A ROUND-UP OF NAIROBI’S VIBRANT VISUAL ARTS SCENE 2019
BY Margaretta wa Gacheru
While a number of Nairobi art spaces shut their doors in 2019 (some temporarily, others permanently), and others lost a degree of artistic energy, the local visual art scene remained vibrant nonetheless.
The leading lights in Kenya’s art industry thrived in 2019. These include galleries like One Off, Circle Art, .Red Hill and Banana Hill, all of which were busy throughout the year. They as well as venues like the Nairobi National Museum, Alliance Francaise, Goethe Institute and Nairobi Gallery were also booked solid all year
Nonetheless, there were many artists who felt disheartened, given the virtual shut down of spaces like the GoDown, Polka Dot Gallery, the Attic, Shifteye Gallery and Paa ya Paa, all of which had once promised artists limitless possibilities for exhibiting their art.
Yet as demoralizing as the shut downs may have seemed, they stimulated lots of fresh initiatives on artists’ and curators’ part. Many resorted to mounting Pop-Up exhibitions. Among the spaces that were popular for pop-ups were various hotels, restaurants, and malls as well as offices like Ikigai and Ogilvy Africa. Hotels that opened their doors to local artists included the Sarova Stanley, Fairmont Norfolk, Trademark, Tribe, Intercontinental, Sankara and Radisson Blu where the Art Auction East Africa will again be held in March, curated by Circle Art. And even country clubs like Muthaiga and Karen Clubs hosted pop-up shows in 2019.
The most popular malls that showcased artists’ work were Village Market, Lavington Mall and Rosslyn Riviera (where One Off opened up an ‘annex’ late in 2018 which has been busy ever since).
Restaurants like Talisman and Que Pasa have been hosting artists’ works for years. But in 2019. venues like the Lord Errol, Alchemist, Wasps and Sprouts, 45 Degrees Kitchen, Lava Latte and even fast food eateries like Kukito have not just mounted exhibitions. Some have even invited graffiti artists to cover whole walls with their art.
One other major trend that picked up in 2019 was artists setting up their own art venues. Adrian Nduma did it sometime back with Bonzo Gallery; Nani Croze did it when she started Kitengela Glass and even Patrick Mukabi established Dust Depo both to show his own and others’ art and to mentor young artists. But more recently, we’ve seen Paul Onditi open his own Art Cupboard, Chelenge van Rampelberg launch her Home Studio, Kioko with Kioko Mwitiki Gallery, Jeffie Magina with Studio Soko, Adam Masava with Mukuru Art Club and George Waititu did it by building his own Tafaria Castle Art Museum.
In fact, a number of artists have moved out of town and opened home studios, including photographer James Muriuki, C-stunners’ Cyrus Kabiru and painters like Peterson Kamwathi, Yony Waite, Zihan Herr, Peter Elungat, Geraldine Robarts and others.
At the same time, artists’ collectives proved to be one of the best places to see art ‘works in progress’ in 2019. These include spaces like Brush Tu, Maasai Mbili, Kobo Trust, Kuona and BSQ which is part of a thriving arts community at the Railway Museum. For not only is Dust Depo there. There’s another art space just next door, and right behind the Museum, there are railway cars transformed by graffiti artists like BSQ into studios cum gallery spaces.
What’s more, BSQ has carried on the tradition initiated by Mukabi of mentoring up-and-coming artists. The main difference between the two is that BSQ mentors graffiti artists whom they also invited in 2019 to carry on another tradition, of spray-painting graffiti art on the ‘Great Wall’ of the Museum that stretches all the way from the Technical University of Kenya down to the Museum, creating a collective work of art that changes periodically just as graffiti does worldwide.
Finally, a number of events stood out dramatically this past year. One was the Art Auction East Africa which is an annual event. But this past year at Radisson Blu, there were record-breaking sales of regional art which effectively illustrated how fine art can be taken seriously by Kenyans as a profession and livelihood.
The other landmark moment for Kenyan and other regional artists in 2019 was One Off Gallery’s opening its own Sculpture Garden on more than two acres of ground. The Garden turned out to be not just one venue for viewing the wide range and beauty of East African sculpture. Carol Lees’ call out attracted so much amazing art that it filled the garden as well as indoor galleries at One Off and the one at Rosslyn Riviera mall.