Energetic. Intellectual. Inspirational. Three adjectives that describe different facets of Kenya’s 1st Performing Arts Conference. The event took place at the Kenya National Theatre between 22nd and 24th February 2022. It was organized by the Kenya Cultural Centre which includes the Kenya National Theatre. KCC-NT is a semi-autonomous government agency whose remit is to provide for discourse on matters of literary, historical, scientific or educational interest or importance. This year’s overarching theme was ‘Decolonization, Intercultural Collaboration and Social Disruption’. The stated objective was to bring together performing artists, academia, government agencies, development partners, the media and practitioners to discuss issues on the growth of performing arts in Kenya and as well as benchmark with other countries by receiving international presentations on the state of performing arts across the globe. The social media hashtags were #ARTSCON1 and #InspiringCulturalConnections.
According to Michael Pundo, KCC-NT’s C.E.O.:
Having a broad theme allows us to go back to our roots and regain the legitimacy of indigenous forms of art, and righting the wrongs occasioned by displacement and disruptions including restoration to authenticity…These discussions are highly recommended to performing arts, cultural practitioners and researchers from all over the world…Further, the conference provides a networking opportunity and partnership to performing arts academicians, arts educators, musicians, stage and costume designers, mask makers, multimedia artists, scriptwriters and playwrights, theatre critics and arts journalists…Fundamentally, what we want to achieve is the long-overdue recognition that art sits at the centre of the change we all experience, not at the periphery.
Selected papers from the summit will be published in a special edition of the East African Journal of Music hosted by the Music Education Research Group – Kenya (MERG-Kenya) and the Journal of East African Theatre hosted by the Kenya International Festival Trust, for the music and theatre disciplines respectively.
Above: Veteran theatre reviewer Margaretta wa Gacheru (front) follows the proceedings at the Kenya National Theatre. (Photo: KCC Media).
Getting Jiggy With It
This being a summit about the performing arts, there was no shortage of performances to spice things up, and provide breaks from the paper presentations and Q&A sessions. Many of the presenters were academics and had clearly mobilized their students to attend. Some of the said college students were only too happy to join in the spirited singing and dancing.
What They Said
The papers that were presented showed intellectual depth and meticulous research. The discourses that followed each set of presentations further added to the overall impressive quality of the knowledge exchange. One of the most memorable zingers came from Afro-fusion singer Eric Wainaina. Some quotes:
‘The challenge we face is moving from the abstract to the tangible. We must spend most of our time perfecting our art…If our athletes talked about running and never ran, we wouldn’t have Eliud Kipchoge and every one of his predecessors raising the flag of Kenya high. Yet, we are all guilty of it. Creating is hard. Yet it is joyful.’
‘This is the time for artists to take their rightful place. Art is spirit. We take nothing and create it into something.’
‘We have got to imagine the future we want and each single day work towards that vision. The grass is only greener where you water it.’
‘Whatever you teach action, it out. If you teach music, sing. If you teach language, write a novel. If you teach drama, act.’
Below are some of the topics that were tackled by other speakers/presenters:
Above: Dr. Mshai Mwangola: ‘The challenge of decolonizing our minds is to ask ourselves what we need to do about the colonial centre, whether it’s a physical centre or it’s in our mind.’ (Photo: KCC Media)
Above: Dr. Zipporah Okoth talking about the place of theatre for social healing today. (Photo: KCC Media)
As expected, #ARTSCON1 was not just a place for intellectuals to share their thoughts but also a networking and socializing event. Academics and others were seen reuniting with peers they hadn’t seen since the onset of COVID-19. Various attendees were also spotted chatting all over the KNT grounds, exchanging numbers, and taking photos for memories’ sake.
The catering service deserves to be mentioned for doing a highly professional job, both in terms of the food quality and service delivery.
As is common with ‘hybrid’ (part in-person and part virtual), there were challenges with the technology. Some presenters appeared live via teleconferencing and various audio-visual hitches were experienced. In the future, it might be prudent for all virtual presenters to perform dry runs on the material day, before the event begins properly. A ‘tech rehearsal’, or simply ‘tech’, is a key stage in the production of a theatrical event. During ‘tech’, the crew goes over technological aspects of the show; such as light, set and sound. A conference on performing arts should, naturally, do the same ahead of time.
Speaking of tech, Barbra Akombo’s presentation highlighted how the COVID-19 pandemic had ‘forced music educators to rethink their pedagogies and philosophical beliefs about education and adopt new ways of teaching by accommodating the use of ICT.’ She, however, noted that distance teaching/learning of music came with ‘a lot of new challenges.’ For example, a teacher viewing a student playing a keyboard via a slow or faulty Internet connection might not judge the student properly, due to transmission delays.
Another hitch had to do with timing. Some sessions began later than scheduled causing a cascade of lateness to flow into the following sessions. All in all, the event was a welcome return to artistic events after the global restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. I for one look forward to reading all the papers that were presented during the three-day cultural extravaganza.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.
This post was written by Alexander Nderitu.
The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.