By Martin Bulinya and Gathinja Yamokoski
The most critical, cultural event that has ever taken place in Kenya has been the attainment of Independence. The triumph of that liberating feat on December 12th, 1963 opened the door for a free Kenyan culture, but its African artists’ talents and contribution to that culture are still yet to be fully realized.
I, Martin Bulinya, am a proud Kenyan and an accomplished African artist of many years. I paint Black artworks with African themes and subjects. You can see my works across galleries in Nairobi and on the international website True African Art.com.
I paint because I want to share with others the pictures that stand out so strongly in my mind when I reflect on my beloved Kenya. The images in my mind are not the ordinary art of the common genre found across the world. They communicate to me memories and histories of my homeland and the African people, family and friends whom I love so dearly. They summarize the joy, simplicity, and community of our African Kenyan people and the beautiful landscape and wildlife that surround them.
Because of the many years of my life as a painter, I know much of the extended Black art culture that comes with it and the African artists that create it. From years of surveying these sources, I know that we are lacking from our national government a promotion and acknowledgement of our African artworks that capture so well the life we have lived throughout the ages.
This letter to our government is one attempt from many people over the years to bring attention and change to the value our country’s aesthetic art can bring to us as a nation.
What can it bring? Beauty, pride, enthusiasm, and a more positive outlook that citizens and communities can share together about our beloved Kenya. One only needs to look at a curated sample of our African artists’ works to be inspired and see that it can indeed conjure a common identification of a people and reflection of the unique culture that we so dearly treasure.
Looking at the developed world, they take pride in their masters. Spain takes pride in Pablo Picasso, France is proud of the Matisse, Monet; the Dutch parade, Vincent van Gogh while the Italians take pride in Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Funny enough, Kenya takes pride in its natural heritage in wildlife and we have artists who are celebrated in other parts of the world, but not back at home in Kenya.
Kenya is yet to live through a moment of creative artistic and literary explosion, without the public enjoying a great deal of this creativity because the elites are ignorant of Kenyan Black art or lost in the arts of the foreign lands. In government offices, other than the President’s portrait, the walls are full of pictures or calendars from foreign embassies. Kenyan elites are yet to know of their own nation’s cultural African art.
In 2005, I was in Saugatuck, Michigan, United States and was surprised to see that in a small town there were more than 50 art galleries and multiple museums. Back in Nairobi, there are to date only three art galleries, three Museums and four major libraries. Even in the whole wide Republic of Kenya there are a few museums, six theaters, a number of libraries, a handful of private art galleries, and a few cultural centers. In a country blessed with 42 nationalities, all beaming and radiating rich cultures, it makes me sad that we are all left to not be able to document our histories because of a lack of organization and initiative from our government.
I am not one to complain and I am a very patient and understanding person. But when I see for years a genre neglected, hoping that in time that it will become better regulated and it does not, that leaves me frustrated and disappointed in my country’s leadership.
You may say, “do it yourself.” Well, I say to you, the fact is we as contemporary African artists already have! We have created the material. We have thought of and documented our histories and experiences through all the forms art takes, even in language books. The problem comes in the fact that the African art we create is left to be wild and unformatted in any collective source, leaving it to be spread around the world where it cannot be easily gathered and often gets lost when we seek it out.
The fact is our art from Africa is not collected in our own country, but is thankfully collected by visitors that bring it outside the country. But it leaves Kenya quite quickly without any average citizen knowing anything about it. This is a good thing for African artists economically, but when it comes time to look at art in Kenya, there is not a whole represented genre. So the government needs to collect, savor, and protect these arts so that they can be a testament to our past and a teacher for our future.
Perhaps an official could say that our own citizen’s are not interested in collecting our African art, so there is no economic market value for it and thus, it should not be pursued. But perhaps your citizens do not know about the arts availability. And even if they do know about it, perhaps the citizen does not value it because the government does not applaud it, thus giving the impression that our African art is not something to be revered, understood or important enough to become part of the common household.
You, the Kenya Government, have neglected this area of our culture. I do not despise you for it nor do I wish to put you down personally for it. I just want you to do something about it! I think there are so many other things you are dealing with, that Black African art just gets put aside. So I want to bring it to your attention today.
Mixed bloods, common hopes and struggles have created what has been developed as our Kenyan culture. We are a country of varied and diverse cultures ranging from the Arabic-Swahili culture at the coast, the pastoralists and herders culture, the Nilotes and Bantu in Western Kenya. Yet despite the differences and distance apart, a culture, our culture, emerges. There is unity in our concept of nation and nationality. It has been defined throughout time and merged in our liberation struggles. Even today, our modern day generation communicates and celebrates together like none before it, bringing us closer and defining us with a speed and strength like never before.
A rich culture we are. A diverse culture we are. But we have failed in bringing the higher powers in our government to reach out to us in this identity, this cause of being, this celebration. African Art is a common medium that would allow us to see our oneness, our past, our present, our future, and our beauty as a people and country.
At the onset of the foundation of Kenyan nationality, during the first decades of the 19th century, the most exquisite singers and diverse oral poetry and story telling, dominated the cultural sphere of Kenya. The most universal of all Kenyans painters, with their exalted personal and social sensitivity, are today painting Kenya for the rest of the world to see. All topics, all human endeavors are found in their paintings, under the watchful eye of ethics, committed to the betterment of humankind. They are a lesson in universality and Kenyan spirit, and by assimilating the best essences of both, they know how to exalt and distinguish the domestic from the foreign.
It is very fortunate the leading proponents like Ngugi wa Thiong’o the literary giant of East Africa has taken this blend legitimately, making it transcend the frontiers between high brow and low brow in fine arts and the community folkloric expressions.
Another element that defines Kenyan culture and identifies us is the diverse and rich production of handicrafts. They are made in precious woods, metal, leather, coconut fiber, seashells, seeds and palm fiber and Kisii soapstone. This area is also neglected and is a free for all market, being looted, uprooted and planted elsewhere, such as in the Maasai Market which is notorious for misappropriation of these artifacts.
But African fine arts covers all areas and is vast within our country going from African abstraction, African surrealism, African expressionism and even Asian elements.
At present and in the past, thankfully the tourists buy these key art components of Kenya. But Kenyans themselves should also buy and appreciate its own African art and African artists. There are no museums in Kenya that specializes in the collection of Kenyan art. There is no clear policy, nor councils to organize, propagate nor champion the Kenyan art. Artists paint out of their own initiatives. There are no funds to support the artists. This needs to change.
Art is the mother of all assets as it is a universal, visual language that is understood by all spoken languages. But how does a government communicate this language? How does a government communicate through art?
First, you could put African artists in government who can communicate and work on this type of movement. Second, those in government who are not artists need to be devoted 100% in supporting and speaking up for funding of all artist networks in the country. Bring other officials into the cause and get the funding approved through a majority. Then, develop a team that will bring the idea to life throughout the country, spreading examples of African contemporary Black art near and far in public places, in billboards, TV, conventions, and in radio announcements that tell others where artists will be and where they can see their Black artwork.
I can offer one simple example for ways this could happen: What if African art was to be integrated into some of the problems you are already working on today? For example, you work on beautifying Nairobi. You work on the roads and eliminating poverty and creating jobs. What if you were to use art in your advertisements and in images in your campaigns of these things? Blast the images around the country and in the news that talk about the betterment of Kenya. Use African art images that advocate your campaigns and talk about how that painting or that sculpture signifies the campaign you are running, how it speaks to what you are trying to do. Make people admire it with pride like they do when they think of our National Anthem. That song is art and people associate it with pride. Do the same with images. Make national pride with the symbolism of abstract African art that has meaning to the multitudes of people so that, subliminally, citizens associate Kenya with its art, and its country’s beauty through Black art. Bring at long last what is on canvas or paper to the three-dimensional real world of Kenya that you are trying to change right now. Use the pictures with greatness, uphold them, and signify them of the Kenya we are and the Kenya we are meant to be. Once people associate a few paintings or other art forms with our rebuilding of Kenya, perhaps they will want a memento of it to be in their homes. Pictures of our President and other officials are posted all over our country to remind us of our nation. Powerful pictures of African art inspiring pride and emotion can do the same, but only if they are seen and adopted as such on a grand scale.
There is a desperate need to spread culture to the masses. There is a need for extensive and intensive meetings and consultations of writers and artists to build the foundation for the articulation of the African artists' views.
Culture is the soul of any meaningful nation. Without culture, a people are mere crowds swarming the land. To bring meaning and purpose in Kenya, culture should be alive so that we live and breathe our own culture, not try to become another.
There is a need in Kenya for unions of Writers, unions of African artists, unions of musicians, unions of dancers, unions of poets and more to enhance the role of interlocutor of creators and institutions.
But what I really want is not for my own idea to solve the problem. No, I just want to spurn the discussion of officials so loud that the merging of ideas from the public and the government come together for the best, collective creative idea of how African art can not only better our society, but how art should be preserved and promoted in our society. Whatever natural direction it flows from there I am sure will be better than what we have now. The popular and community dimensions of culture must offer our people the best and most authentic cultural creations from Kenya that best reflect our country. Our people deserve a general and comprehensive cultural background of our country.
If this can be done through a medium such as African artworks, we should be starting the process now and with the younger population, our school children. I was encouraged to do art when I was young. Then I learned to write. Infuse the two together and Kenya is sure to become the nation it is carving out now and eventually, the nation it is destined to be.
May it be so and thank you for your utmost consideration of my request. I look forward to cooperating with you.
- Martin Bulinya
- Gathinja Yamokoski
Kenyan living in New York, United States