The role of artistes in nation building

Vioja Mahakamani crew in action during a past national event. [File, Standard]

In a previous article, I discussed what functions art plays in our everyday lives. But perhaps a more important question to ask is what role do artistes and creatives play as members of our society?

At face value, it isn’t easy to see what role artistes and musicians play in our society beyond merely entertaining us. But artistes are the creators and carriers of any society’s culture. The penultimate cultural symbols of our nationhood are the products of artistes.

Our anthem was written and composed by a team of musicians and music teachers in 1963, led by the organ player and choirmaster for All Saints Cathedral, Graham Hyslop. The anthem was adapted by this team of musicians and musical experts from a Pokomo lullaby, which Pokomo mothers used to sing to their children. Just like a lullaby, the musicians who composed our anthem did so to comfort and encourage us and rouse our devotion and love for our mother country.

Our national flag was designed by visual artistes, and it began as the flag for the Kenya African Union (later Kenya African National Union) during Kenya’s struggle for independence. Mzee Jomo Kenyatta explained the symbolism of the flag in 1952 at a KANU rally in Nyeri.

“It has three colours – black at the top. Red in the middle, and green at the bottom. Black is to show that this is for black people. Red is to show that the blood of an African is the same colour as the blood of a European, and green is to show that when we were given this country by God it was green, fertile and good; but now you see the green is below red and suppressed. You also see on the flag a shield, a spear and an arrow.

This means that we should remember our forefathers who used these weapons to guard this land for us.” Here Kenyatta narrates the visual motifs and symbols used by artistes to encapsulate our national identity, our struggle against oppression and our desire for freedom and prosperity.

And that is the role that all artistes should be aware of, that they have the means and the talent to act as the voices of the people and encapsulate our national values and aspirations.

Indeed, many artistes are often co-opted into being mouthpieces of the State by many dictatorial regimes, and propaganda is the most efficient tool used to oppress the minds of the masses by authoritarian rulers.

Freedom of speech and freedom of expression therefore must be maintained by society for artistes to not be constrained in their vision. Not only should artistes not be co-opted into becoming mere apparatuses of the State, but many artistes are also our culture and society’s most pivotal critics.

Contemporary Kenyan artists use satire and humour to openly rebuke our leaders and politicians and challenge our society in general about how we live.  We are all familiar with cartoonists such as Maddo and Victor Ndula, whose humorous caricatures have been featured in countless newspapers.

These cartoons are incredibly entertaining, but they are fundamentally a means to knock our leaders off the pedestals they seek to occupy in our minds. They allow us to see our leaders for what they are, rather than be swept up in the illusions of grandeur that so often come with positions of political leadership.

Many prolific Kenyan painters have made their mark by openly satirising our current affairs and challenging our contemporary political establishment. Veteran artiste Joseph Mbatia, also known as Bertiers’s ridiculously funny, and at times chaotic paintings have received global attention for their satirisation of not just Kenyan but global leaders and events.

His paintings feature both local and international political figures and elites in absurd situations and engaged in farcical activities, such as Kofi Anan drinking alcohol at a kibanda with Martha Karua and Willy Mutunga in Mukuru, or more recently, Raila and Uhuru sharing a handshake whilst also sharing mahindi choma.

In an interview at his current exhibition at Alliance Francaise, titled Sarakasi za Siasa, (the circus of politics) reporter Mbugua Ngunjiri quotes Bertiers saying, “As an artiste, I must observe society and depict the same on canvas or in my sculptures,”.

Bertiers work aims to bring brevity and humour to what is so often the very dire state of our national politics. But as well as critiquing our society and raising awareness about the injustices that plague our politics, the role of the artistes in Kenya can be as promoters of peace and national unity.

It is through art that we memorialise our heroes, and honour those who fell during our independence struggle.