TWO YOUNG KENYAN ARTISTS WIN LOCAL RESIDENCIES
BY Margaretta wa Gacheru
More than a decade ago, the Ford Foundation funded the first Kenya contemporary art catalog entitled Therathini featuring thirty prominent Kenya-based visual artists picked by a self-appointed committee of four or five ex-patriot art lovers. The book very nearly didn’t get published due internal differences among committee members.
Nonetheless, Theratini marked a certain coming of age of contemporary Kenyan art as it was the first catalog of mostly Nairobi-based visual artists since the German scholar Johanna Agthe published Signs: Art from East Africa 1974-1979 in 1980.
What the Kenyan public mostly doesn’t realize is that since 2010, another self-appointed committee of local art lovers (a number of whom are indigenous Kenyans) has annually assembled a different sort of visual arts catalog in the form of a January through December calendar filled with more than twice the number of Kenyan artists including a sample of their art work.
The first Kenya Arts Diary  came out in late 2010 covering 52 weeks’ worth of local artists’ work plus each one’s mug shot and brief bio as well as their contacts so the public could communicate with the artists directly, thus eliminating the need for a middle man.
A 2011 Diary was so well received (featuring art by Beatrice Njoroge on the cover) that the committee has continued assembling the diary every year without ever duplicating artists being represented.
This year the diary’s founder, glass artist Nani Croze of Kitengela Glass, insisted that funds from advertising featured in the diaries had to go to support all-expenses-paid art residencies of up-and-coming young Kenyans.
“Everyone who works on the diary is a volunteer,” Nani said. “But to clarify that the diary is meant to promote Kenyan visual artists, we felt establishing art residencies that not only cover accommodations, food and a free space among fellow artists for a month for the winning artists, but also art materials and a weekly stipend as well.”
This year two Kenyan artists were awarded the KAD Young Artists Art Residency. Mike Kyalo, whose been based at the GoDown mentored by Patrick Mukabi, won and went for a month to work at Kuona Trust and Erza Joab from Kisumu received a tie vote from KAD adjudicators so he also won and went to Kitengela Glass for a month, working closely with Nani Croze.
Unfortunately, Ezra had to return to Kisumu before he could exhibit his work alongside Kyalo’s at Kuona Trust. But the oil paintings and sculptures that Kyalo presented at the opening of his ten day exhibition (which is still running through October 19th) more than confirmed that the Art Diary initiative supporting local Kenyans is a fine way to promote contemporary art in the country.
Kyalo confessed to BD Life that he hardly slept the entire month, and the amount of art work that he produced in that time was remarkable. But more than the quantity and variety of Kyalo’s output. It was the quality of his work that was most impressive.
At the opening of his show and surrounded by Kuona artists who had warmly received and wisely advised the 25 year old self-taught artist, Kyalo explained how he’d selected the subject matter for everyone of his two dozen paintings.
He said the focus of his interest was on working people who he’d observed throughout his month at Kuona. His works featured everyone from boda boda and tuk tuk drivers, including their passengers to venders of milk, mitumba, charcoal and pirated videos.
But he also chose to try out new media and techniques he’d never tried before, such as wood carving and sculpting with scrap metal.
“I listened carefully to all the Kuona artists who had time for me, like Kevin Oduor [the sculptor who created the Dedan Kimathi statue] who encouraged me to try out new techniques and not get stuck in one art form only,” Kyalo said.
“Paul Onditi was also very helpful, telling me about pricing and marketing of my work; and Anthony Wanjau also challenged me to make sure I’m thinking deeply about what I’m doing and not to just make art for its own sake,” Kyalo added.
Noting how much Kyalo had changed in one month’s time, Kuona’s Managing Director Sylvia Gichia said he seemed shy and slightly unsure of himself when he gave his initial presentation upon arrival at the Trust. “But tonight he’s far more self-assured and clear about what he’s doing artistically,” Sylvia said. “He’s definitely benefited from his time with us at Kuona Trust,” she added.
In fact, Kyalo concurred with Sylvia’s assessment. But one thing he found most invaluable about the KAD art residency, he said, was getting to know so many gifted Kenyan artists, many of whom embraced him like a son.
“He’s shown a lot of courage, especially working with oil paints which we know is not easy; but we can see Kyalo has handled them really well. That’s my boy!” added award-winning mixed media artist Paul Onditi.