Jimmy Ogonga has a striking personality that makes a lasting impression. His enthralling tales about his work as programme director for the Nairobi Arts Trust - Centre for Contemporary Art of East Africa (CCAEA) give much to think about. Ironically, however, the ideas behind the Amnesia project are particularly hard to forget.
Jimmy Ogonga grew up in large and lively family where many people dropped by to discuss political topics. Inspired by these meetings, Jimmy started his artistic career by drawing romanticised portraits of political icons. It was not until later that his interest shifted to include traditional art forms and he started creating sculptures with both traditional and modern elements. The more he tried to connect the two aspects, however, the more Ogonga was confronted with a gap in Nairobi’s art scene. “There was an enormous distance between the old and the new generations of artists, which is why I decided to establish a centre with my friends where the gap could be bridged artistically”.
The CCAEA was founded in a context that applies not only to Nairobi but also to the rest of Africa. The population scarcely has access to information and global discourse, so that the people are not stimulated to think freely. “By making know-how and practical tools available, we are attempting to create situations where new ideas can be developed, so that people start thinking for themselves and look for solutions to their problems”.
Ogonga believes that for a long period of time now the Western world has been fed an exotic image of Africa that is not in keeping with reality. “In order to change that stereotype idea of Africa, the Africans need to start speaking for themselves. If you want to change the past, you must change yourself. People keep a tight hold on conventions that obstruct our potential”.
“I think we need to work towards a point where we can discard the “posts”, like postmodernism and post colonialism. We need to open a new chapter and find a way to translate this message into a point on the political agenda. I believe that the “what now?” question is much more important than the question of “how did we get here?” It is important to realise that there is a new voice that nevertheless lacks a platform where it can be articulated and heard by the public. That is what we are attempting to achieve with the Amnesia project.”
Amnesia came into being when Ogonga and his friends discovered that the people of Nairobi are plagued by the traumatic heritage of a pre-colonial, colonial and postcolonial era, resulting in collective cultural amnesia. “How can you construct a future when your past is damaged? That is what we are trying to discover with the Amnesia project”.
In Ogonga’s view, the amnesia is the result of external and intrinsic conditioning. If you have been conditioned for a significant length of time, you will ultimately start to condition yourself. If you have never tasted good food, you do not know that something like good food exists. Or if you want to build a table from a pile of wood but do not have the imagination to turn the wood into a table, it will never become a table. “That is what amnesia is to me. I am convinced that we are all carpenters and that everyone can build a table, but it is merely your state of mind that is keeping you from building that table”. That is the core of the problem, according to Ogonga: “We lack the ability to use our own minds. The solution is self-achievement. It has become a game for me that I am playing with life. I look at the man in the mirror and constantly practice discovering myself. Much can come of that, and especially much can be healed, as well”.