How to ‘make it’ in the contemporary Kenyan art world

(((I was invited to write on this topic for UP magazine, but they rejected it. They wanted first hand quotes from the artists themselves. That’s okay, but i told them, most Kenyan artists would claim to have “made it”. Maybe i was wrong, but I think there is a lot of humility and awareness of the magnitude of that claim.))) HOW TO MAKE IT IN THE (KENYAN) ART INDUSTRYBy Margaretta wa Gacheru, September 12, 2012 There are many struggling Kenyan artists striving to ‘make it’ in the Kenyan art industry today. Some artists who one might think of as having ‘made it’ don’t see themselves in that way, so one has to understand that ‘making it’ means different things to different people. If visibility is one measure of success, then one might struggle to get your own TV show, like Patrick Mukabi who’s on ‘The Know Zone’ every Saturday morning on Citizen TV teaching art to children. Patrick is probably the best known and most loved artist in Kenya. And if the young artist can find a popular venue to consistently show your art, as for instance, Jimnah Kimathi has done – his paintings hang in every Java Coffee House in Nairobi, you will definitely ‘make it.’ Otherwise, ‘making it’ in the Kenyan art world is no mystery. It requires lots of hard work, skillful technique, originality, resilience, perseverance and quite a bit of luck! It also requires that the would-be artist not copy other artists since originality seriously sells! That doesn’t mean you don’t find inspiration from other artists. Indeed, a conceptual artist like Gor Soudan claims his artistic impulses are energized by being around people who challenge him and make him think ‘out of the box’. I might also add that a touch of social awareness and sensitivity to one’s environment is another factor that can contribute to one’s success. Take a painter-printmaker like Peterson Kamwathi. He’d been painting for some time, but when he exhibited ‘Sitting Allowance’ at Goethe Institute, reflecting on the post-election violence of 2007-8, his artistic success was assured. His exhibition was a subtle but powerful slam at ‘leaders’ who allowed that ugly phase of Kenyan history to occur. From that point on, many people saw Kamwathi as an artist who had ‘made it.’ He’s been working hard to sustain that reputation ever since. In fact, ‘making it’ in the art world is also a matter of serendipity, being in the right place at the right time. Certainly, it helps if someone studies art works, books, videos and even newspaper stories about both contemporary artists and art by the old masters. For instance, Mukabi admits he initially wanted to emulate Michelangelo, the Renaissance artist who painted the Sistine Chapel in Italy; but then he grew into cultivating his own unique style of painting and drawing. One doesn’t necessarily need to go to art school to ‘make it’ in the art industry, but one does need to be open-minded and willing to learn about and try new techniques and art materials. Rubbing shoulders with other artists is also important, says conceptual artist Gor Soudan who never went to art school but has been drawing all his life. Ultimately, there is no set formula for how an artist can ‘make it’ in the art industry, but one does need to be true to one’s self and never lose the ambition to be as creative and original as you possibly can be.


One thought on “How to ‘make it’ in the contemporary Kenyan art world

  1. Anyway, like said in link below, UP terms are a bit harsh… and really not helping writers… so you are better of publishing it than in UP

    You write something, they publish and credit you but then they hold all rights on the piece you wrote !!!


    “UP holds exclusive rights (on the Internet and in print) of any commissioned work. Credit is given to author but Mondeas Ltd. retains the rights.” – Ouch, painful !!! –

    This would be better IMO – “After the period of one year, the publisher and author will jointly share the rights of any commissioned work. This means the writer is free to sell the work elsewhere, but [publisher] also retains the exclusive rights to reprint and/or electronically publish all articles appearing in the magazine.”

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