BY margaretta wa Gacheru (posted April 24, 2017)
Preceding the opening of his solo exhibition this coming Saturday (29th April) at One Off Gallery entitled ‘Black Tie’, Anthony Okello gave an ‘Artist Talk’ organized by The Art Space at Kuona Trust on Monday afternoon.
Okello is an award-winning artist who’s been painting for the last twenty plus years. A graduate of the Buru Buru Institute of Fine Art in the 1990s, he recalled that he began by majoring in painting at BIFA but then switched to graphic design. It was a shift he says he didn’t regret.
“I’d always loved to draw, which was good since we had to make sketches upon sketches while in the process of completing [design] projects,” says Okello. “But it was during that course, that I began to really appreciate color which was very important,” he adds.
Okello was among the first group of Kenyan artists to take part in a Bonham’s African Art Auction in London several years back. It was an occasion in ehivh the revenues from the auction went not to the artists but to the African Art Trust, a fund set up to assist fledgling regional art organizations, started by the British art collector Robert Devereux.
Out of the half dozen Kenyans whose art sold at that auction, it was Okello’s that sold for the highest price.
But on Monday, Okello confessed what has given him the most satisfaction as an artist is not the amount of money his artwork has sold for, but the actual process of creating the art itself.
He recalled that probably his finest work had taken him more than five years to create. It was work that he’d produced while giving not a thought to the money it might generate. Instead, he’d created his African mythology series while he “had fire in [his] head’.
The series itself consisted of a series of six monumental paintings, all but one of which had sold and been sent abroad. The sixth one he actually donated to the Nairobi National Museum where it hangs conspicuously today in the Museum’s most prominent staircase.
At least one of those six works had been so massive that it covered all of the walls in the small studio he was renting at the time. He recalled the canvas had stretched possibly seven feet by eight feet and hung from the ceiling right down to the floor. “I used to paint nonstop for three days at a time,” Okello recalled nostalgically.
Noting that some artists like to emphasize how much they suffer as they struggle to sustain themselves, Okello suggested that no suffering could compare to the sort of satisfaction an artist can feel creating work that expresses what he really wants to say.
But he admitted he hadn’t always felt that way. “While I was based at the [Nairobi National] Museum [with Kuona Trust], I used to keep a list of my ‘clients’, meaning the people who used to buy my art. But now I don’t call people ‘clients’ and I don’t keep a list,” he added. Nonetheless, Okello said he’d be forever grateful to all those tourists who’d come to the Museum and bought his art.
The ‘Talk’ on Monday mainly took the form of a question and answer session led by The Art Space’s Wambui Collymore who asked Okello a series of probing questions.
But there were also quite a number of local artists on hand who were eager to ask Okello questions. These resulted in a rousing debate over everything from the effect of money on an artist’s creativity to debate over the role of art organizations like Kuona Trust or the Go Down or other commercial galleries in the qualitative development of an artist’s creativity and career.
Okello was full of praise for the quality of art coming out of Kenyan artists currently. There was no comparison, he said, between what artists were doing even five years ago and what they’re producing now.
Wambui wanted to know Okello’s opinion on where the artists’ [community] should go from here? “What’s the next step?” she asked several times.
The question never quite got answered although at least one artist, Michael Soi, said he felt the art scene had “stagnated” due to some artists having grown too dependent on donor funding and the directions the donor wanted artists to move in.
It was a debate that couldn’t be exhausted in one sitting. But there was little doubt that the artists on hand were grateful to hear the opinions of older, more seasoned artists like Okello, Soi, Thom Ogonga and Beatrice Wanjiku, all of whom shared ideas that younger artists were mostly eager to hear.