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Matt Kayem: Fraud or Creative Genius

The artist pays tribute to luminary Black African scholars and activists like Cheikh Anta Diop, Franz Fanon and Dr. Henri Clarke in his work

| DOMINIC MUWANGUZI | Stuck Traveller was a conceptual, quite hypnotic installation that featured in the Kampala Art Biennale 2016 exhibition, that introduced the artist, Matt Kayem to the art world. The installation navigated the theme of mobility within the context of the digital era. The artist appropriated an old computer monitor, desk, chair and earth with grass plunged in it, to illustrate the days and time mankind give to the digital world. As such, the artwork suggested the notion of dependence on the internet for almost anything, including travelling.  Today, one doesn’t have to travel physically to different parts of the world but can use the laptop or phone to get there.  This apt representation of the theme of mobility, under the larger theme of Seven Hills of the Biennale, immediately endorsed the burgeoning artist as one of the most astute and intelligent artists of this era. From that major highlight, Kayem has since become highly synonymous with creating art that is captivating to the public.

The controversial solo multidisciplinary two series show, Cool AfriKa 2018, reverberated his enthralling artistry. Here, the artist relied on his sentimental approach to African civilization and emancipation to create a narrative of Africa as a space for social economic and intellectual liberation. Hence, the exhibition Cool AfriKa derived its name from this narrative. Borrowing from deeper and broader conversations of African consciousness that already dominate works of African diaspora artists, Kayem interrogated themes of activism, fertility and stereotype in his paintings, sculptures and installations. The exhibition boldly traversed the subject of African Renaissance with imagery of African chiefs like Mansa Musa who’s famously known across African cultural scholarships as the wealthiest and richest person to ever walk the face of the earth. The artist also paid homage to black culture icons like Kanye West, 50 cent and Nicki Minaj who are part of the famed Black Arts Movement crusade and globalized Pop culture.

While Kayem’s work is recognized for its ‘black consciousness’ imagery and strong advocacy for African civilization, it can be challenged on its authenticity and originally. The Black Arts Movement crusade of which black consciousness is an indomitable strand, is a familiar narrative that many artists on the African continent and in the West have explored for decades now. Started in the 1960s, the Movement exalts black identity and speaks of black pride as the vehicle for emancipation of black people from the shackles of western civilization. Artists like Gerald Williams, Nelson Steven and Jeff Donaldson have since explored the subject with the objective of overturning the negative perceptions about black people.  Their use of imagery including bold colours like deep red, green, orange and yellow suggest the vibrancy of African people. This palette is punctuated  with visible but subtle geometrical designs which evoke the aspects of rhythm and dynamism attached to African culture. Such, imagery is traceable in Kayem’s work and hints on how much the artist has been inspired by these elite artists. However, what may detach the affable artist, from his ‘mentors’ is the obvious lack of originality which leads to lack of depth in his work.

Kayem is not interested or lacks the technical dexterity of presenting an inspired concept into the framework of originality. In as much as he has enriched himself with the subject of black consciousness in art, he seems to be oblivious of creatively appropriating such knowledge into his own self to create something fresh and suggestive. This is visible in particular paintings, sculpture and installation where he works with synthetic and found objects (recycling) but signs off the artworks without  reaching for the emotions of the viewer. It is true that Kayem paintings are spectacular in theme and therefore are engaging, but a close interaction with them feels like they are posters pasted on the  wall and nothing more.  An artist of his stature, already with an impressive portfolio of participating in two Biennales, would have done better. Incidentally, some of his recent body of work suggests aspects of studio maturity beyond colour application and experimentation. The artist has matured in self- expression but is still elusive when it comes to venturing into originality like many of his contemporaries

The artist can be absolved of such crimes, if he takes a step back and he refocuses on what he exactly wants for his art and how he can achieve this without positioning himself in the crowd. In the third edition of Kampala Art Biennale (KAB18), where Kayem also participated the curator Simon Njami spoke of the  concept of the “I in the We”. What he meant in a nutshell was that  artists during the process of creating art  should disengage from the larger crowd and find themselves first.  This is a rather complex and controversial philosophy, but it has the potential of helping the artist into the process of self-discovery. Great art is about self- discovery and realization and until Matt Kayem appreciate this, we shall continue to debate if he’s a fraud or a creative genius.


Images courtesy of the Artist

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