppets.
And how did you come to Nairobi?
I came across a report on the BBC, showing that there was a show involving human-sized puppets here, just like the one I did in Germany. So I thought to myself: "Go ask them if they need somebody", and now I have been here for two years.
Then let me anticipate a little bit, here. Why did you stay in Nairobi?
First, I did a workshop for them. Then, they asked me if I wanted to work for them full time.
I also like the country, I already know the work, and I also wanted to help develop the company.
And what can you say about the city?
Nairobi is as chaotic as it is beautiful.
Nadine keeps describing it as a love-hate relationship.
(Nadine: Many people say that.)
But it somehow seems easy to live here compared to Germany – it is stress-free when you look at everyday life.
Funny, I wouldn’t have put it that way. I think everyday life here is very stressful.
[laughs] The good thing is, there are no post boxes, you receive no invoices.
Maybe you want to talk about what exactly it is you are doing here?
I have been working as the manager of a puppet workshop, and also as the art director. That means I survey what happens in the workshop and how the puppets are made. After that, I have a look at what happens at and around the set; so I basically do the whole art direction for Buni Media.
What kind of a show is it?
It’s a TV-show called ‘The XYZ-Show’, and it is mainly political satire dealing with Kenya’s politics.
Who is responsible for the content?
There is a wide range of topics dealt with by writers and scribblers who write the skits for us. The show is about 30 minutes long and airs twice a year for 13 consecutive weeks on every Sunday. And because the characters are well-known politicians, there are voice artists who present the texts. We record all that on tape, and then carry out the puppet show to a playback of the recordings.
Who are your viewers?
Almost the whole country of Kenya. It airs also in Uganda and Tanzania.
In which language?
It’s a mix of English and Kiswahili with English subtitles.
Which political meaning does the show have in Kenya?
As a satire, it has of course a very strong impact. The people like it. A lot of things happen in Africa and also in Kenya. As a foreigner, it is sometimes hard to understand how a lot of these things developed. I think it is positive that we give the people a general understanding in a humorous way.
Is it a goal of the show to inform people?
Generally speaking, yes.
And what else?
What else? I think that is a lot. It is important to make it clear to the people that it’s not only about what politicians do, but that they, the people, are responsible for politicians to take office. The people have to open their eyes: You voted for them, now have a look at what they are doing.
Do you only work on the show or do you make art in your private time, as well?
Ross: I used to do that. Unfortunately, it is impossible for me here, because this is a very demanding full time job. During the shooting, a normal working day has about 13-15 hours, and we do that 13-14 weeks in a row. Additionally, I started a children’s show which also takes a lot of time to prepare. In my position with responsibility for two or three divisions, there is not a lot of time left for my private life.
Because auf the show and GoDown Arts Centre, I assume you also work a lot with other artists?
Yes, also because of the place. Here at GoDown Centre, there are a lot of studios, sculptors, painters, and other people affiliated to television.
How do you personally assess art and the art scene in Nairobi?
That depends on what you want to compare it with.
Try not to compare it with anything.
When you have an artistic background, you automatically start comparing. I have studied back in Australia, my country of birth. Afterwards, I continued my studies in Germany. Compared to the whole of Europe, this here is a very small circle. You cannot compare it to the familiar European point of view, because what you expect of sculpting or painting in the European sense does not belong to African culture. That is something very new to the African continent.
How do you assess the people’s reaction to art that is made here at Godown Centre?
Most people, I think, do not have any relation to it. They did not grow up with it. Unlike Europe, there is no artistic background, no cultural points of reference. There is no architecture, no philosophy, no sculpting – nothing of the fine arts that are well-known in Europe. There is a different construction here.
Yes, but there is art.
Yes, but different art.
How do the people continue this art in your opinion?
Unfortunately, less and less I think. But we have to consider that the population is relatively poor. The art that people make is something they want or have to sell in order to survive. There is no form of support. It is somewhat more luxurious in Germany or Europe. When push comes to shove, you can go to the social welfare office and they will pay your rent, electricity, and all that. Here it is nothing like that. You immediately have to live on the streets or with your family, and they will tell you “Ok, you have to work. You cannot paint the whole day long”. That is not possible here, because there is no independence like in Germany or Europe. Although people complain about being dependent on social welfare, they still are independent enough to be creative. There are sponsorships for the art, artist colonies – a whole structure that is nonexistent here.
Where do you see the future of art in Nairobi?
It will take after Western ideals, but that will take relatively long.
What do you mean by “Western ideals”?
Ross: The structure of galleries, an informed society appreciating art. Think about it: There have been a lot of cinemas here. 10-20 cinemas in Nairobi. Now there are only three or four left. You can buy a DVD for 50 cents; going to the cinema costs 4 Euros. So the people say “Ok, I buy a DVD and watch it at home instead of going to the cinema”. Cinemas are nearly extinct because of that. I really like going to the cinema, but I sit there with only ten other people, sometimes even alone. And these are only blockbusters. They do not even show small films. Alternative cinemas like in Germany do not even exist here.
Last weekend, we have been to Kuona Trust. I had the feeling that there was an optimistic atmosphere regarding the future.
That’s it. The whole country flourishes. Every year, the country grows by five to six per cent, and that usually drags the arts along. People tend to have more money, their interest in art increases. That can only be a good thing.
Did I understand correctly that you think that the development of the arts is associated with a growing income? I am not sure if everyone can partake in that, or if the arts are rather something for the elite few.
Yeah. I think it has actually always been that way, in every country. If you have no money, you cannot go to the museum. As you know, it costs about 10-12 Euros to go to the museum in Germany. Ok, and there are a few people who say “I think that’s too expensive. I cannot go to the museum with five kids”.
That’s the same thing with education. Interest in arts usually goes along with education which in turn goes along with the income.
Money does not mean education. But with money you have earned time to educate yourself. You need this space. When I look at the slums, what do the people there need a Picasso painting for? These people will not go to the museum to have a look at it, they have completely different problems.
Do you have any closing words?
Difficult. When you come from Europe – or in my case Australia, white middle class – then you are surprised at first: Where am I? You can spend your whole time in all the beautiful places that you don’t have in Europe. Then you are amazed by that. And if you come to other areas like Eastleigh, where many Somalis live, even the locals will tell you not to go there because it’s dangerous. There is a wide bandwidth of how you can or how you have to live. That coins you and gives you a whole different approach to think about your life and other people’s lives. Especially if you come from Germany where everything is very much looked after. There are a lot of people who are dissatisfied but they don’t know how hard life can be.
How do you personally deal with this ambivalence?
You cannot help the whole world. But I think you can concentrate on a few people that you know well. You try to help them as best as you can. That doesn’t mean money, but the knowledge you have gained by being lucky enough to grow up in a Western country. You were lucky to be educated.