- The Art of Connection: Risk, Mobility, and the Crafting of Transparency in Coastal Kenya by Dillon Mahoney
The long-legged giraffe that appears in souvenir shops at airports and in decoration shops in places such as Manchester and Philadelphia is an emblematic figure of Kenyan woodcarving art. The Art of Connection guides us through the social landscape of this giraffe and similar artistic work produced in Kenya, and informs us about the complex interplays between the ethnic, urban, and global networks through which these objects emerge and move. In concrete terms, this book is about sanamu, a Swahili word for curios, handicrafts, crafts, and tourist art, which references a wide variety of soapstone and wooden carvings (178). These are made by msanii, artists, mainly from Kamba and Kisii ethnic origins, though the trade is multi-ethnic. Crucial to Mahoney's analysis is that "Kenyan curio art (and African art more generally) is not simply an object, but an interaction or an experience" (180). For a long time this interaction happened face-to-face, mainly in kiosks throughout the city, but for over a decade, these have become increasingly digitally mediated (in cybercafés and via the cell phone).
During more than 15 years of fieldwork in and around Mombasa, Mahoney has been interviewing, hanging out with, following, and e-mailing with traders (even those who have left the business) he has met in Mombasa. Initially he planned to work with roadside sellers, but the arrival of digital technologies halfway through his fieldwork reshaped the sanamu business. Mahoney had to redesign his fieldwork, and include entrepreneurs taking advantage of cellular communication. In addition, political decisions, such as the demolition of kiosks in the 1990s and [End Page 1131] 2000s, also pushed these entrepreneurs to change their selling strategies. Some relocated to other areas in and around Mombasa, while others totally abandoned the trade. Additional research participants were tourists, beach boys, and tour guides—as one would expect from studying life in a tourist hub. The ethnographic data are complemented with material from archives about Mombasa's history and colonial and postcolonial art policies. As such, the monograph offers a fascinating insight into the multiple forms of connection that occur(red) in Mombasa.
The analytical rubrics of informality, (im)mobility, and transparency bring together economy, politics, and urban sociality. Key to the analysis is the idiom of connection, starting from the very concrete "business connections" as in finding patrons and clients, then venturing into a more abstract understanding of "connection" as in participating in the global economy, and including a more philosophical, humanistic trope of togetherness and belonging. As mentioned above, in recent years, digital technologies have added a new platform for connecting, trading, and communicating which has seriously impacted the business of art trade. Mahoney is careful not to romanticize the opportunities that have come along through the digital infrastructures; rather, throughout the book, the author points at new forms of inequality, violence, and risk.
The politico-economic background of this study frames the whole monograph. After World War II, Kenyans from Nairobi, Machakso, and Kisii Districts were attracted by the handicrafts and carving business in Mombasa and settled there. During the 1970s, they set up Kamba wood-carving and Kisii soapstone cooperatives, which the Kenyan postcolonial state subsidized until 1997. When the Co-operative Societies Act and the Sessional Paper No. 6 of 1997 on "Cooperatives in a Liberalized Economic Environment" (7) were issued, the cooperatives could no longer rely on state support and transformed into free enterprises. They were forced to compete directly with other privately owned businesses. The Acts thus meant a radical shift in business models and marketing necessities. Greater economic insecurity and instability were the outcome for most of the traders. Almost a decade later, around 2005, digital platforms appeared more and more prominently in Mombasa and provided welcome opportunities for younger, digitally literate Kenyan men and women. Though not everybody could rely on that.
In seven chapters and a short conclusion, Mahoney offers us an intimate insight...