Nkatha is the founder of Yakutti, a platform that seeks to tell the stories of African artists and to connect them with a global marketplace. See here for Part I of this conversation.
This Kenyan Girl: …. 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. I think that’s what Selasi was referring to. You know, I don’t know if many people have heard of El Anatsui in Kenya.
Nkatha Gitonga: When you go to the New York Times, the reporting and the research is so wholesome. It’s not just “oh, this politician did this.” And I think that we need to talk about the role of the media– is there a section on art, are there art critiques in Nairobi– [because] as far as validation goes it’s about a public discourse that already exists and that’s active. And as long as we have newspapers focusing so much on politics then we don’t have spaces for validation. I think we need our own homegrown structures for interpreting our own spaces. The political is very important but– I guess it might be easier for the NYT to focus on the ‘serious’ stuff because there are tabloids–
NG: Yes, are there? Anyway, I think that there is a shortage of structures and having a public discourse centered around arts is a structure.Last year I did an internship at [____] and they were putting up an installation in Boston for an insane amount of money. I was working on marketing, and doing research on what other cities had done when they put up similar installations, and the conversation was always: “should you be spending all of this money on this art piece or on roads?” But the thing was that a lot of the money was contributed by private donors, so they weren’t necessarily expected to build roads. When you have an art piece here [in the States], you then have a public that has to talk about what art does to their public spaces. I think that (at home) the rich people would rather come to museums in other countries and our media organizations would rather talk about public rallies rather than what we’re doing with our public spaces. So yes, we need to have more discourse about this.
You talked about Lupita and the Circle of Validation earlier; Lupita used to act at home?
TKG: Yes, she was with the Phoenix players and she did a few short films. And she was featured in the True Love magazine (East Africa), but I think that mass conversation about her really happened when she became famous in the States. And I think she became especially famous, in the US and also at home, for her fashion sense. So I’ve noticed there’s also this thing where people might not be interested in Art with a capital A but are a lot more interested in fashion and lifestyle aspect of creative arts. Also, all of this talk about public spaces makes me think of Kidero Grass.
NG: –maybe we want a future where we can have a column on Kidero Grass and one on El Anatsui.
TKG: You know what I’d really like? For intelligent dialogue about these things, not necessarily positive or academic. I would love for people to be thoughtful about critiquing art and improving it, because sometimes people make comments that are really personal or dismissive of people who are trying to create, but on the flip side there’s sometimes this “let’s be positive at the expense of improving things”. I’d love for us to have engagement with art, and with each other, because if we can’t have conversation about earrings or about a painting or a drawing, how can we have intelligent conversations with each other like: “this is why I love you, but this is also why I don’t love you.” Maybe it’s kind of idealistic–
NG: Do you think there’s a gap in that? In people engaging?
TKG: I think that we can have more and more complex conversations than they are right now– conversations about our history, our politics, even about tribe and language. There’s this article by Eric Wainana where he talks about how we as Kenyans seem polite and don’t talk about tribe until the country is burning. Or, the conversation about Moses Kuria telling NYS youth to slash anyone who disagreed with their projects, a lot of it veers into: “Moses Kuria is a terrible person.” Or defending him: “Moses Kuria is a great person” and we’re no longer talking about the implications of what he said or on the culture behind it. So yes, more dialogue. But we can’t do that unless we have better structures.
TKG: I love what you say about intellectual engagement being priceless. I definitely think it is.
Now let’s talk a little about what Yakutti is supposed to do.
NG: Yes it is.
Moving into the future I’m looking at a platform where you can buy what’s in the catalog but also reach out to the designer if you’d like a personalized design, and where buyers are also interested in the personal story of these artists: for instance, if you buy a necklace from Malawi, maybe when you have a chance to visit Malawi you can seek out the artist who created it and see how they work. I’d love to build a community of African designers that are trendsetting, and to empower the designer from a monetary point of view but also a skill point of view, through having design fairs and conferences and so on.
TKG: Thank you so much Nkatha! 🙂