At the fringes of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, stands a 10,000 square meter refurbished garage with its entrance adorned with evocative graffiti tags that either tell an African folk tale or document a topical message. Dubbed The GoDown Arts Centre, it is the epicenter of an art renaissance, with youth at the heart of the rebirth.
The facility is home to a cocktail of art prowess from music and visual arts to theater and dance. The first of its kind in East Africa, the pioneer art venue has been credited with creating a new generation of artists who are both daring in expression and fresh in imagination. The center is divided various spaces including the main performance space, which is used for cultural events, 10 separate art studios including animation studios, an art gallery that hosts major local and regional exhibitions and discussion rooms.
To further hone the skills of budding artists while connecting established ones with their regional and international peers, the center runs a residence program with a fully equipped open studio and a host of seminars with industry players. Through the GoDown Arts Centre Creative Entrepreneurship Course, the center has gone on to assist hundreds of artists to turn their talents into money minting businesses while teaching them the art of networking. One such artist is Dickens Otieno, who transforms discarded aluminum cans into breathtaking sculptures and woven pictures by cutting the cans into thin strips.
But the center has also gravitated towards reaching more artists and the country in general through flagship projects for which it has received praise. Among them Nai ni Who, Swahili for Who is Nai. It is a festival that seeks to celebrate Nairobi as a metropolis with a rich diversity of cultures and tribes. In a country whose citizens identify with tribal affiliations that have at times sparked violence, the festival seeks to encourage residents in the capital to celebrate each other with the message of beauty in diversity. From the center, the festival snakes its way to the city’s neighborhoods through pride parades, concerts and a showcasing of peace graffiti. Kenya Burning Exhibition, another successful project by the Center, showcases images that were taken by both amateur and professional photographers during Kenya’s disputed elections of 2008 that led to post poll chaos. The images, which have gone on to be exhibited across the country, promote the premise “never again!”
The center has also been home to award-winning Africa’s first TV puppet satire show XYZ that caught regional attention for its daring take on the political class. Everything from rehearsals to the filming of the show is done at the center.
Such a multidisciplinary feature of creative art that allows the freedom of expression through modern techniques has caught the eye of the international community. Institutions like Ford Foundation, the British Council and the Kingdom of the Netherlands are actively involved in supporting the center.
Thirteen years into its existence, the center now hopes to take its mission of establishing a robust arts and culture sector to a new level, with the artists insisting they are just getting started. ■