Last week I found myself in of a conversation where a friend talked about how artists failed the country post the 2002 election (not that everything was perfect before that though). Gidi gidi maji maji had just released their song unbwogable and it had captured the emotion of a nation fighting to put an ugly dictatorial past behind it. Whether or not that was achieved is an entire essay on its own. However, the song became a sort of mantra. If this one thing could be done then surely anything could be. If this one thing could be done then we, as a nation would be unbwogable.
It is no secret that the work of art is primarily memory work. In fact, the term memory work is often used to refer, in a larger scale, to the work of documenting, transcribing and presenting both pasts, presents and several versions of the future to the world.
To give this a little context we also need to think about the flood of articles in mainstream papers, that I’d rather not quote talking about how Kenyan writers are useless and tearing them apart. (Here’s one of particular bile if you really are curious)
“The task of preserving memory is difficult when it comes to art, because there will inevitably be tension between an object invented by a subjective mind and the objective fact or event it is meant to depict. Even a map can be inaccurate when drawn from just one perspective. Knowing this, many artists use art to tell stories about personal and cultural memory that are open to interpretation, that reframe the past not as a fixed narrative but as a multiplicity of voices from diverse points of view.”
- Tate, Khan Academy
Even as I write this I’m trying to tread the line between explaining something about the work of memory and “telling artists what to do.” Given the fact that experience, and thus the documentation of this experience, is subjective and we all have to choose what parts of ourselves we show, then all I can ask for is consideration.
“The fact that more often (official) history is based on written rather than oral evidence has meant that women, peasants, the under classes, the ‘silent majority’ have been left out. In addition, traditional forms of upbringing have generally encouraged those who have been left out to remain obedient; until relatively recently during the Moi years questioning the nature of things hasn’t been a crucial part of Kenya’s culture.”
- Betty Caplan (Re)Membering Kenya Vol 1
Further I’m reminded that the artists who do this work are largely ignored for the above reasons. Shailja Patel’s migritude, for example, is still largely seen as a non Kenyan book. More recently Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is still trying to gain traction. Ukoo Flani Mau Mau paid their dues, but one wonders where they went, which is as much our fault for lack of consumption as it is anyone else’s.
But it is upon the people creating to consider the impact of their creations. I write this again for clarity, it is very important for the people creating to consider the work that they’d like their creations to do. And, in thinking about this, then it is also important to think about what kind of thinking goes into the work that is being created. What histories are we telling? What are we trying to propagate? Whose stories are we telling? These are just a few of the many questions we must ask ourselves before we even begin.
Beyond the rhetoric we have now about telling our own stories, I’m more concerned in how we frame them. While the importance of telling our own stories can’t be diminished the framing of these stories, if ignored, goes to perpetuate further misinformation.
The real question then becomes: through what channels do we receive our history? Do we challenge these channels? Do we find ways to go outside what has been taught to us by the official channels Caplan spoke about? Do we listen to stories that come from outside accepted modes of historical data collection? I ask this particularly of artists because art has room for the imagination and is not bound by the rigour of citation as is other forms of memory work like academic research (while still not keeping other forms of this work completely exempt from these questions). How many times have we paid attention to the silent majority? Or do we just continue complicit in the sanitization of history designed to make legends of “big men” and completely erase the human experience?
The same conversation meandered, as conversations do, to the every day experience of colonialism. One that tried to imagine the everyday nature of the struggle and not just something that happened as pin points in history as we have been led to imagine. The fact that something that seems so fundamental now (of course independence had to happen) was actually a series of longer debates about method, people and, very much, life or death leads me to heavily consider what was said. What is the challenge? How is it framed? And, who is doing the framing? And, if these are the questions, then how many artists have asked themselves that?
Having been in conversations with many artists I know that there are artists actively working towards this goal. It’s a thing of delight every time I find someone else. But – and I insist on this – they seem to be more the exception than the norm. That bothers me. And, if art is as important to the formation of identity as we tell ourselves, then why do more young people identify with the work of J Cole or, (worse?) 2 chainz, than they do to the work that is being produced here? What histories are not being captured? What aren’t we demanding? Where, exactly, did we fail as artists and what can we do to fix that? How do we create art that forms unbwogable identities? Or will we continue to tell ourselves that, somehow, the work of memory will do itself?