What Is Our Resistance?: A Conversation with Joy Mboya

June 21, 2021   •   By Bhakti Shringarpure

THIS IS THE second interview in a new LARB series called “Decolonize | Defund | Abolish,” which engages scholars, artists, and activists in dialogues about structures of colonialism persisting in the world today, and about creative and speculative practices of freedom in response to these structures. In this installment, I speak to Joy Mboya, the award-winning executive director of The GoDown Arts Centre, a nonprofit multidisciplinary arts facility in Nairobi, Kenya. Mboya is an architect, musician, performer, and cultural activist.


I met Joy Mboya at the GoDown Arts Centre, an arts and performance space whose founding and growth she has stewarded since 2003. This was, however, the smaller temporary facility since the original industrial space has been under renovation for the past few years, delayed by negotiations with the Kenyan government and the all-devouring pandemic. This property houses an office as well as several shipping containers that function as art studios. I found myself staring at Kenya’s premier painter, Michael Soi, hard at work in his red container studio. Joy urged me to peep into all of them as she showed me around, relaxed and affable despite her imposing height and tough biker-chic attire of leather jacket and Doc Martens. 


Joy’s creation of a communal arts space in a city that is deeply divided along class and racial lines has breathed life into a submerged art, music, and performance scene; has connected citizens with their city; and has produced ambitious festivals and exhibits. I spoke to her about the work of the GoDown and the complex political parameters it continues to navigate.


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BHAKTI SHRINGARPURE: You are associated with several types of intervention as an architect, musician, performer, cultural activist, cultural creator, founder, and curator. It’s a long list. I am sure all these identities are beautifully entangled. Maybe you can detangle them for us or re-tangle them some more.


JOY MBOYA: Depending on which way you point to the light, you see something different. A certain focus can be true at some point while, in another situation, it might not work at all. This also represents the way we work at the GoDown and probably the way I work, being the current steward of the space. Everything is really entangled, interconnected, and intersecting. And it’s very difficult for me to sit in a box. If I was to describe myself, I would say that I sit outside the box. I circle the box rather than operate within the box.


You have built the incredible GoDown Arts Centre from the ground up. Would you say that there was a foundation you have worked to unlearn and unsettle? For example, you studied to be architect, but did you work to get rid of that training from within you? Or have you strengthened it? You also worked as a musician (you had a girl band and you studied music!), and you have also been a performer. Are you breaking from these foundations or are you building them up?


One thing I do is that I reflect on what happens when I am coming out of a phase. It started with architecture. Architecture was very odd in that this is where we come to the colonial part and get a particular kind of schooling where you must pick a box, and I find it very hard to pick a box. I also loved music but was told that there would be no jobs in that! So, it was a tug of war. I was trying to be creative and also trying to find a profession or a direction that bridged being creative and imaginative while also being practical, utilitarian, and functional. And architecture seemed to sit across those two things.


When I went to study architecture in the US, I stopped for a week in London. I was about to experience my first winter in the US, so my mother told me to stop in London and have my uncle who lived there help me purchase some warm things. At the time, my uncle’s girlfriend got me all these books on architecture, after she found out that this is what I was planning to study at Princeton. The books had Western architects like Wren and Palladio, and pictures of big Greek columns. It worried me that I was expected to know all this. I landed at university and realized that I was working in a space that used a particular cultural approach and heritage. How was I to find myself there? After a year, I just took off. I came back home, and I decided to look at rural housing. I decided to go back and see what simple circular structures tell me about how people organize life, build structures around their lives and their societies. And that was the beginning of pulling apart things very intentionally as a young adult. But then I was doing it with music and doing it with theater. It became a life strategy.


How did the idea of the GoDown come about?


Most ideas unfold slowly for me. I was working as an architect, singing in a band, performing on a stage. I never would have thought that this career would end up in an art center. One of the discoveries I made was that young people were wanting to find themselves through performance, visual arts, and music, and that opportunity was limited. So, I started a program for young people. In wondering how it would grow, we were asking ourselves questions about how art can contribute to freedom of expression, to democracy, to people finding themselves. The GoDown comes out of those conversations.


Would you say that the GoDown is a decolonial project? Is it decolonizing space? Or the city or the museum or the concept of performance?


Yes, I think it is all those things. When you start with a space, it often starts with donor funding, and you have to ask yourself if that is sustainable. You cannot become a hamster on a wheel, going nowhere. To go somewhere, you have to find its local root.


The whole business of rooting became very important to me, to be able to continue with the GoDown. Rooting meant, how will it sustain itself, resource-wise, in the future? How will it be relevant to the space and the context that it’s sitting in? And what does that look like in terms of programming? How does it help us imagine the future? As far as I’m concerned, we are in the process of making a future, a future Kenyan nation, a future world. How does it help us imagine those things? And the question of decolonizing becomes a particular conversation. And while it’s a conversation now, it’s certainly not the language that we were using 10 or 12 years ago. But we were very intentional in saying: How do we begin to speak from the depths of our own voice and to really see things from our own eyes? What informs our lens? The lens is not neutral. It has been shaped by certain things. And how much do we care about those influences? What do we keep? What don’t we keep? What do we invent? So, it’s questions like that. All the time.


I know you’ve studied in various places and have traveled a bit in the world. Do you feel Kenya is more inflected with coloniality than other postcolonial places? One of the overt influences here is the fairly white Western NGO-industrial complex and the way society structures itself around the needs of this international population. I also find that some of the sharpest decolonial thinking and writing comes from here, which means something — writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Binyavanga Wainaina, and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, for example.


That’s a hard question. I don’t really know. Firstly, I think the Kenyan intelligentsia is very small and I don’t know to what degree they are speaking for a majority of the people. I have a sense that there are parts of our society and its subcultures that we don’t look at enough. And if we looked at it, we would be quite surprised and quite enriched. There is an assumption that something is wrong, but often we’re not seeing that something is being resolved, and being resolved in a very interesting way, in the way that people are enacting their lives. How do we describe that against these bigger ideas of decolonizing? What is the relationship between those different types of thinking? There seems to be a gap between those who are reflecting on the issues and those who are enacting and changing. How can we bridge it? So, that is how I see the art center and its strength. To be that bridge but also to be the space of enactment.


GoDown’s interventions are structured around building relationships with the city or even rebuilding the city. How do you feel about the politics of renaming and, relatedly, about the destruction of monuments? Are these useful efforts? (A side note from me: maybe because I am a foreigner here, and a very particular foreigner who teaches colonialism and decolonization, it is jarring to think about the neighborhood Karen being named after Danish settler Karen Blixen, who has birthed an industry and a politics with her 1937 book, Out of Africa. I have taught that book as an example of some of the worst colonial ideologies!)


Well, you have to decide what battle to fight. [Laughs.] And which one will the future meet? Because, if we’re going to make the nation, it’s going to be a process and it’s going to take time. Certain things will not happen now because even the naming that’s happening now, new streets and all that, you end up asking who decided that it is going to be called that.


The whole business of memorializing or preserving somebody’s memory, in some ways, is always going to be an issue whether it is colonial or contemporary. And Karen, it has become such a thing that we don’t even know where the name came from. In fact, I think when you talk to the younger set, I feel maybe it’s a good thing. The education system so far has been very wanting in exposing these things. So, it’s good that they will discover it later.


When we were doing city walks as part of the GoDown’s City Festival, a number of people came. They were young people, university students, who wanted to hear more about the city. They didn’t know much about the city. They didn’t know the stories. And then you had excursions that took you to the different neighborhoods. So, in Karen, they begin to understand there was this woman called Karen. But some of these things have also become meaningless.


Renaming missions felt very meaningless to me growing up in Mumbai, where a Hindu fundamentalist government went and renamed streets and monuments, and it came at huge administrative costs. So, I hear you about how arbitrary these acts can be. But I am invested in breakage. Renaming is appeasement, but destruction can be productive, it can build solidarities and allow for a process of rethinking space. But it can clash with the values of someone who likes to build platforms and communities. How to navigate this?


I think it’s how you look at it. That’s history. We take over a church and make it a mosque. Or take over a mosque and make it a church. We kept the structure, or we added to the structure, or we changed the structure. And I think that some things will have that addition, some things will have a demolition, and some things will just remain because that is life. It’s layers of conflict and building over time. And we sit on those layers, and we contribute to those layers as well through the things that we do. And it’s really about what’s most important to you at this particular point. What fight do you want to fight? Do you want to demolish one thing and build another thing?


All of the above, yes. [Laughs.] But I see what you are articulating about the role of the GoDown here. I’m sure the center has also gone through many transitions, but at the outset, was there a problem that you were trying to fix? Like connecting art to the city or creating awareness about local culture?


One of the things that we have tried to unpack is how pockets of community look at culture. Especially because we are proposing to bring cultural programs to people. What are we bringing? And do they care?


One of the big things was not seeing people coming to activities and then asking yourself, is the space a problem? Is it the time? Is it the content? What are the issues? So, we then said, let’s forget the space and this idea of a fixed central space that is the art center. Let’s shunt that to the side and go to the community and move through the community.


For example, we realized that young men were present from 11:00 a.m. until about 3:00 p.m. And young women were not there. You saw them looking out from the flats from a distance. And then, in the afternoon, they began to filter into the space, sometimes with little ones. So, you ask yourself what this says about how people’s time is occupied in terms of life and work. And how might it relate to the thing that we’re trying to do? Does it make sense to program things at an art center at 7:00 p.m. or 3:00 p.m.? Can we learn models through the reality and the context? This is how we understand what people are consuming, and how to provoke them. It’s like throwing a cat among the things and asking if that is really what the artist or performer should be doing. Should you really be trying to be an American gangster rapper? Or what are the other things that might be completely contradictory to this idea? And what does that mean for the space you’re trying to curate and the complexities of curation? And there’s no resolution, there’s just a lot of questions. A lot of questions!


I would identify two concerns when one is doing the work of building, curating, and amplifying culture: the framework of “discovery” and the framework of “taste.” Discovery (of an artist or an aesthetic) is fundamentally colonial. And one enemy of culture is “taste” because the ideologies of taste and taste-making are fundamentally exclusionary and rooted in class, race, and gender bias. How do you navigate these pitfalls?


Unfortunately, that is the reality. But you have to ask if you’re trying to homogenize things and if exclusivity is detrimental to whom and how. When we started to fundraise for the GoDown, we tried to understand what an ordinary person would be able to give. It turned out to be 500 bob [a Kenyan shilling, approximately $5]. So, we started to pitch for 500 bob, but people give less or more. And we’re speaking of a lower income, lower middle class, which is the main constituency of the GoDown. When we came to the middle class, we approached women. We realized that one factor was that the middle class were concerned about who else was going to be at the events who could influence their children. We didn’t judge them and instead asked ourselves how a space could manage those expectations. How does the GoDown remain a space that wants to be accessible to all kinds of people, and how do you program the interactions and the collisions? The idea of taste-making is always there. Some want an evening of smooth jazz, and some want rip-roaring comedy.


Trying to be absent from judgment is always hard. We have been running a visual arts exhibit called Manjano for 12 years, and it’s always the same theme: Nairobi. And we have to accept everyone’s relationship to the city. You may get an artist who puts some plastic roses on a pedestal, and they have decided this is their Nairobi. Over the years we have tried to track what constitutes a winning piece. And we ask about the connections between the pieces. We’re also trying to cull some core principles of seeing that seem to be informing the visual arts space right now. So that’s one way of exploring it.


Do you attempt to funnel art and culture work at the GoDown into collective action? I don’t know the institutional history, but how have you responded to those terrifying periods of election violence in 2008 and again 2013?


We have asked ourselves, what is our resistance, and have worked more toward allowing people to see and to have a voice.


When we had the 2008–2009 post-election violence, one of the things that we realized very quickly was that, with the media blackout, you had no sense of what had happened where, apart from being on some phone groups. But once we saw the images, I said, “This has to be seen.” And a colleague argued that the images were too horrific. But I think we have a responsibility to actually put these things out. We then went through this process of selecting from some very hard images. We had the challenge of curating an exhibition without looking like we were choosing between the two political sides that were fighting. So how do you represent them both in an exhibition in a way that is not about them but actually about the violence? We ended up starting a conversation about what we were seeing and what one’s personal responsibility is in this. And that is the approach we have now taken regarding resistance and collective action.


I feel like there’s a crisis of space today. I have engaged in cyberspace or online spaces for ways to build platforms and bring communities together. I just started something called Radical Books Collective — online book clubs that meet and discuss politically transformative books. I ran an online magazine, Warscapes, for almost 10 years, and it’s a massive archive and a network of amazing people. But there is a feeling that the work is not complete unless there is a physical space. But this has serious costs. I utilize online space because it is cheap and it is fast. Location is also an issue. New York City is so narcissistic, and all Western cities, generally, are very expensive. I also don’t want India, so “where” is also problem. Clearly, I have some commitment issues here as well. But how important is it to have a space or land or a building?


I think, at a certain point, it is important. I was fortunate enough to go and explore the idea of art centers abroad. In South Africa, I met someone who said it was just too challenging. You’ve got overheads, you’ve got problems of fixing things and running things. Why not just form a network, and then, when there is a performance or an event, you find another place for it. My thought is that you definitely have to build. I think that human beings build civilizations. We build things, that’s what we do as people. And some things are built that basically capture or carry a very important moment or sentiment for people, and so it’s important that that thing is there. And then there are smaller things that you may or may not build.


That’s where I see the GoDown — that, at this particular time for us, the building has to be there. And the building has got to be on a civic scale, and the building has got to be part of the things that define the city and the nation. I also think human beings are material. And even though we’re sitting with these opportunities for connection because of the digital, we shouldn’t forget that we are still flesh and blood, you know? How do you not get lost in thinking that you’re a digital being? I was reading something about a “meta-verse” today, where you can have another reality and your digital presence or your digital being can now become whatever it wants. So, we are also very unique in that we can imagine these things and then actually go into those imaginations and enact them, live in those worlds. Maybe we just need to know the boundaries and levels of these realities.


We have come up with a kind of Proust questionnaire for this final section. We will be asking these same questions of everyone we interview for the series. So, first, what would you DECOLONIZE?


The thinking space. You can say mind, but it would have to be all minds, everywhere.


What would you DEFUND?


The tax structure. This is very context-specific, and I say this because I don’t support the way they allocate resources in Kenya.


What would you ABOLISH? 


War. 


There is a price on everything in our capitalist society. What must be FREE for all?


Water.


I was at Amboseli National Park, and I saw all the animals gather by a body of water. And since this is the land of the Maasai, you also see them trucking these heavy, yellow jerry cans of water. It is such a struggle. Our bodies are mostly water. Not having water is a way to kill us. Water must be free for all.


We also want to know the soundtrack to your struggle. You can pick three songs.


Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution.”


Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’s performance of South Africa’s national anthem.


Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Redemption Song.”


Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, that’s another way to say “decolonize your mind,” right?


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Bhakti Shringarpure is associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut and editor-in-chief of Warscapes magazine.


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Banner image: “Nairobi skyline, Kenya” by WorldRemit Comms is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Image has been cropped and darkened.