Sex and blasphemy in the city? Quelle horreur!

Alliance Francaise recently found itself compelled to carry out a spot of cultural peacekeeping in the troubled Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

The French, already embroiled in peacekeeping battles in Mali and the Central African Republic, recently found themselves fighting on a new front - censorship.

For their cultural shock troops at the Alliance Francaise, with battalions strategically positioned throughout Africa, had to swallow hard on the exemplary liberal position epitomised by Voltaire’s ringing declaration: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” 

Or not. 

It has recently emerged that the nation’s cultural ambassadors in Nairobi demanded the removal of a work of art from their walls at the opening of a current exhibition, Sex and the City. It was not the sex that was the problem - and there another fine French tradition remained intact - it was a clear case of blasphemy. 

In question was the material of John Kamicha, a 39-year-old Kenyan painter known for his works incorporating bits of khangas, those colourful cotton wraps that bear mottos and are used by their more subtle wearers to convey messages that may not be spoken.  

Kamicha has had a lifelong interest in spirituality and its manifestation through organised religion, and it was this that came to the fore in three of the 23 photo collages he submitted for this show. 

One, Hail Mary, showed the Blessed Virgin with a picture of local hero and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai emblazoned across her breast, a sort of ecclesiastical superwoman. 

Another, Last Supper, based on the iconic Leonardo mural, showed the 12 disciples eating their frugal repast with Jesus centre stage and all His followers represented by female models cut from magazines. They were transformed into men by Kamicha scribbling beards on their faces with a felt-tip pen. The figure of Christ was a fashion model from the house of Bottega Veneta. Given that blasphemy is defined as something that shows disrespect for God or sacred things, these two were bad enough. 

Choke on their cheese
What followed was enough to make the hosts at Alliance Francaise choke on their cheese. For Sex Retreat showed Christ in Majesty, right arm raised in a blessing surrounded by a number of cut-outs, one of which - small and centre right - was of the Saviour having sex while on the Cross.

And that was one image too far. 

Kamicha was quietly summoned to see the Alliance director, who politely asked him to remove the offending work from the show. With little choice in the matter, the artist complied. 

The problem was that this picture was likely to cause grave offence to adherents of at least three of the world’s great religions: Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. The first was obvious while in the other two Christ is respected as a prophet (the small “p” in the case of Islam being essential). A remarkable strike rate by any standards. 

Rather than risk it, the work was withdrawn. 

The picture was actually a comment on a recent scandal in which a number of pastors had been caught out while away from their wives and families ostensibly for a religious retreat, only to be found enjoying more earthly delights that might or might not have involved some of the Kenyan capital’s notoriously energetic sex workers. 

One local newspaper gleefully printed the story and the cat was out of the bag. 

It is an artist’s job to push the boundaries; to test the limits - and in that Kamicha was certainly successful.

I suspect that the real difficulty lay in where the collage was offered for exhibition.  Had it been hung in an avant-garde gallery it might not have excited much comment. But in the hall of a centre whose function is to encourage the local arts while quietly promoting its own, foreign, culture among the general public? The idea, let alone the representation of Christ having sex - and especially during the time he was actively redeeming the sins of mankind - was just one step too far. 

Ah well, c‘est la vie!

Frank Whalley reviews the visual arts for The EastAfrican, a regional weekly business newspaper published by Nation Media Group.

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