In the trash romance novels I devour, young women looking to be married often display some artistic accomplishment, or try to. They might play the piano earnestly, with more good intent than artistry; paint watercolors in which the objects depicted crave not to be represented; or sing nice songs in so-so voices. These offerings are received with grace, if not pleasure, as part of the social contract that maintains sociality.
Tonight, I had the chance to reflect on the afterlife of these novels. I was invited—mistakenly, I think—to join some of Nairobi’s glitterati as they looked at portraits taken by an astonishingly photogenic woman. She had presence. She had style. And she had taken photographs.
For an ongoing project, I am currently reading debates by theorists of the photograph on what makes a photograph art or not. Clearly, one approaches this topic from diverse points of view, shaped by the empirical evidence in front of one. Were this young woman’s photographs to be part of the data, I suspect those who argue against the photograph as art would gain some points.
The photographs were nice. One looked at them once and then promptly forgot they existed. Indeed, at times, desired to forget they existed. No doubt, had I spent time trying to chat with the photographer, I might have been convinced by her energy and enthusiasm that the photographs were worth looking at again. I might even have been tempted to understand why they were being shown to the glitterati—most of whom, it must be said, ignored their existence.
Certainly, not all art appeals to all people. But in my many excursions to DC museums, I have seen how art can be engaged, often by one person who will stand puzzled, transfixed, awed, disturbed, even bored. Something happens in the look-again, the prolonged glance, even the backward glance. Something important that tells us about what art is and what art does—how it arranges and rearranges our psyches and socialities.
I have found myself stunned by technically imperfect and technically bad photographs, intrigued by their textures and tones and shades, by their elliptical renderings as they rub up against and within time and space. I have found myself thinking about the worlds imagined by those photographs, the chains of associations they unfurl, the live-ness of what is depicted within a seeming stillness.
These photographs, in contrast, described by an overly-generous person as “brilliant,” seemed to be nothing more than a vanity project. A well-connected young woman invites those who travel in and around her circles to witness her project. These were less in the realm of art to be taken seriously—a realm they claimed to inhabit—and more in the vein of those young accomplished women who, in trash romance novels, play piano because it is what young women are expected to do.
The occasion provides a moment to reflect on Nairobi’s glitterati–those who travel through, among, and with immense wealth and privilege. It was a collection of those who move and shake and those in proximity to them, behind, around, shadowed, in relief. One could tell by the accents, the kisses on cheeks, the handshakes, the multi-diversities termed cosmopolitan because of their immense privilege. And they were paying taxes, trading favors, fulfilling their social obligations, watching the young woman display her “accomplishment.” One can’t help but think about the relationship between art and accomplishment, about what this young woman’s photographs do to and for the idea of Kenyan art and Kenyan artists.
I have been less than gracious in writing this, tending toward the mean, in part, because those photographs displayed to the glitterati were taking up space, crowding out, shadowing away work that needs to breathe, to live, to shape our imaginations.