By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 18 february 2019)
The Modern and Contemporary Art Auction East Africa is coming upon us faster than imagined. March 5TH, when the Auction is held at the Radisson Blu Hotel, will be here in no time flat.
This became obvious this past Wednesday night when the Circle Art Gallery held a public ‘Preview’ exhibition of the artworks to be auctioned at the Upper Hill ballroom from 7:30pm on that first Tuesday in March.
The gallery’s co-owner and curator Danda Jaroljmek put this year’s resplendent catalogue online for the public to see in advance of both the auction and preview exhibition. She sent a handful of hard copies out to a few people who’d helped to make the upcoming auction one of the most exciting yet seen since Circle Art organized its first East African Art Auction in 2013.
For me what makes this year’s 58 lots (artworks) so special is not simply that the art is coming from seven African countries including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa. It is that this year we’ll see Kenyan art in its finest light. For not only will we see almost 20 Kenyan artists with their works represented and up for auction, including such important artists as sculptors Samwel Wanjau, Edward Njenga and newcomer Dickens Otieno as well as great painters like the late Robin Anderson, Ancent Soi, Camille Wekesa, Peter Elungat, Rosemary Karuga, Richard Kimathi, Sane Wadu, Tabitha wa Thuku and Michael Musyoka.
There will also be a slew of Pan-African artists represented in the auction who spent some of their most productive years living in exile and painting in Kenya. They include artists like Theresa Musoke, Charles Sekano, Jak Katarikawe, Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos, Ash Uman, Yasser Ali, Hussein Halfawi and even Francis Nnaggenda whose ‘Mother and Child’ stand at the main entrance of Nairobi’s National Museum of Kenya.
And then there are several Kenyans, like Annabel Wanjiku and Tahir Carl Karmali who got their start artistically in Kenya but who have moved out across borders (and in Tahir’s case, across oceans) to other harvest fields. But through the art auction, they are reclaiming their artistic roots back home in Kenyan soil.
Another special thing about the curatorial work that Danda and her staff has done is to unearth artworks by artists who we know best for their practicing one specific style of art. But their work in this year’s show is revelatory in that it reflects a period of their artistic evolution that we were unaware of before.
I put the ‘Kneeling woman’ by Peter Elungat in that category. Tabitha wa Thuku fits in there as well since both of their paintings reflect earlier periods when their artistic experience was still fresh, new, experimental and sweet. The same could be said for Kamal Shah’s ‘Village Diva in Red’ and John Kamicha’s untitled piece. All four of these paintings feel like they blend in well with the quality prevailing in the show as a whole.
Even Robin Anderson’s oil on canvas painting is a discovery since she’s best remembered for her lovely hand-painted silk batiks. But before she developed that popular style, Robin painted in oils on canvas which is what we’ll find at the auction.
And even an artist like Francis Nnaggenda is better known in Nairobi as a sculptor than a painter, like the one who created ‘The flute player’ that will be auctioned. Nnaggenda’s sculptures are scattered around Nairobi, at the entrance of Nairobi National Museum, inside the Nairobi Gallery and even at Nairobi City Park next to the graves of the former Kenyan Vice President and his wife, Joseph and Sheila Murumbi since they were great admirers of Nnaggenda’s art. So his ‘Flute Player’ will be an exceptional piece reflecting the artist’s versatility.
The Nigerian contribution to this year’s auction is also a bonus, largely thanks to a shipment of paintings sent from Oshogbo by the brilliant batik artist Niki Seven Seven Okundaye to Alan Donovan of the African Heritage House. It was a gift of sorts to commemorate Donovan’s fifty years living in Africa, which had begun in Nigeria. Donovan hadn’t been well enough at the time to showcase the art as he normally does. So now, the art auction has this opportunity to show some of Nigeria’s finest veteran artists such as Bruce Onobrakpeya, the late Twins Seven Seven, Wole Lagunju and Muraina Oyekmi.
No one can foresee which artworks will generate the greatest interest at this year’s auction, but it will be well worth attending just to watch and find out. And preferably, also to bid and buy!