Dance in a trance

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Two New Museums in Nairobi

STATE OF THE ART Two important cultural institutions (the National Museum and the Ramoma Gallery) have reopened in the past few months with little pomp, circumstance or media attention partly, perhaps, because of being overshadowed by the election fiasco and the endless warnings of doom that preceded it. But it seems that serious discussion of the arts has been anyway overtaken by politics to such an extent that only John Kariuki in this paper took the trouble to point out that no provision for it had been made in the last budget – a foolishly short-sighted calculation since if wisely handled the arts can make big money. Take this example: on a recent visit to Australia I was astonished at the status that Aboriginal art had achieved in the space of a mere three decades. All major towns and cities boast fine art galleries, the pride of which is Aboriginal art because it is so utterly distinctive and original has perhaps become a way of paying retribution for the dreadful past. Like so many of their African counterparts, most of these artists have never been near an art school – a benefit in their cases because it has enabled them to avoid the trap of copying European styles of painting and sculpture. “But this is a Third World country! There is no money for such luxuries,” you might argue.This is patent nonsense, since one thing that characterizes such countries is the massive wealth controlled by very few hands. Contemporary art in Kenya has been flourishing in the past few years, not because of but in spite of government indifference. Hands up those MP’s who have bought a single work? How many rich businessmen would even contemplate such a thing? Some are beginning to catch on – the new Safaricom House is filled with commissioned paintings by Kenyans and the Java House Coffee Shops are inviting not least because of their art displays. But does President Kibaki have fine sculptures at State House? Not when I’ve had a glimpse of it via my TV screen. How many artists has the billionaire Kenyatta family supported? What do you put it down to – lack of education? Some members of our elite have been to the best universities in the world but what they have come away with seems to be a thorough training in how to rip the country off. To return to my original subject: the museum has re-opened at a time of great turmoil in this country: there is heated discussion everywhere about the meaning of heritage, tribe, history, ethnicity. Problems surrounding the totally foreign idea of a museum are explored at great length and depth by Professor Ali Mazrui in “Kenya Past and Present” Issue No 35 2005, a scholarly publication of the Kenya Museum Society. Here is the crux: “Because of the oral tradition, African history is particularly prone to the forces of myth-making and legend-building. Tribal founders like Kintu of the Baganda or Mumbi of the Kikuyu are often elevated to the status of historical figures. Museums often have to preserve the physical documentation of cultural beliefs – without taking sides between mythology and history.” Mazrui goes on to point out “the comparative weakness of the archival tradition in Africa and its devastating consequences for the history of our people.” One might also add the fact that Africans were largely the subjects of conquering nations like the British, the French and the Portuguese who looted the finest works of art freely and whose own museums would now be empty without such treasures as the Benin Bronzes or the much-fought-over Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens, kindly held in trust for the Greek people indefinitely despite their regular protests. Take these away from the British Museum and all you have left of local origin are some exquisite ivory carvings of chess figures (and where did the ivory come from, say?) or the Sutton Hoo collection of Anglo-Saxon objects found in the shipwreck of the above vessel. Not enough to draw crowds from near and far, you’ll agree. Mazrui bemoans the lack of an archival tradition which he defines as “a cultural preoccupation with keeping records and preserving monuments, a tradition of capturing the past through preserved documentation…….Because the archival tradition is weak in Africa, the scientific tradition became weak, our languages atrophied and so did any philosophical tradition – with ghastly consequences for our peoples across the centuries. ” This deficit has led people to assume that Africa was a continent without history. Mazrui even intimates that slavery and colonialism were closely linked to this perceived lack of culture and recorded memory. But then bible-wielding colonialists of every hue have arrogantly taken it upon themselves to “educate the heathen” and to bring them up to their own standards, never questioning the moral or ethical implications of their actions. Civilisations that valued concrete remains or written records did not appreciate Africa. Mazrui speaks about the false memory that Africa was one before colonization, but he reminds that it need not be a false hope. “Museums all over Africa are likely to be called upon to re-inforce Africa’s false memory that it was once united before European colonization”. Not all the galleries have opened yet, but there is enough to be getting on with, what with several fascinating temporary exhibitions – Rock Art, photographs by various different photographers, and in the Creativity Gallery, contemporary art by lesser-known artists. The building is light, airy and inviting, with pillars and mosaics at the front opening out onto a courtyard which houses shops and a cafĂ© looking out onto a mass of trees. The weakest room is the Hall of Kenya which only represents a few objects from major tribes – the Luo, the Maasai, plus a beautifully wrought “Siyu” from Pate Island off the Lamu Coast. The most successful for me is the “Cradle of Mankind” displaying some of the museum’s favored paleontological objects, and raising interesting questions for religious believers about the origins of mankind. Turkana Boy is there in all his splendour, looking slightly blue with age, but giving you an excellent idea of the size of the child.

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