Opinion piece: Kenya and South Africa in the arts
By Ms Zukiswa Wanner*
A fair share of both of South Africa and Kenya’s taxes come from artists. Beyond artists themselves, there are also many people who may not be artists but are employed because of art be they curators, printers, publishers, instrumentalists and even weavers. As part of my research for the presentation, I talked to artists from both countries.
I realized that our problems are similar. In both countries, artists are taxed as full-time employees while unable to access the sort of perks that full-time employees like insurance or loans because they earn in an irregular manner. There is also a lack of appreciation and a constant need for ‘free’ stuff from artists as though artists don’t eat and don’t need a roof over their heads for some animal allegedly called ‘publicity.’
The good news is, despite this, the artists have not been dissuaded from creating. Between Kenya and South Africa, collaborations have, in fact, been happening. The main fields that artists in the two countries have been working together on are in literature, visual arts, music, performing arts, fashion and there seems to be room for working together in film, as I shall explain further. Our two national public relations companies, Brand SA and Brand Kenya have unfortunately not been as aware of it as they should be so that they can amplify the message to art lovers in both Kenya and South Africa from our two different countries.
Kenyan writers have participated in literary festivals in Durban, Franschhoek, and Open Book in Cape Town. I suspect as Kenyans continue to write, this will continue happening. There is also a reciprocal relationship with Storymoja with South African writers coming through for the last three years through funding from the South African High Commission. Beyond attending literary festivals, Kenyans have participated in pan-African literary initiatives that are of South African origin. One that comes to mind is Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) which was first won by Kenya’s Okwiri Oduor who went on to win the Caine Prize with her winning SSDA story. This year, two Kenyans, Wairimu Muriithi and Florence Onyango are on the long list for SSDA while the judging panel of three includes Billy Kahora of Kwani.
In visual arts, Kenyan artists such as Michael Soi and Magdalene Odundo have previously done workshops or residencies in South Africa. I recall a conversation with Ms. Odundo, who incidentally helped me shape the main character in my last novel London Cape Town Joburg, where she informed me that she had done some workshops in Durban and had also visited spaces like the Walters Gallery in Franschhoek. South African artists have also been guests of Kenya and I am selfish enough to hope that one of my compatriots wins the residency that Kuona Trust is currently advertising for fellow Africans.
This year alone, Kenyan music fans have danced to South African musicians Simphiwe Dana, Jonathan Butler (yes. Contrary to what an opposition newspaper stated last week, he is not American but is in fact South African) and most recently Mi Casa. Prior to this, at least half the participants of Muthoni DQ’s Blankets & Wine have been South African participants.
South Africa has also been lucky to have Eric Wainaina as one of the headline acts for Africa Day celebrations previously. But, as one of the participants at the Dialogue mentioned, there is room for more collaboration in this particular field. Beyond once-off performances by artists in our respective countries, our musicians can have the type of musical collaborations that have been happening between South African and Nigerian musicians. The same participant also suggested that artists could also stay beyond their event dates and do workshops at the two Kenyan universities that offer music – Daystar and Kenyatta universities.
Last year, I was honoured to see Mshai Mwangola perform at a literary festival in South Africa. This was despite the fact that I have known Mshai in Kenya for a while and had never seen her perform. As we share some similar stories as Africans, one hopes we can see more Kenyan stories performed on South African stages and vice-versa, particularly now that the Kenyan National Theatre is available to artists again. Currently there is an initiative called LongStoryShort in South Africa where writers from all over the continent have written short stories that are performed by South African artists monthly to a non-paying public.
The performers have included Renate Stuurman, Hlubi Mboya and Lindiwe Mashikiza, among others. Curated by Yewande Omotoso and Kgauhelo Dube, this initiative has made literature accessible to an audience that may otherwise not know of all the writers included. While LongStoryShort currently doesn’t have any Kenyan writers, hopefully, they will have some next year.
In fashion, South Africa’s clothing chain store Mr Price, in partnership with Elle Magazine’s Rising Star Design Search engage home-grown talent to produce for their shops. If this chain is going to work for Kenya’s fashion industry, perhaps they can suggest that the owners of the local franchise to do the same with local designers. It does not do the Kenyan fashion industry any favours.
As mentioned before, there is room for work to be done in the world of film. Although Kenyan filmmakers have participated in South Africa’s Durban International Film Festival and the movie Nairobi Half Life won an award, more can be done. As I understand it, Kenya Film Commission (KFC) and South Africa’s National Film and Video Foundation signed an agreement to work together at the Cannes Film Festival over a year ago.
Unfortunately this is the sort of deal that many of my filmmaker friends in Kenya and South Africa do not seem to know anything about. I wonder whether there is any way that an initiative like this one could be publicized so that more filmmakers get to know about it.
.*Author is aSouth African journalist and novelist.This presentation was given during the Dialogue session that Brand SA hosted in Nairobi. The Dialogue was held under theme, Towards Agenda 2063: The Ties that Bind Us.