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Title: Constructing and deconstructing a nation : the emergence of contemporary Kenyan art (1963-1993)
Author: Maingi, Donald Kuira
ISNI:       0000 0004 7426 042X
Awarding Body: Birkbeck, University of London
Current Institution: Birkbeck (University of London)
Date of Award: 2018
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This dissertation used multiple historical case studies to examine the emergence of contemporary art within Kenya’s problematic post-independence context of imagining a nation. It fills an important gap by ethnographically unveiling how local artists culturally constructed their agency by contesting President’s Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s Harambee era (1963-1978) and Daniel arap Moi’s Nyayo era (1978-2002). In particular, it unveiled the State’s populist reconstruction of KANU nationalism and its history by specific art and heritage objects. Local artists responded to such political conditions ushered by Mzee Kenyatta’s KANU government’s indigenization of political power hence, re-invention of Kenyan modernity and national heritage by forging relations between populist politics and Nairobi’s popular culture. Moi’s KANU regime and its acquisition of Kenya’s second Vice President, Joseph Murumbi’s huge African art collection and private archives in 1978, redefined such power relations by transforming its preservation and representation at the KNA as national heritage. This followed what his predecessor silenced as Kenyans’ emerging private and popular archives within rural and urban public spheres. Specifically, the popular visual signage shaping Kenyan matatus or paratransit public service vehicles as well as their imaginary depiction in popular songs, contributed to a thickening of oppositional political discourses nationally circulating as collective public images or taswira within emerging national public spaces impacting Kenyan art. Local rural artists such as John Diang’a unveilled a cultural metaphor in Western Kenya interpreting and mediating contested cultural boundaries and border between Luo and Luhyia ethnic communities at Maseno. Other self-taught artists such as former Mau Mau, Edward Njenga and Samwel Wanjau circulated urban imaginaries related to the growth of informal Nairobi city thereby conveying their everday critical observation of urban poverty and past memories respectively in what was unknown as their views about Kenyans’ past in the present. Younger artists such as Richard Onyango and sign-painter, Joseph Ngatia as well as Sisi kwa Sisi artists, however, radically transformed their own versions of a people’s art, by metaphorically altering public perceptions about Kenyans’ everyday social and political inequalities within Kenyan modernity. Such registered everyday historical consciousness survived within President Moi’s punitive KANU era from the late 1970’s to the early 1990’s. Upon this backdrop, Ruth Schaffner’s patronage and international promortion of village-based artists at Gallery Watatu enabled their transformation of such popular historical consciousness. This led to a re-birthing of self-taught artists politically conscious of their generation of postcolonial identities within varied peri-urban and rural societal democratization struggles. Gallery Watatu thus produced such artists as Sane Wadu in Ngecha village, Limuru and Joel Oswaggo representing a rural migrant signpainter from Kisumu. They culturally inverted and bridged the divides between the political and the popular, rural and urban, as well as local gallery based art practices and internationally promoted forms of Kenyan contemporary art in the early 1990’s.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available