One prominent Kenyan social justice worker described, to me, such additions as ‘giving protests a 21st century face-lift’; going on to say: ‘When you include symbolism, art, and performance, protests become like a carnival ... people are still angry and frustrated – that is why they are there - but these elements change the mood, providing moments when people can have fun…without losing sight of why we are there’. Taking notice of this analogy, I am drawn to linking contemporary protests (shaped by artistic and performative considerations) with Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of carnival. For Bakhtin, carnival is a vehicle of self-expression for the usually suppressed working-class. It is characterised by humour, mockery, anarchic aesthetics, and the grotesque. In this brief period life escapes the mundane. There are instances when anything goes, and new possibilities take shape in moments of utopia. But what are the creative strategies deployed in 21st Century protests happening in Nairobi, what I term ‘carnivalesque protests’?
In January 2013 State Burial took place, demonstrating against the conduct of 221 outgoing MPs, who tried to drastically increase their bonuses (including the right to a state funeral). The organisers created life-size coffins (one for each MP) which were hauled from Freedom Corner to Parliament buildings, mocking the MP’s audacious request through a parody of their demand for a state burial. The carrying of coffins and their associations to funerary rites bolstered cohesion and group identity. Outside Parliament the coffins were piled together. Only a few people knew what was to come. Creating the unexpected, the coffins were doused with petrol and set ablaze. According to Boniface Mwangi this is because ‘when you want to clear the field you burn it and then you plant…we are burning it to start afresh, with new leaders.’ This act celebrated the election cycle, and provided a chance where protesters made their voice heard and frustrations visible.
Act on Corruption Now or Resign protest
Whereas traditional forms of protest need to constantly increase in size or scope to become noticed (and newsworthy), the artistic innovation central to carnivalesque protests provides something uncommon, or out of place, that can attract and become memorable in protests with relatively few participants. Media stunts increasingly become an important part of the realm of politics. Nevertheless the creative strategies deployed at carnivalesque protests have at times come under criticism.
In 2013, and to the shock and provocation of many, a live pig, tens of piglets, and litres of blood, were dumped outside Parliament, during the Occupy Parliament protest. For the authors, this stunt aimed to shame newly sworn in MPs and ridicule the request they made for higher salaries. The pigs and blood (symbolically denoting MP’s greed, bleeding Kenyans dry) created a drama for the media to latch onto, while the spectacle provided the imagery to propel the protesters’ message. However, the art and performance in carnivalesque protests can promote an instability of meaning. In Occupy Parliament, those organising the stunt lost control over the protest’s message. Unintended narratives entered conversations planned to be about MPs’ greed. Some media houses and portions of the public focussed on the use of pigs and claimed this was insensitive to religious beliefs, harmed the animals’ welfare, and in some cases absurd claims were made regarding pigs being slaughtered. Inadvertently the protesters became protested against – raising issues over the methods used to cause shock and surprise.
Not all carnivalesque protests are met with the same fate. Some are not even given the chance to get going. Perhaps this is an indicator to the Jubilee government’s restriction of civil liberties. Planned months in advance, the 2014 #FEB13Protest called on citizens to hold the Government to account. It was part of the campaign Diaper Mentality, criticising 50 years of stunted growth and Kenyans’ need to ‘stop acting like babies’. However, just hours before its start it was banned, the organisers standing accused of trying to overthrow the Government. Undeterred, the #FEB13Protest went ahead and involved hundreds of participants. Carried by the protesters were huge babies, made by a team of artists over a period of one and a half months. The protesters were quickly met with violence and arrest. Speaking of this Reverend Timothy Njoya said ‘we came here to make a statement on the state of the nation…but it seems that the police have made the statement for us’. This narrative was portrayed in the media with images of the police kicking huge baby effigies across the street and rounding them up in the back of their van; imagery that doesn’t reflect kindly on the state, but emphatically relays the protesters message.
Symbolic and playful strategies have long played a part in street protests in Nairobi. But the turn towards artistic strategies happening in the 21st century (what I have discussed in terms of the carnivalesque) opens wider perspectives to the potential use of art in areas of activism. But how should we gauge its effect? By the level of online engagement, media coverage or citizen’s engagement with activism? Or is this even the right question to ask? The use of art in activism, seldom brings significant social or political change. What it does do, nevertheless, is play a valuable part in the struggle for more radical politics and a better world.