The other day I was driving down Kayahwe Road in Kilimani and spotted the sign for the GoDown Arts Centre. It prompted me to call in and arrange for a talk the following day with Joy Mboya, the Centre’s executive director.
I wanted to find out how plans were progressing for the return to their original home in Dunga Road of the industrial area – and to a much transformed and very inspiring GoDown.
We talked about many things. But let me focus on just two of them — making a livelihood out of one’s art and creating public places in Kenya’s cities.
I told Joy about a conversation I had had some years ago with a successful Kenyan businessman. ‘What’s wrong with my children?’ He asked. And I asked him what had led him to say that. ‘Well, they seem to be interested in only things art,’ he said. ‘Like making music or doing drama. There’s no money in that, is there?’
‘But there has been a great change,’ Joy said. ‘By the time of the second decade of the GoDown – remember we started in 2003 – we began to have parents coming to us, telling us that their children are much involved in the arts and asking if we could advise them about career paths. That is something we are glad to do. Some with talent will make a business out of it; others will continue to enjoy making music or painting, but they will mainly earn their living through, say, teaching.’
Joy went on the explain how the GoDown has developed livelihood courses for artists and creative entrepreneurs across all the arts. She talked about the way youngsters can now look up to a number of Kenyans who have done so well in their chosen careers: the Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o, for example, the writer, Binyavanga Wainaina, or the painter, Michael Soi.
Joy is clearly proud of what the GoDown has already achieved through its support to young artists, training courses, exhibitions, performances and its cultural festivals. She sees the new GoDown as not a new direction but an expansion, a flowering of the original concept: to facilitate the development of art and artists in a multidisciplinary arts centre where a diverse group of artists can find affordable spaces and opportunities to build their careers.
The old GoDown building in Dunga road was true to its name in that it was an adapted warehouse; the new building will be more grand, but it will be – like the old one – a storehouse of usable spaces and creative ideas that can be taken up in artistic products that will be expressions of Kenya’s dynamic culture.
Joy’s idea of art is that it should not be something esoteric and remote. She is determined that, however impressive, the new GoDown will be an open and welcoming place – a place for the people of Nairobi.
Joy trained as an architect, and our conversation turned to her views on city planning – particularly the importance of creating public spaces like the Uhuru Park or the Uhuru Gardens that are being renovated in Nairobi. ‘How do we make spaces that work for all of us?’ She said. ‘It’s a big challenge. There’s the need to maintain security. So, how do we make cities safe as well as open?’
This is a challenge faced by the city governments. And, in this regard, Joy talked about the change she has noticed in recent years – how local authority officials are much more ready to use the mechanisms for public participation in the planning and budgeting processes.
‘A lot has changed in Nairobi,’ Joy said. ‘When we first started with the GoDown, 20 years ago, we felt we were in an adversarial position with the city planners. But not now. There has been a lot of openness and a lot of learning.’
John Fox is Chairman of iDC Email: [email protected]