Preface of the catalogue
Sanaa Mtaani – Art in the City
During a stay in Nairobi, Kenya in December 2013, seven students from Germany cooperated with Kenyan artists to collect a variety of visual and audio material within the scope of visual art, street art, music, photography, handcrafts and film. The idea was to create a catalogue named Sanaa Mtaani – Art in the City and to provide an insight of the multifaceted contemporary art scene of the East African cultural centre. Beyond that the project aimed to contrast “African art” stereotypes with the actual local situation. This catalogue is a scholarship-based project of the Hans Böckler foundation.
The initiator of the project, Anna Lafrentz completed an internship at the organisation “Arterial Network” in 2012 during which she established contacts with local Nairobi artists. The idea of perceiving contemporary art within an intercultural comparison originated from this internship experience and the major issue focused on the social value of art in Kenya, its actors, recipients and consumers. The range of emerging issues resulted in the idea to enlarge the topic of contemporary art in Kenya, its movements, motives and perception. Anna Lafrentz and Stefanie Habben submitted an application titled “Art in Kenya” in spring 2013 for the project committee of the Hans Böckler foundation. The approval of this application made it possible to put the idea into action and together with five other students they got to work on the project from that moment. The different fields of study significantly shaped the project and were represented by African studies (Michau Kühn), African development studies in geography (Isabella Schulz), intermedian art therapy (Sabrina Loll), transcultural studies (Philipp Günther), social work (Nadine Lorenz), art and cultural education (Anna Lafrentz) and media and communication studies (Stefanie Habben). The content and form of implementation was a product of group findings and mutual decisions. Coming from professional backgrounds, all of us were faced with quite a number of different ideas and opinions which resulted in a challenging, lengthy process which shaped us until the final draft of the catalogue and beyond. Conversations, discussions and negotiations about form and content determined the entire journey right through from preparation to the follow up stage. The current catalogue is first and foremost a result of those essential and ongoing negotiation processes. Therefore its contents will be analysed in the following paragraph concerning the project's design.
The project was divided into three phases: The preparatory introduction phase in Germany, the actual stay in Nairobi and the follow-up of the journey which was followed by creating the catalogue.
Phase one included the organisational and theoretical preparation of the trip. As we took a critical approach to the work title “Art in Kenya”, we moved the focus from art in Kenya in general to art in Nairobi. Drawing conclusions on art in one entire country based on just one single journey is hardly possible and the reason for why we narrowed the topic's scope. This lead us to the new name of the project called Sanaa Mtaani- Art in the City and its main objective, a commentary on Nairobi's art scene in extracts. ‘Sanaa Mtaani’ is Swahili for ‘art in the city’. It was very important to us to include Kenya’s languages in the title, thus making it trilingual: Swahili, as the national language; English, as the official language; and finally German, as our native tongue. It was our objective to examine extracts of Nairobi’s contemporary art scene to replace German stereotypes of “African art” by authentic impressions of the East African art production.
The main aim of Sanaa Mtaani was to provide a broad approach to various facets of art in Nairobi. We were interested in both public and private actors in the field of art, as well as smaller clubs and individual artists' biographies. By means of interviews, gallery visits, sightseeing and travel diaries, we tried to create a multi-perspectival view of art in Nairobi and its diverse facets. The most leading questions were about current trends and types, as well as motives and receptions of arts. Furthermore we tried to examine the influence Nairobi has on its artists and their works. We were also interested in the social impact of art related to its emancipatory and political function. In order to demonstrate a wide range of contemporary art, we formed small groups which focused on different topics. As a result, we divided the groups into sub-groups of interest working on visual art, street art, music, photography, handcrafts and film.
Apart from the elaboration of content we worked our way into issues that were culturally, politically and historically relevant to the trip. Given the fact that we are white and privileged people travelling to Nairobi, a process of reflection about the socio-political dimensions of this journey began. A critical look at our own role and individual behaviour relating to postcolonial issues had begun with the first meeting. We conducted discussions, for example, on concepts of “familiar”, “foreign” and “different”. We considered and discussed the relevance of those concepts with respect to developing an individual identity and their effects on personal attitudes. We worked on the issues mentioned before within our self-organized workshop together with an external advisor and discussed them in greater detail.
In addition to other things, this is where a sensitive approach to photography began. We became aware of the fact that the content of our own photos might be reproducing stereotypes as well. Originating from a lack of knowledge, we were afraid to unintentionally continue structural historic continuities and therefore discussed this issue quite intensively.
We explicitly intended to break down stereotypes and wanted to avoid propagating generalised and offensive stereotyping by writing about “Africa” as privileged Whites. However, the debates caused confusion which specifically affected the trip and resulted in the following questions: When am I allowed to photograph what in which way in the city? And how does it affect the viewer of the picture later on? Though this uncertainty should not turn into resignation but should be seen as a demand to face those issues even more intensively. A main conclusion here was the fact that uncertainty should not result in not dealing with postcolonial issues. It seemed much more useful to view postcolonial questions as an interactive and ongoing process which customizes living environments in a global exchange and therefore improves mutual understanding.
Those questions had a significant effect on the creation of Sanaa Mtaani. We deliberately decided to use the catalogue as a possibility for artists to tell their own story instead of reporting on art in Nairobi. In order to seek objectivity we carefully chose the tools of interviewing. Needless to say that our personal horizons of expectations and individual experiences characterized and shaped the formulation of questions and procedures.
We went to Nairobi, Kenya in December 2013 to stay there for ten days. By means of already existing contacts and social networks we were able to get in touch with local artists prior to the trip. The first stop upon our arrival in Nairobi was the Kuona Trust - Centre for Visual Arts in Kenya. Artists were able to rent the facilities in the centre. Functioning as an island in the middle of a big city, this place is perfect for them to work in various ways, far away from all the hustle and bustle. Apart from that, there were exhibitions, education programmes, workshops and many other things that emphasised Kuona Trust's focus on arts and creativity. For a start quite a number of interesting interviews and encounters came up here. Later on we extended the network of artists in Nairobi and continued the search within the small groups which dealt with the main issues that were specified before. We visited Maasai Mbili, a place for creativity and get-together in the district of Kibera and the GoDown Arts Centre, which is a creative place for Visual and Performance artists who do exhibitions and workshops in the industrial part of the city as well as the Kenya National Theatre with rehearsal rooms for beginners and professional musicians.
We also visited Pawa 254, a charitable company which provides space for a huge number of innovative artists. Various disciplines like photography, journalism, music and graphic design were represented here with the same objective of working towards social change. We came across so many different people, works of art, ideas and stories but could often present just small parts of them. To use the metaphor of a streetlight which illuminates certain things, whereas others remain in the dark, we did not intend to create complete impression. This is why we simply allowed ourselves to be carried away by the city and unexpected events. It was very important for us to be able to represent the artists' and actors' individuality later on. Regardless of genre and institution, the core element of our encounters resulted mainly from the diversity of people and their special stories, motivations and objectives. The abundance of provided material, the wealth of information arising from the interviews and confidence gained are just a small part of what shall remain in our memories. The final challenge now was to unite both content and form in a responsibly way.
We critically reflected on how to present the material we collected in Nairobi once we are back in Germany. This was central to the ongoing discussion we had before. Our aim was to break down stereotypes and to encourage people to think about art.
The catalogue comprises more than 25 interviews with artists in the fields of visual arts, street art, music, photography, handcrafts, and film. In terms of design aspects we aimed at showing one item of work per artist together with a portrait and a corresponding interview. The artists were able to choose the works to be published. We used additional material in order to enrich variety and diversity. Unfortunately, we were not able to do an interview with each person and therefore we employed anecdotes with corresponding pieces of work. The sections of music and film were completed by lyrics and other articles from the participating actors from Nairobi. Finally, we provided our own personal account of the journey, considering our differing professional backgrounds and opinions and how we individually experienced and responded to both the city and its people (in itself a factor which affected interviews). The reflections from the participants complemented the portraits of artists. Those pieces of a puzzle provide a multidimensional view of Nairobi’s art scene and the individual perceptions of all participating actors in Sanaa Mtaani. This creates a diverse portrait of Nairobi and the work of local artists. Their individual ideas, opinions and environments are captured at a specific moment in time and merge into a snapshot of Nairobi. The catalogue is a product of individual personalities and point of views and bears in mind that if several individuals had each met with the different artists themselves, the result would have been significantly different. It does not aim to portray the specific situation of artists in Nairobi. Instead, it is a brief glimpse that is shaped by individual opinions of the participating artists. All the events and attitudes are the product of a single moment, characterized by an individual context and transformable with each new experience.
The catalogue resembles a picture, a vignette if you will, knowing very well that there is a life beyond the edges of that picture and that the same picture would have looked different, if it was taken at a different moment in time. Even though this picture preserves only an instant in time, it will have a lasting impression on its viewer and might be used as basis for a multitude of new ideas and associations.