No doubt that the economic strain and the existential demands and the pressure they exert on persons and families may crowd out the time for psychological and social pursuits in the mind of a typical Nairobian leaving little room for appreciation of art.
Art in its many and varied forms remains a basic yet neglected humans need. Even God, The Almighty would proclaim in his good book “...and out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.”
Public art, therefore, is, even in the religious dimension, a primary, critical, mental and emotional need. With this in mind, one would expect, though mistakenly, that the religious leaders would be at the forefront of championing the creation and display of public art.
Nairobi is thus a gutted city with an inward-looking population that vents out the internalized pain and frustrations though binge drinking, social media lynching, reckless driving, crass sensuality and domestic ills.
In this busy metropolis that serves as an industrial and transport hub, there is an economy of cultural items for which a Nairobian in his endeavor both for aesthetics, as well as recognition, and appreciation of beauty and meaning cannot help but indulge in. Music, drama, poetry, dressing, public parks, dishes and public art as such take a powerful place in this hierarchy of cultural items for which we derive pleasure and association.
Public art or rather community works of art occupy a rather needful scope of this city’s consciousness yet they are often viewed as bourgeoise encounters reserved for the “cheers baba” types or the artistic pool with their quirky personalities.
For example, fountains and the huge flower pots which, in a basic sense, are public arts, are not concepts that inhabits our active thinking and considerations in such manner.
Value of Art
Austine Adika Collection, at his Ngara Warehouse. Photo-Courtesy
Residents of cities and suburbs with public parks are consistently shown to be happier, report less stress levels and have a greater outdoorsy life than those who live in purely concrete jungles. Uhuru Park on Uhuru Highway, with its sister park Uhuru Gardens on Langa’ta Road alongside their smaller but equally famous inclusions like Jevanjee Gardens, and the Globe Roundabout, provide an aesthetic appeal and a literal break from the sprawling concrete jungle that is downtown Nairobi.
Come to think of it, where would the average teetotaler go to on a typical Friday afternoon if he weren’t in a rush to get home? Additionally, what works of and forms of art and entertainment are available for your average family around the city? Our art scene in every sense seems geared towards the worldly, ‘hype-y’, visceral consumers of all thing artsy on one hand or the spiritual, prudish, city dwellers drawn towards churchy meetups on the other extreme end. We in a sense have little to offer for an in-between, coolly, if bohemian, maverick types with sophisticated tastes either in the form of cultural practices i.e. museum visits, concerts, book reading and functional book clubs or cultural preferences i.e. painting, music, literature, and art.
We really do not have a spiritual or any moral connection with the city besides an unwritten social contract that we’ll provide labour and the city will reward us with chums or mullah.
When it comes to public arts, and sculptures in particular they tend to portend a rather complex relationship within the greater art world and by extensions with the citizens of this city. The scarcity of such works in display in Eastlands (Buru Buru/Donholm), Westlands area, Nairobi South or Nairobi north (Mathare/Allsops area) in a sense is a reflection not just of the misunderstanding of their potency but also of their utilitarian value as tourist attractions as well as their aesthetic functionality as markers of connection with nature, antiquity, ancestors, spiritual self and self-expression.
Let’s face it, besides the Dedan Kimathi statue at the Mama Ngina & Kimathi St intersection and the statues in front of the Supreme Court, is there anything else that could be accounted as easily accessible work of public art? The Tom Mboya Statue is an eyesore, thankfully, it is being given a face-lift.
Worse, even the few works of public art tend to be largely ‘invisible’ to the typical city dweller whose head, buried with tonnes of day to day worry, has little in way of curiosity to peer at, for example, the three sculpted soldiers standing right outside Eco Bank headquarters on Kenyatta Avenue. In comparison with the more established art galleries like Go-Down Art Centres-which by the mere fact that it needs tickets or acts as some form of centralized art hub rules it out as a ‘public art’-the relative invisibility of public art makes them to be largely under-appreciated and religiously ignored.
Not Enough Art
The glaringly minimal public art that we have qualifies for the title, public, based on the basic criterion that people don’t have to plan and dress up to go view them. They are open to everyone and have a deep fusion with the culture and architecture of this city. They are embedded into the everyday city life in a way that makes them one and the same with Nairobi’s love and hurt, rise and fall. By extension, the scarcity of public art in Nairobi connotes a certain loss of a sense of public expression for our history, contradictions, humour, identity, creativity and raw abstractive talents. Nairobi is thus a gutted city with an inward-looking population that vents out the internalized pain and frustrations though binge drinking, social media lynching, reckless driving, crass sensuality and domestic ills.
Hockey-Skating at the Aga Khan Walk Parking slot has become a Sunday obligation for the young in Nairobi.
Public art or what’s increasingly known as community art, if properly used, can create a healthy attachment to one’s community. Come to think of it, most Nairobians are temporary residents, not natives per se, who are tied to the city by a string of temporary gigs christened, hustle. We really do not have a spiritual or any moral connection with the city besides an unwritten social contract that we’ll provide labour and the city will reward us with chums or mullah. This is a precarious development, since the art-life aspect profoundly reinforce each other; the lack of public art engenders the sense of displacement which in turn leads to more existential angst and less focus on public art which further reinforces the sense of rootlessness.
Conversely a greater investment in public art, which in this instance, we’ll limit to mounted sculptures, reinforces one’s sense of history, place, belonging, and acts as a journey into our cultural, political and contemporary history. The social offering and visual aesthetics in the form of public art such as parks, green spaces and most importantly sculptures have been proven to generate a greater sense of attachment and belonging in a city than education, local economy and general safety can do.
You never know, maybe the solution to our bad driving and binging on liquor is a bunch of metallic people staring at us at intersections as we stagger or drunk-drive home, just maybe.