The role and significance of NGOs in Kenya found its way at this year’s Dak’Art 2014 Biennale through installation dubbed Logos of Non Profit Organisations working in Kenya (some of which are imaginary) mounted by Kenyan-based filmmaker and artist Sam Hopkins.
That the NGO sector is very important in Kenya is without doubt,” Sam pointed out. “However, what is not clear is what qualifies as charity, development or aid.” Sam Hopkins addresses this wide assortment of NGOs and their diverging missions by focusing on the aesthetics of their logo designs. Here is chat with Kimani wa Wanjiru
Kimani: How does it feel to be at the Biennale?
Sam: As this is the first Biennale that I have participated in, I was slightly nervous before arriving. But it has been a wonderful experience, a real pleasure, and both the curators (Smooth, Kader and Elize) and the other participating artists have been warm and friendly and there has been a genuine sense of family.
Kimani: Did you imagine that your work will be a continental stage like this?
Sam: The biennale is by application, so of course I hoped I would be selected, but I didn’t really think I would be, so it was a fantastic surprise when I heard that I was.
Kimani: It is work touching on the work of NGOs. What inspired it?
Sam: The work which I exhibit is a direct result of living and working in Nairobi over the last few years. During that time I co-founded Slum TV, a grassroots media collective based in Mathare, and in the process of doing so I met with many NGOs. I was struck by the very particular language that these NGOs worked with, which sometimes, but not always, appeared to be empty rhetoric. Often this language seemed to reduce complex issues down to keywords such as ‘Sustainability, Capacity-Building, Synergies, Beneficiation and Upscaling’. Whilst perhaps these keywords are useful in the context of ‘Development’, they did not seem suitable or helpful to the art project which we were developing, which was interested in setting up an experimental media project, without anticipated goals and outcomes, in Mathare. Nevertheless, in Kenya, our work was always limited to the NGO discourse.
Kimani: What is the significance of the logos?
Sam: On the one hand a logo reveals how an organisation chooses to represent itself, on the other hand, they represent certain subconscious assumptions about a whole industry. To take an example from a related sector; why is the UNESCO logo composed of Greek columns? This is the UN organisation for world culture, so why should a Classical European symbol stand for world culture? The logos of NGOs in Kenya pose similar questions. Why do we have organisations in Kenya called ‘Hope’, ‘Concern’ and ‘Empathi’? What do these names reveal about the assumptions of the Development sector? They were intriguing as they seemed to distil the iconography of the industry and reveal the expectations of the belief system that underpins the whole NGO project.
Kimani: Why did you use the logos yet they don’t really tell the story of the organisations?
Sam:It is true that the logos do not tell the entire story of the organisations, and I am not commenting on the whole organisation. I am a visual artist and as such am interested in representation. In this situation I am specifically interested in how these organisations choose to represent themselves. My strategy with this piece has been to mix real logos of real organisations with fake logos of organisations that do not exist. The idea is to introduce an element of doubt into the viewer so s/he is not sure which are real. This fictionalising is designed to make you re-engage with all of the logos, it presents them in a new context. Hence you look at organisations called ‘Hope’, ‘Concern’, Hope for the African Child Initiative’, ‘Empathi’ and you wonder, can these be real names?
Kimani: You talk about a blurred line in as far as charity, development or aid is concerned. What is your personal take of this?
Sam: The Development world is complex and complicated and I am in no place to critique its effectiveness. It is a heterogeneous sector so I do not think it makes sense to make generalisations about it. As a visual artist I am interested in the representation of this sector, be it in the logos, the adverts and the films commissioned. And, whilst the organisations are varied, the representation tropes are similar.
Kimani: We you aware that there is a new legal framework that is supposed to provide guidance in the way NGOs now being referred to as Public Benefit Organisations will be run?
Sam: I was not
Sam: I was not
Kimani: Does this mean/have an impact to your work as it evolves?
Sam: If this legal framework leads to a more critical and engaged position about how the development sector represents itself, then this will certainly impact on my work. To re-iterate, I am not generalising about how these NGOs are actually run, or what they do. I am interested in the images they use to communicate.