Daily Podcast #23 Joy Mboya /// Power, Knowledge, and Being on the African Continent



Joy Mboya is the Executive Director of The GoDown Arts Centre, a leading non-profit multidisciplinary arts facility in Nairobi, Kenya. As a trained architect, performer and cultural activist, Joy has led The GoDown Arts Centre’s development as a site for artistic experimentation, cross-sector partnerships and creative collaboration. In addition, she has led various ambitious cultural programs in Kenya, among others, the annual Nairobi-wide festival Nai Ni Who that connects culture and city. Joy’s strong dedication to the development of the creative economy in Kenya has been widely recognized and awarded for her outstanding leadership within the creative industry. Big thanks to Bhakti Shringarpure for putting us in touch.


As many of us are confined in many places of the world, we wanted to provide you with a daily podcast in partnership with Radio Alhara emitting from Palestine. Our ambition for it is to not add to the saturation of information we are currently experiencing but, rather, to propose a daily extension 15-minute of our political imaginaries.

The concept is very simple. Every day, we ask one person the same question: “what is for you a moment of true decolonization?” The answer can be a historial moment or something they witnessed; something heroic and grandiose, or rather discreet and mundane; a durable blow to the structures of colonialism or a short instant of liberation.

While we are recording this podcast in privileged conditions of confinement, we keep in our thoughts the multitude of people around the world who do not share similar conditions or have no choice but to risk being affected by the pandemic because of criminal policies that have to do with neoliberalism, carceralism, or colonialism

We thank you for listening and wish you and your loved ones the very best wherever you are.

(music by hooksounds originals)

Radio Alhara The Funambulist

NB. The Funambulist daily podcast is also played every day at 3:30PM, Palestine time, on  راديو الحارة Radio Alhara, a new radio produced from locked-down Bethlehem and Ramallah, along with another 15-minute production about worldwide solidarity, created specifically by The Funambulist for the purpose of this show. 



Margarida Waco: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Daily Funambulist podcast. My name is Margarida Waco and today for 23rd episode of our daily podcast A Moment of True Decolonization I’m very happy to welcome Joy Mboya, Executive Director of The GoDown Arts Centre, a leading non-profit multidisciplinary arts facility in Nairobi, Kenya. As a trained architect performer cultural activist she has led The GoDown Arts Centre’s development as a site for artistic experimentation, cross-sector partnerships and creative collaboration. And in addition, she has led various ambitious cultural programs in Kenya, among others, the annual Nairobi-wide festival that connects culture and city. Finally, Joy’s strong dedication to the development of the creative economy in Kenya has been widely recognized and awarded for her outstanding leadership within the creative industry. So, hello, Joy, and thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. So I’ll just basically go straight to the point, what is for you a true moment of decolonization?

Joy Mboya: Allow me not to speak to a defining moment, a definitive moment of decolonization, per se, but rather to share decoloniality as a process in relation to our work and practice at the GoDown Arts Center. Of course, I agree that there are moments, there are projects and initiatives that concentrate and capture and encapsulate very clearly this notion, this concept of decolonizing. But I will speak about process, because I think that ultimately, to decolonize is to recalibrate at many different levels. I like to think about our work within the frame provided by scholars of coloniality where they talk about three aspects of coloniality, one aspect being the coloniality of power, another aspect being the coloniality of knowledge, and a third aspect, being the coloniality of being. At the GoDown, I think we have experiences that highlight or illuminate all of these points quite clearly. With regard to the font with regard to the first point, which is the coloniality of knowledge, I think that perhaps the biggest experience there, the clearest experience is that experience of the funding relationship for culture between the North and the South. When you look at the cultural organizations on the African continent, many of the prominent cultural organizations on the African continent there is a significant amount of support and resource that comes to them from foundations, development partners or cultural funding partners, who are based in the North or in the West. This is a problem in the long term. In the short term, I think it has provided value in enabling spaces like ourselves, to first of all establish, to experiment to find the best way forward to, to seed ourselves—in other words, to begin to build or develop roots within our context. But for the long term it is a perpetuation of a cycle of dependency, if that relationship is not one that will allow or enable or empower the organization towards sustainability.

So, what are the practices that will mitigate this? I think our experience is at many different levels and in many different ways with regard to this first point. So, the first one is around the partnership itself. 16 years ago, when we first started, I think it is interesting to see how the language of partnership has shifted. I think when we started 2003, one spoke of donors for the cultural sector, one spoke of donor funders. And I think now, we talk about partners, and we talk about partnerships. I think there’s been a shift an external shift, among some donors, some funding partners, to begin to think about the beneficiary, the arts organization that they would they partner with that they support that the resource as a partner. And what does this mean, this means that they care to understand the context that you operate in, they care to understand the decisions that you need to make, they care to understand how you prioritize your work. And they care to think with you around a sustainable future. So the language is now a language of partnership. We have, over this decade and a half of existence, very deliberately began to think about who we partner with who are our partners. So we are making a choice around getting into bed with those who will empathize with us at a real partnership level, rather than purely resource and expect visibility, and expect reports and expect an accountability that is not sensitive to our own wish to become sustainable in the long term. So that’s one aspect of, of a decolonizing process. That is that is that is underway. One where partners are shifting, but also ourselves as an organization internally, becoming a lot more intentional about who we partner with.

But the other process around this particular point, the coloniality of power, again, is an internal process. And what it does, and what it means is that organizations like ourselves, have to begin to think about why there is no resourcing from the local, why our local governments or our national governments are not putting money into our activities. Why our communities are not putting money into our activities. And so what this means then is that we also need to engage in the space of advocacy. And I think you will also notice perhaps that a number of arts organizations are very much involved in advocacy around policy in their countries or in their cities. And there are also a number of beginning to be engaged in looking at local philanthropy, endogenous philanthropy, for the arts, and again, I see these as processes of decolonizing.

The second point, which is the coloniality of knowledge. Now here, we’re talking about in relation to the arts and culture sector, I think we’re talking about arbitrating taste, art appreciation, we’re talking about curatorial practices. We’re talking about art critique. Now, when you think about this, to critique something, to curate something to make a selection around something to appreciate something, these are all founded on some kind of epistemic foundation, some sort of knowledge base. And again, the practice if you’re looking at the whole idea of coloniality the practice is still very much influenced by ideas that come from the Western canon. Now, how do you decolonize that? There are many different ways, I suppose, but one of the ways that we have attempted and continue to attempt, and I’ll give an example of an exhibition that we run, it’s an exhibition that has judges who basically curate make a selection from submissions—submissions from artists, they make a selection of pieces that will form the annual exhibition that we call “manjanu.” And then at the same time, they will award, they will give a prize to the pieces that they feel are meritorious that year in some way. Now, we don’t give them any guidelines or any criteria for judging. Because this exactly is the problem. Where do we draw those criteria from? What are our sources? What is the basis of generating or drawing up guidelines and criteria. So we leave it open to the judges. And we have tracked over the decades that we’ve run this exhibition, every year, we have tracked the sorts of decisions and selections that they’ve made to try and see whether we can begin to get a glimpse of what is informing the thinking of judges. And these are locally based judges who are making selections of contemporary art. In a contemporary nation, I think one of the interesting things for us to see is that almost consistently, they are looking for different new visual voices, if I can so describe them, that speak to the current state of contemporaneity, but also begin to provoke or give a suggestion of a future sense of self, a future cultural self, if I can so describe it. So the process of decolonizing in this sense of decolonizing knowledge is a learning process for us it’s experimenting, it’s trying out things, it’s reading into things, and then trying to see whether a pattern forms and whether that pattern begins to be a sound springboard for now beginning to generate the guidelines or the criteria or the basis of how we look at things and select things and curate things.

Now, the third point is the coloniality of being. Now this one speaks to everybody’s sense of self, who are we? And we at par with each other? Or are some beings more superior than others? And in that case then, is everybody else not real or not true or not valid? I think when we look at the communities that we work with as the GoDown Art Center, we find that we work with communities that are disadvantaged, some of them, communities that have a lot of resources, some of them, a very diverse community. And even without projecting ourselves on a global stage and saying well, okay, how are we how are we compromised, in terms of how we are perceived—the lens or the gaze that comes to us from a Western perspective, even before we cast ourselves out there, we within have dichotomies, we have, we have power plays internally as well, that prioritize some and that diminish others. So one of the things that we are trying to unpack as an art space is how do we empower the actualization of all of these pluralities of self, how do we empower these? How do we how do we foreground all of them? How do we allow that they’re all present? We try to do this practically through a festival, again, that we run annually in the city of Nairobi, where the residents of the city themselves curate a week-long festival, that is a projection of their own markers of identity and value. This has been very interesting to us. Some of the things that we’ve seen and began to understand is, first of all, just the space of presentation, when you ask a community to curate its own festival, and you see where that festival plays out, then you see the festival plays out in the market, it plays out in the street, it plays out in the social hall, it plays out in a school. And so we then have to ask ourselves, how the institution and the physical space that we occupy as the GoDown Art Center? How does it relate with that curation of space in the community? What does it teach us? What does it tell us? What direction what new direction does it point to? The other thing we’ve seen with these community festivals, again, which is interesting for us, is that they follow the rhythm of community life. So to give an example, a community might curate a full day of activity. But when we participate in their activities, it’s interesting to note the range of the demographic spread of audiences across the day. In one community, we noted that from mid-morning to about lunchtime, when they started their activities, the audiences were predominantly young men, and a few older men, there were no women to be seen. But then as midafternoon came on, you began to see the girls and you began to see the women. So clearly, there is some role and responsibility that the genders are playing, that influence the rhythm of life, and the freeing up of time to participate in the festival. That is the result that we saw. And so we ask ourselves, as well, as an arts institution that is located physically somewhere, and that programs things each day or each week, and put the time against the programs, what lessons does the community teach us. And for us, this connection, and this learning from the community is part of the process of, of decolonizing. It’s part of the process of, of really trying to understand the value and the place that we hold, and that we bring into community. I mean, generally, I think that it’s  next to impossible, I think, for any arts organization on the continent, ours included, to not be a part of the process of nation making, in this sense, that nation making is knowingly or unknowingly a process of decolonizing. As you try to really, truly find your independence as a nation, you are engaging in a process of decolonizing. And all of those constituents that form a nation, art spaces included, are engaged in that process. And so that’s why I say that, that rather than discuss a definitive moment of decolonization, I think that a discussion of the process and the discovery of processes of decolonizing are very important and actually very interesting for us.

MW: Thank you so much joy, for sharing with us these insights of decoloniality that relate to the three very crucial aforementioned aspects of power, knowledge, and being in which you explore in the context of GoDown Nairobi in Kenya at large. Please do take care and stay safe.