Kenyan Art Looks Into The Country’s Political Decay

A Kenyan artist brings into discourse the ignorance that mars Kenya's political transparency

The political climate in Kenya is one that reaches boiling point in the months leading to elections. This year was no exception with the stampede reaching its peak on 9th August. The image of Kenyan politics borders the insane, insincerity, and the conspiratorial. Ghosts appear to vote. Numbers pile up and the electoral body is a simmering pot in the mathematical furnace. Nevertheless, it is astounding the way it comes out with the eventual winner.

Regardless, since 2008 the national theme after election is foul play. Thanks to the new constitution, the Supreme Court is there to lend a hand in the hot broth that is the Kenyan politics. The lawyers line up. Piles of paper are presented and each side comes out with witty phrases that form part of the growing urban idiomatic expressions.

This year’s August elections took a rather peculiar trajectory. There were great expectations on the two major political divide. The media made sure of this by creating a divide between the major contenders and those considered to be unworthy of the public opinion. In the run up to elections, everyone was gunning for his/her side.

Protracted period before releasing the results, the Supreme Court and the high cost of living created a dicey atmosphere that dulled down into ghostly pain for the losers and pained celebration for the victors. It was as if each side felt the pain and the celebration of the other creating a resigned yet ‘accept and move on atmosphere’ interred in the exhibition “Accept and Move On, It Is What It Is by Kenyan artist Thom Ongonga.

September 24th would see the exhibition open at one of Kenya’s leading gallery One Off Contemporary Art Gallery along Limuru Road. Ongonga’s current body of work carries the weight of political, economic and social anxieties created by the Covid19 Pandemic and the Kenyan political process.

Burdened by a lot of cares, the Kenyan public was tired of the Kenyan politicians’ tantrums and charades that have in the past led to violence (2008) and protests (2017) and the adage on everyone’s lip was to accept and move on. This was not the mantra by the winners alone, it was shared by both sides of the political divide.

As has been seen, the Kenyan political process is one of the most emotive activity with sharp divisions. Albeit transparent and done with the latest technology, the results always live the country divided and with no clear winner. In this case, the country is polarized and everyone is in the state of epistemic ambivalence.

With this in mind, Ongonga’s work captures the state of a Kenyan drawn into a battle they are not ready to fight. The paintings in acrylic and charcoal on canvas reveal the suppression of real emotion in the guise of acceptance. They show vainglorious celebrations in the shadow of despair and the loneliness that comes with despair. Armed with cigarettes and liquor, the subjects drown the sorrows and happiness in the knowledge that this is all behind us and the fact that life has to go on. The return to normalcy is returning to the daily routine of drinking, harlotry and camaraderie- the veil of the brewing uncertainty within.

Some of the titles are periods within time for example 17:59hrs, 19:48hrs, 23:20hrs, 03:55hrs marking the different times of alcohol imbibing and the decisions made through intoxication. The hours could also indicate anxiety awaiting announcing of the results- 17;59hrs which shows waiters with empty trays awaiting to serve they revelers who arrive and place their orders late at 19:48hrs and manifest into the activities of the night that culminate at 03:55hrs awaiting another cycle of acceptance.

Whichever way, Ongonga opens up a conversation on how acceptance is slowly replacing defiance thus creating a society interred in George Orwell’s book 1984. In the Kenyan chapter, this Orwelian society is tired of fronting leaders who seem to lack tact and an electoral process that is mired in open secrecy. With the advent of the internet, the flow of information is superfluous to an extent that truth is subjective. Additionally, the media is as divided as the society is and sings to the tune of the one who wields the knife. Caught in the middle of all this, it is better to bury the hatchet, accept and move on.

Moving on is easy, but does this mean that we stop asking questions? As it seem, it is what it is. It has been since the colonial period that the atrocities committed in the struggle for power are left unsolved and buried to the past. Successive regimes have inherited this up to now and that is why, it is easier for the society to let things solve themselves despite the glaring mistakes and growing divisions, voter apathy and opportunistic leadership. Need we act? But then again, it is what it is.

Thom Ongonga brings in an interesting yet critical look at the Kenyan political situation. It is an interesting topic for discourse which perhaps will remain in the art scene and not see the day in the public theater. His works are set at night; “My work is very figurative and a representive of a ‘typical night out in the city’ and is most often a satical view of our hypocritical culture of being ‘resposnible citizens’ during the day and the total opposite when the sun goes down.” Ongonga said in his statement.

A print maker, Ongonga has grown to become a household name in the Kenya’s art scene ever since his debut at Kuona Trust at the National Museums of Kenya this was before Kuona moved to its current location. He has grown to take on many titles as a curator of art, art criticism among others.

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