in search of equitable cultural exchange

Posted in Uncategorized | June 26, 2009 | by emilyharney | Leave a Comment

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International cultural exchange is a hot topic these days with new initiatives like the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation‘s and the new administration’s more open views about cultural diplomacy. The topic is gigantic, and one which we hope to address in several ways over time, but everyone has to start somewhere…

The Africa Contemporary Arts Consortium is pursuing a series of intensive “research” (for lack of a better word) trips to further the relationships we have with several artists from several different regions of the African continent. A member of the Consortium travels for 10 days-2 weeks to one location, during a time when regular artistic work is happening (as opposed to a festival environment), and gathers  information and understanding about the context in which these artists are working.  This structure was created in response to a need we were hearing from our artist colleagues in Africa: listen first, act later.  Meet us where we are and then decide what kind of collaboration makes sense.

Most recently Ken Foster of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, home of Opiyo Okach (who will be traveling to Bates Dance Festival this summer) and the GoDown Arts Center, among many other artists and cultural workers. Here is just a bit of Ken’s correspondence during the trip:

I met Felix Gicharu – hip hop artist, social activist. Felix runs an arts center in Dandora – a section of Nairobi in an area known as Eastlands. When the British were rearranging where everyone lived during the colonial period, the Westlands was reserved for white and the Africans were relocated to Eastlands, and further separated by tribe. Today, Eastlands remains the poorest section of the city.

Felix and his group – Ukooflani Mau Mau Trust – are located in a compound of homes that belonged to Felix’s parents. The overarching idea of the trust is to create urban arts centers in the communities themselves that provide an opportunity for talented youth to perform and develop their skills while also serving as an alternative to drugs, violence, etc. seeing art as a viable option for themselves.

After lunch, he asked if I wanted to go with him to see their place, so of course I said yes. We walked to town, then boarded a matatu – one of the many buses/vans that transport ordinary citizens in Nairobi for the journey to Dandora.

The compound was simply amazing. Simple – several artists and family members are all living there in small corrugated tin shacks surrounding a courtyard . I talked with artists, visited their “studio” – a recording and mixing studio they made themselves – the “store” where the sell dvds to make a little money. Indescribable.

Once I got there they showed me a sample of their work.

The artistic core of Ukooflani Mau Mau is a merging of a hip hop group from Mobassa, a coastal town in Kenya and a hip hop group from Nairobi. It’s hard to describe what they do – and unfortunately they don’t have a performance dvd yet, just music videos, but it involves blending different rap styles as well as acrobats and I’m not sure what all else. It appears to be immensely popular – they do a show about 4 times a year in the compound and hundreds of neighborhood people show up for it. Pretty amazing. Felix was all about fusion and about art as a way of life for young people who have nothing but don’t want to go the way of drugs, crime, etc. You would think this would be a funding no brainer, but it has proven difficult for them to get support.

Once again, I am moved by the way that art takes a central role in the lives of people who, on the surface, appear to have nothing. In a conversation I had yesterday with playwright/actor Mumbi Kaigwa, she said, among other memorable quotes, “People in the west think poverty means helpless. It doesn’t.” Nowhere is this more evident than at Ukooflani Mau Mau Trust.

My conversation with Mumbi yesterday was extraordinary in a completely different way. As a writer/actor she is exploring the contemporary Kenyan identity in a thoughtful and profound way through her plays and performances.

I was reflecting this evening on all the different experiences I have had here so far and how reflective they seem to be of the complexity of Kenya. One major difference between Kenya and many other places in Africa is that it was a settlement colony – not simply a source of extraction of both people and material. For many, Mumbi included, this has permanently scarred Kenya and Kenyans in ways we might not understand. Deliberately cut off form their origin and heritage as a people; their language decimated; even their names – you will see MANY Kenyans with Biblical names like Moses and Methuselah which is the influence of the missionaries – completely cut off from their heritage. Mumbi suggests that Kenya is a “receptacle” into which the British poured whatever they wanted and that this affects them even today. Joyce noted that “we have no traditional dress, traditional food…” that the colonial period was such a break with their development as a people and that they have never been able to reconnect themselves with who they are. This has made Kenya “successful” in Western eyes – but to many, it is a tragedy.

Having experiences like this naturally inspires a desire to be connected, to share in and contribute to these artists’ intrepid and exciting work. The big question remains: how can we do so in the spirit of building equitable partnerships? What does equitable even mean?