GALLERIES: Boycott plan over museum nudity ban

Tuesday May 30 2017

Banned - This painting by Michael Soi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

Banned - This painting by Michael Soi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 

By Frank Whalley

This is one of the paintings that officials of the National Museum of Kenya found unfit for your eyes.

They banned it together with 14 other paintings and drawings plus two sculptures that were to have been displayed in an exhibition called Saying the Unspeakable.

Now artists are planning to boycott the museum in protest, following the decision to cancel the exhibition that curators had trumpeted as “by artists who do not flinch from controversial issues.”

For the exhibition, held to celebrate International Museum Day, curators had solicited five paintings from Michael Soi, eight from Patrick Mukabi and two paintings plus sculpture from Joseph Mbatia, better known as Bertiers.

The curators were sent digital images of all the works well in advance of the opening date (May 18), but once the works were delivered the artists were astonished to be told that all were banned as “unsuitable for family viewing.”

Soi, known for his biting social commentary with cartoon-like paintings often set in nighclubs, and for satirising religions’ attitudes to sex, told me: “The museum has lost all its credibility.” He said that he for one would never show at the National Museums of Kenya again and that other artists were following suit.

Soi’s work is well known throughout Europe and the US, where he has held many successful exhibitions and been praised by critics, curators and the public.

Mukabi, who also said he would no longer show at the museum, was invited to submit eight works, three of which were of paintings of nude women — in a technique that allows his strong blue outlines to describe the weight and mass of the bodies — plus two charcoal drawings of naked men and three paintings of his typical market women.

He was told that none of the works was suitable, and that the bottoms of the market women, who were fully clothed, were “too big.” Mukabi, based at the GoDown Arts Centre in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, is one of Kenya’s most respected painters and art teachers. His former pupils include Florence Wambui, Dickson Kaloki, Alex Mbevi, Mike Kyalo and Cyrus Kabiru, famed for his quirky spectacles called C-Stunners.

Bertiers sent two paintings and three sculptures made of welded steel, one of which gave particular offence. It was over life size and in exaggeratedly comic poses showed a man and a women fighting, The skirts of the woman were flying, revealing her white panties.

The sculpture has been exhibited previously, at the Kuona Trust Arts Centre, the old RaMoMA gallery and abroad. However, Bertiers was told the subject, domestic violence, was “unsuitable,” and the sight of the woman’s panties “might give offence.”

The exhibition the Museum had planned, commissioned and advertised over several months, was then cancelled. Ironically all three artists — Soi, Mukabi and Bertiers — had shown similar works at the Museum.

They were left with a number of questions: Why did the Museum cancel a show its own officials had conceived and planned and that fairly lived up to the title and billing they had given it? If they had seen all the works in advance why were they surprised by their content?

If they thought the content was too adult, why didn’t the curators organise visitor traffic to exclude children, as they did with previous exhibitions, including one about HIV/Aids, another called Nairobi 24 that included graphic photographs from the red light area, and Kenya Burning, which showed horrific images from the post- election violence of 2007-8?

The answer seems to be that the nerve of senior Museum officials failed when they first saw the work eagerly solicited and then accepted by their juniors. Soi’s satirical attack on the clergy made them flinch, as did the amount of nudity. And nudity, as we all know, should not be found in a national museum.

Never mind that in the museum’s own Prehistory Gallery you can find some of the most obviously naked mannequins ever made

And never mind either that some of the greatest paintings and sculptures in history have been of or included what is probably the single most common subject of all — the nude.

Nevertheless, Kenya now has a museum that it would seem does not dare to show statues of gods and goddesses from Ancient Greece and Rome, nor the drawings of Leonardo and Michelangelo, nor Michelangelo’s iconic statue David, nor much of African tribal sculpture nor some of the best known paintings in history, including Manet’s Olympia, Ingres’ Grand Odalesque and works by Bonnard, Renoir, Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani.

The Kenyan artists’ fault, it seems, was that they obligingly lived up to a title — Saying the Unspeakable — not of their own making and thrust upon them by a museum that had no coherent policy on controversial work and, to play it safe, then rejected the result. It remains to be seen how effective the artists’ boycott will be.