Globalizing East African Culture: From Junk to jua kali Art

in Perspectives on Global Development and Technology
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Abstract

Despite Africa’s experience of economic decline, poverty, political instability and disease, keen observers of the cultural landscape have reckoned that cultural productivity in the region is on the rise, leading scholars to refer to the phenomenon as an African Renaissance. This is particularly the case in Kenya where a contemporary art movement is flourishing through both local art worlds and global networks. But the question remains: how in the midst of poverty and political instability can there be so much cultural productivity? Based on field research involving participant observation and interviews with more than 200 artists and cultural workers in Kenya’s capital city, I argue that it is largely due an ‘emergent cultural practice’given the Kiswahili term jua kali. By virtue of jua kali artists ‘making do’ with minimal resources and maximum ingenuity, imagination, originality and entrepreneurial acumen, they are creating art forms or bricolage, which has been largely ignored by art historians, sociologists, and even African scholars. Using jua kali tactics or ‘makeshift creativity,’ artists appropriate art materials, production space, skills training and even marketing sites. The clearest evidence of jua kali ingenuity is what Kenyan artists call ‘junk art’ made from global garbage garnered from local dump sites and junk yards, and then recycled into original works of art, thus reflecting global flows. This genre of contemporary African art has entered what Appadurai calls the mediascape and defies the stereotypical myths of ‘tribal art’ and ‘the primitive other’. These hegemonic myths still pervade most Western art markets, but jua kali artists—members of Kenya’s rising ‘creative class’—are striving to debunk them by their works with increasing success.

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