Say you saw a painting…

Michael Onsando
24 February ,2015

“support local artists”

– Anything, anyone, anywhere

I remember writing an essay about my experience around the bomb blast in 1998. My teacher then, Mrs Dhanji, made a comment to my mother about my writing.

“It’s vivid.”

I’m not sure if either my mother or my teacher remember this moment. I do. I remember it now with a sharper clarity than ever because I’ve been asked, often, “when did you first decide to be a writer?” and, even more, “how does this make you money?”  It is questions like this that lead me to pry into my history.  That make me go as far back as I can to find traces of a form of writing. That make me remember that essay about driving down Haile Selasie avenue as the office where my dad was meant to be working blew up.

Lately I’ve been wondering about such questions. The questions that come from a place of “innocence” or “curiosity” and the work that they do. “How do you make money?” while, speaking about the societal problem of the arts being a place of struggle, also speaks to a personal devaluation of art. Even within our own minds we can’t imagine that somehow art can keep us alive. That life can be lived through art and, when confronted by this reality, we are in shock and awe.

Which is probably why this whole support local artists phenomenon bothers me.

I understand, and am fully in support of the shift to consume local art. A few weeks ago a friend and I were in a debate on twitter about why we don’t read white authors anymore. Even then we insisted on the need to diversify the kinds of art we consume. We need to listen to and celebrate our own.

 We need to recognize our artistry.

 And the first step in this is recognizing that art is work. That the work of creating, imagining, arranging, touring, writing, building, speaking, singing, dancing, sculpting, drawing, thinking and thinking is work. There are many many forums dedicated to crafts of various kinds but do we really critique each other in these groups, or do we support local artists?

Supporting local artists is buying a book and never looking at it. Supporting local artists is buying that CD off the streets because the guy looked like he could use a quick buck. Supporting local artists is knowing of the existence of Kuona trust, and attending cocktails there but not knowing a single visual artist. Or the message they are trying to send.

I’m tired of local artists being supported.

It’s time we engaged. It’s time we listened to Dela when she sings “I wanna live, I wanna live, I wanna live.” It’s time we see what Jackie Kiruti is talking about the monotony of day to day life. When she talks about repetition and reiteration. You see Michael Soi paintings all over town, but have you even looked at one? Have you questioned it? You love Okwiri but did you even read my father’s head?

I’m asking this because we engage with other people’s work, often, which is okay. I’m trying to demand that we give our own work the same attention.

Even in spaces designed to engage we find ourselves telling each other how great our work is. As opposed to creating circles of growth we are creating bubbles of affirmation. We have kept the people who will affirm us in and anyone who offers any kind of critique is simply hating. After all, our art is beautiful, our craft is perfect.

This is also a form of support that devalues. And, in devaluing art, it devalues the artist which, in turn, makes them lazy – lazy art is boring.

Maybe a part of me is longing for the think piece about the rape-y opening to the club hit “you guy.” The one that Ndinda managed to point out in a single tweet. Perhaps I’m still waiting to read about poetry in Kenya in a way that actually engages with a couple of poems as opposed to a story that says “this is a poet. They write poetry.” The twitter debate about the content of their work.

(but you’re a writer)

As with everything this is, more than anything, a plea to myself. What does it mean to begin to centre here? To engage with here? To imagine with here?

On the surface this question has an obvious answer. We live here, of course we imagine with here. Except we don’t. Except maybe the culture of rigorous unimagining has left us incapable of imagining ourselves and, if we can’t imagine ourselves then we are incapable of creating value. And while we can’t create value we fail to see the value that others have created. And what good is a light if we are all blind?

“So, shut up and listen”

– Dela

“this girl, her music is diverse”

– Fena

“there is no African poetry only a guy in buruburu trying to score more booze”

– Gachagua

“na siwezi mshow ati life ni exam ju /nitatupiwa sufuria/na hizo ndio aibu ndogo mi sipendi/ so nikikupita tao/jua sio madharau”

– Just a band

Artists have been talking about visibility for a while.

This thing we do to local artists. This thing we call support when we pay a lot of money to go to a concert then stand at the back and have a beer while catching up with friends the whole time. This thing where we pick names and rattle them off in conversation without ever having read a single thing that they have written. This thing where we refuse to read Dust because it’s too difficult but force our way through Foucault  and Fanon because they’re “important.” This thing needs to stop.

It’s time we decided to engage with art from here. To listen, to challenge, to think with, to speak with, to buy, to read, to watch to feel. Local artists don’t need support. We need to be engaged with, to be challenged. Or, failing that, left alone.

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