Issues of Nairobian Art-Production

Sanaa Mtaani - Kunst in der Stadt

Issues of Nairobian Art-Production

by Philipp Günther


What is art? How can you measure the success of art? At which point do artists see themselves as accepted? One topical complex of our interviews with artists from Nairobi was revolving around these questions.

It was my impression that art should comply with two different aims which only could be brought together conditionally: On the one hand, art should enable the artist to subsist on it. On the other hand, many artists wished to spread socially critical messages within their art, and thus help initiate social change.


What is Art?

One characteristic of art is that it is hard to grasp by definition. Looking for universal definitions of ‘art’ is more than difficult. This is, besides other circumstances inside and outside of art, because art is dynamic in many ways, and is therefore subject to constant changes. Perhaps this continuous process of change is one of the few constants of art.1

But if any attempts are made to find a market for art, the non-manifest and dynamic aspect becomes the contrary. Art needs to be manifest to sell. The presented must be contextualized in such a way that it has a logical sense on the level of speech and communication. It is necessary for outsiders to understand the art, and to identify with it. Only this enables sympathies, and finally, only this process creates incentives to buy an artwork. With this strategy of production and reception, art is affirmed to society and looses at least a part of its autonomy.


The Relation of Art and Society

If this process of affirmation is not just a phenomenon of a few but a structural characteristic of art, then the production of art is cultural-industrial. Art then structurally becomes a commodity, thus making a market necessary. In times of different globalizations and therewith time and spatial agglomeration and overlapping, a national or otherwise structured circumscribable market is not required. A majority of the art which we have seen is, according to the artists, sold to the “Global North”. And even in Kenya itself, a considerable part of the consumers are companies or people from the upper class who own the financial, social, and cultural resources.2

Only in recent years, the relation of society and artists in Nairobi has changed. Artists emphasized the increase in social acknowledgement and improved working conditions. Nevertheless, in many cases it was noted that most of the Kenyans prefer to buy cheap, mass-produced reproductions, than to be ‘actually’ interested in art. It seems, as the allegation goes, that people would prefer to pay less money for art. This aspect could be interpreted as the shadow of the position and perspective as an artist and art-producer in Nairobi. For most of the people it is initially more important to match their daily needs before devoting to art.


In conversations with Nairobian artists they emphasized that it was very difficult to establish themselves as artists and to earn enough money to make a living. It is significantly easier to move to Europe, receive a small award, and move back to Kenya than to establish themselves in Kenya, as Joel Lukhovi points out (see also the interview in this catalogue). The way via Europe leads to appreciation, reputation, and acceptance faster than it would be the case in Nairobi or Kenya.

For me, this specific way of becoming established as an artist symbolizes two additional, and at the same time contradictory conditions. On the one hand, Europe symbolizes increased freedom, insofar as the dependence on commissioned work and consequently the dependence on specific persons or organizations can be overcome. The result is the production for an abstract market without concrete knowledge about who is going to buy the artwork. To me, a part of this freedom is also that it is a relatively3 autonomous decision to move to Europe, to get influenced by other impressions, and to work under different circumstances.

On the other hand, this reflects the structural consequences of capitalist and post-colonial conditions, at the same time. Not everyone is able to afford to stay in Europe and to devote time to art. This situation also illustrates that even minor awards from Europe have a higher social prestige than awards from Kenyan institutions – this could be read as a symbol of the strong imbalance of the “Global North” and the “Global South”. The “Global North” acts, even though on a smaller scale, as the universal norm which one has to adapt to or to conform with. Insofar this relation does not just reflect increased freedom, but also increased dependence.


Within a lot of talks it became clear that the production of art keeps a lot of structures and standardizations of cultures from the “Global North”, or that those at least serve as an influence to be guided by. Reuben Mangi (see also the interview in this catalogue), for instance, emphasizes that the listener needs to grasp the message of a song in about three minutes. In my view, there is a consistent relation of this reference to three minutes to the existing hegemony of listening habits in mainstream pop-music from the “Global North”. On the one hand, that means that one could come up with questions like why a song does not last longer or why the message of the song has to adapt to the length of the song. But one could also conclude that it is necessary to adapt to the habits of consumers or listeners. Songs that last longer would probably be heard less often, and as a result sales would decrease. That means that the transported content, the real message of the song, is arranged between the relation of the habit (the time limit) and the message the song should deliver.



The neo-colonial association with the image of an ‘authentic Africa’ in Kenyan art expresses a post-colonial setting. The artworks on several art markets in Nairobi (so called “Massai-Markets”) – specifically focused on tourists from the “Global North” – reflect this colonial way of thinking. In interviews with producers and consumers4 on the art-markets, people frequently emphasized the “authenticity” as well as the “joy of colour”, or the “creativity” up to the “African way” itself.

The story I am ceaselessly faced with is that in Europe, people talk about high culture [Hochkultur] also in the sense of abstractness. When talking about art and its representation which is constantly reproduced, people emphasize the nativeness of ‘African’ culture and correspondingly art. This is a problem that makes it hard for artists in and from Nairobi to gain appreciation. The equation that “art in Nairobi equals art from Africa, equals authenticity, nativeness, and joy of colour” does not fit the social-urban tensions in Nairobi.

Because of this image of nativeness, people from Nairobi (or maybe even from Africa in general) are denied a critical consciousness of their social environment and the ability to express this through their artworks. Furthermore, they are construing as a homogeneous group. The emphasis of the joyful, always-smiling, rural people in Africa glorifies and romanticizes conditions from the perspective of privileged inhabitants of the “Global North”. Besides the actual existence of material poverty, this image is blatantly distorted because it conceals the genuine conditions in large towns. Not everyone who is living on the African continent is poor, practices farming in rural areas, etc. Societies are as complex and developed as in Western Europe.


But how can I position myself in the outlined aspects? Is it right to criticize artists, because they want to earn money to subsist on their work? Can I criticize people producing goods that reproduce colonial images when I am the one who is the structural beneficiary of post-colonial circumstances? What is my concern and which is the aim I pursue while I am writing this article? Do I just want to describe and analyze my own experiences? Or do I, still, hide my moral pointing finger within and on these lines? And furthermore, do I uphold existing hierarchies between me and ‘the others’?




1 Here it is possible to connect certain questions, e.g. Who defines what art is? And how do certain actors and structures define art in certain places?

2 Hence making them also part of the “Global North” in Kenya.

3 Relatively’ in the sense of one's limited ability of changing or questioning one’s position in Nairobi’s or Kenya’s society, the relation to the European society, and the dependence on the sale of one’s art in Europe.

4 We decided not to publish these interviews in this catalogue. If you are interested in these interviews based on scientific, personal, artistic, or any other motivation, feel free to contact me via

Einblicke in die gegenwärtige Kunst Nairobis.

Dieses Projekt wird gefördert durch die Stipendiatische Projektkommission der Hans-Böckler-Stiftung