ISCAEE Kenya

The International Society for Ceramic Art Education and Exchange (ISCAEE)
Kenyatta University, Nairobi, August 2008

A British delegate’s impressions. Gareth Mason, October 2008

• Introduction / ISCAEE history
• Location / structure / organisation
• Content / lectures / demonstrations / Exhibition
• Cultural visits / Alan Donovan / Gakoigo pottery village
• Impact / Conclusion

ISCAEE membership: Australia, China, Germany, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States of America, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana.

ISCAEE is an international movement that facilitates vibrant contact between academic ceramics programmes and practitioners across the globe. It has done this to date through international symposia, each hosted by a different nation/university annually, since its inception in 1999. Its values are firmly based in education and the broad institutional and individual benefits of cross cultural exchange. This key tenet is strikingly demonstrated in its democratic and non-hierarchical ethos, in which students at the very beginning of their careers exhibit, demonstrate and lecture alongside academics and eminent practitioners in the field of international ceramics. Previous annual symposia have been held in Japan, China, Mexico, Korea, Turkey, America and the UK at the University for the Creative Arts at Farnham and University of Westminster, Harrow in 2007. The 2008 symposium was hosted by Kenyatta University (KU), Nairobi, Kenya and ran from August 4th to August 16th. This is the first time that ISCAEE has come to Africa.

Kenyatta University is a vast campus, covering two hundred acres of a five hundred acre ex-British military base, approximately fifteen kilometres north east of Nairobi on the main A2 Thika trunk road. This impressive site was clearly an important part of the British power base in Kenya until its abandonment in the 1950s at the coming of Kenya’s independence. The idea to establish a university on site was an inspired re-invention of military infrastructure. The British presence is still strongly in evidence in the campus. Many of the buildings clearly retain their original identity; students’ halls are barracks, staff are accommodated in officers’ houses, and even an old shot-blasted wall of a firing range sits improbably next to the department of philosophy. I would walk past this wall every day on my path from the conference centre, where many delegates were accommodated, to the ceramics department - a walk of some twenty minutes - and its incongruity would make me both smile and shiver.

The symposium was broadly split into three components; academic, practical and cultural. The ceramics and sculpture compound housed the practical component of the symposium. The department is located in the old military vehicles maintenance garage where inspection pits and ramps are still visible. The enclosure was dressed attractively with students’ artworks and a large marquee was erected to house the workshops and demonstrations. The academic component was sited in the AVU Hall, a large lecture theatre and administration complex toward the centre of the campus. The symposium was split between these two sites, with lectures taking place mostly in the mornings and demonstrations and practical sessions in the afternoons. A breadth of cultural visits and entertainments were woven in; too many to list in detail, including waterfalls, a geothermal national reserve, a Masai village, a zoo, a bronze foundry, a Kenyan antiques specialist, a ceramics and textiles factory. A breadth of creative and entrepreneurial endeavour within the Nairobi region was revealed.

ISCAEE Kenya numbered around seventy overseas delegates and the degree to which we international visitors were hosted and entertained was impressive. Memorably, we were welcomed upon our arrival with dignitaries’ speeches, music and a sunset buffet on the Vice Chancellor’s lawn that overlooks an extensive area of bush beyond the campus site. That set the tone of on going welcome and handsome accommodation that permeated the event. Several students from the KU Fine Art department were sited among the international delegation as hosts and fixers, to ease the visitors’ orientation and assist the organisational flow. The presence of these warm and motivated young people was a real boon to the event. They clearly enjoyed the visitors, laying on supplementary social events for the student participants that involved extravagant consumption of Tusker (a Kenyan lager beer), local dance venues and many late nights. All participants benefited broadly from the resultant exchange and Cupid’s bow intervened in more than one instance.

A large group exhibition was a key feature of the symposium and this was held at the prestigious venue of Nairobi National Museum. Each delegate brought a piece of work for show and addition to the Museum’s permanent collection. Nairobi Museum has been given a striking modern extension in sandstone and concrete. Its extensive collections range from exhibits about the Human Diaspora and Kenya as the birthplace of humanity to natural history and cutting edge documentary photographic installation. We viewed its world class reserve collection of pots, zoological specimens, artistic and cultural works and ancient artefacts, at close hand.

Like the exhibition, ISCAEE’s lecture programme specifically values student input, providing newcomers to the art of presenting with an important developmental opportunity to practice their skills in front of a supportive audience. The lecture programme was impressively varied in scope, from Professor Lee Wang Yong of Kangnam University of Korea presenting cutting-edge computer aided design and rapid prototyping processes to a history of Zulu beer drinking vessels from Professor Juliet Armstrong of University of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. Professor Zehra Cobanli of Anadolu University provided a survey of the women potters of various ceramics centres in Turkey, whilst Professor Kivumbiro Tabbawebula of spoke eloquently about the challenges of defining an authentic contemporary African art, using works from his Native Uganda as examples. Over 30 presentations were made. Demonstrations included a sensitive interpretation of the local clay into tea bowls and unomi by Professor Fumio Shimada of Tokyo University of the Arts. Mustafa Agategin of Anadolu University Faculty of Glass, Turkey, had an interdisciplinary perspective, demonstrating a mono printed slip and stain transfer process, capturing and fusing the resultant image between sheets of glass. Demonstrations proceeded, formally and improvisationally, throughpout the event in an open atmosphere of good natured exchange.

Anthony Ngondo, lecturer and event co-organiser, said to me upon my arrival, ‘Gareth, you are in Kenya now, and in Kenya time is elastic…’ alluding to a culturally relaxed attitude to timekeeping. Admittedly there were some delays, that mostly involved the logistics of buses, but the schedule itself was airtight. Cultural visits were central to the experience. A Giraffe reserve gave us an insight into the plight of these gentle beasts and the efforts being taken to preserve them. We visited Kazuri Beads, a progressive social project as well as a ceramic jewellery factory of international importance. It provides sustainable employment opportunities and social security for well over three hundred disadvantaged members of Kenyan Society, mostly single mothers.