Visual Arts

– Thursday, December 12

Kenya’s art scene at 50: a look back at how it grew from nothing

by Margaretta wa Gacheru

Kuona Trust poster [660 x 300]

Kenya’s visual arts industry has grown exponentially over the past 50 years; but at Independence in 1963 there were no art galleries that showed African art apart from the occasional Congolese or Ugandan painter’s work. There were expatriate galleries like the Sorsbie Gallery in Muthaiga and the New Stanley Art Gallery in Nairobi’s Central Business District, but they catered exclusively to Europeans and did nothing to stimulate Kenyan interests in the visual arts.
There was the Chemi Chemi Art Centre established by the South African writer Ezekiel Mphalele who worked closely with the Tanzanian artist and former Makerere University professor Elimo Njau. But the Centre shut down soon after Mphalele left town and Njau began organizing a group of Kenyans and a couple of Britons to start what would soon become the country’s first indigenous African art gallery called Paa ya Paa.

At Independence there were the Wakamba curios which were sold to tourists as souvenirs in Asian-owned craft shops. But it was these wood carvings of the so-called ‘Big Five’ (lion, leopard, cheetah, wild buffalo and hippo) that came to be what got stereotyped – and thus dismissed – as all that constituted Kenyan ‘art’. That was equivalent to claiming that Kenya didn’t have any contemporary art or culture, only touristic curios that couldn’t be compared with what West Africans were producing.

So the only thing the global art world knew about African art in 1963 was what was coming out of countries like Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana.

Elimo Njau, sculptor, painter, art teacher and founder of Paa ya Paa Arts Centre. (Photo/Correspondent: NATION MEDIA GROUP)

It would take a couple more years before the Paa ya Paa Art Centre was borne (in 1965) and a few more after that before Gallery Watatu came into being (in 1969). Another 25 years would go by before the second gallery started by Africans got registered. That was the Banana Hill Art Studio which was established right around the same time as the One Off Gallery. Then came Kuona Trust in 1995, Rahimtullah Modern African Art Museum – known widely as RaMoMa – in 2000 and the GoDown Art Centre in 2003.

“Fisherman” by Bezalel Ngabo Acrylic on Canvas 80 x 60″

Some art historians cite 1985 as a turning point for the Kenyan art scene since that was the year Art became an examinable subject in Kenya’s national curriculum. The official recognition of Art as a legitimate subject of study is said to have had a profound impact on young Kenyans who now could officially study fine art within the 8-4-4 educational system. But that only last until 2003 when cabinet ministers in the new Kenya government revived the retrograde point of view that art and creative expression were of little value to Kenya’s national development. It’s a view that is still frequently expressed among politicians and people who don’t understand that by cultivating young people’s imagination and creativity, we encourage progressive thinking and innovative ideas that can advance what is commonly called a ‘creative economy’.

But even back in 1963 there were Kenyans who were keen to support the country’s creative economy and arts industry. The government’s second Vice President Joseph Murumbi had actually proposed establishing a National Art Gallery at Independence which would have been comparable to ones that currently exist not only in London but also in Lagos, Harare and Johannesburg. But Murumbi’s fellow MPs had no interest in supporting his vision. Nor did President Kenyatta entertain the idea.
Murumbi’s ‘problem’ as diagnosed recently by the current Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Sports, Art and Culture, Mr Wario [at the official launch of the Murumbi Collections at the Nairobi Gallery] was that the VP was ‘ahead of his time’.

Nonetheless, it only took two more years for a number of Kenyans—namely Hilary Ngweno, Jonathan Kariara, James Kangwana and Pheroze Nowrojee — to team up with Elimo Njau and a couple of British artists — namely Terry Hirst and Charles Lewis of Oxford University Press — to launch Paa ya Paa Art Centre in 1965.

The so-called ‘first generation’ of Kenyan artists was already hard at work. They included Gregory Maloba, Rosemary Karuga, Louis Mwaniki and Elkana Ong’esa, all of whom would be academically trained. There were also a slew of so-called self-taught artists such as Samwel Wanjau, Ancent Soi and Alexander Mogendi who to this day are reckoned to be some of Kenya’s finest contemporary artists. But they all received little recognition among their fellow Kenyans back then, a situation that hasn’t changed dramatically up to now.

“Untitled” – Rosemary Karuga

Nonetheless, Murumbi was able to make a significant impact of the arts industry in Kenya by the early 1970s when he met a young American indigenous art collector and former USAID relief worker named Alan Donovan. The two men teamed up to start the African Heritage Pan African Art Gallery in 1972, and went on to become one of the most successful commercial art centres in Kenya.

Some African art historians (like Professor Sidney Kasfir) have faulted African Heritage for its commercial orientation and its hybridization of African art. But the reality was that the Gallery was the first to exhibit such brilliant East African artists as Elkana Ong’esa, Frances Nnaggenda, John Diang’a and John Odoch Ameny.

“Dancing Birds”, Elkana Ong’esa, Courtesy African Colours

Gallery Watatu had also begun exhibiting artists like Ancent Soi, Louis Mwaniki and Jak Katarikawe by the early 1970s. But it was African Heritage which had a mastery of marketing a Kenyan cultural brand that transcended the boring stereotype which claimed Kenya had no contemporary art and no art industry of any kind, only curios and clichéd wood carvings.

There were other small galleries that advanced the local art industry in the 1970s such as Rowland Ward and the Firmin Gallery, both of which were based in downtown Nairobi. There were also workshops often based in local slums like Mathare Valley that were teaching local artisans to make handcrafted jewellery out of local materials, much of which was then marketed overseas.

Jak Katarikawe – “Wedding Night” (Oil on paper; 58 x 71cm; 1985)

All this was going on until the mid-1980s when a German-American woman who already owned two art galleries in the United States arrived in Kenya. Ruth Schaffner had actually been encouraged by her West African spouse to come to Kenya to check out the prospects for opening another art gallery, this time in Nairobi.

As it turned out, Schaffner chose to buy up an existing art gallery. Yony Waite was actually one of the three founders of Gallery Watatu in the late Sixties. Both she and the late Robin Anderson were two formally trained artists who had yearned for a space of their own where they could exhibit their art without worrying about constraints that could so easily come when others control the gallery space.

Green, the last capitalist’s squeeze – Dennis Muraguri [Mixed media]

But by the 80s, both Anderson and her partner David Hart had sold their shares in Watatu, and Yony preferred painting over running a gallery. So when Schaffner came along in 1985, Yony was happy to sell with just one stipulation, that she could exhibit her art at Gallery Watatu whenever she liked.

Schaffner is credited for having turned the tide of Kenya’s art industry by encouraging so much young and often inexperienced talent through the gallery. She started up monthly ‘artist days’ when aspiring painters would come and show her their work in the hopes that she might buy it, which she often did. Additionally, she could give young Kenyans who she saw had talent art materials that they seriously needed, such as paints, brushes and even paper. 

But during her rising reign over Kenya’s emerging art industry, Shaffner had her critics, especially those who felt she made claims to have ‘started’ contemporary Kenyan art. To this day, newcomers to the local art world believe that artists like Ancent Soi, Jak Katarikawe, Samwel Wanjau and many others got their start with Shaffner, not knowing that she was one of the best Kenyan art marketers around.

A selection of works by Michael Wafula

For instance, she was able to get a whole wing of one German folk art museum reserved for the artworks of Jak Katarikawe, which was a great opportunity for the man; but it also advanced the myth that Jak didn’t have an artistic life before he met Ruth, which was absolutely false. Jak had worked and exhibited extensively with Elimo Njau at Paa ya Paa years before he met Ruth.

The same could be said about Ancent Soi who not only won an Olympic medal for his artistry in 1972 during the Munich Olympics. He also was one of the first Kenyan artists to exhibit at Gallery Watatu in the early Seventies as well. But since her demise in 1996, the role of Ruth Schaffner in the Kenyan art world has taken on mythical proportions.

Yet Schaffner did a great deal of good, especially by launching a series of workshops for young Kenyan artists like Shine Tani, who went on the become one of the founder members of the Banana Arts Studio and then the manager-owner of the Banana Arts Gallery. But it was after her death that a fresh new crop of Kenyan artists came into being, many of whom studied either at the Creative Arts Centre or the Buru Buru Institute of Fine Art. They include everyone from Michael Soi, Richard Kimathi, Michael Wafula, Beatrice Njoroge, Dennis Muraguri and Maggie Otieno among many others. At the same time, the ‘self-taught’ artists got their chance to grow, influencing one another at Kuona Trust, which was an offshoot of Gallery Watatu, based initially at the Nairobi National Museum.

Michael Soi – From the series “China Loves Africa” (2013)

The 21st century has witnessed remarkable changes in the local arts industry, especially with the launching of RaMoMa in 2000 and the GoDown in 2003, both of which were subsidized by the Ford Foundation. But Kenyan artists who had come to take foreign donor funding for granted had a rude awakening after the 2008 economic crash. The funds quickly dried up and only those who had already learned the art of art-preneurship — a term I learned from two Kenyatta university art lecturers, Edward Ndekere and Frances Kaguru — were easily able to sustain themselves.

A selection of works by Beatrice Wanjiku Njoroge

What Ndekere and Kaguru understood was that in order to survive as an artist in Kenya today, one must somehow combine entrepreneurship with their artistic energy. It’s a harsh reality that many artists don’t feel comfortable with; but the recent East African Art Auction that was run by the new Circle Art Agency clearly showed that for artists to break out of penury and be successful artistically and financially, they need to find out how to bless an entrepreneurial perspective with their art.

Rose Jepkorir, of Circle Art Agency, displays a painting for the first commercial auction of east African art on November 4 (Photo – Simon Maina)


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