Jimmy Ogonga is too polite. He and his Kenya Pavilion planning commission for the country’s participation in the Venice Biennale have been like too diplomatic.
They haven’t wanted to ruffle feathers of key Kenya government figures like minister Hassan Wario, who literally promised Kenya artists’ participation in the global art world’s equivalent of the Olympics was rock solid.
That promise was made after Wario admitted it had been inappropriate for the government to endorse not Kenyan artists but Chinese and Italians taking part in the last three Kenya Pavilions. To prove his contrition, he had cancelled the 2015 Italian-backed Pavilion.
But his admission came only after he was confronted by an organised group of Kenyan artists and an emphatic petition demanding the 2015 Pavilion come down. Previously, Wario had ignored artists’ complaints that an Italian hotelier had somehow gotten the signed endorsement required to get into the Venice Biennale in the first place.
Speaking to a room-full of Kenyan artists and friends last Tuesday at Goethe Institute, Ogonga, (who’s the government-appointed curator of the Pavilion) had called everyone interested in an update on the Kenya Pavilion to come that night.
He had mostly kept the public updated on Pavilion progress. It was known that the government, as a sign of its commitment to supporting a real, not a bogus Kenyan Pavilion, had set up a commission headed by Dr Kiprop Lagat who, being an employee of the National Museums of Kenya, would serve as a liaison between the government and the artists.
Lydia Galavu, also an employee of the National Museums, was appointed Pavilion project manager. Unfortunately neither one could attend that night. Apparently, that was because the artists-organised ad hoc meeting was contrary to protocol. However, it was known Dr Lagat had travelled to Kisumu to the Kenya Drama Festival to represent the government.
In fact, Ogonga had already let it be known the government had not followed through on its commitment. Its promise to ensure Kenya-run Pavilion was hollow. No funding had come through.
Ogonga explained the budget had been devised in early 2016 and been carefully scrutinised together with the Culture PS Joe Okundo. “We even managed to cut our budget substantially, but even so, the funding hasn’t come through.”
Whether the hold-up in government funding has come from the Treasury or the ministry is not clear, Ogonga told the Business Daily the week before the Goethe meeting. During a question and answer session, artists noted it was even possible the Treasury had released the funds, but they had been waylaid somewhere between there and the Pavilion.
Either way, the burning questions of the hour were ‘What to do? Do we scrap the whole project or do we proceed, trying to fundraise ourselves, either in Harambee-style or by calling philanthropists and donors, several of whom already offered to assist but hesitated because they believed government funding would come through at the last minute.