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Art can end slavery… or is that an ambitious burden on vocation?

Kenyan artists challenged to go beyond aesthetic to explore the powerful soul of occupation as a method of compelling change in society

A friend narrated an ordeal she underwent at 24. A nurse, who was her neighbour, asked if she’d like to make some quick money. She did! The nurse took her and a few other girls to a fertility clinic in Nairobi, where they underwent the excruciating process of ova removal.

The nurse had not forewarned them that the process would take several return visits and painful probes with needles. My friend is also convinced that the hormones she was injected with are responsible for her struggle with weight for years.

The nurse collected the pay and gave the girls a paltry Sh10,000 each, keeping the lion’s share. It is called exploitation. Globally, human trafficking is also taking philanthropic faces. Girls are being lured to the Middle East as domestic workers only to return in body bags, maimed, sexually abused, psychologically and physically scarred.

Little children are begging on the streets while their parents lurk in the shadows, belching instructions and demands, using the kids to pull at people’s heart strings.

Elsewhere, children are taken from rural areas by relatives to be house helps in towns, where they may be denied rights to schooling, be underpaid and exploited. We see these forms of modern day slavery and, for the most part, say nothing.

Coinciding with the World Day against Trafficking in Persons, Kenyan artists have added their voice to this contemporary issue with an exhibition that is showing at Shifteye gallery, Arts to End Slavery (A2ES). The show, titled; Telling Their Stories, blows the lid off the hushed experiences of victims of slavery.

Social change

To put up this show, HAART Kenya, an NGO that fights human trafficking through creating awareness and interventions for victims teamed up with PAWA254, an art and culture collective with a social change bent.

Twenty-two artists took part in the multi-media exhibition that used paintings, mural, sculptures, installations, photography, live art, video, illustrations, and digital art.

The credits include established artists among them Sam Githui, Patrick Mukabi, Onyis Martin, Ng’endo Mukii and Kepha Mosoti and younger promising artists — Nadia Wamunyu, Rehema Baya, Brian Omolo.

There were also artists from the region; Mekbib Tadesse from Ethiopia, Mohammed Altoum from Sudan and Lia Beharne, who’s Eritrean-born. The curator, Rose Jepkorir, took this on as her maiden project, quite a bold statement for one who’s right out of the gate.

She hosted the artists and art enthusiasts at an open forum on a Wednesday. As pointed out by Thom Ogonga, an artist, one gets the feeling that the artists only narrowly interpreted this very broad topic, since most of the exhibition was depicting the experiences of the victims – the crushing, contorting and disenfranchising effect of forced labour on the body, the anguish of the soul, the chains (both physical and metaphorical), the tendency of sexual exploitation to reduce, especially women, to faceless creatures that present as bare legs or an anonymous naked body.

Contentious title

One could argue that that’s what matters most, the experience of the victims. One of the issues that emerged during the open session was whether the title of the exhibition was appropriate. Can art end slavery? Or is that an ambitious burden to place on art? Was the title too sensational?

Too didactic, stifling expression and channeling all the work to a particular direction? A member of the audience, Dr Onyango Oketch, felt the topic lends itself to provocative expressions, saying artists should focus less on the aesthetic, which is driven by the need to sell, to art as life, blurring the line between art and life.

He says Kenyan art is still stuck in the 60s and 70s, yet the world has acknowledged the impotence of aesthetic as the main thrust of art. Is it time to move art out of its safe gallery prisons and, so to speak, let it out on society?

He gave the example of the Russian protest artist, Pert Pavlensky, who has wrapped himself in barbed wire, sewn his lips shut and nailed his scrotum to the politically charged Red Square to protest Russia’s descent into a ‘police State’.

Back home, Boniface Mwangi comes to mind as a fearless protest artist who has drawn both criticism and praise in equal measure. Bloody pigs, bloody T-shirts, burning effigies, coffins and other gory, cringe-worthy, grotesque performances are his stock-in-trade.

This jarring approach to emotive topics may be uncomfortable, ugly, vulgar and even attract disdain, but it is art that cannot be ignored. It is an important question for Kenyan artists to engage in, the place of shock art and outrage. Censorship is now a buzzword in Kenya, and artists are engaging with the question of self-censorship.

Just the other day, Sauti Sol announced that they will be releasing a new video that will be more provocative than ‘Nishike’. “If it’s going to be banned, then let it be banned.

We don’t write music with barriers in our heads,” they said. It is not a new trend. People do periodically get tired of the Establishment in art. It happened with the Dada movement in the early 20th Century Europe. It was anti-war, anti-bourgeois and, in fact, anti-art, challenging existing social contracts of what was acceptable as art.

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