If Kibera were a cultural icon, then it is one that enters the global cultural economy certified Kitsch. And Kibera is a cultural icon, the template for an angst-filled other; a case study in the semiotics of African deprivation. Kibera as pallette; Kibera as theme; Kibera as setting, Kibera globalised through (faux) artistic expression. Brand Kibera: proven success in selling everything from soapstone carvings to box office movies and installation art. All fair trade of course. No Africans were violated in the production of these artworks!
From Kibera to Sotheby’s
On Saturday, I watched Christine Wambui’s Kibera Smiles Again. Screened at yet another one of the Urban Mirror shows hosted by the Goethe Institute, Nairobi, the documentary relives French artist JR’s work in Kibera. JR’s oeuvre is not vast, but it is, artistically, impressive. And at 25, and all of a ’street artist’ having found global critical acclaim and significant financial success is in itself no mean feat.
Friday, January 31st, 2009 marked the unveiling of the Nairobi leg of JR’s 28 Millimeters public art installation project in the city’s Kibera slum. As seen, on the documentary, JR and his assistants had stretched large black and white prints of his photographs over roofs and embankments. The photographs were of parts of the faces of a couple of local women. In one wow-inducing scene, as a train trudges past, above the shanty-line, the images pasted on the train align with those on the ground below to form three complete faces.
The Sunday Times has lauded JR as “the hippest street artist since Banksy”, and the parallels are evident. At least if the prices JR’s prints fetch is what you have in mind. And if I were to quote Banksy in his Wall and Piece (2005): “When you go to an art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.”, then watching that documentary told me less about Kibera and more about the living rooms of those who have paid as much as £26,250 for JR’s work.
But the wealthy buyers of Sotheby’s JR are wasted on the JR of Kibera who maintains that he uses the street so that everybody can benefit from art [so that] people who don’t go to museums and galleries can know that they do not have to pay entrance fees to these places to see art. And his art is worth paying to see, but the question that I, and the two mzungu artists I stood watching the documentary with, couldn’t get over was: why Kibera?
I was not angry from watching the documentary, I was too busy admiring his work anyway. Admiring it and thinking that Kibera as a setting was an exceedingly gratuitous touch to something inherently appealing. Then I read about why he had chosen Kibera:
“The more you go to places like Kibera, the more you realise that the people don’t understand you,” JR states in his Times online interview, “Food is their first need. They don’t do art just for the love of art. It has to make sense. By making their roofs rainproof, what we did made sense. They loved it.”
Ire rose. There are transgressions I will willingly forgive, excuse away as naivety, but condescension just wont wash with me. So pulling furtively at my eyebrows I scrolled down:
"I see [ the planet’s poorest places] in the media,” he says. “But I want to see them with my own eyes. You realise when you do go to these places that there is no art. My aim is to show that art can work anywhere."
Interest in JR flew out of my window and into a battered cubicle in the lavatory section of my mind marked: African Consultants. A space I reserve for the kind of Westerner that makes one trip to some African country or other and suddenly becomes an authority on the entire continent. JR had gone further, yet, and bought the globe-trotting do-gooders maxim: All Poor People in the World are the Same. (Yes, and Bono has found the cure for Global Poverty but the G8 will not let him bottle it). But snideness aside, how this Parisian photographer had turned into both omniscient curator of his own ‘non-existent slum art’ show and Kibera’s foremost cultural anthropologist, eludes me.