Visual Arts

– Tuesday, November 19

The great debates in Kenya’s art world

by Margaretta wa Gacheru

Michael Soi, Auction, 2013 [660 x 300]

Michael Soi – “Auction, 2013” l Acrylic on canvas l 100 x 200cm l Sold at auction for Ksh 293,500 ($3,337)

For decades, ever since contemporary African art became a talking point in global art circles, it was invariably West African art that was the primary talking point. East African art wasn’t even part of the conversation, and if Kenya by chance came up it was quickly dismissed for being just the land of wildlife souvenirs and wooden curios. That is the stereotype that has stuck to this day.
Yet for various reasons, that trend is changing, the main reason being that local artists have begun taking themselves seriously. They no longer accept the mainstream perceptions that artists are either poor, disreputable, semi-literates who cannot get a job anywhere else so they start calling themselves artists, or they are hustlers and boot-lickers who watch the expatriate market and reproduce ‘art work’ that European tourists will buy, such as tropical beach scenes or paintings of wildlife in the same vein as the acclaimed wildlife artist David Shepherd.

Such stereotypes have a grain of truth to them. For instance, there are artists who only produce paintings that they know they can sell to an expat audience, and they churn them out like hotcakes. The same is true of batik artists who reproduce a multitude of Maasais or African market scenes which they either hawk on the street or leave in local curio shops for the shopkeepers to sell.

But this raises the question of why art? Why do people create? It’s one of the leading debates in the local art world: Do Kenyan artists create art to make meaning or to make money? Is it really an either/or question? And is it really a crime if artists want to earn a living off of their art?

At a time when the term ‘art-preneurship’ is being bandied about in the donor world [meaning how to more effectively blend best business practices with the production of art], the most vibrant debate around is increasingly about how to strengthen Kenya’s ‘creative economy’? How to expand the country’s burgeoning ‘art industry’?

It is true that a number of artists don’t want to mix their creative output with a price tag. They find it distasteful to talk about money when all they want to do is create. Those artists however are in the minority in Kenya today. They are either extremely successful and thus, no longer need to worry about how to put bread on the table or they are businessmen or women who already have a different enterprise and thus an established cash flow that allows them to do what they love most, which is to create art from the heart.

Wanyu Brush next to “Never, Never, Never Again”, his abstract painting on the post-election violence. The painting sold for KSh2 million ($22,700) in 2011. (Photo by Fredrick Onyango at Gallery Watatu)

Many Kenyan artists however have in fact gone into painting or sculpting specifically because they have heard they could potentially make a lot of money as a painter or sculptor. They look at someone like Wanyu Brush who sold one painting at Gallery Watatu a couple of years ago for KSh2 million. And just recently, during the Circle Art Contemporary and Modern East African Art Auction, Sane Wadu sold a painting for KSh1.5 million, so they believe art can be an avenue in which to get rich quickly. Occasionally they can, if they have the talent, tenacity and passion to be productive, original, innovative and imaginative. But often, so-called self-taught artists are imitative of established artists that they see are making amazing art as well as attractive sales.

“World Trade Centre” by Sane Wadu | acrylic on paper | 65 x 276cm | Sold Ksh 1,526,200 ($17,356)

Closely related to this debate is the one that asks, are artists creating ‘art for art’s sake’ or creating art that has social relevance, art that serves as a sort of mirror reflecting the social realities of people’s everyday lives. There are those artists who claim they don’t want to be confined to being ‘relevant’ or to creating art that is ‘didactic’. They particularly don’t want to be dictated to be donors who want them to create works of art (be it in theatre, film or the visual arts) that talk about the donor’s topic, be it HIV-AIDS, FMG, PEV or whatever cause the donor wants popularized.

But there are other local artists who aggressively look to the donors for funding and projects that can make them money. They don’t see themselves are artistic ‘prostitutes’ as some of purist colleagues feel they are, selling their artistic services for cash dollars, sterling pounds, euros or even Deutsche marks.

Related to the topic of projects and artistic ‘prostitution’ is one of the most fundamental debates of all and that is about who controls the Kenyan art world? Is it the artists themselves, the gallery owners, the donors, or is it simply controlled by market forces, both local and global?

Some artists have taken a stand against doing short-term ‘projects’ that are usually subsidized by foreign donors who often enlist expatriate middlemen or women who help them by calling upon their network of local artists who actually carry out the requested art work.

Anthony Okello (Kenyan, born 1976) | “Masquerade – The Epilogue, 2013” | oil on canvas | 140 x 117cm | Sold Ksh 880,500 ($10,013)

One Kenyan artist claimed he was tired of being used as a ‘stepping stone’ for the middlemen and women to prosper while the actual artists were given a pittance after producing all the art work. Another artist vowed he would never work on a ‘project’ again since he knew he was being exploited while the man who pumped his brain for bright ideas took those to the prospective donor as a project proposal, then turned around and called someone else (whom he could pay less) to do the job.

A number of local artists are critical of what they call the neo-colonial condition of the Kenyan art world today. Meanwhile, there are others who choose to remain ‘independent’ and unaffiliated with any local gallery, art centre or donor. They have seen how some older East African artists got dependent on their expatriate patrons, so that when the patrons left town, died or ran out of money themselves, they were left stranded and sometimes even penniless.

Those Kenyan artists who vow never to get into that state of donor dependency are some of the most adamant about art-preneurship. Some have even gone so far as to disavow their art in order to be in the business of marketing East African art on a wider platform. These are entrepreneurs who realize that the only way for Kenyan and East African artists generally to find their way onto the global art map is by gaining broader visibility, which partly means doing a better job of marketing our art among both local art lovers and prospective international patrons as well.

“The World’s Craziest Bar” by Joseph Bertiers | oil on Canvas | 107 x 137.5cm | Sold Ksh821,800 ($9,600). Photograph by Circle Art Agency

That is easier said than done, but it is one reason why the Circle Art Agency came into being a bit more than a year ago. The Agency has been busy marketing Kenyan art to both local and Kenya-based global corporations using a variety of strategies — everything from going door to door with local art, mounting unique exhibitions at atypical sites like their recent Abstract Art Exhibition in the new PWC (PriceWaterhouseCooper) building, and organizing their first contemporary East African art auction. And especially in the case of the art auction, CAA spent months not only cultivating wealthy art patrons, but also calling upon the international media to do programs and write-ups about their exceptional art auction which they held at the brand new Five-Star Villa Rosa Kempinski Hotel in Nairobi.

Whether CAA has found the formula to put Kenyan contemporary art squarely on the global art map is anybody’s guess. But certainly, what they proved is that Kenya – and particularly Nairobi – has an amazing crop of young, talented and often brilliant local artists, not all of whom are Kenyans. Some are Ugandan, Sudanese, Ethiopian and Tanzanian.

No longer can Kenyan or East African contemporary art be ignored. No longer can it only be associated with curios and tourist souvenirs, for whether artists are creating ‘art for art’s sake’ or creating art to make meaning out of their own lives, there is definitely a qualitative leap in the local art world that is making waves not only in Kileshwa, Runda and Naivasha but all the way to London, Seoul, Beijing and San Francisco, and its value is going up incrementally as well.

Finally, the question of how to value Kenyan art has also begun but that is an issue that is still up for debate.


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