Kenya gained independence from the UK in 1963 and established itself as a sovereign nation, the Republic of Kenya, in 1964. Having been the subject of heavy colonization leading up to this date, Kenya still has large traces of foreign influence. For instance, their official languages are Swahili and English. Also, tourism services and industries are the largest portion of GDP, ahead of tea and coffee exports, further evidence of colonial presence. Kenya, a relatively new country, is still dependent on a foreign presence economically, but its political independence is promising. Since 1964, Kenya has enjoyed relatively high levels of political and social stability, and this is even more noticeable if one looks at Kenya’s neighboring countries, such as Ethiopia and Tanzania. Kenya’s participation in the Venice Biennale is a sign that it is becoming more economically and culturally independent. This being said, there is still a high level of disparity in the capitol, Nairobi, and its bordering slum, Kibera. One of the native Kenyan artists represented at this year’s Biennale, Kivuthi Mbuno, has lived and worked near Nairobi and Kibera almost his entire life.
Kivuthi Mbuno: Born 1947 in Kenya, he spent almost 15 years working as a chef on safaris. This experience was an extremely formative one and has informed his artwork since 1976, when he committed to drawing and painting full-time. Working in Langata, a suburb of Nairobi, Mbuno must be aware of the disparity and difficulties within the capitol, however, his works have never been political. Instead, his vocabulary consists of humans, animals, and traditional objects in wide open spaces– and virtually nothing else. As the textbook “Contemporary Art of Africa” puts it: “We would be wrong to believe in one ancestral vision or to see in his work the mark of primitive naïveté. The artist himself explains that what he wants to paint is less the reality than the idea he has of nature in a sort of Eden-like era. For him, beauty merges with the lovely harmony of people with their natural environment, and he feels that this way of being in the world might be called ‘being inside beauty’” (Magnin, Soulillou 44). This ideological approach to the world around him has led Mbuno to exhibit his works in places such as the Saatchi Gallery in London and 20th Century: Africa Art Now in New York.
Titled: “Reflective Nature: A new enchanting sensitivity”, Kenya offered its first national participation at this year’s 2013 Venice Biennale. Curated by Paola Poponi, there were twelve artists chosen to represent Kenya–of them, only 2 were Kenyan. The other ten were Chinese and Italian (8 Chinese and 2 Italian), which drew heavy criticism and questions from the surrounding community. The exhibit itself was segregated in similar fashion. A small room containing “primitive-looking” African paintings by Kivuthi Mbuno and “tribal” sculptures by Armando Tanzini; high-tech digital works by the Chinese artists were in a much bigger one. Mbuno’s works are quintessential of his style, and Tanzini has been making similar art in Africa for many years as an official citizen of Kenya. Tanzini’s history of “Let’s not forget Africa” seems in opposition to the way in which the exhibit was laid out. The disparity in the layout of the exhibit, however, fits right in with the idea of “Reflective Nature”. As the Nigerian curator and artistic director of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, Bisi Silva, offers: “We all know that the Chinese are in Africa and they’re quite prominently there, so maybe this is a reflection of what is actually happening on the continent.” Others, in fact the majority, were not so understanding. Questions of neo-colonialism and corruption (especially on the behalf of Poponi) arose from the beginning, and with only two Kenyan artists present, this is understandable. Wanny Teo, a lecturer at the Asian Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, said of the display: “On the part of the curators, the exhibition a stunning example of present day Orientalism, and its cursory inclusion of the two Kenyan artists is Primitivism at its very worst.”
Personally, I disagree. Going back to Kenya’s economic reliance on countries such as China, the exhibit truly seems to reflect nature. Mbuno reflects nature in an idealized and “Eden-like” vision, while Tanzini does his best to reflect traditional African objects and sculptures. Also, the layout reflects the nature of globalization. While it could have been an opportunity to showcase more Kenyan artists, the choices in representation are an accurate depiction of Kenya, so how could it be considered a failure? The attention, albeit mostly negative, is a good thing for Kenyan art culture, especially moving forward. While I would expect a much stronger national display in 2015, I think their exhibit this year was as successful as they could have hoped for.