In Search of Art in the City (Sanaa Mtaani)
The question „What is art?“ occupies our minds over and over. Who of us have never caught ourselves thinking, while visiting a contemporary art exhibition or during an art-discussion with a friend, if those art pieces in front of us were really art. This question does not only occupy writers, philosophers, journalists, or artists. We have all asked that question at least once. The phrase “Ist das Kunst oder kann das weg?” (“Is this art or should I clean it up?“) has become cult in Germany and is printed on tea cups, bags, and even cutting boards. But let’s be honest now: What is art really?
In Nairobi, I obtained an entire new dimension of art appreciation. A local taxi driver told me once: “We like different art than you. You like the things from the market“.
Unfortunately, he never told me which kind of art they liked. Another person answered differently: “Art is paintings, beadings,... all that people can buy“. If you ask tourists at the local market, they will confirm his observation: “This sculpture out of wood is typical Kenyan art“. But does a thing like typical art really exist? Do we have to classify it? Can art be bought? Which part does art play in life?
Kenyan glass artist Tonney told me that art and artists are not appreciated enough in the city. He explained how important the involvement of creative people in the urban planning is. Engineers plan logically and structured, yet without including the individual needs of the people. Only through the integration of creative people into the planning process can the city become alive.
Tonney works in the Kuona Trust Arts Centre. This place is an oasis for many – a possibility to escape the energy and stressful vibe of the city. According to Sylvia, the centre director, it is very important that the artists work together in a continuous exchange of ideas. Mutual inspiration seems to be an important topic in Nairobi nowadays. That is also the main focus in the slum of Kibera where we find an art studio named Maasai Mbili. This place is a contact point, sanctuary, home, venue, a medium for the exchange of ideas – the list is endless. Even the artists, whom we have met there, were not able to give a concise answer to what Maasai Mbili means to them. It is a feeling that cannot be described with words. It makes the neighbourhood worth living in.
Florence, an artist from the GoDown Arts Centre, told me that this is the only place where she can be. This is the place she becomes alive. “Artists are the healers of society”, as she puts it. Artists add happiness and positive energy to society. I also met art educator Patrick in the GoDown Arts Centre. He has been an artist for many years and has his own TV-show about painting. In addition, he also teaches art to young pupils. On my question about the reason and motivation of his work, he answered that creativity is needed to overcome social problems. Through guidance and encouragement to creative thinking and behaviour, new solutions appear. This uncovered a new dimension in my search for the meaning of art.
Isn’t the question about the role of art in society and our coexistence much more important than to question what art really is?
I also asked myself how art is perceived in Nairobi. An artist explained: “Kenyans don't appreciate art. If they have money, they buy cars“. During a panel discussion, another artist said: “I really want Kenyans to buy my work“. While visiting different exhibitions, I myself was often asked: “Do you appreciate art?“
The director of Kuona Trust remains optimistic. She believes that Kenya is on the right path to increasingly appreciate their own artists. But does increasing appreciation also mean an increase in buying art?
During our journey we also met Hawa, a film director. I asked her if her movies involved any political message. Her response was “no”. I had to disagree and would say “yes”. She shows a cityscape of Nairobi without any concealment. She holds up a mirror to society – for Hawa this is art, but for me this is a political statement. But then again, what does political statement mean?
Must art serve a purpose? Must the idea behind a piece of art be emancipatory for it to have an emancipatory effect?
In my search of art in the city, I indeed did not get the answer to what art is, but I managed to see the infiniteness of the answer. Art is everywhere. It offers alternate solutions to problems, it’s a medium for the exchange of ideas, it brings energy, it provides meeting points, it creates politics, and it makes the city beautiful and worth living in. In Florence’s own words: Art heals society.