Interview with Sylvia Gichia, director at Kuona Trust - Centre for Visual Arts in Kenya
Interviewers: Sabrina Loll and Anna Lafrentz
Would you first introduce yourself?
I'm Sylvia Gichia, the director at Kuona Trust.
Maybe you can tell us a little bit about the history of Kuona.
Kuona is an amazing centre. It's a visual arts centre primarily. It started almost 18 years ago at the National Museum. That was when we first decided that artists should get together and work together collaboratively and collectively. Then, we've been moved over to the Go Down Arts Centre where we spent about five years just growing as an arts centre.
The artists grew in numbers until we were a few more than when we were at the museum. So we moved from numbers like 15 at the museum to about 20 artists at the Go Down Arts Centre. And then finally, we found our own space in Kilimani where we still are. We've been here for six years now, and we're 40 artists in this space.
So it's really been an upward journey for Kuona Trust. We're entirely donor-funded — which is quite sad — but we're slowly getting away from the donor funding situation, and we're looking for more sustainable ways to actually exist.
Which ways could that be?
For instance, now we have an outlet where we're selling art material. Then we're charging more for our programmes. Whereas, when they were donor-funded, they were entirely funded, but now we start to charge more for the technical workshops, because we are using master artists and you can't really find this experience in Nairobi; it's quite marketable. We're also thinking of going into an incubative programme where we're really teaching the artists how to exist as a fulltime-artist, maybe six months to one year. We're still in a development process of that. We're thinking of a more commercial way of existing, like using the web and social media to sell art and to survive through commission. We don't own our space, so we're looking for ways on how to get our own space. When we achieve that, we're able to build our own temporary gallery, and with that gallery we can charge, not only commission but also rental fees to the artists.
Which role do you think the Kuona Trust Centre plays for the art scene in Nairobi?
Actually, Kuona has played a really big role. We've had over a thousand artists coming through Kuona. I think, I mentioned earlier that we're not teaching art in our education system anymore, it was completely pulled out as an examinable programme in our curricula. So, we have a really big mandate to spread the word of the visual arts here in Kenya.
So, what we've done is really extended our outreach programme which means that we're in a lot of communities through our artists that are teaching art to the youth, to show them alternative ways to exist or to make money. Our outreach programme is really big for us. We've recently acquired an outreach centre outside of Nairobi, in a place called Nyahuru, through one of our cooperate sponsors and that really provides us a permanent space that we can tap into various communities. From there, we invite these children for about a month and we do workshops with them. So in that sense, I think that we have a really big mandate.
We're now getting a lot into policy. We realized that the ministry of culture is really not strong on our policy for visual arts. They're looking a lot into theatre and music, and we don't have a big voice as visual arts. So on incidents like the event1 you attended yesterday, we feel like it's our place to bring the artists together and create voices, or a solid voice, that hasn't happened actually ever in Kenya. So that's been really big for us.
Another big issue is archiving. I think that I kept mentioning that we just don't have a good archive system. So if you're looking for the history of visual arts in Kenya, it's quite difficult to find. I feel it's time for Kuona now to start building these archives, so that we can have a trail in our history where the visual arts are. In East Africa, now the visual arts are really coming up in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. So a lot of interested buyers are coming here and no longer only to West Africa, but a lot more to East Africa, so it's really a good time for us to really pick up, and build our arts together.
Where do the buyers come from?
A lot of them are from Europe. So we have quite a number of UK buyers, guys from Amsterdam, actually from all over Europe. We have a few from the States, as well. The Middle East – we've seen a lot of interest from there, South Africa as well.
And what do you think about the appreciation of art in Kenya itself?
Initially, if you asked me this question five years ago, I would've laughed because I'd say they don't appreciate art. But since then a lot has changed. Within the last three years alone, I've seen a lot of black African interested buyers; and Kenyans as well.
You know, it's gonna take time because we don't come from a culture where we are taught art, or appreciate art as something you want to invest in. But more and more, you find that the middle class is really opening up and they have a bit of disposable cash, and they come through here – we have more and more local Kenyans coming through our gate, every day.
People start to recognize the artists, so that's encouraging. We have more cooperates sponsoring our events or inviting us to do things with them, and collaborate in different ways. Even if it means to hang art on their walls, that's a big step for us. Because our competition for a long time was the Chinese and the fabricated art from the Middle East. But now you're finding that people actually understand the value, and they are willing to spend 40.000 to 60.000 on a piece of art.
It's gonna take a while. I don't think it's going to happen overnight but give us about another 4, 5 or 6 years. I think, they're starting to understand the value of art and appreciate and not depreciate, and that's a good deal.
How do you choose the artists to have a studio here?
They have to go through an application process. Every year, we have a renewable contract – that means that they have a one-year-contract at Kuona Trust. We're trying to keep artists here for about three to four years and usually that has worked very well for us.
We have some who've been here 5, 6, 7 years and even more but that's okay, because they've become the mentors of the younger artists that come in. We're looking for artists that have a bit of talent and a style of their own. Artists who are ready to learn and to be here fulltime, because actually we're trying to encourage that people are surviving off of their art.
And we're looking for artists that are willing to work with other artists, because it’s an arts centre so there's got to be some room for collaborative work. Also, teachability is really important because you can't come in here and expect to know everything. There's going to be a lot of influence around you.
Maybe you have some words about yourself as an artist, like what you do and why andhow you do it?
Unfortunately, as an artist, I'm not practicing too much more now, because I'm running this fulltime arts centre. But I'm a photographer, a professional photographer. I have deep passion for images and telling stories, so my photography style is documentary.
Why do I do it? It's because I feel I need to tell these stories in a really visually, attractive, and appreciated way. For a long time, I was stuck in looking at Africa being portrayed as the place where you have starvation and poverty, but I know Africa in a different way and I always feel like I have to tell these happy stories. I know I couldn't do it alone but, you know, one step at a time. Actually, as a director it also helps to double up as an artist, because you also see things as an artist. And that also helps in terms of relating with the artists on the ground. If I didn't have art as a background and I just came in here with manager experience, then it would be very difficult to understand quite a number of the dynamics that are involved in running the art space.