If you are intimidated by ‘art jargon’ out there but covertly crave the cliff-notes on the chronicles of East African art, there are effective launching pads and platforms to help you play catch-up.
Far from the extravagant exhibition openings and events for charity, Nairobi’s emergent art scene offers alternatives to satisfy your genuine compulsion toward the arts.
At Kenyatta University’s Fine Arts Department, heads of department are looking at new ways to expose their students to the international world of high art.
Fine Arts Department Chairman Francis Kaguru and the Head of Drawing, Prof Elizabeth Mazrui, are bringing in experts to speak to art students, and any interested visitors, about the future of the arts in Kenya.
“These talks are important to our students, giving them a forum to discuss their art and the art of others around the world,” Multimedia and Interior Design Head Anne Mwiti says.
“Students network with art collectors and curators who promote art. It is critical for upcoming artists to see the big picture in the art market and the role they play in it.”
Last month, international art dealer and online auctioneer Ed Cross shared his accumulated knowledge of the contemporary visual arts in Africa.
Mr Cross lived in Kenya for many years. Now based in London, he represents emerging and established artists from the continent, connecting them with private and corporate collectors.
He has represented Kenya’s popular artists Peterson Kamwathi, Cyrus Kabiru, Richard Onyango and Michael Soi.
At his KU seminar, Mr Cross charted the paths of prospering African artists, highlighting the choices that elicited their success.
He called attention to internationally acclaimed sculptor El Anatsui whose metal-fabric hangings have transformed spaces like the façade of the historic Palazzo Fortuny at the 2007 Venice Biennale.
Cross pointed out how Anatsui revokes the label ‘African artist’ and challenges the outdated definition of African art.
He spoke about galleries on Cork Street, London. He observed that after 34 years in the business, the October Gallery finally showed their first Kenyan artist, Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga, known for her contemporary wall-hangings of steel wire and oxidised metal.
Born in Kenya but living in Texas, Gakunga’s débuted her work in the UK at October Gallery in 2013. Mr Cross also referenced the 1:54 art fair, the world’s first contemporary African art fair in London.
He showed KU’s nascent artists that the global art eye is slowly turning to East Africa. If seminars are not your thing but books are, maybe a record of the artists that have marked the local vista these last four decades will suit you.
Margaretta wa Gacheru’s first book, launched at the Alliance Française on September 16, 2014, serves as valuable springboard.
Kenya’s longest-standing Arts Correspondent, who wrote her first story in 1976 for Target Magazine under the National Christian Council of Kenya, has finally divulged the fruits of her theses in her book ‘Creating Contemporary African Art: Art Networks in Urban Africa: 1960 – 2010’.
With a relentless appetite for the arts these last four decades, Margaretta’s feeble hands are forever note-taking and capturing saccharine stories about Kenya’s arts and crafts.
Walking long distances and hopping on to matatus and boda bodas, the small-framed, energetic Margaretta has traced artists like Richard Onyango and Bertiers (Joseph Mbatia Njoroge) from humble beginnings to international acclaim.
Margaretta attempts to contextualise current artistic practices in Kenya, highlighting the jua kali art movement, which emphasises the ingenuity of Kenyan artists with limited resources.
She reveals her viewpoint on the lives and work of numerous artists, most of whom come from Nairobi’s informal sector.
Exhibitions in Nairobi can be as short as an afternoon or as long as a year. Sometimes we forget that after the crowded openings, galleries will fall quiet and are the perfect asylum for curious souls who want to get close to the art.
A good starting point is the retrospective Jak Katarikawe exhibition at the Nairobi Gallery, which combines efforts by the National Museums of Kenya and Alan Donovan of The Murumbi Collection and African Heritage House. Showing at the old PC building next to Nyayo House, it runs until December.
One of East Africa’s most celebrated and collected pioneer artists, Katarikawe’s was born in Uganda, but has lived in Kenya for decades.
Combining painting and storytelling, he paints his dreams where man and creature co-exist and where animals take on human traits and appearance.
Katarikawe gained exposure through Ruth Schaffner of Gallery Watatu.
His artwork has been exhibited extensively internationally and regularly comes up at auction.
These are many hurtling points to catapult you in to the world of modern and contemporary East African Art and, once you have gained confidence and feel ready to venture into public territory, you will most likely find that Nairobi’s art scene is less intimidating than you had imagined.
With painters, sculptors, writers and dealers, the new art landscape in Nairobi is looking more prolific than it ever has been.