The role and significance of NGOs in Kenya found its way at this year’s Dak’Art 2014 Biennale through installation dubbed Logos of Non Profit Organisations working in Kenya (some of which are imaginary) mounted by Kenyan-based filmmaker and artist Sam Hopkins.
That the NGO sector is very important in Kenya is without doubt,” Sam pointed out. “However, what is not clear is what qualifies as charity, development or aid.” Sam Hopkins addresses this wide assortment of NGOs and their diverging missions by focusing on the aesthetics of their logo designs. Here is chat with Kimani wa Wanjiru
Kimani: How does it feel to be at the Biennale?
Sam: As this is the first Biennale that I have participated in, I was slightly nervous before arriving. But it has been a wonderful experience, a real pleasure, and both the curators (Smooth, Kader and Elize) and the other participating artists have been warm and friendly and there has been a genuine sense of family.
Kimani: Did you imagine that your work will be a continental stage like this?
Sam: The biennale is by application, so of course I hoped I would be selected, but I didn’t really think I would be, so it was a fantastic surprise when I heard that I was.
Kimani: It is work touching on the work of NGOs. What inspired it?
Sam: The work which I exhibit is a direct result of living and working in Nairobi over the last few years. During that time I co-founded Slum TV, a grassroots media collective based in Mathare, and in the process of doing so I met with many NGOs. I was struck by the very particular language that these NGOs worked with, which sometimes, but not always, appeared to be empty rhetoric. Often this language seemed to reduce complex issues down to keywords such as ‘Sustainability, Capacity-Building, Synergies, Beneficiation and Upscaling’. Whilst perhaps these keywords are useful in the context of ‘Development’, they did not seem suitable or helpful to the art project which we were developing, which was interested in setting up an experimental media project, without anticipated goals and outcomes, in Mathare. Nevertheless, in Kenya, our work was always limited to the NGO discourse.
Kimani: What is the significance of the logos?
Sam: On the one hand a logo reveals how an organisation chooses to represent itself, on the other hand, they represent certain subconscious assumptions about a whole industry. To take an example from a related sector; why is the UNESCO logo composed of Greek columns? This is the UN organisation for world culture, so why should a Classical European symbol stand for world culture? The logos of NGOs in Kenya pose similar questions. Why do we have organisations in Kenya called ‘Hope’, ‘Concern’ and ‘Empathi’? What do these names reveal about the assumptions of the Development sector? They were intriguing as they seemed to distil the iconography of the industry and reveal the expectations of the belief system that underpins the whole NGO project.
Kimani: Why did you use the logos yet they don’t really tell the story of the organisations?
Sam:It is true that the logos do not tell the entire story of the organisations, and I am not commenting on the whole organisation. I am a visual artist and as such am interested in representation. In this situation I am specifically interested in how these organisations choose to represent themselves. My strategy with this piece has been to mix real logos of real organisations with fake logos of organisations that do not exist. The idea is to introduce an element of doubt into the viewer so s/he is not sure which are real. This fictionalising is designed to make you re-engage with all of the logos, it presents them in a new context. Hence you look at organisations called ‘Hope’, ‘Concern’, Hope for the African Child Initiative’, ‘Empathi’ and you wonder, can these be real names?
Kimani: You talk about a blurred line in as far as charity, development or aid is concerned. What is your personal take of this?
Sam: The Development world is complex and complicated and I am in no place to critique its effectiveness. It is a heterogeneous sector so I do not think it makes sense to make generalisations about it. As a visual artist I am interested in the representation of this sector, be it in the logos, the adverts and the films commissioned. And, whilst the organisations are varied, the representation tropes are similar.
Kimani: We you aware that there is a new legal framework that is supposed to provide guidance in the way NGOs now being referred to as Public Benefit Organisations will be run?
Sam: I was not
Sam: I was not
Kimani: Does this mean/have an impact to your work as it evolves?
Sam: If this legal framework leads to a more critical and engaged position about how the development sector represents itself, then this will certainly impact on my work. To re-iterate, I am not generalising about how these NGOs are actually run, or what they do. I am interested in the images they use to communicate.
The offering at the altar of the Dak’Art 2014 is awe-inspiring. Since 2002, the Biennale has been running the IN and OFF programmes that has enabled many other stakeholders to participate in the program’s primary and complimentary roles.
The International Exhibition of African and African Diaspora artists is the main event (the IN) and the work is exhibited at the Biennale Village that is about two and half kilometers from the city centre. The International Exhibition was curated by Elise Atangana who selected the works from the diaspora, Abdelkader Damani for North Africa and Smooth Ugochukwu Nzewi for sub-Saharan Africa. They trio did a fantastic job.
You will probably see everything that is on display but if you want to savour it well, one visit will not be enough. Trust me I had to go back again and it was a whole new feeling. It was like falling in love all over again. I noticed many new things. I had the opportunity to meet some of the artists and have a chat with them and to understand their work even better.
However, when you are done with the Biennale Village, take time to sample the other great works of art on offer at other venues. The National Gallery has a tribute show of the Moustapha Dimé that has been curated by the great Ivorian Curator Yacouba Konaté.
It is a great show and Yacouba has paid homage to the late Moustapha Dimé in many ways. He has captured many elements that speak of the late artist and made him proud. There installations, paintings, pictures and even video without a doubt give you a glimpse of the late Dimé’s life. The curator recreated the shores of the ocean when he worked and you will also be able to pick his other interests—religions, women, traditions etc.
When you are done with the National Gallery, take time to visit the Exhibition of Contemporary art at the Musee IFAN dubbed Diversite Culturelle and curated by Massamba Mbaye. This is an exquisite show of selected invited artists from around Africa and abroad. Kenya’s painter and sculptor Joseph Bertiers’ of the invited artists. The themes are varied and each work of art striking in its own unique way and credence goes to the Curator Massamba and his team.
They worked so hard and delivered a show that has numerous conversations going on. Momar Seck’s piece Embouteillage, 2013 looks at the Senegalese community through the streets and it is as colorful as it is insightful. Sex and Sexuality is also featured but is prominent in the eye catching installation depicting many erect penis.
I expected to see Kenya’s Joseph Bertiers’ piece but like several artists here, their work is either still with customs or has not yet arrived. This is an organizational nightmare but perhaps also shows the contradictions that often characterize the Biennale.
For an event that takes place every two years, yet some things are being done at the very last minute, is not encouraging. Some of the hitches being experienced like Joseph Bertiers being around for the opening of his show yet his work is lying in some custom warehouse awaiting clearance, is unfortunate.
Some places were still being constructed or repaired a few hours to the opening of the show and one clear instance that captured the frustration was the banging and sawing off that kept interrupting the speakers at the Art Critic seminar. The construction was to get the Biennale Village ready for the official opening of the International Exhibition but the frustrations of some of the key speakers was palpable.
These are painful experiences for the organisers that are perhaps atoned by the gorgeous works of art that are exhibited but they are also valuable lessons. The Biennale has grown in stature and the OFF segment alone is attracting a huge following. The international exhibition continues to amaze and full of surprises.
The organisations and coordination needs to get better. If you make it the Biennale, don’t let this dampen you. The offering at the altar of the Dak’Art 2014 is awe-inspiring. They are plenty.
It is funny that political conversations that I have been involved in for the last six to seven months should follow me (or is it the other way round) to Dakar. When I left Kenya for my “art pilgrimage” to courtesy of the Dak’Art 2014, part of the political discourse in the country then was on the new regulatory legal framework that is supposed to help improve the Public Benefit Organisations also known as the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to serve the public better.
The hot debate around this new legal framework has been heightened by the government’s attempt, late year, to try and introduce some amendments that were by and large going to either cripple or kill the NGOs sector, inspite of their significance and input to development.
There is now a new confrontation pitying the government that argues that they need more regulations that to reform the sector and the stakeholders with the NGOs who argue that the move is ill timed. Those opposed to the government move argue that the new regulation that become law early last year (2013) has not been tested because the government minister in charge has been reluctant to commence the new law.
The opponents argue that changing the new law and making it more punitive before it is even tested is insensitive. Supporters of the new law argue that it was developed in a participatory way. It took about four years to develop it and the process brought together representatives of a wide spectrum of NGOs and even government bodies and departments. NGOs maintain that the new law is good.
However, even as this debate goes on in the government offices and NGOs spaces, ordinary citizens are holding their own debates and points of view. One of this point of view by the citizen has received space at this year’s Dak’Art biennale and while subtle, it speaks volume.
The role and significance of NGOs is discussed by Kenyan-based artist Sam Hopkins with his installation Logos of Non Profit Organisations working in Kenya (some of which are imaginary). A silk screen measuring 80x230x5 cm each and started in 2010, the project is an ongoing interrogation.
“That the NGO sector is very important in Kenya is without doubt,” Sam pointed out. “However, what is not clear is what qualifies as charity, development or aid.”
Sam Hopkins addresses this wide assortment of NGOs and their diverging missions by focusing on the aesthetics of their logo designs.
It is not only Sam Hopkins, who discussed politics at this year’s Dak’Art biennale. It is a recurring theme that is openly discussed by some artists and others are subtle. The work is presented as paintings, sculptures, installations and even videos.
Amary Sobel Diop’s Apologie pour la paix (Apology for Peace) pays tribute to the women of the past few decades responsible for a fragile that is maintained through their actions. These women include Tawakal Karman, Alione Sitoe Diatta, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leyman Roberta Gbowee and Rigobert Manchu Tum.
Boughriet’s HD video dubbed Transit touches on politics. Linked to both her Arabic background and Western culture, Halida shows how human relationships are powerful and violent. Her work involves political, social and aesthetic matters.
Serge Olivier Fokoua’s installation Emprise falls into this category too. Emprise questions the motives of democratic representatives. How can we trust those who “only think with their gut?”
At the Dak’Art 2014, sex and sexuality is a recurring theme highlighted by various artists both at the IN and OFF Exhibitions. The conversations are varied and while some are very subtle, there are few that are quite open.
None is however, as the eye catching installation depicting many erect penis surrounding what is clearly a woman. The inference is yours to make. What is your reading?
The names of the winners Dak’Art 2014 Biennale laureates we made public during the official launch of the festival that was presided over by the Senegalese Prime Minister Madam Aminata Toure. The prizes giving ceremony took place at the Grand Theatre, Dakar.
The Prime Minister was accompanied by the top officer from the Culture and Heritage Ministry that organizes the art festival every two years. The Ministry officials who graced the opening ceremony included Mr. Abdoul Aziz Mbaye, Minister of Culture and Heritage, Ms. Thérèse Turpin Diatta, president of the orientation committee of Dak’Art and Mr. Abdelkader Damani, the curator representing the Dak’Art 2014 biennale jury. The event was also attended by Morocco’s Minister of Culture Mohammed Amine Sbihi
The laureates were:
- Grand Prize: The Léopold Sédar Senghor: (awarded by the President of Senegal) went to Driss Ouadahi (Algeria) & Olu Amoda (Nigeria);
- The Minister of Culture and Heritage Prize:— Justine Gaga (Cameroon);
- The International Organization of the Francophone Prize:— Sidy Diallo (Senegal);
- The City of Dakar Prize (that is given by the Mayor of Dakar):— Faten Rouissi (Tunisia);
- The Blachère Foundation Prize:— Milumbe Haimbe (Zambia);
- The Oumar Ndao Prize for the Biennale of Contemporary African Art of Dakar:— (awarded by Vives Voix):— Amary Sobel Diop (Senegal);
- The West African Economic and Monetary Union Prize:— Guibril André Diop (Senegal);
- The National Studio of Contemporary Art Prize:— (awarded by Le Fresnoy, France) Nomusa Makhubu (South Africa);
- The Centre Soleil d’Afrique Prize: — Houda Ghorbel (Tunisia).
You can also read some more about the winners and view some of their work at the Dak’Art 2014 by clicking here: http://www.biennaledakar.org/2014/spip.php?page=article26
Laureates of the grand prize i.e. Léopold Sédar Senghor Prize since 1992
- 1992: Moustapha Dimé, Senegal and Zerihun Yetmgeta, Ethiopia;
- 1996: Abdoulaye Konaté, Mali;
- 1998: Viyé Diba, Senegal;
- 2000: Fatma Charfi, Tunisia;
- 2002: Ndary Lo, Senegal;
- 2004: Michèle Magema, Congo RDC;
- 2006: Mounir Fatmi, Morocco;
- 2008: Ndary Lo, Sénégal and Mansour Ciss Kanakassy, Senegal;
- 2010: Moridja Kitenge Banza, Congo RDC;
- 2012: Younés Baba-Ali, Morocco.