KENYAN CONTEMPORARY ART SCENE EXPLODES AT HOME AND ABROAD
By Margaretta wa Gacheru (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Possibly the best evidence of the vitality and vibrancy of the contemporary Kenyan art scene is the fact that so many of the country’s best and brightest artists are crossing borders anD increasingly exhibiting both within the region and overseas.
Mutua Matheka's Milky Way over Lake Natron
In South Africa alone, two of the leading Kenyan artists are currently having solo exhibition in Cape Town. Peter Ngugi’s paintings is at the Nini Gallery and Ehoodi Kichapi’s are also with Nini but at another venue. A number of other Kenyans – Dennis Muraguri, Jackie Karuti, Ato Malinda, and Paul Onditi – also had their art on show at this year’s Johannesburg Art Fair. And at least one Kenyan sculptor, Cyrus Kabiru with his C-Stunner eye-ware art, is being represented at all three of Smak Gallery’s centres, two in Capetown and one in Johannesburg.
Mia Collis' Grevy's Zebras
Kenyan contemporary art is still not widely recognized on the global art scene. Not long ago, scholars who studied African art had little to say about Kenyan art, apart from taking note that local venders still sell wooden figurines to tourists which these pundits called ‘airport art’ or souvenir art. Otherwise, it was West Africa that was most widely recognized for having ‘African art’. After all, it was Westerners like Picasso and Matisse who’d confirmed something aesthetically incredible was happening on the Western side of the continent. Independent South Africa was said to be coming up fast, but in the East, little was understood to be happening at all.
Ehoodi Kichapi's art was exhibited at the Nini Gallery in 2016 in Capetown
Such stereotypes still persist today, although the situation in East Africa, particularly in Kenya, is changing so rapidly and also growing by leaps and bounds, that few people in the media (leave alone the scholars) have had time (or inclination) to check out all the changes. Recently, Financial Times ran a story about one rising Kenyan star, Paul Onditi who’s one among several artists who’s showcased their work either in New York or London. Names like Peterson Kamwathi, Beatrice Wanjiku and Michael Soi are also names that are increasingly coming into wider conversations about what’s percolating in Kenyan contemporary art.
Patrick Mukabi's The Journey
Yet not even FT picked up on the fact that Kenyan artists are also exhibiting in Yokohama, Barcelona, Paris and Luanda, leave alone in Cape Town right now. In fact, so much is going on in the Kenyan art world that it can make one’s head spin if you try to keep track of which artists are doing what and where.
Paul Onditi's Smokey hits the road
To meet the demand for spaces where artists can showcase (and ideally sell) their artwork, new galleries and art centers have been opening up practically every other week. The latest one is the Polka Dot Gallery which opened in late September with a generous mix of both indigenous Kenyan and Kenya-based expatriate art. Before that The Art Space opened, preceded by the Fundii Art Centre, Shifteye Gallery, The Little Gallery and so many more.
Samuel Githui's Safarini is on the CEO's wall at Safaricom House
But today, Kenya’s up and coming artists are impatient to be placed on art centers’ waiting lists. So they are increasingly finding spaces other than the conventional galleries to exhibit their art. Some exhibit in five-star hotels (like the Dusit D2, the Sankara and The Tribe). Others ask for wall space in up-market restaurants (like the Talisman and Osteria) or coffee houses (like the Java). Meanwhile, others take their art to showcase in any one of Nairobi’s newest shopping malls, such as Two Rivers where MaryAnn Muthoni is currently covering the main entrance with literally hundreds of meters of mosaic tile murals; the Garden City mall, where Maggie Otieno’s and Peterson Kamwathi’s award-winning sculptures stand tall at the entrance and The Hub where Peter Ngugi is about to install his five meter metallic Coffee Tree.
Peterson Kamwathi from his Constellations and Sediment series
The slightly older art galleries like the One Off, Circle Art, Red Hill and Banana Hill art galleries all are keeping busy with exhibitions running regularly every month. The same is true for the foreign art centers like the Alliance Francaise, Goethe Institute and Italian Institute of Culture, all of which are sought after as sites that typically have a lot of CBD (central business district) traffic in local art lovers. And even the Russian Embassy is a place that periodically mounts exhibitions in Kenyan art.
Surprisingly, the Nairobi National Museum, which came into being as a natural history museum, now has a thriving ‘Creativity Gallery’ where a multitude of newcomers dare to ask for exhibition space, which they often get. The other way the Museum supports up-and-coming artists is to host an annual ‘affordable art’ show where artists are compelled to undervalue their art, but the trade-off is that the artwork sells.
Evans Ngure's Self-Portrait
In fact, many foreigners who come to Kenya visit the National Museum thinking it’s something like a national art gallery comparable to the ones found in London, Harare, Lagos and Capetown. But sadly and in spite of the fact that back in 1963, Kenya’s first Minister of Foreign Affairs who subsequently became its second Vice President, the late Joseph Murumbi, proposed at the dawn of his country’s Independence that a National Art Gallery be established, no such gallery exists up to now.
That is to say, the visual art scene in Kenya has virtually no support from the government. A brief history lesson can effectively illustrate government attitudes towards the arts. For back in 1979, the retired Joseph Murumbi sold his mansion and his priceless Pan African art collection ‘for a song’ to the Kenya Government on condition that they secure the collection and establish a Joseph Murumbi Institute of African Art at his former home. The Institute was meant to be the next best thing to a national art gallery as well as a research Centre where scholars and researchers could come from all over the world to learn about both contemporary and traditional African art.
Beatrice Wanjiku, from her Strait Jacket series
But not long after the completion of the sale, relatives of the then Kenyan president, Daniel arap Moi, not only ransacked the collection. They also demolition the Murumbi mansion which had been built on some of the most expensive real estate in the country. According to Murumbi’s business partner and co-founder with Murumbi of the African Heritage Pan African Gallery, Alan Donovan, they tore the house down with the plan to put up high rise flats. The former VP was still alive at the time, but once he saw how the government had reneged on its agreement, he didn’t live long after that.
Dennis Muraguri's Aliens from who knows where
Today, the Kenya government has yet to see the value of the visual arts. A few politicians and billionaire businessmen have begun to collect Kenyan art However, more often than not, they do so after hearing how local artists are starting to make hundreds of thousands – or even millions of Kenyan shillings for the sale of a painting or sculpture. So those few are starting to see the investment potential of purchasing works by local artists.
Nonetheless, the artists are no longer holding their breath, hoping for support from the politicians. But we are seeing signs that gradually, local people are visiting the galleries, attending exhibition openings and even buying works by artists.
Richard Onyango with his fiancée Drosie
One of the most positive signs on the horizon for the Kenyan art world is the emergence of artists’ ‘incubators’ where aspiring artists come to work within communal spaces where they are exposed and even mentored by the more established artists working there. That trend began many years ago when Kenya’s first indigenous African art center, Paa ya Paa was established in the mid-1960. And since then, spaces like Kuona Trust and The GoDown art Centre have communal studio spaces where young and older artists work side by side. The latest artists’ collectives are Maasai Mbili which operates out of one Kenya’s biggest slum in Kibera, the Dust Depo where most artists come to work with one of the country’s leading artists, Patrick Mukabi and Brush tu Art, a group of five practicing artists who have opened their studio to share their passion as well as their painterly practices with newcomers.
Joseph Bertiers Mbatia with his scrap metal sculpture, Domestic Vioence
All of these developments are contributing to the burgeoning Kenyan art scene. But perhaps the one Kenyan phenomenon that’s captured lots of local and international media attention is the East African Art Auction, launched by Circle Art Gallery and playing a central role in pushing up the value of Kenyan and other East African artists’ work. But there’s no one factor that’s played the most transformative role in making the Kenyan art scene as vibrant as it is today. It’s the convergence of all these factors that has caused the qualitative shift from souvenir art to what’s emerging and energizing art in Kenya today.
Samuel Githui's Nairobi, a gift to the African Union in Addis Ababa from President Uhuru Kenyatta