Three years ago, with funding from Goethe-Institut Nairobi, I founded and started curating a project called Artistic Encounters. The project consists of having the work of two artists in two different disciplines, speaking to each other.
As an example, the first event consisted of South African poet Koleka Putuma reciting her work while Nigerian writer and visual artist Victor Ehikhamenor sketched his interpretation of her work.
A key part of its seduction is that often art lovers are exposed to a brilliant artist they may not be familiar with being matched with a name they know. In the case of Ehikhamenor and Putuma, it was the former they were familiar with but their exposure to the latter resulted in her developing a core fan base in Nairobi and her poetry collection selling out there perhaps faster than in South Africa. If life imitates art, as I often like to argue, then Artistic Encounters is the best example of how that happens.
Last week we entered the third season of Artistic Encounters with Kenyan actor Abu Sense adapting for stage Malawian writer Shadreck Chikoti’s futuristic novel Azotus the Kingdom.
The novel is set in a futuristic Africa where the leaders have mortgaged the continent to Western corporate bosses in exchange for wealth. The citizens of the continent are seduced into surrendering their citizenship for residency because they will get homes, food, clothes and entertainment. The catch is that everyone has to live alone and their only interaction is with those who come to deliver their food and clothes. In this world, citizenship is only conferred on Caucasians and Asians with the latter having work as “The Eyes of the Kingdom”. But then there is that odd person who exhibits that insanity: the quest for freedom.
Sense’s interpretation of the book took in the current narrative of drought in Kenya, where citizens have become skeletal (some are dying) from a lack of food. He has the African citizens agreeing to surrender their birthright for food or because some charismatic African leaders tell them to do so.
Because the budget for Artistic Encounters is pretty meagre, a core part of it is that the artists from outside Kenya get to slum it and stay in my home, ensuring that both artists are paid. And, because I like people, we always have a get-together the Saturday before the visiting artist’s departure. We are easy about who comes, and most people tend to bring and share, so it never really puts my household much out of budget. Last weekend we had, among our guests, a Nigerian financial analyst, a journalist, a Motswana actor, a Zambian environmental scientist and a Kenyan architect. We got to solving problems of the continent, as only powerless natives do. With Nigerians having just had elections and Malawi, South Africa and Botswana due for elections this year, one of my guests said something interesting on this topic.
He mentioned how, as Africans, a major part of our electoral problems have been that our relationship with politics is akin to our relationship with religion. In the same way that we believe in a TB Joshua or a Shepherd Bushiri more than we think we should examine the truth in their messages and question their lifestyles, so we also swallow whatever a Mokgweetsi Masisi or Peter Mutharika says without questioning. And when they disappoint, we trade them in for another personality.
One guest then argued that we need to be willing to discard our obsessions with the cult of personality. Much like Kamoto, the protagonist in Azotus the Kingdom, did against the king in his quest for freedom. Instead, he suggested that we engage with what each party offers and be brave enough to discard them if they do not fulfil their promises.
Since that conversation, I have been thinking, more than ever, about how not to throw away my vote as I fully intended to do before then.
With a little over a month to go before South African elections, we are in the courting season. In five years’ time, when my son is old enough to vote, which political party in South Africa is least likely to have mortgaged the country to the highest bidder? Who is likely to ensure I am freer to express discontent while ensuring that I don’t have to rob a bank for my son’s education and prefer death because healthcare is unaffordable?
Unlike Kamoto, mine is not just a quest for freedom. I also want affordable food, healthcare and education. My life is imitating art.