Frederik Unseld’s dissertation offers an inquiry into the role and reach of artistic practices in Kisumu, Kenya’s 3rd-largest city, where young people have en masse embraced the way-of-the-artist as a way of life. His thesis combines anthropology with urban studies, sociology, fine and performing art studies and literary studies and weaves the many little threads of how the artists “make meaning” into a larger fabric – that is, the city as a social and political space. The insights that inform Unseld’s work are never deduced from general theorizing but rather emerge out of the lifeworldly realities that he depicts in great detail.

The dissertation is concerned with the ways in which art is made; with these ways and the practices they entail as alternatives to work construed as a salaried or regular endeavor; and with both the processes and the final products involved as building blocks of city life. Unseld uses the notion of Lebenskünstler as a nodal point, which, literally translated, stands for somebody who is a master in the art of living. In so doing, the thesis extends bridges between such key takes on city-making as are offered by urban sociologist AbdouMaliq Simone, literary and cultural studies theorists such as Sarah Nuttall and art historian Joanna Grabski.

Unseld follows five individual artists through their work and life world. The thesis builds on a post-Marxist understanding of discursive articulation and highlights how the artists concerned develop different articulatory responses to the structural-violence they experience as a result of enduring mass unemployment and a systemic neglect on behalf of the powers that be. These artistic articulations take different forms and draw on various art genres ranging from ‘artivism’ to spoken word to fashion modelling, as well as various communicative and performative expressions that are part of social media culture. Unseld’s research was carried out between 2015 and 2018 and the thesis addresses how artists reacted to the highly-contested general elections of 2017 and the country’s subsequent constitutional crisis.

Unseld is neither silent on the violence that his protagonists experienced so often and that sometimes pushed them into criminal milieus, nor does he belittle their attempts to overcome the many hurdles that they had and still have to face. The thesis always recognizes that the portrayed artists are both authors of their life trajectories and victims of the circumstances that prevail in the urban neighborhoods that they inhabit. Using the device of portraiture, Unseld manages to write an account that is both balanced in its analytical propositions and a moving narrative about hope and despair in the city. The thesis opens up many important and timely questions about the multi-layered nature of the articulation between city-making and art-making, while simultaneously expanding our understanding of what the term “art” can reference in post-colonial life-worlds in the 21st century.

Project Period

February 2015 - December 2020


Prof. Till Förster and Prof. Dominique Malaquais


Swiss National Science Foundation