By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 9 March 2018)
If there is one thing Kenyan artists are incessantly looking for, it’s public spaces where they can display their artwork. And preferably the places are well-trafficked with folks who appreciate art and might even be inclined to buy theirs.
Tom Siambey is one Kenyan who recognizes that concern. Despite not being an artist himself, he started frequenting local galleries back in the 1990s after finishing secondary school.
“I used to visit places like Gallery Watatu, French Cultural Centre and Goethe Institute, and felt that one day, I’d like to be involved in the art scene myself,” he tells Business Daily.
He realized that most art institutions in Kenya are run by ex-patriates. Nonetheless, he thought he could do something comparable, giving opportunities to expose more Kenyan artists while learning about the art industry in the process.
One thing that gave him encouragement to follow his dream was getting to know Adama Diawara, the widower of Ruth Schaffner, former owner of Gallery Watatu and former Cote d’Ivoire Consul-General for Kenya.
“It was through Adama that I met artists like Jak Katarikawe and many others.
Initially, he used his saving to book space at the Village Market in 2000. “It was my friend, the late Joseph Opiyo who introduced me to Alice Miller who was in charge of exhibitions at Village Market,” Tom recalls.
“In fact, sometimes Alice [the Ghanaian niece of former High Court Justice Miller] would let me have the exhibition hall for free.”
Tom says Alice was happy to help him because she said everyone else who booked space, apart from him, was an expat.
That first exhibition featured 30 artists,” he recalls. “Everyone from Jak and Chain Muhandi to Stephen Njenga, Gilbert Ouma and even Lydia Galavu were there.”
It turned out to be a great success and artists were also pleased. “We continued exhibiting at Village Market from 2000 to 2004,” he says.
After that, he spent two years working with the Ministry of Culture, helping them organize provincial art exhibitions. But then, for reasons better known to the Ministry, those activities took a hiatus.
That compelled Tom to get back into the business of organizing exhibitions in sundry places, spaces that were not specifically focused on showing Kenyan art. He had a bit of persuading to get those venues. But starting in 2006, he began curating shows everywhere from the Sarova Pan-Afric and Ole Sereni to The Mall in Westlands and Kenya Wildlife Services.
It hasn’t been easy, especially as there’s the coordinating with the artists, collecting their work, hanging it well and keeping track of sales. One thing that made those shows possible was the fact that during that time, the venues he honed in on didn’t charge him for putting artworks on their walls and floors.
Now things are different. It’s not as easy to find spaces where management is so enabling. For instance, Village Market’s rental fees have shot far beyond what Tom paid in the past.
Nonetheless, he continues to search for innovative places where the public might enjoy seeing Kenyan contemporary art.
Currently, Tom has exhibitions running at three separate venues: one at Karen Country Club, another at Nairobi University’s Vet Lab and a third at the Royal Nairobi Golf Club. “Plus I’ve been offered space at the Sagana Getaway Resort which I’m trying out,” says Tom. So far, he’s exhibiting works by Esther Kahuya, Ron Enoch Luke and Remy Musindi there.
Meanwhile, at the Karen Club where Tom was initially scheduled to show works for four months, his run has been extended indefinitely, even as he rotates artists’ paintings, prints and sculptures since his artworks sell. He exhibits works by a wide range of artists, including Hannington Gwanzu and Evans Yegon, (both of whose art is also featured in the Central Bank of Kenya’s 2018 calendar) as well as Caroline Mbirua, Elly Omwaha, Peter Matheka, Drishti Vohra, Remy Musindi, Peter Maina, Teddy Odhiambo, Ruth Nyakundi, Coster Ojwang and Adam Magdi among others.
He doesn’t have as many works at the Vet Lab or the Royal Nairobi Golf Club. Nonetheless, the artworks sell at all three sites. What’s more, Tom says all the buyers are Kenyans, many of whom are serious art collectors. “Even at Karen Club, all my clients are Africans.”What’s more, Tom says quite a few have asked that he no longer bring portraits or pictures of wildlife. “They want to see more original works. Our Kenyan collectors are quite discerning collectors,” he adds.