Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Ed Cross | Kenyan Art Movement

The Magical Coast of East Africa

Artist: Ed Cross | National Museum of Kenya, Nairobi

In a country best known for its Marathon runners Cross attempts to turn the country onto the beauty of itself. In a time of newness and thoughts of authentic independence, Cross identifies the importance of art and the role in which it plays. Art and the artists should be encouraging the development and creation of a permanent aesthetic and through this aesthetic establish a confident yet coherent nation identity.

The Cross installations are an integral part of this development as he has tried to shrewdly introduce the country to itself and essentially encourage a National self-worthiness and at the same time dispelling thoughts of the more recent tribal divisions. Art can gather such confidence and national pride, particularly to those that appreciate it. Kenyans in general are far too officious, conformist and ultra conservative; more customary to works of literature than the visual arts but this is all about to change; through works by Cross we discover real continuity; a genuine thought process evolving alongside a confident procedure that has been thoroughly thought out. This Exhibition at the new National Museum in Nairobi is a great showcase for those interested in producing an interesting body of work. The show places adequate importance on the way in which art is displayed and the importance of an effective Curator.

Cross has lived on the Kenyan coast for over twenty years. In his work he makes several cultural references to the “Kaya”. A Kaya can be found deep inside the mystical indigenous coastal forests in the Mijikenda region on the East African coast. A Kaya is an area specifically used for traditional rituals and these hallowed locations have recently been listed as UNESCO National Heritage sites. Some contain Swahili ruins dating back hundreds of years and there have been numerous shrines erected. Essentially, a Kaya has its own unique biodiversity and beauty. The fossilized canoes used in the Cross installations have been carved from trees surrounding these Kayas. The wood is often unusually etched and eaten away, initially by marine insects and then later by termites from his own garden in Mombasa. This produces curious effects with the undulating shapes that evoke tidal sand patterns. The work is housed on simple wooden bases engulfed in deep white beach sand.

The work by Cross represents the men and women of Kenya past; arousing curiosity through the choice of artist material. Cross pilots the audience into a sense of the unbelievable and the unusual; recounting and acknowledging the men that fished before, the countless generations of individuals that navigated such boats; the magical trees that the canoes were made from, the trees that seeded particular trees stretching back into time and creating an enchanting visual history. Applying sand to the wood was an intriguing combination; in effect Cross has persuasively created an irrational glue for these mythical contemporary creations.

Art is new for Kenya, an unfamiliar, unquantifiable aspect of normal Kenyan life.

The artist recalls:

“My first test, an invasion of about sixty small school children thronging round the work rather like the insects that had besieged the wood earlier, they troop in, some on all fours others scooting along the cold tiled surface of the newly renovated Museum, and then they are gone. And the silence returns.”

Demystifying the wonders of art is a gift but still yet learnt in modern Africa still Cross has set the bar sufficiently high, especially in a country so lacking in vision or direction artistically and this ‘Artistic Myopia’ maybe the reason why artists from this region have, up until now, been often overlooked. The modesty of Cross borders on the charming to the reticent, he has committed two decades of his life to this strange, wild, crazy country and despite that he is still treated as a Muzugu, an outsider. More fool Kenya as what they have within their borders is a man who is to emancipate the Nation through his love for the country and enthusiasm for art. The hope is that the petite Artist Community will be able to see the light that shines so brightly. Only through the likes of Ed Cross and African abstraction will true intellectual independence and artistic equality be achieved.

Ashamedly, Kenya lies at the heart of East Africa but the obvious lack of proper artistic infrastructure is astonishing. Firstly, there are no known ‘Art Colleges’, only Departments of Art at the Universities and this laissez-faire attitude to the importance of art is echoed in the cities, which have too few Galleries, Contemporary Art Museums, Reference, General or Artists Libraries and no Auction Houses at all. There is little support and encouragement for the artists and to be frank, life as an artist in Kenya is near on impossible unless you have financial means. There are very few full-time artists and those that are often work in isolation. The majority of those that refer to themselves as ‘Artists’, are untrained. For those that have ears, hear as Ed Cross has provided some interesting joined-up thinking in this cultural wilderness.

© Joe Pollitt, 2009

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