Meanings of Art


The event had barely started when we walked in. I was glad. I hate going into places when things have already been set in motion because my anxieties then tell me that they are all staring at me, scrutinizing, judging, mocking, even though I know they are not. It was a small place, not at all what I expected. When Mackenzie told me that he wanted my company during an art exhibition he was attending, I pictured a huge space with a lot of art on the walls, and a tonne of white people holding wine glasses smiling at pieces that I would not have understood. The Circle Art Gallery was small though.

I am not being honest when I say the place was not all what I expected. There was a tonne of white people holding wine glasses and smiling at pieces I did not understand. We will get to that later. There were also artsy black people. Kenyans with colourful turbans wrapped around their heads and piercings everywhere. I expected that too. I find that artsy people have a stronger appreciation for jewellery than other people, save, perhaps, for older women who have found success in their businesses and are always decked in kilograms of gold rings and bracelets and earrings and necklaces. But mostly rings. When I see a woman in her fifties or sixties, with make up on, a well-done manicure and at least seventeen gold rings on her wrinkling hands, I know that she probably owns land in this Nairobi, a couple of boutiques and maybe a hardware store. I imagine that that woman in the news who owned the building her husband was paying rent to looks something like this. But see me digressing. The point is that there are people who just look like they do artsy things like sing, do spoken word, paint, or teach yoga. And those people almost always have on jewellery that speaks of their connection to the motherland. Statement pieces and all that. And they were there too. Holding wine glasses. Duh.

The room was all white, which made the art on the walls stand out. Some of them were what I learned are called installation pieces, some of them of them were more like what I was used to seeing in movies. All of them were mostly baffling to me. I wish I could describe each one: the way they looked, what they were called, who the artists were. I can’t. I remember little of it. There was one by Wambui Kamiru-Collymore; it had a lot of roses and was like some kind of shrine. I kind of understood that one, but I still can’t describe it. Sorry. There was one that was two Kaunda suits sitting on two boards. On one of the boards was the year 1964 and on the other, 2017. The suits were exactly the same and all that differed was that number. And another one was footballs. One made of concrete, another made of paperbags (yes, exactly like the ones you played with as a child), and another was made of bronze. Another piece was what looked like a gunia with some buttons on it, nothing else.

Guys. I didn’t get it.

Have you ever attended a kesha? I haven’t but I have a good idea what goes on in a kesha. People pray. And pray. And pray. They break sometimes to sing slow worship songs that are normally repetitive and drag on forever. When you are in the midst of prayer warriors and you don’t have enough practice in the art and science of praying long prayers, you end up saying amen before the people around you are yet to finish calling on God by all His names. And you stand there awkwardly wondering what it is that people are telling God that is taking so long, and whether this makes you less righteous than you thought you were. And your anxieties tell you that everybody is judging you for not being in tune enough with God to recognize His voice.

That’s how I felt at the gallery. Awkward, out of place, and supremely uncultured. Because we were among the first people to arrive, there were not many people for me to watch and learn from. See, I had never been to an art gallery before— I was ignorant of general art-consuming etiquette. At one point a white man holding a wine glass politely called me out on my ignorance. He leaned in and whispered loud enough for the three people standing around us to hear: “I think the idea is to NOT touch the pieces.” I was mortified. I wanted to defend myself and tell him that I didn’t see how I could fully appreciate that piece without seeing all the parts of it because it kept rotating. The piece was several small and strange drawings of women connected much like a baby crib mobile. But I didn’t think the white man would have any patience for my excuses so I withdrew my hand and moved along.

It turned out that Mackenzie was one of those people who smile at the art pieces and ask the person next to them what they understand. As we moved from piece to piece, shuffling slowly and staring intently at each one for not less than a full five minutes, he kept wanting to know how each one made me feel, and what I thought the artist was trying to say.

“And this one, Michelle? What do you think this is?”

“It looks like those paintings sold on Ngong Road.”

“But look, this one costs 4000 dollars for one.”


“Look there. The price is written. But what is the artist’s motivation? I think it’s something to do with immigrants. You see what the description says?”

“Mackenzie, I don’t know. I don’t know why anybody would buy that. And why is everybody taking so long looking at each piece? What are they looking for? And how am I supposed to know what the artist is saying when there is no context? I wasn’t there when she was making this.”

“Ah Michelle, si you just try?”

And then I would move to the next piece and leave him examining the weird 4000-dollar drawing as if an oracle would emerge from it and give him the answers he had been seeking his whole life if he stared at it long enough.

I will admit openly now that, as it turns out, I am dense when it comes to art. Words, I get. Music, I get. Even paintings I get. Some of the time. But a lot of the stuff I saw that day made not one smidgen of sense to me. Even after we discovered that there was a pamphlet that gave details about the artists and the art pieces, I still struggled to understand what the point of the whole set-up was. As Mackenzie alternated between smiling at the pieces, beholding them with reverence in his eyes, and asking me what the pieces meant to me, I was asking myself the same question repeatedly in my mind: What. The. Hell. I wondered why. Why did the artists create those things? What was the point? Of course I chastised myself for not being woke enough. Surely someone woke would understand how the artist was fusing her own emotional turmoil with the material she used to send a message that was relevant in the current socio-political environment. Or something along those lines. All I could think about was why there were no chairs in the gallery. Is it disrespectful to sit down as you look at art and wonder what it means? Does it take away from the sanctity of the fact that the artist poured her very soul into her work?

I was about done with the whole gig half an hour in. I wanted to sit down. I wanted Mackenzie to stop asking me what I thought the artist meant to convey by sticking long strands of pink shower-curtain material together. I wanted to eat whatever snacks were being passed around because they smelled delicious. I later found out that it was something made of sun-dried tomato and sijui goat cheese— it was delicious. I wanted to go home.

I didn’t go home. Not for another hour and a half. Instead, I waited for my company for the night to have his fill of the meanings of art. I waited for him to debrief himself on just how empowering and enlightening the entire experience was. I eventually got to sit down outside the gallery and watch Nairobi’s art heads refill their glasses of wine and talk. I imagined they were talking in the same way that Mackenzie was; about how revolutionary this and that work was. Everybody seemed to know everybody else and all around there were exclamations of “Oh my God, you’re here! It’s been so long!” I imagined that those were people who had met at a gig exactly like this one, and that they kept meeting at gigs exactly like this one, and that their friendship was entirely based on meeting at gigs like this one.

I observed everybody’s dressing and everybody’s drink. I made my own conjectures about them based on that alone. I tried to count the number of white people and gave up because they all looked sort of the same to me and I kept forgetting whether I had already counted them already or not. I wondered whether what I was doing was prejudiced, came to the conclusion that it probably was but that it was also probably harmless. I met people I knew and saw people I know from Facebook. I looked around for the waiters passing the goat cheese snacks around. I tried to sit with my back straight and not look as awkward as I was feeling. I looked at the time and found that it had been less than an hour. I gave up and demanded to be taken home.

I do not go out much. I live my whole life trying to avoid situations that require me to go out. In fact, the only reason I attended the exhibition is that it was close to where I live. Did I enjoy myself? Not really. Too confused, too frustrated about my confusion. I think that art pieces like that should be accompanied by stories that will help me construct meaning, instead of leaving me to flounder looking for it. But that’s just my uncultured opinion. But do I regret going for the exhibition? Not at all. I’d even give it another go. It’s 2018 and we are actively seeking out new experiences. As far as new experiences go, that gig was a perfect fit. I’m taking baby steps here. Perhaps by the end of the year I would have worked up the guts to do those zip-lining things everybody in Nairobi is raving about. It’s not probable, but it it’s possible. I prefer to have my feet on the ground but I just might go wild and do it. Who knows? The year is still young.

Here’s to new experiences. Have as many of them as your youth allows.

2 thoughts on “Meanings of Art

  1. I went to a wine tasting event once and all I could say was “it’s sweet” or “it tastes awful”. The other guys were giving like 11 chapters of content of what they thought the wine was. I felt a little bit dumb.

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