A HOLIDAY GIFT TO KENYAN ARTISTS//
By Margaretta wa gacheru. Published January 3rd, 2014
Kuona Trust gave the Nairobi art world a fabulous Christmas (or New Year’s) present last weekend but one [Dec 13/14] when they invited ‘generations’ of Kenyan artists to attend a series of panels that the Trust organized.
Missing out on a few of the ‘older’ generation of artists as well as many of the (what shall we call them?) ‘newer’, up and coming, younger Kenyan artists, there was just a wee bit of grumbling from those who felt they had been overlooked by the organizers.
But that was the risk Kuona director Sylvia Gichia took when she decided the best way to celebrate Kenya’s first fifty years of visual arts (what the Trust named Art@50) was to allow the old timers to speak freely to the younger, less experienced local artists about some lessons they had learned.
In fact, in the past, I have heard several Kenyan artists complain that their predecessors might have made their struggles a little lighter if they had shared how they had coped with problems artists everywhere confront, such as lack of funds, art materials, space, and even appreciation from the public.
So I say Kuona was on the right track to bring together older artists such as Yony Waite, founder of Gallery Watatu, Leonard Katete, Sane and Eunice Wadu, Wanyu Brush, Joseph Bertiers Mbatia and Wakonyote Njuguna with the likes of Florence Wangui, Wambui Kamiru, Jackie Karuti, Kevin Oduor, Beatrice Wanjiku Njoroge, Peterson Kamwathe, Dennis Muraguri, Justus Kyalo and James Muriuki with moderator Mutheu.
Yet anytime one starts classifying Kenyan artists according to ‘generations’, there are countless problems that arise. For one thing, Gakunju Kaigwa was placed within the ‘younger’ generation, and yet he has been painting and especially sculpting for many more years than, for instance, Bertiers Mbatia has done.
And would Patrick Mukabi qualify to be a ‘youngster’ when experientially at least, he has been more of a mentor and art instructor to a myriad of young Kenyan artists than most art lecturers one will find in art institutional settings such as Buru Buru Institute of Fine Art or even Kenyatta University’s Fine Art Department.
The fallacy of the so-called generational classification was best illustrated the previous weekend at Paa ya Paa Art Centre when Elimo and Phillda Njau hosted Dr Elizabeth Orchardson-Mazrui’s curated exhibition of the artistic legacy of the late Louis Mwaniki.
It was Terry Hirst, founder of the Kenyatta University College Fine Art Department (in 1966) who gave a paper putting Mwaniki’s immense yet unsung contribution to East African contemporary art into a broad historical context.
Going back to early Kenyan artists like Gregory Maloba, Rosemary Karuga and Samwel Wanjau, Hirst even saluted the early Kamba carvers, leave alone the founder of Makerere University’s School of Fine Art, Margaret Trowell who had been busy since the 1930s training young African artists.
But Thom Ogonga, one of the two moderators of the first panel with Wakonyote, echoed one of Hirst’s most salient points, which is that the contemporary Kenyan art realm has been especially weak on documentation such that Kuona can hardly be faulted for not knowing all the historical details about an art world that has been dynamic for decades but under-documented and undervalued often by the public at large and especially by Kenyan policy makers and politicians who rarely have a clue about the aesthetic or economic value of the visual arts.
Wakonyote made a valiant effort to give a thumbnail summary of the East African art scene, mirroring many of the points made by Terry Hirst, although quite a few of his insights were slightly more current than Hirst’s.
Wak even took note of the emergence of various art educational institutions besides KU’s, including everything from the Kenya Art Society, YMCA Craft Training Centre and French Cultural Centre’s Art Studio to BIFA and the Creative Art Centre.
He didn’t mention all the art residencies and workshops that have gone on everywhere from Paa ya Paa and Kitengela Glass to RaMoMa Museum, GoDown Art Centre and Kuona Trust.
But Wak did take care to mention the rising role of public art on the local art scene, which includes the outdoor sculptures of men like Jomo Kenyatta, Dedan Kimathi, Tom Mboya and Louis Leakey, and public events like Sisi kwa Sisi, which in the early 1980s was artists’ initiative to literally bring art to the people living in Eastland estates and so-called slums.
What was probably the most fruitful feature of Art@50was the opportunity the occasion availed artists of all ages, experiences and backgrounds to meet (and eat with) one another and share ideas and especially contacts, so that in future, they can meet again and carry on the conversations that only began at Kuona’s holiday gift of 2013.