On Blooming and “African” Art Part II

ElAnatsui2Nkatha 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–

TKG: There are tabloids in Kenya–

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.

NG: Do you think that, it’s easy for us to think that people are not doing enough in media just because we’re on the outside? So people think maybe they could do better than Nation or Standard, but is it possible that even the people within the media are capable of so much more but they have to simplify that for the audience for monetary reasons?TKG: You’re right, Larry Madowo even wrote about this in his Front Row column a while back: how his interview with Vera Sidika received more views and interest than his interviews of Kenyan child prodigies. So yes, trashy and tabloid kind of content gets views, but I think that there are still be opportunities for positive content. And I think that maybe being in the system means that you maybe can’t do as much as you could because the system is the way it is, but sometimes it can blind you to the issues in the system. Also, it’s worth stressing that we’re speaking as outsiders about this. 

NG: So maybe if we have private individuals who are able to give, giving to intellectual causes. In Boston, for instance, you can get in for free to the Metropolitan museum and a lot of that is because we have this private individual somewhere who’s giving away their collection or their money. There’s a lot to be said for the inequality of our society back home, but I wonder whether there’ll be a point where we have a more philanthropic sector giving to the media and arts. Because the reason why Larry has to dumb down his show is because he needs ad revenue for his television station. Imagine if he had money coming from elsewhere? Although I guess you could say that if he has money coming from somewhere else then that person directs where the conversation goes. But then you can change the conversation.People talk about commodifying art but when an artist is making art they’re not trying to commodify it, they’re not thinking about what will happen when it gets to the art market. They were thinking that there was something about it that’s so intangible and priceless that it can’t have a value or tag to it. And maybe intellectual engagement is that something that’s so valuable that you can’t put a price tag to it, yet in a capitalist world it’s really difficult for someone has to give up their money for it.

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: OK. At a most basic level it’s a platform for African designers who have already been at a position to articulate their brand, or artists who are able to do that. so you have all these websites that say: “we train Maasai women to create this item.” And what Yakutti would like is to have artists who determine what their brand is and what they’re looking for. So this is an artist who can articulate what they do– so it’s not just unnamed creators. So it’s meant to be a platform that’s not just showcasing the product but also the narrative that inspired the product.TKG: So it’s a marketplace? 

NG: Yes it is.

There’s this article I wrote a while back about arts education. There’s this idea that “let’s train people in engineering and sciences”, and my entire critique was that for a very long time we’ve been investing the sciences but yet we’re still seeking out contractors from outside the country. I was having a conversation with a friend about this project that’s in the rural area, in the middle of nowhere in the rural area that has Chinese constructors. And that’s what we tell our brightest to study and but even for the small projects we can’t have our own engineers.So when you look at it, we have not only a past where Africa was determined through colonialism by the outside but also a future where we’re doing a lot determined by outside and the reason why right now I am very careful to talk about “African inspired” when I talk about Yakutti because I’m really curious about introspection: it’s not just about this product but also about the intellectual process that went into making it. And we’re not working with any artist in Africa but artists in Africa who are sourcing their labor and their products from Africa.

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! 🙂