British Council’s Festivals in Motion: Kris’ East Africa research trip
9th August 2019
A month ago, I travelled to Nairobi and Kampala, supported by British Council’s Festivals in Motion grant. Over nine incredible days, I met artists, curators, producers and thinkers.
What’s stuck with me is how dynamic the East African arts scene is – there is a lot going on. Trends I noticed in both Nairobi and Kampala was that artists are working in multiple forms at once, with lots of momentum in film, performance, digital art, music, fashion and theatre. They’re resilient, resourceful and super connected – many of them work regularly across East Africa, continent-wide. They’re also working in Europe (though the administrative gymnastics needed to get visas to work in Britain were cited by almost everyone as a nuisance if not a deterrent to coming to the UK). Collaboration and fluidity are their antidotes to the precarity of being artists; in ecologies where public funding is scarce or non-existent and foreign NGO funding can sometimes determine content, they’re forging ahead, advancing their own artistic practices and creating a context where they and their peers can succeed.
This blog is a jumble of encounters and snippets of conversations that hopefully offer a glimpse to anyone curious about what the Kenyan and Ugandan artistic scenes are up to.
PART ONE: Nairobi, Kenya, 14-19 June 2019
Nairobi is massive and bustling, cosmopolitan, sophisticated and I arrived right in the middle of winter. Five days in the city helped me meet some great people, and I know that a longer or return visit would offer more and more options and connections. Here are a few that stood out for me:
Neo lives on the edge of a National Park just outside of the city and their home has this expansive view of trees. We’re out on Neo’s porch, the dogs at our feet, it’s sunny and we drink lots of sweet tea. Neo is a gender non-conformist academic, writer, performance maker, queer theorist and activist and their sense of humour is wicked. Our conversation ranges everywhere; queer performance in Kenya, British and Kenyan politics, the grind of getting a UK visa, gay gossip. It’s like meeting an old friend for the first time. In our chat, Neo offers a view of the Kenyan queer cultural scene that talks about generational transformation and points out where Kenya’s queer makers align and connect with their counterparts across the continent. Neo is so generous speaking about the rest of the scene, we almost skip speaking about their own work. I’m glad we didn’t. We talk about street actions they’ve performed in Amsterdam, Johannesburg and at York Mediale (all bold) and Neo tells me about their writing that deals with art, the appropriation of space and memory and reconciliation. This I can’t wait to read, destined to be powerful stuff.
Later that afternoon, Neo takes me to meet members of Maasai Mbili Artist Collective. Based in Kibera, Maasai Mbili is a large collective of painters, designers, performing artists, conceptual artists, poets, educators, music, film and video artists. They run an arts centre, several series of community workshops and learning programmes for young people, they’ve created neighbourhood-wide graffiti programmes and have exhibited installations across East Africa and in Germany and Italy. I’m chatting with co-founder Otieno Gomba, collective member Kevo Stero and producer Jepkorir Rose Kiptum. They tell me about Superheroes of Kibera, a project where kids create heroes for themselves to change the city and the country and another interactive fashion performance for music festivals and art galleries. I get to try out Kevo’s human-sized board game where players try to navigate Kibera’s maze-like streets (spoiler: you can only go deeper in, you can’t get out). It’s amazing to spend time with them and was inspiring to see an example of a how deep a long-term neighbourhood-based project can be.
Speaking with Joy Mboya and her colleague Catherine Mujomba of Nairobi’s GoDown Centre is like taking a deep dive into Nairobi’s theatre, dance and visual art history. For 17+ years, Joy has led the GoDown Arts Centre, a series of disused warehouses just 5 minutes from the CBD, in a mixed-use industrial area not yet getting the attention of Nairobi’s gentrifiers like other neighbourhoods.
Imagined as the country’s first arts centre/presenting space, GoDown became a place for artists to access resources and gather in solidarity. Through its history, GoDown has hosted companies and collectives, supported the growth of new forms and developed and presented new work. We talk about how GoDown helped usher in golden eras of contemporary dance and theatre and how now much of the energy in the Kenyan scene is shifting towards visual art, digital art, fashion and film. she tells me about new platforms for community and artistic gathering like Thrift Social.
Up next for GoDown is a tear down. Joy and her team are leading a capital campaign to build a new GoDown; a newly designed building that can propel the community forward. They’re set to break ground soon, and their plans are impressive. Joy and the GoDown are working on a civic and national scale, she’s thinking as much about artist development in the immediate as she is the evolution of the next 20 years of Nairobi’s burgeoning scene. Her vision and determination for the scene is palpable and inspiring. Her pride is too. I ask her what’s one thing she’d want Londoners to know about Nairobi’s art scene, and without missing a beat she says, “It’s really happening. It might be hard to orient yourself when you first arrive but it’s an incredibly vibrant scene.”
Kris with Joy Mboya and Catherine Mujomba
The Nest Collective are an artistic entity a few British audiences have started to get to know. This film, video, photography, visual art and music-driven squad are running multiple projects in Kenya and across Africa. Their work is urgent, political, sharp and sophisticated. I’m meeting four of the members, Dr Njoki Ngumi, Jim Chuchu, Sunny Dolat and Njeri Gitungo. I’m lucky to catch them because they’re often not all in the city (Sunny heads to the Sao Tome Biennale in a few weeks, Njoki is just back from a conference in Dakar) and lucky because the conversation is dazzling. They update me about their projects – Strictly Silk, a party and art space & event by women, for women; their film works like Stories of Our Lives (played in film festivals around the world but was banned in Kenya) and the International Inventories Project, a Kenyan/German initiative gathering a comprehensive inventory of Kenyan artifacts and cultural objects held in public institutions abroad. The chat about Kenyan objects controlled by museums in the West gets us talking about the control held over Kenyans as they try to enter the UK. The visa process (as recently denounced by the Royal African Society) is a nightmare of excruciating bureaucracy where membership in the Commonwealth counts for nothing. This gets us on a riff where the relationship between the UK and Kenya is likened to that feeling when an ex is trying to ghost you. From there we get on to structural and institutional racism, decolonisation processes good for art making and making party spaces, how African artists connect and don’t connect to African-diasporic artists and audiences in the UK and US, beauty, lightness, and one of the most pressing tensions affecting art making in our time, the one between the right of authorship, right of interpretation versus act of appropriation. This also feels like meeting old friends for the first time and I’m floating out of their North Nairobi HQ with my head spinning in all the right ways.
Other inspirations were:
Theatre folk keeping it strong: Leading theatre artist Mumbi Kaigwa, who works with collectives and recently had her play Orchid commissioned by Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester and Kevin Kimani, recent founder of the Kenya International Theatre Festival. Interdisciplinary makers defining disciplines: Commercial and artistic photography superstar Osborne Macharia whose K63 studio creates lush contemporary and fantastical Afro-futurist shoots and live artist and writer Jackie Karuti, who is leading the wave of experimental artists and has links with London’s own Gasworks Studios.
Part Two: Kampala, Uganda, 19-23 June, 2019
Even more than the artists I met in Nairobi, what struck me about Kampala’s makers was their interdisciplinary expertise – people are skilled and advancing in lots of different fields. The scene I encountered was varied, tightly knit, with artists whose practices were made up of music, performance, live art, fashion and film, often creating new kinds of art forms. A good example of this is the Salooni Collective, whose pop-up art installation and salon playfully exploring the politics of black hair, Londoners might remember from Southbank Centre’s Africa Utopia Festival. LIFT Trustee Hannah Azieb Pool curated that piece and had introduced me to collective member Darlyne Komukama. I met Darlyne in her home studio and we chatted about recent work including dance floor installations, a 2 day installation in the KLA Art festival for women to break shit. Darlyne is also a member and co-director of Nyege Nyege, a music festival, label and curatorial collective that is skyrocketing from strength to strength. Londoners may have been lucky enough to catch Salooni/Nyege Nyege collective member and DJ Kampire who played at Café Oto on 3 August, Darlyne was tour managing too.
Just off the Ggaba Road in Kampala, steps away from to the city’s incredible music and nightlife scene is 32 Degrees East – the Ugandan Arts Trust, one of the most extraordinary arts hubs and artist run centres I’ve ever encountered. Directed by Teesa Bahana, 32 Degrees runs a vibrant residency programme for visual and live artists, wordsmiths and more. I catch Teesa just off the plane from a trip to Guyana, where she was connecting with a network of artist-run centres across the Global South. The jet lag from South America doesn’t for a second stall Teesa; her enthusiasm and vision for the centre or Kampala’s is infectious and inspiring. She gives me a tour of the site – they’ve got an amazing reading room (bring books if you visit, their collection is full of calling cards and resources from guests from around the world), containers stacked on top of each other (where currently an English and Ugandan duo is working on a conceptual embroidery / performance poetry piece), outdoor meeting spaces under a large, cosy canopy, a kitchen and rabbits chilling out in the garden. The place is quiet today – only about 6 or 7 artists catching up and getting their work done, but you can tell instantly what a hub 32 Degrees is for Kampala creators. 32 runs residency programmes, peer-to-peer critique sessions, exhibitions and more (they’re also consolidating a new space) – it’s ultra-dynamic. 32 Degrees isn’t just a residency centre, the organisation runs the incredible KLA Art Festival, an event devoted to celebrating local art in public spaces as contemporary artists stage a civic takeover with projects bespoke to the city– sound familiar? It reminded me a lot of the spirit of LIFT, and Teesa and I had a great time talking mutual synergies and strategies. Theirs are especially strong, invited artists receive lab time and residency through the year to prepare them for festival presentation; it means that 32 East is close to the work and that the artists have a home base from which they can take big risks.
Kris with Teesa Bahana
British Council Nuts and Bolts
I was very happy to visit Kampala’s British Council HQ to do a ‘meet LIFT’ session. BC’s Arts Manager Rasheeda Nalumoso gathered a roundtable with some of the city’s leading impressarios and festival makers and it was an amazing assembly. I got the chance to share some LIFT highlights, talk about our upcoming project The Second Woman and Balthazar’s Treasure, our mixed reality digital game for Tottenham. In the room are representatives from Kampala Design Week, Tuzinne Dance Festival, East African Records and Kampala International Theatre Festival and Bayimba Cultural Foundation – a terrific assembly of people making stuff happen. The roundtable covers a lot of ground; we talk about what it takes to create events in Uganda where there’s big appetite from audiences and strong and ambitious artists making waves despite the sectors precarity (no public funding, lack of equipment). They’re making it happen and building a cultural scene as well as their individual events, and that takes graft.
Kampala Theatre Festival
In the northern part of Kampala sits the breathtaking Ndere Cultural Centre. Traffic’s bogged me down and as I enter the building I hear down the hall a crescendo of a beautiful chorus and a big group whoop. I find the studio just as Assimwe’s wrapping the rehearsal for the day. The ensemble is hugging and grinning and there are a few tears; they’ve unlocked a key moment in the play. It’s a remarkable sensation; I’m left wondering what kind of special hair-raising rehearsal room magic has just happened.
Assimwe and I catch up on the Ndere’s beautiful terrace. She is a playwright, director, teacher and co-artistic director of the Kampala Theatre Festival. We talk about her artistic work and her determination to see the scene grow. She highlights for me that Ugandan artists are making work about self-discovery, identity, politics, identity politics and the relationship between Africa and the rest of the world. We talk about the UK, and I ask her what she’d like Londoners to know about the Ugandan scene. She laughs, pauses and says, “I want to ask them if they have ever realised that anywhere in Uganda there is a story. And that even with what one would call an absence of resources, people still make things happen, and that comes from the feeling around us that who we are, what’s around us is a story needing to be told.”
Kris with Dr Charles Mulekwa
Alex Mukulu’s 30 Years of Bananas
After our chat, Assimwe takes me to Dr Charles Mulekwa’s playwrighting class in the centre. He’s giving the group a bit of a bawling out; he’s not happy with any of their latest drafts. Charles is surprised and happy to see me – in the 1990s, his play was read at LIFT as part of the first international collaboration with Royal Court. He’s delighted to know the festival is still going – he’d lost track of LIFT while he was pursuing his doctorate in the US and then returned to Uganda to start working at Makerere University. I catch him up on twenty + years of LIFT history as we take an epic cross-city cab ride to see a Ugandan political theatre classic revisited. The play is 30 Years of Bananas, an epic satire by Alex Mukulu which premiered in 1992, on the 30th anniversary of Ugandan independence and skewers the hypocrisy of the country’s authoritarian regimes. We’re catching an updated version (it’s lively, comic and sharp) and also the launch of a new theatre for the city, the open-air Playwright’s Playhouse. It’s a treat to be there and having a cold Club Pilsner in the stands watching the show is especially nice.
All good things must come to an end, and I spend my last day in Kampala with Herman Kabubi, who is Director of Programmes at Bayimba Foundation, a multi-pronged organisation which produces festivals and an arts market. Herman is an author and poet (his stage name is Slim Emcee) and is also an artist manager. It’s a great way to wrap up the trip – he introduces me to a bunch of musicians at the Fête de la Musique festival held by the Alliance Française and indulges me in some sightseeing and souvenir shopping as we spend the day talking about our experiences with festivals, artist management, the UK and Ugandan scene. Good to find a kindred spirit.
Now that I’m home…
Now that I’m home the trip and the conversations I had are still really fresh. This was a different kind of curatorial research trip for me than my usual practice. British Council was encouraging long-term relationship building, networking and getting the opportunity to learn from artists and cultural workers in Nairobi and Kampala. I’m glad for it, the opportunity taught me a lot, showing me what the cultural scenes are like in two very different and very cosmopolitan cities. It also revealed commonalities to what we’re working on here in the UK in that we’re all striving to create compelling and exciting cultural happenings for audiences and trying to propel artists and ideas forward. Here in London, I’m looking forward to keeping the connections going and to getting a Kenyan or Ugandan project here to London for LIFT. Stay tuned.