Series Examining Contemporary Art Institutions in Nairobi
The lack of a National and regional infrastructure for culture has drastically affected the growth and distribution of critical, intellectual artistic tools, resulting in near cultural stagnation. Nonetheless, this state of affairs does not mean proficient artists are lacking; on the contrary, the scene is witnessing the rise of talented artists- irrespective of education institutions within the country being deficient in meaningful and relevant visual art curricular, explaining why most artists on the scene are either self trained, or hold only basic art diplomas.
The new generation is taking charge, articulating, slowly and brutally dismantling the status quo, and totally destroying the parameters that have held them hostage for so long. One of them is Jimmy Ogonga who in his earlier artistic journey acknowledged the crucial significance of a sustainable intellectual infrastructure to the expansion of contemporary artistic thought processes, leading him to found the Center for Contemporary Arts of East Africa, Nairobi Arts Trust ( CCEA) in 2000, inspired by (quote) “…the lack of the necessary infrastructure for the development of the arts, especially in relation to international communication & exchange of ideas among artists, institutions, critics, curators and other players in the global industry as a whole.”
Since its inception, CCEA has dramatically grown from ‘a-will-of-steel and a-few-documents-in-a-briefcase’ to its present location at the Go-Down Arts Centre where its unpretentious premises and lean team does not begin to capture the intricate global network it has scrupulously built, and the global reputation for deep impact projects. With an intention to create an alternative for contemporary art and culture in the region, the CCEA is blazing a trail by elevating regional standards in the practice of contemporary art, while developing new audiences and promoting exchange of information and research at both the regional and international level. One such project is the provocative Project Amnesia, an ongoing set of interventions to “examine the cultural and creative consequences of colonialism, displacement, loss, confusion, anger, pain… measured in terms of political and socio-economic imperatives that were inherited from the pre-colonial, colonial and post colonial period and the effects these traumas have on subsequent generations….”
Conceivably the most significant aspect of this project and many others by CCEA is the series of symposia, talks and workshops which have opened pragmatic communication channels between Kenyan artists and institutions with practioners from other scenes around the world, developed “…from the fundamental strategic urge for a stagnant, banal city to undertake stronger efforts in establishing horizontal circuits that could act as cultural life spaces; zones which could contribute to pluralizing and internationalizing culture in the real sense; legitimize it in its own terms, construct new epistemes and unfold new actions”. This vitality in conceptual projects is principal to cultivating an intellectual foundation which is crucial for the sustenance of critical artistic thought – to attend a ‘Nairobi Arts Trust Party’, is like bringing your brain to banquet.
One other idea in progression is the Autopsia, a beautiful Library, Research and Resource center – with an extensive selection of critical text books, catalogues, art books and audio-visual material. Jimmy has a simple but efficient strategy; he almost always signs off by telling his international visitors – ranging from artists, museums directors, curators – to bring a book, or as many as they can bring. It is paying off because so far the Center has built up an impressive anthology of literature and video on contemporary art. The end game is not only to accrue a comprehensive resource on art, but also to articulate, document and publish the progress of contemporary art in Eastern Africa.
At a time when most institutions in the region are grappling with funding issues, CCEA is no exception. This is why out of necessity, for now it is only engaging with artists who make a certain threshold of quality, or those who have shown an ‘exceptional promise’. At the outset, Jimmy could afford to fund the CCEA projects from his own pocket, however as the promise grows bigger and bigger, he is forced to source funding from elsewhere. Of course this brings with it new problems; the paper work that comes along with ‘administering’ – grant applications, audits, reports, letters – is tedious, and needlessly diverts energies that could otherwise be spent on more constructive and creative pursuits.
Paradoxically the tougher battle for CCEA is “the guardians of the status quo, those shameless, ignorant house slaves, who believe in fixtures, those that inherited the colonial insecurities, they who think culture is a bunch of bare chested boys dancing for diplomats and dignitaries at the airport…” – individuals and institutions with the mandate of developing the art scene, who nevertheless hold narrow, conservative perspectives. This is where the battle has to be fought. As Saul Alinsky says, “Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict,” perhaps this explains why CCEA has quickly gained a reputation for notoriety in Nairobi art circles, a notoriety that it has quickly embraced because it may be essential, only if to make something happen in Nairobi – finally.
 In 2001, Jimmy Ogonga founded the Nairobi Arts Trust, later linked with the Centre for Contemporary Art of Africa (Luanda, Angola) of which it became the East African satellite. The Nairobi Art Trust / Centre for Contemporary Art of East Africa (CCAEA) was set up to promote contemporary art and create landmark art projects in Kenya and East Africa.
 “Amnesia,” a series of discussions, workshops and exhibitions developed between 2007 and 2009. “Amnesia” looks at the consequences of the collective cultural memory loss that has affected the African continent and how these translate in contemporary culture and visual arts, developed in collaboration with Cameroonian curator Simon Njami and featured, among other artists, IngridMwangiRobertHutter (Kenya, Germany); Andrew Tshabangu and Nelisiwe Xaba (South Africa); Cheick Diallo (Mali); Amal El Kenawy (Egypt); Meschac Gaba (Benin) and Fernando Alvim (Angola).
 Quote from ‘Scars of Dissipation’, a critical essay by Jimmy Ogonga, 2010.