On Blooming and “African” Art Part I


Nkatha Gitonga, founder of Yakutti, joins us for the next two posts in the Bloom Series. I love conversations with Nkatha, because she always has some really wonderful insights on the topic of art and of Africa. For this conversation we talk about Lupita Nyong’o, El Anatsui, Taiye Selasi and arts in Kenya and Africa in general, especially as pertains to the theme of Bloom.


This Kenyan Girl: Hello Nkatha!

Nkatha Gitonga: Hello! How did you think of Bloom?

TKG: Well, flowers are everywhere. We depend on them for life but they’re also considered frivolous, kind of like art: this thing that we treat as an extra but which I think is necessary and essential for identity, for hope. Life would be empty if there wasn’t beauty around us. What did you think when I told you about it?

NG: Yes to the part about people thinking flowers are frivolous. But most people in Kenya or in Africa must struggle with the basics, like food. And that could be the reason why our art isn’t developed.
When I saw Bloom I thought of beginnings and less about flowers. Everyone is talking about Africa rising; is it possible that we’re at a point where we’re now defining our art? More people are educated and having these conversations, could this be an art movement?

TKG: I love that you’re talking about beginnings, because that’s also something we’re talking about– how blooming is growing into yourself and stepping into yourself. This reminds me of Taiye Selasi’s essay about the Afropolitan as the once geeky weird kid that’s now grown up to be glamorous and sexy. But at the same time a lot of the things that come with the Afropolitan identity are inaccessible to so many Africans. But as far as art being inaccessible–everyone has their art, even those people who are less privileged or disadvantaged–?

NG: They do. but it’s the articulation that’s different and complicated. And when I read Selasi’s essay and wrote about it on Yakutti, that’s something I was thinking about too. Afropolitanism, in my opinion, was a practice in self articulation. Like, for this woman who has so many identities and has to think about their place in this world. I think saying that she was an Afropolitan allowed her to position herself and other people who shared that story. And then came the backlash, with people saying “Oh no, what about Pan Africanism? What about all these other things? We think that Afropolitanism is about consumerism, about branding products so that they can be consumed.” So the entire backlash was about commodifying style and all these other things.

I started Yakutti as a lifestyle product, about people creating beautiful spaces and beautiful experiences. But now you go there and find articles about education and about health. In my experience reading about people who talk about the aesthetics of art, there is this feeling that “I should be doing something about the fact that at home there are majority who cannot do that, that health problems are an issue back home.” So I think that the people who are able to articulate themselves from an artistic and aesthetic point of view, do feel the burden of having to refer to the problems as well and how solutions can be articulated even in that aesthetic realm.

Everyone has art, but the time and the resources to articulate themselves is what is usually in shortage at that point. If we had a society that allowed everyone to express themselves we would have great art. I don’t think that the great European artists were also the wealthiest in their society. So I think that if we’re thinking about bloom and about art in Africa we should also ask ourselves, what is in our schools and our education curricula? Are we giving people an opportunity to articulate themselves? So it’s really about education and economy and our society’s value of art .

TKG: I agree– there’s room for so much more in training. I was talking with a  friend of mine who’s a part-time fashion blogger and studied Financial Economics– and it wasn’t what she wanted to do but there’s this attitude where arts are not valued, but it comes from a place of practical concerns, from an awareness that we don’t have the structures for training and for receiving art once it has been created. And I think that we need structures for the art once it’s created.

NG: Are there galleries in Nairobi?

TKG: Yes there’s the Shifteye gallery and regular exhibitions at Alliance Française and the Goethe Institute… I think that in general the arts are about resourcefulness and you kinda have to figure it out for yourself. So about Yakutti– you’re building a platform to connect creators with the marketplace, and trying to make this company but art is just… I don’t know… you don’t know how something will do until you’ve actually created it and put it out there on the market. 

NG: Do you mean how I’m planning for pieces or am I introducing structure in a place where there’s no structure?

TKG: Do you think that there’s no structure? Are you introducing structure?

NG: What you’re describing [about figuring it out for yourself] is the ideal, but I don’t think artists in the market are experiencing it like that. The artist should ideally express themselves without wondering what the audience would think. But I think that right now, for an artist practicing in the market, especially if they’ve been featured internationally, there’s always the dissatisfaction that– “would I be making something different if I was making it for an African audience? Am I skewing my creation for consumption for a Western audience?” We would like to think that the artist was not thinking of commodifying their art but there are instances where the artist does that. And without a developed market within the continent, we do have African artists who have to work to make their art acceptable to western audiences.

I was reading a piece on this exhibit by Congolese artists in Paris and even the artists themselves wonder, “as an artist would it be possible to get a place here in Paris just because people are interested in my art, and not because of this person from Paris who is recognized and connected and who has been the gateway into this world?” I’m not in the position to talk about this because I don’t deal with the art market, but I know it’s a structured market. As far as what Yakutti does, though, from a lifestyle point of view, we’re working with artists but specifically jewelry designers. Right now what I’m struggling with is the positioning– like, is it possible to define your personal style so well and to have a designer who is able to tell their story and design their brand so that customers who like your story can even reach out to you for specially made products, rather than just sticking to the catalogue.

TKG: You clarified that Yakutti is lifestyle based rather than an arts collector. When you’re making jewelry it’s supposed to end up somewhere on someone’s arm, which maybe makes it more amenable to capitalism? Another thing I’ve been thinking about is the idea of ‘African art’. Our flowers, our food, music, everything we consume today aesthetically is a mongrelized mixture of so many things. But really when you look back, there’s no point in time when you can be like: “That was it! That was pure African art.” In East Africa you go back a few centuries and find Arab influence on the coast. And I think that there’s a lot of angst among African creators– this dichotomy, like are we creating for a Western audience or is it true, real African art? But I think that angst is sometimes unnecessary– like when you think of publications like The New Yorker for instance, which were created for a very specific and western audience, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t read it and identify with it.

NG: Yes, an African identity is complex when it comes to art. But I think it’s easier when it comes to lifestyle. You can just say “I like it, so I’ll have it.” And as I’ve been reading, I’ve come across pieces that think that that dichotomy [pure African art versus art for a western audience] is a useless point to start with as a narrative. But I think that when you’re at a point where your narrative is likely to be influenced by outside sources then it’s really important to go to the source.
But on the flip side, there are European artists who are influenced by African art, but we don’t call it African art. And I think that Taiye Selasi wrote about this as well. Like at this point is it much more productive to be defining an aesthetic rather than going to the source to decide whether something is African or influenced or what?

TKG: Ultimately I think it’s a symptom of the problem: the problem is power or a power imbalance. And as long as that imbalance exists we’ll be going back and forth. And I think it’s the same as cultural appropriation. Until we’re at a place where we’re closer to a level playing field then it will always be “problematic”.

Have you heard of El Anatsui? His work is gorgeous, and he has always created on the continent. And I remember how last year on your birthday we went to the Museum and talked about the whole idea of “art by a certain person” versus “art by the Congo people”, and how with the latter you have an erasure of the individual identity of the creator. And I think that’s one of the things about El Anatsui that was really powerful– like, his name was actually attached to his art and he’s known for that.

NG: That is a positive thing: the idea that the artist can make a name for themselves. It comes from– at the very beginning people collected art in Africa as a form of anthropology and Africa was treated as this exoticized place that was completely different from the west. And now we’re at an age where we can celebrate contemporary African artists as individuals. But when it comes to these artists is their appreciation as an artist validated because they’re recognized by a Western audience?

TKG: Right. The circle of validation. For you to be recognized in Africa you have to be first validated by the US or Europe. Case in Point: Lupita. But yes, as more and more Africans are in the public eye we stop being representations of culture and become individuals. But there’s still a long way to go. And I think that’s what Selasi was referring to. 

See here for Part II of this conversation.