[For several reasons, this story was never published in the press. That's because I put it on this blog last March and the person who requested the story saw the blog and refused to 're-publish' it. In any case, this story is out of date since the Kenyan art world is ever-changing and artists are commanding higher prices everyday. For instance, a few weeks ago Beatrice Wanjiku Njoroge sold a painting that was part of her One Off Gallery exhibiton for KSH950,000, almost a million shillings. Is that the highest price Kenyan artworks are going for? One cant be sure since their works are going abroad with dealers like the Art Lab and Ed Cross (who managed to get Peterson Kamwathi's art into the British Museum). And normally, once their art goes overseas, its value shoots sky high. But this artistic, however inaccurate or out of date it may be, is still my perception which makes it valid to me.]
By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 23 March 2018)
The recent Art Auction-East Africa held at the Dusit D2 Hotel in Nairobi should have laid to rest the old-fashioned view that ‘artists are an impoverished lot’ and you wouldn’t want your son or daughter to become one.
The reason for the re-think is the kind of price tags attached to the artworks that got sold at the auction. Most people never dreamed that one painting (by the late Ugandan artist Geoffrey Musaka) could sell for almost KSh2 million.
Yet Musaka’s art was not the only one sold for more than a million shillings that night. The Kenyan-American artist Yony Waite’s painting went for KSh1.4 million and the Sudanese painter Rashid Diab (who often exhibits here in Kenya) commanded KSh1.4 million for his art. But since Diab’s paintings normally sells for at least Sh1.6 million, it couldn’t be sold that night.
There’s no longer any doubt that the works of quite a few Kenyan artists are selling well both on the local and the international art market. Granted, it’s relatively recent that the world has woken up to the Renaissance in African art, including the art of East Africa. Nonetheless, I was told by one globe-trotting Kenyan painter recently that “You would be surprised at how many Kenyan artists are millionaires.”
No, I would not be surprised. But that’s not to say quite a few wannabe artists are not struggling. And even the top-selling artists will admit they have had to work hard to achieve success.
It isn’t difficult to name artists who’ve created the top ten most expensive works of art in Kenya. They include the likes of Peter Elungat, Paul Onditi, Timothy Brooke, Peterson Kamwathi, Yony Waite, Dennis Muraguri, Adrian Nduma, Michael Soi, MaryAnn Muthoni and Wanyu Brush.
But those are just the tip of the iceberg. One could easily add names like Cyrus Kabiru, Beatrice Wanjiku, Elkana Ong’esa, Maggie Otieno, Anthony Okelo, Samuel Githui, Camille Wekesa, Jak Katarikawe, Sophie Walboeffe and Edward Njenga.
The difficulty comes first in knowing all the local art collectors who have quietly bought art but haven’t made their collections widely known. They’re aware that thieves are starting to realize that stealing art can be a good investment.
The bigger challenge is that some of the most expensive artworks sold by Kenyan artists is bought overseas so that we locals may never know those works, leave alone the prices they were sold for.
To illustrate, Paul Onditi is said to have just sold two paintings in New York City for USD35,000 (KSh3.5 million) each. That could be a record sale for Kenyan art. But the other difficulty is that many artists don’t like to talk about how much their art sells for.
Nonetheless, we can begin with Edward Njenga, the 94 year old former social worker and sculpture who sold his installation of terracotta sculptures of Mau Mau detainees for more than Sh1.5 million. The buyer had them shipped abroad.
Kenyan painter Wanyu Brush sold one of his paintings for Sh2 million to an Italian tourist who also shipped Brush’s piece back to Italy. Adrian Nduma also sold one of his colorful abstract paintings for Sh2.2 million. It was bought by a local art lover, although he or she prefers anonymity.
There are many more than ten valuable artworks by Kenyans that have remained in the country. Whether they are the ‘most expensive’ is almost impossible to calculate since the value of art fluctuates almost as inexplicably as the stock market does.
But I can easily identify the following works as being valued at well over one million shillings:
1. Peter Elungat’s painting at the Reception of the Villa Rosa Kempinski Hotel
2. Mary Ann Muthoni’s murals at Two Rivers Mall
3. Dennis Muraguri’s junk art World Map at Delta House in Westlands
4. Maggie Otieno’s Gate Keeper sculptures at Garden City Mall
5. Timothy Brooke’s Landscape paintings at One Off Gallery
6. Elkana Ong’esa’s Dancing Birds Kisii stone sculpture at the US Embassy.
7. Camille Wekesa’s murals at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy
8. Anthony Okelo’s Luo Mythology at Nairobi National Museum
9. Peterson Kamwathi’s Steel People sculptures in Banana Hill. He has another set of metal sculptures at Garden City Mall.
10. Samuel Githui’s Nairobi Street triptych at the Safaricom headquarters.
We could add to this list the Tom Mboya sculpture by Luke Oshoto Ondula as well as his giant Peace Sculpture in Kisumu which was meant to commemorate the centenary of the Kisumu Sikh Temple.
The Dedan Kimathi sculpture on Nairobi’s Kimathi Street is also an expensive work of art conceived by Kenyatta University’s Department of Fine Art and executed by Kevin Oduor.
So the list of precious Kenyan art can go on and on. One of the most priceless pieces of Kenyan art is the Mau Mau Freedom Fighter created in cement and steel by the late Samwel Wanjau. It was recently damaged when one Philistine woman tried to destroy it. Now in need of repair, Wanjau’s Freedom Fighter could be one of the most expensive works of art by a Kenyan if it can be repaired and then protected and preserved like the priceless work of art that it is.
PS this story does not include consideration of the sales of the AFRICAN MONA LISA AND BASQUIT’s ART THAT SOLD AT SOTHEBY’S