A GENTLE REMINDER TO THE KENYAN ARTIST

I was walking the aisles of an Art Café the other day and in passing heard a segment of conversation that piqued my interest. So much so that I decided to order myself a coffee and claim the table next to theirs so I could hear more of their discussion. It was a woman and a man.

MAN: I’m moving to South Africa. Maybe my work can get more appreciation over there.

WOMAN: What makes you think that?

MAN: Well, it’s more cultured, civilized and there more patrons of the art among the common folk.

WOMAN: Isn’t that a socio-economic thing, then?

MAN: I don’t think so–

WOMAN: Think about it, really. If people in Kenya had fewer problems and more free time and money maybe they’d spend more thought and energy into the art they consume?

MAN: Maybe true. Maybe true, but we’re artists not political leaders. What the hell are we going to do about that?

WOMAN: What can we do?

MAN: Nothing. What we can do is look out for ourselves. Pack your shit and make movies about other stuff & cultures while hiding your own personal touches in the crevasses

I sip my coffee and burn my tongue. I almost forget the waitress just served it to me and it’s still cooling down. My reaction makes the couple momentarily notice me but they soon go on.

WOMAN: I just hate the fact that I’ll only be able to make better movies over there. From production to audience outreach, it’ll all be easier outside of home—

At this point, I slam the cup on my tiny round table and stand up in protest. They look alarmed as I turn and show them my expression of complete incredulousness. How can they think that? How many have we lost already? I rage and yell at them about the civic duty that rests on every civilian and how the duty is magnified for the artist, be it a filmmaker, a musician, a writer et cetera. At some point during my rant I manage to sit down opposite them and begin to talk a little more amiably.

There may be truth to what they said, but there are times when truth shall take a backseat to other more important aspects of life, such as integrity. Speaking about the integrity of an artist may be like talking about the honor of thieves; it could all be a big lie but it’s important for said artists and thieves to believe in them lest they lose their way. It is my belief that the Kenyan filmmaker has a responsibility to his/her people to give them first rate, world-class films for, by and about Kenya that may also be appreciated internationally.

Lupita Nyong’o is the first and only Kenyan to win an Oscar, for her supporting role in Steve McQueen’s ‘12 Years a Slave’. When that happened, I was an impressionable 14 year old kid who too had aspirations of becoming an actor. I thought the only way to really do it was to go to Hollywood. My reasons for wanting to act were the glamour, the fame and the money. Whilst still in high school I chased casting calls like a demon, mostly for movie work that would only
use me a couple of days during the holiday because I was free for all of three months a year.

I never went far down this path.

My acting at that point was pure vanity, not art. It wasn’t until I became a writer that I sensed some artistry within my soul. I tapped into that ethereal quality of looking at the world through the lens of a child. When I began to write for myself, and read more of what I thought was pertinent and could build me up as a writer, including African literature, the world opened up for me. Like a flower petal that unravels and shows something even more beautiful inside.

I discovered interests I never knew I had. Joys I never thought I would experience; this is the true essence of being an ‘artist’. Hemingway took it further and implied an artist is a creator who isn’t afraid of death. Same principles but with a much darker angle. He was right too. Being an artist is as much a lifestyle as it is, in the twenty first century, a job. When you’re living the life of an artist, the last thing on your mind should be the commercial returns of your work. That’s what managers are for. Perhaps you can wear both hats but trust me, you’ll be better off sticking to one.

Someone once said that the primary most basic utility of the movies is entertainment. What follows is the opinion of a man in complete agreement with that sentiment yet simultaneously diametric to the notion that film shouldn’t be treated as art. Many minds, plenty of which are greater than mine, have attempted to uncover the reason behind the Kenyan public’s contempt of its own film industry. There are tons of reasons but here’s my two cents.

A writer needs a pen, a painter a brush, and a filmmaker needs an army. Orson Welles is credited with saying some such thing which perfectly encapsulates the problem most filmmakers face in our country. There are no shortages of recruits in the form of actors and technicians to fill up said army, perhaps the shortage manifests in the money needed to bankroll that army. But that isn’t right, either. Movies get made every day in this country, a large percentage of them without notice, the few which do get a day in the light so often disappoint one wonders what horrors the bottom of the barrel contain.

This is indicative of a much larger problem; that of the pseudo-artist. The streets of Nairobi are filled with them. You know the type. At the danger of sounding elitist, the kind of person who’s more interested in playing the role of the artist as opposed to actually being an artist. They’re all glory no grind. This common variety of cultural cancer can be easily spotted these days. They can often be heard using the phrase ‘content creator’ or some such nonsense.

After everything we’ve agreed an artist is, can be and should be, would one with serious respect for what he/she does refer to their art as ‘content’? No, they would not. Content is such a dirty, vulgar word in this context. It chalks up unique things into a single word. A person that refers to their work as content is not an artist, they are entertainment muscle. One even hesitates to call them show people. These are the folk that are helming the industry in majority, suffocating the little artist who may not know how to go about selling their work and getting it seen by many.

What our industry needs is a certain set of people who could fish out our few legitimate artists, wherever they may be, and bring them to the world. That could be an art unto itself, you know. Gatekeepers, we need gatekeepers. An authority on which people can go to for reliably thought provoking, entertaining and local movies, music and art.

We need experimentation in our art instead of imitating what is done in the West or the East. An artist is always looking for new ways to say that repeated old thing. That should be the

goal of his/her every endeavor. To do what has never been done (at least in the artist’s eyes). Here the results are unknown and finally to be content with the experience; just like a child. The artist never asks for much, they are primarily givers.

Fear not however dismal the audience may be that discovers your hard work and truth, because if you were doing it right all along, you’ve already won. You are a success. Move on to the next step and pick a better business manager, or not, that part is hardly important.

The couple at the Art Café comes back to mind. They claimed the people here are too pre-occupied by the real world and cheap entertainment from foreign sources that they ignore the good stuff they make. That may be all perfectly true and it’s our job to get their attention back to what matters, and then let the leaves fall where they may. After all, it’s the public that decides what matters and what doesn’t.

MAN: How many people attended the run of your movie, ‘Watoto Wetu’?

WOMAN: Not many

MAN: Do you think it’s good?

WOMAN: The best thing I’ve ever done in my life.

MAN: I said the same thing, it’s criminal that the best thing you’ve ever done in your life isn’t worth the time of the people.

WOMAN: I hate this country.

These two may have been real artists at some point, but they are forgetting what it really means. Sometimes I find myself forgetting, as well. This is our reminder to be brave, imaginative, gentle and most of all… to give selflessly.

Written by Churchill Osimbo

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