This year’s Kenya Art Fair at Sarit Centre was a relatively Spartan affair. It felt like there were fewer booths than in years past. In large part this was due to the inflated costs of booking a display booth this year. According to some participants, the fees shot up nearly three times the price of the year before. That cost alone scared away many artists who had hoped to take part in the art fair this year.
The price hike was attributed to Sarit Centre’s overhead issues. But the fact that there were fewer artist talks and panels this year was surprising given the thriving nature of Nairobi’s local art scene. One imagines there could have been many more than four artists to speak on timely topics. But three sessions of art talks is all we got this year. This is in contrast to years past when during the four-day festival, there could have been at least three sessions every day (apart from opening nght). And occasionally three in a morning and two or three in the afternoon.
No doubt, audiences (which largely consisted of up-and-coming younger artists) appreciated hearing from Mukuru-based artist Shabu Mwangi on Friday. For in addition to his having an illustrious career as a painter, he is also the founder the Wajukii Art Project which has mentored many young Kenyan artists from the so-called ‘informal settlements’.
The ‘Q and A’ session on Saturday between the Kenyatta University lecturer and practicing painter Anne Mwiti, Kuona-based artist and co-founder of Brush tu Art David Thuku and Dan Handa, one of the Fair organizers, was also well received.
And on Sunday, young artists were especially keen to hear from Circle Art Gallery co-founder and curator Danda Jacoljmek who offered practical tips and insights into moving forward in the local art industry.
But in years past, the weekend fair usually had at least one or more panel discussions that served to stimulate lively discussions. There were no such panels this year.
However, among themselves artists, who came to the Fair either to display their works or to check out what was on show, had lively discussions. This must have been one of the best things about the Art Fair, that younger artists got a chance to meet and chat with some of the older, more seasoned artists who had decided it was worth investing far more than they had budgeted for to be in the 2017 Art Fair.
For instance, this year three giant sculptures by Joseph Bertiers Mbatia took centre stage at the fair. So when he finally arrived on Sunday afternoon he had a slew of visitors to his booth and to his larger-than-life sculptures wanting to discuss his marvelous artworks.
Another well-seasoned artist who booked a booth of his own and attracted the attention of many young Kenyans was the painter and jewelry artist Njee Muturi. A man who must be the first Kenyan to create exquisite bracelets, necklaces, rings and earrings out of silver spoons and forks, Njee makes jewelry that are truly works of art.
There were approximately ten solo exhibitions at the fair this year. They included artworks by Michael Soi, Patrick Kinuthia, John Ndungu, Pascal Chuma Elaine Kehew, Eddy Ochieng, Patrick Ng’ang’a and Melusine Towler.
But what was equally if not even more exciting about this year’s Fair was seeing so many new faces and even a number of new groups showcasing their art for the first time.
The one I frankly was most excited about was Ziwa Zambarau, a quartet of young Kenyan women artists who have formed one of the first women visual artists’ collectives (HAWA spearheaded by Lydia Galava was the first). The group includes Virginia Wakianda, Moira Bush Kimani, Naitiemu Nyantom and Evilidah Wasai.
There were at least twelve booths devoted to group displays. Among the groups were Dust Depo, Brush tu Art, Bobea Art Centre, The GoDown, Little Art Gallery, The Mix from Kakuma Refugee Camp, Cross Stitch, BIEA, Kenyatta University, Silver, Kimani and Endo, Njogu and Sonko, and of course, Kuona Trust who launched the first Kenya Art Fair and organized it ever since.
One of the most popular venues at the fair, apart from the Wasanii Exhibition, was Caricatures, the booth where artists Paul Njihia, Nadia Wamunyu and James Njoroge created affordable and fun portraits of visitors right on the spot.
Finally, the art fair catalogue was especially well done this year with the cover painting by Hussein Halfawi and the design by Jess Atieno.