In pursuit of Self Expression
Art in Urban SpacesWhile growing up in urban Nairobi, I particularly remember longing for Sundays as there always were activities in the social hall such as the weekly Talent Shows where estate children showcased their talent. Years down the line the Nairobi City Council reposed these robust social halls and either turned them into welfare spaces or offices rented out to the corporate sector. Sadly, some halls were closed up and as a result shutting down a huge source of co-curricular endeavors for so many young minds across the divide.
Creatives Garage is part of Africa’s burgeoning, youthful, creative and innovative community; we acknowledge that creativity and innovation are significant facilitators of economic growth acrossthe globe. Moreover, we recognize as well as attribute creatives who are making a positive impact in our society.
In the recent past, Kenya has seen the rise of an actively vibrant creative scene which can be attributed to phenomenal works by creative entities such as Creatives Garage, The Nest, PenyaAfrica, Pawa 254, The Godown Arts Centre, The Alliance Française, Kuona Trust and Kwani Trust. These spaces are homes to many artists and have been instrumental to the birth of a new breed of innovators and creators within Kenya. Also, these social spaces pave way for collaborations by fellow artists, training and workshops and not forgetting showcases or exhibitions which play to invite consumers of these works.
Musicians such as Sauti Sol, Sarabi, Juliani and H_art The Band have achieved international acclamations because of the eco-system and opportunities presented to them by some of theseorganizations. These art hubs have also offered residency programs offered to visual artists such as Michael Soi, Peterson Kamwathi and Maggie Otieno thus providing a platform for them to thrive. However, all this comes with its unique set of challenges for these creative organizations. Some of the threats these organizations face is lack of funding, lack of proper management systems and now an issue of ‘Freedom of Expression’ which is highly misinterpreted and not forgetting misused by local authorities.
Freedom of Expression is understood as a multi-faceted right that includes not only the right to express, or disseminate, information and ideas, but three further distinct aspects:
- The right to seek information and ideas;
- The right to receive information and ideas;
- The right to impart information and ideas
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through anymedia and regardless of frontiers.
I would like to paint you a picture of Nairobi’s creative scene: The Nest were located about 50 meters away from a police station before they recently moved, Pawa 254 is located about 2kilometers from State House while Creatives Garage and Kuona Trust are deeply entrenched in Nairobi’s leafy suburbs. This translates to the fact that the level of noise that is omitted by these hubs is not tolerated by their neighbors or general environs. Licenses obtained from the Nairobi City Council dictate that one MUST pay a fee every time there is noise coming from their space or building. This fee is at $20 per day and it’s not a guarantee that you will get the license considering you have to present a letter of approval from surrounding neighbors; who are mostly angry or displeased by the motive behind such approval and a letter of consent from a nearby police station. However, it is good to add that such a letter can only be handed to you after you have bribed the police officers substantially. The lesser of two evils in dealing with these permits would be to declare your space as being an entertainment and bar outlet by applying for a liquor license which not only further limits your operation from 1700 hours to 0000 hours but you still have to “talk nicely” to the city council for the approval of this license.
A myriad of questions arise from the facts above: what happens to artistes and musicians who need to rehearse? What happens to creatives looking for that one opportunity to showcase their talent infront of a multitude of people with the hope of being discovered and nurtured? What happens then?
Recently, we have seen the rise of Corporate giants occupying and rebranding public spaces such as the Sports stadiums around Nairobi. What does this mean for creatives who used to use thesespaces for self expression? Are these spaces still accessible for concerts as they once were? Are these spaces pro-self expression or are their fine prints on the contracts restricting what form of self expression should be expressed? Are these spaces reasonably priced/subsidized now that corporate bodies pay hefty prices to maintain these premises? With a decrease of Social spaces for creatives to thrive in, should upcoming buildings and structures cater for this need? We need to understand why creatives are not allowed to access spaces in which they can freely express themselves yet churches and open-air crusades are permitted the freedom to make noise. And if this is not the case, we need to know which spaces are demarcated by the Government for Creatives to flourish in. This happens notwithstanding the fact that both elements of society are accorded the ‘Freedom of Expression’. The fact that creatives face stringent regulations from local authorities makes them shy from expressing their talents. What can be done to ensure more safe and free spaces are established for creatives? Importantly, How can we engage the Government?
The issue of talent appreciation is pertinent to the fact that Creatives are either misunderstood by the public or the creative industry is not taken as a serious profession. This could elude from thefact that arts is no longer an examinable subject in Kenya’s 8-4- 4 system of education. Creatives are still grossly underpaid and if paid well, they are mainly used as tools to push agendas.
While social media is a great tool for creatives to build their brand, it has also become a tool for creatives to rant about the business and rightly so. Recently Bwire Ebony Blak 1 ranted about herplight as a Mombasa based artist and how creative works is not consumed. While most sympathized with her, many didn’t see what the fuss was all about. Could this be an issue of the wrong target market or the target market is unaware of what to consume? Should we look for other ways of engaging the public? Should we create new markets? Are their other ways that the public could start learning and appreciating the creative process? Where does the public interact or consume art? Should the public come to confined formal structures to consume art?
According to UNESCO’s Creative Economy Report 2013, Kenya’s creative economy was estimated to contributing 5.4% of Kenya’s GDP. This is a step in the right direction, however, the creative industry ismarred with challenges such as lack of an educational ecosystem that supports the industry, stringent regulations and lack of talent appreciation, and therefore not given the attention it deserves. The twofold trend of rapid population growth and rising youth unemployment are especially visible with 75% of the Kenyan population below the age of 30 years with a 17.1% unemployment rate. Should the Government tap into creating opportunities within the creative industry for these youth who, have the energy, momentum, creative and ingenious ability to make that socio-economic shift?
So, how can we seat to solve some of these pertinent issues in the creative industry? How can we educate the masses? How can the masses start to integrate with art?& nbsp;
While we can’t tackle the issue of Freedom of Expression in one sitting, we can begin to disturb the minds by asking hard questions. Since Art is the society’s mirror and it’s meant to disturb, it can act as abenchmark for Public engagement. We propose a public art installation on the issues around Freedom of Expression. Issues that we seek to address are economic inequity and the need for financial inclusion for creative works, uneven knowledge distribution as a result of lack of proper schools for creatives which is topped by the lack of examinable art subjects in the current 8-4- 4 system, lack of talent appreciation due to the fact that art and creative genres are considered as secondary wants and therefore not given the limelight it deserves, stringent rules summoned by our current democratic system that make it a hostile environment for creatives to flourish and general lack of acceptance bullied by the opinion of current religion policies and framework.
These Seven pillars are what we think summarizes the struggles the creatives face that contributes to Freedom of expression or lack of it in the society. These issues should not be used as answers to solvingthe Freedom of Expression problem but should merely act as a catalyst to spur conversations in both the public and Government circles. The seven pillars are:
- Don’t sing it in the mountain - The county Government imposes strict rules and charge highly for
- Herein lies all dreams and hopes - Most often than not creatives are asked to work for free or for
- Pass me the Envelope - If you are a creative, you almost have to give a bribe or a kickback if youneed work in corporate and media circles. Journalists are known to be handed ‘envelopes’ frompoliticians who need to push their agenda to the public. Sadly, creatives who need the platform forexposure are left high and dry when politics takes an upper hand. To get your music videos or TVcontent on air chances are you’ll have to give a few people kickbacks to get your message out. Isn’t itsad that we only celebrate our celebrities when they start getting international attention? Did LupitaNy’ongo get media attention years ago when she performed at Phoenix theatre in Nairobi or was sherecognized in her home when she made it in a foreign country? Before Akirachix was introduced atthe Global Entrepreneurship Summit, hosted by President Barrack Obama, did they ever get media attention?
- He who plays the piper calls the tune - If you survive the ‘Pass me the envelope’ phase chances areyou are a creative for hire. If this is so, more often than not you end up selling the wrong AfricanNarrative. For example; If you are a visual artist, chances are you might be roped into making replicasof poor people and villages at Maasai Market because after all this is what sells. The Civil society isalso one that pushes its agenda and since you are a “gun for hire” Chances are you will end up sellingthe story of poverty and starvation for these NGO’s to survive.
- Institutionalizing the ”uninstitutionable” - Arts bill! Culture bill! Music bill! Design bill! It now seemsthat everyone seems to be crafting bills for the creative sector but how do they affect creativesespecially those starting up? Do these bills add value or are just a way of institutionalizing creativity?Can creativity be institutionalized?
- The death of public spaces - Social halls no longer exist to serve its initial task. Many social hallswere used for expression and public engagement. Many of the first crop of hip hop artists emanatedfrom being spotted during talent shows in these halls, but with the change of Government policy andinsecurity; most of these halls were either closed down or repurposed. SO, what happened to thecreatives who used these spaces to rehearse and perform from? How do we as creatives access publicspaces for self expression? With the rise of high-rise buildings around the city, do kids have spacesthey could now use to imagine? Can they run around in imaginary capes and fly? Does the loss ofplaygrounds for children affect self expression?
- Expression by Religion - Lego wa Maria, The Salvation Army and the Akorinos walk around town,drums in tow worshipping on Sundays around urban towns. The Mosques carry huge speakers for alland sundry. Are their restrictions placed on places of worship that cut across to the creative industry?Could creative spaces get licenses that are subsidized and easy to access? Is religious expression moreimportant than self expression? Is the Religion sector better structured and therefore able to negotiatebetter terms?
Written by Liz Kilili