Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Following the launch of 5 new titles last week, Kwani Trust is pleased to announce the launch of a short story competition with a 1st prize of Ksh 100000, Ksh 75000 for the 2nd prize, and Ksh 50000 for the third prize, as well as publication in the upcoming issue of Kwani? 06. [They] are seeking stories on the theme, The Kenya I live in, - a story now being told by a new generation, a new imagination, new narratives and expression. Kindly circulate.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

JR: From Kibera to Sotheby’s

A guest blogger post curled from a very rough draft Kibera Kitsch & other Tales of Art for Social Exclusion by Njoroge Matathia.


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.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Those who know this blog from its better days will remember a post titled Voluntary Drinking Overseas. As I have mentioned, previously that post has been professionally revised, edited and published in the Nigerian magazine Farafina. But that happened back in 1997.

Now I am pleased to inform you that my friends at the Black Campaign have not only republished it, but also made it available in PDF. That means that you can now read it online, download it and print it to read later or even (and this is highly recommended) email it to all your friends.

Alas, this might just be the thing to put in a care pack for your friend who abandoned the American dream and joined Peace Corps in West Africa. Yes that one who occasionally sends you long letters (postmarked six months previous)lamenting not so much the lack of decent coffee in her village but the fact that the only literature that comes in is USAID posters.

Download PDF

Monday, July 20, 2009


There is a lot of things in life that I do not get, poetry is one of them. This might come as a shock to a lot of people but not to me. People say to me: Potash you are a writer, how can you not get poetry. That is the problem right there. If it were to be assumed that I am a writer, how does that make me, by default, a good reader of every other means of artistic expression out there?

See, the thing I like to point out is that there is no lingua franca for artists. When people ask me what I write my response is: words mainly, but when I am lucky I get in a few sentences and paragraphs too. But no one asks me what I read and why, they just proceed to drag me into an engagement with their poetry. When I insist that I do not get it, they say: But, Potash you are a writer! Yes, I do write, but I write prose. It is the form that I appreciate the most. It is the structure through which I find myself most able to communicate creative ideas. I do not privilege prose, as the ultimate form of literary expression, I privilege it as the ultimate form of literary expression, for me.

Let me make a few things clear. I grew up being told, and I know it to be self evident, that the first step to being a writer is to be a reader. And a reader I am. In fact I go through alternating phases of intense reading and zero writing and intense writing and zero reading. (Zero is, of course an absolute and I baulk at such but see it here as hyperbole for illustrative purpose). As a reader, it ought to be noted that I read widely. I read everything I can get my hands on. And everything means everything, including Kenyan newspapers. The question is how often do I read Kenyan newspapers? How often do I read poetry?

The big challenge for me is the need to consume knowledge/ information and creative energies being on one hand, how to best consume these is on the other. So prose, being for me the easiest to ingest, must take an enormous amount of my time. Unfortunately, this need to consume aside, the writer part of me comes with more responsibilities than power. Being embraced by writers has made me part of a larger, global artistic and intellectual community that demands that you cannot trash it if you have not read it and therefore, once a month at most, if free internet is available and I have had a surfeit of breaking porn and trending tweets, I will skim through the most read stories in the Kenyan dailies.

Still there is horrid prose out there (and it is just not on page 1 of the Nation as my once in two years attempts at reading that blog Kumekucha have taught me) and though as a reader I am bonded to read them, as a human being, lately blessed with choice in reading material, I will often not.

And there is good poetry out there, too, I just cannot tell you if it is really good. I cannot because I do not get it. I just read it as part of my corporate social responsibility as a (fringe) player in the literary/ creative/ knowledge industry. And that responsibility ends with reading so spare me your demands for analysis.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Down but not out

“I am sleepless and my mind is fuzzy...” Potash 2006

I am in Kiambu. The place I return to when things are going terribly wrong. This time round I have returned to recuperate. But the way I feel, it could be as well that I have returned to die. Returning to the village, empty-handed, to die, after living la vida loca in Nairobi. This is not the way I imagined my life would end: and he rested in poverty!

I am bedridden with a particularly virulent flu. And it has held me down for over a month getting progressively worse for the last two days that I decided to come here, twiddle my thumbs and see how it pans out.

The other day some guy asked me if I have been catching some odiero action. No comment but the idea that I have caught swine flu just keeps taking me back to the days when I was a young and vital Polysexual. And now that this flu has made me sleepless, my mind fuzzy and incapable of a coherent sentence I will take you back.

In the meantime, as you enjoy the archives, I will be here hoping to feel better and look to be back to scribbling inanities here in a day or two. Mad love.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

TRANSITION: Off to Butterfly Blogs

Every day we are changing. I am changing. This blog is changing. Over the last couple of years this blog has taken a life of its own. Many times I have found myself wondering if this blog is relevant, nay, necessary, any more. The truth is that it is not.

I started out looking at life through the eyes of a mid twenties Kenyan guy trying to afford his next measure of alcohol. In the Kenyan blogosphere circa 2006, filled with diaspora Kenyans with too much free bandwidth and Nairobi based yuppies, A Kenyan Urban Narrative was not only a unique voice but one set to rise above the din. And it did.

Within a few months, the laudatory clapping of literary admirers in its wake, the blog catapulted me into the warm embrace of the new generation of Kenyan writers. In the circles of writers, my name was mentioned. But praise doesn't make writers. And thus, he that was hailed as the next best thing in Kenyan writing, came and went... and, alas, there is no writing to show for it all. Sad.

All this while, my style was changing, my voice, my world-view even. Most important of all, beyond the fact of being distanced from the realities that I used to write about, I stopped being angry. The truth I can never deny is that my early blogging fed off the anger drawn from not being recognised as a writer. Without the anger there was nothing to express in texts. I was, in a word, irrelevant. I was now just another Kenyan with a blog.

In between times, I was exploring opportunities for collaboration. Well, mainly, being dragged into them. And I took them. I had a couple of things republished in cool places, others I had people rework them into stronger pieces through their more trained voices. And, because I now had access to publishers, I started on The Book. The Book that has long stalled and whose characters sound like pieces of wood.

In the end, I was tending towards the realisation that a blogger is the best I could ever hope to be. A couple of offers were on the table. There were still people willing to pay for my lazy writing and occasional musings. Most important of all, I was broke and contrary to popular belief, writing does not pay as well roundabout these shores. Which is to say that three or so years of passing for a 'celebrated writer' had not translated into money. I was as poor as when I started out but at least I knew I had the chance to buy my alcohol easier by selling words rather than as a grave digger or such thing.

Finally, I thinned everything down to two offers: The Black Campaign and Butterfly Blogs. Evidently, I have chosen Butterfly Blogs because at least they put in a cash incentive of some sort, in both the short and long term. As for the Black Campaign, well they are the biggest winners because through a deal with N.M they have full rights to more of my work than I imagined existed. Once again that fucker mercenary writer N.M, who cannot even write to save his life, has played me. And all I have left is this new problogging deal deal with Butterfly. A lifeline if ever there was one. A chance to go back to being relevant.

Y'all will be hearing from me, here, at least twice a week. Just because the contract says so.