By Bertha Kang'ong'oi
Jimmy Ogonga is a pariah on the Kenyan art scene. So he says of himself. But it is easy to see how this would be at the end of my interview with him: His enthusiasm for what he does, his lack of patience for anything he sees as mediocre, and his unrelenting belief in himself and what he does - a trait he is well aware that his contemporaries and the main players on the Kenyan art market interpret as arrogant.
I meet Jimmy in his Utalii house office on a Tuesday evening. He and his staff are just about winding up for the day – but he says he’d spare a few minutes for me. At an art fair that attracted 23 galleries and 29 contemporary artists to exhibit the now of African art making, Jimmy was the only Kenyan taking part in the Jo-Burg Art Fair, which ran from the 13 to 16 March, 2008 at the Sandton Convention centre in Johannesburg, South Africa– and I want to know what he’d taken away from the world’s first contemporary African art fair. Jimmy was exhibiting his 2007 ‘The World Lives’ piece in the Simon Njami curated show at the fair, titled ‘As You Like It’.
"Un Monde Vivant / The World Lives", 2007
Jimmy Ogonga's exhibit at the 2008 Jo'Burg art fair,
The interview lasts just about four hours – and dwells scarcely on the art fair!
Jimmy is passionate about his work, about art, about the state of the African mind, about 'Amnesia' - his project that examines and exposes the disconnectedness, the state of separation between the past and the future, in today’s context. The discussion might have been a discourse in a philosophy class.
“This is what art is all about,” says Jimmy. “Art is life; it is the philosophy of life. The more you start understanding this, the more art starts to make sense to you”
What makes you sit uneasy about the Kenyan art scene?
Exactly that: That it is just an art scene and not an art industry. I dream to see Kenyan art market rise to international standards. We hardly have galleries – what we have are art shops, and there is a big difference. Art shops are more about money and sales from the art works while galleries invest more in the ideas behind the art work.
We need to have a more holistic approach to art. We need theorists, historians, artists, curators, who work around each other and create the necessary synergies & visible, tangible projects that our societies can revel in. We cannot just have some illiterate, dis-interested, second rate adventurers, pop - up - individuals running institutions and calling themselves curators, gallerists or artists - utilizing these titles as gadgets of influence in our uncritical state - and think we are doing well. We are in the brink of the abyss! That’s why we do not have a single publication for contemporary art in Kenya. Yet we have quite a bit of resources & funding as art institutions! That’s why you walk into an artist’s studio and they have no clue or interest in the Art fair or the Venice or Luanda biennial! A curator who works in such a fundamental institution, but has no clue what “Africa remix” or “Africa 95” or “Dokumenta” are... Should I NOT be uneasy with such a situation???
So what will it take to raise the standards?
Before anything else, it will take bright minds. It will take tireless & unrelenting initiative. It will take strategy, and it will take assistance from our brothers & sisters in Africa & in the diaspora.
There is a glaring lack of intellectual component in the art works that you‘ll see here. Most of the artists paint and paint some more, but we do to get to a point where we ask ourselves; why are we painting? For whom are we painting? Are we just doing this for the expatriate community or do we actually engage our intellect in doing what we do and doing what we do because we believe in it?
But this only points to the next greatest need which is art education, and from there, directing our minds to engage in the relevand discourses. We do not have art schools in this country. There is no proper art education which is then reflected in the way art institutions are run. An art institution’s greatest asset is minds, and / hence ideas! But on this, we also have to decide who determines the agenda of the institutions. Is it the donor or is it the institutions themselves? What I see happening here is that due to the mad materialistic rush, Institutions are so intellectually compromised and they have ended up letting funding agents manipulate their agendas! And we end up in cycles working on very inferior projects which do not have any intellectual fodder, do not advance any creativity and have no effect on any audience, rather than some petty exoticism, which really pleases the source of the financial support. I think an institution should be an identifier, convenor and repository of such energies.
The Kenyan art scene aside, what did you bring back home from the Jo’Burg Art Fair?
First of all, looking at the art as just an event, there was a lot of seriousness and professionalism to be admired. There was also evidence of great local institutional support, local investment into the art fair and a clear certain amount of brilliance in the way things were done.
But as an intangible lesson, it was clear that the mind is an endless resource and that there was a lot we can borrow from building a team framework where we do things collectively. We ought to re evaluate what it is that we can do alone and what we can do collectively. We need to put aside petty differences and realize that we are better off working collectively than individually.
As Kenyans, we need not look so far away for the evidence of this but examine the situation that exploded in the period just after the December elections last year. We live a lie. We have absorbed some very fake semblance of sophistication, which simply self-destructive. What you see in Nairobi especially is a façade, a very thin one in fact. And we saw how easy it is to tear it apart and show each other who we really are, under that thin façade – with the fake hair and skin lightening creams, and thoughts of what Leonardo did to Camilla in the Mexican soaps that are our main incentives to stay alive.
Its what someone meant when they said we cannot see beyond our noses, yet – classically - that very high level of ignorance is what makes us have such bloated attitudes. We just cant imagine anything better. We are suffering an acute form of Amnesia, and its reaching very catastrophic levels.
I think I only brought energy to progress with the Amnesia project.
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