By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted December 30, 2017)
Most artists don’t like to talk about money.
I know of only one who freely told me, “You would be surprised how many millionaires there are among our Kenyan artists.” He didn’t have a problem talking about money because he shamelessly sells some of his art cheaply so that ordinary Kenyans can afford to buy. And they do! But at the same time, he is a savvy art salesman who also creates larger and more elaborate works which he manages to exhibit in galleries and museums all over the world.
Some artists complain bitterly about art critics and reporters who want to know how much their works are selling for. In fact, all anyone needs to do to get the answer is to attend exhibition openings or visit those same shows while they’re ongoing. Then, one only needs to read the labels printed below the art to discover the artist’s name, the title of the work, the media used, and the price tag which is determined by the gallery together with the artist.
The artists who are most sensitive about exposing the high prices their artworks sell for don’t always put specific numbers on those definitive labels. Instead, they allow something like ‘Price [disclosed] by request’ to be there. Usually such opaque phrases mean that either the price is negotiable or it is higher than the general public needs to know.
When artists are asked why they don’t want to discuss money, they either claim it is ‘crass’ and ‘uncouth’ when the issues that ought to matter are ones related to aesthetics or ‘ideology’ as one artist put it.
But another artist claimed the public might get the ‘wrong impression’ if they heard one of his artworks sold, for example, for a million shillings. “I might not make another sale for six months so that money would have to stretch over an extended period of time,” he said.
And another artist who is especially annoyed by art reporters who probe into his financial affairs has practical reasons for keeping quiet on the topic. “I work with a lot of local people while creating my art,” he said. “If they knew how much I make for my art, they might not work with me anymore,” he added.
The implication of his statement was that he paid these freelance collaborators little or no money for whatever it was that they contributed to his art. But if they discovered he was making a bundle from their collaboration, they’d certainly treat him differently. They might even demand a percentage from his sales or not want to work with him anymore.
There are those few artists who freely boast about their artwork selling at high prices. For instance, when the Ngecha-based artist Wanyu Brush sold a painting for Sh2 million during a three-man exhibition at the now defunct Gallery Watatu, he and the gallery’s managing director Osei Kofi, talked widely about Wanyu’s success. Other people retold the story to convince parents that if their children took up the study and practice of art, they wouldn’t have to be poor. The old stereotype about ‘starving artists’ would no longer need to apply to them. In that way, the story of Wanyu’s [Ms1] wonderful windfall became legendary.
Something similar happened not long after Wanyu’s successful sale. It was that the Bonzo Gallerist and artist Adrian Nduma went on Kenyan TV with the Little Art Gallery director William Ndwiga to announce that one of Adrian’s paintings had just sold for more than Sh2 million! According to William, the phones at that particular TV station rang off the hook after their interview. People were inquiring where they could get the necessary training for their kids so that they too could one day make expensive and saleable art like Adrian’s.
Whether many parents have actually changed their minds about wanting their children to become doctors and lawyers but not sculptors and painters, isn’t clear. What I’m told is that most parents only want their kids to have financial security and a career in fine art is still questionable as far as most Kenyan elders are concerned.
Young people on the other hand are often prepared to take the risk, especially as they are seeing the way art is not only paying off for some Kenyan artists. More importantly, they see Art as the field that will allow them to express their creativity, identity and inner voice. And as many of them see it, the money is bound to come after that. And for quite a few, that is the case.