New Nairobi agency unveils the best of East African art

Friday July 4 2014

From left, The painting ‘Background3’  by Ethiopian Artist Dawit Abebe and ‘In Between 6’ by Dawit Abebe. Right: ‘Lost in Thought’ by Ian Mwesiga of Uganda. PHOTO/Zihan Kassam

From left, The painting ‘Background3’ by Ethiopian Artist Dawit Abebe and ‘In Between 6’ by Dawit Abebe. Right: ‘Lost in Thought’ by Ian Mwesiga of Uganda. PHOTO/Zihan Kassam 

West and South Africa are well established on the world stage for contemporary art, but what exactly does East African art look like?

Presently, with the international lens so focused on African art, collectors are actively exploring the region to discover new talent. Circle Art Agency, Kenya’s first independent art agency, is on a quest to convey the face of art in East Africa today.

Art agencies are a new concept in Kenya. They are responsible for providing expert advice to individuals and corporates selecting artwork.

Based in Nairobi, Circle Art Agency is the fastest growing agency in East Africa, and possibly the most reputable. This is largely due to the fact that they ensure that both the artists and collectors get a fair price but also because Kenyans are ready to appreciate the arts.

In 2013, Circle took Nairobi by surprise. Just a few months after their first pop-up exhibition at the swanky PWC Tower in May, they stole the limelight with a prestigious art auction at the grand Villa Rosa, Kempinski on November 5, 2013.

An influential auction, where 42 of 47 lots met their reserve price and multiple lots exceeded the estimated sales price, the event catalysed the art scene, and drew significant attention to the talented artists and high-art accessible in Kenya.


Just a year before, local collectors had been somewhat invisible and art exhibitions were seldom acknowledged by anyone but the usual trickle of the converted.

Now, all of a sudden, Nairobi is the hub for East African art, and both local and international collectors are pursuing top names in the region. They are selecting original artwork for existing or new collections.

Circle’s second pop-up exhibition, ‘Paper’, took place in March this year at a luxurious house in Nairobi’s residential area of Lower Kabete.  Up to 90 percent of the works in the exhibition sold on the first night of the three-day show.

The most recent pop-up exhibition comprised of a comprehensive presentation of East African art prodigies.

Curator Danda Jaroljmek corresponded with long-time art associates in the region, travelling to Uganda and Tanzania to carefully select works — the extraordinary, the unusual, the experimental and the sublime.

With the support of Circle’s wide-reaching network including 32º East in Kampala, Nafasi Art Space in Dar es Salaam, artist, Wanja Kimani and writer Karen Obling in Addis Ababa, and artist Salah Elmur in Khartoum, Jaroljmek surveyed the regional art scene, following leads on artists, both established and upcoming.

The result was ‘East African Encounters’, Circle’s third pop-up show which featured some of the most innovative artists on the scene in Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

When the doors of ‘East African Encounters’ opened to the public on Saturday, June 21, Circle had done it again!

From Ethiopia were works by Ephrem Solomon and Dawit Abebe, both of whom are experiencing a rapid trajectory having recently been acquired by world-renowned art collector, Charles Saatchi. Ephrem Solomon is represented by Circle in Kenya.

Since his set of three paintings titled ‘The Poor Gambler,’ ‘Untitled,’ and ‘The Gambler 4’ sold for a total of Sh704,400 at the November auction, Solomon’s work has skyrocketed in demand, experiencing an impressive increase in value.

Walking into the ‘East African Encounters’ exhibition at the Ramara showroom last month, Dawit Abebe’s gigantic mixed media painting ‘In Between 6’ (180x140cm) was straight ahead and stopped all in their tracks. 

An anonymous male figure is set to the left of the canvas, his frame tilted diagonally so that his feet rest at the bottom-centre of the work.


Like slides of a muddled kaleidoscope, gashes of paint in hazy geometric layers seem to eclipse each other. A natural colorist, Abebe works in a truly symphonic palette of vermillion and oxidised reds, orange, green, piercing blue, scribbly charcoal black, stark white and varying shades of ivory.

Evoking crucifixion, this enigmatic male figure has his arms outstretched and pinned back.

Because his body is so intentionally disproportionate, it is highly emotive. His wide chest, tapered legs, and fractioned body exude a strain that is hard to pinpoint. The character appears strong and wise, too wise for this world, perhaps. There is a feeling that he is rising and yet somehow still chained to fate.

Upon closer inspection, we see a murky world behind him (possibly representing the past) and a clear path before him (the future?). It is as if trying to break through to the foreground but the strong posts of a jagged fence are in the way.

There is definitely an interference. Perhaps that is why he finds himself in that strange place, ‘In Between’. We wonder, is Abebe portraying himself?

From Kenya, Jaroljmek selected some unconventional and radical artists; Kota Otieno, a free spirit who operates under the radar, perpetually astonishes his audience with ingenious use of materials.

His quilted ‘Baby Osinya’ tapestry integrates segments of painted soil. Sidney Mang’ong’o, is a quiet character, whose new mixed media collages sold out at the exhibition preview. There were captivating works by Mbuthia Maina, Dennis Muraguri, Michael Soi and Wanja Kimani.

Showing 25 artists in total, Circle exposed us to visions we had never seen before. From Tanzania, we were hypnotised by Vita Malulu’s metaphorical sculpture made with wire mesh, and melted recycled plastic bags, and Nadir Tharani’s controlled blusters of ink on paper.

The exhibition embraced various media including monochrome prints by Rwandese artist, John Taouss Tuyisabe, curious narratives in oil by prominent Sudanese artist Salah Elmur and glossy socio-political paintings by Ugandans Paul Ndema and Eria ‘Sane’ Nsubuga.

Curator Danda Jaroljmek says Circle’s next big event is the 2nd Modern and Contemporary East African Art Auction to be held on November 3 at Kempinski again. “We are collecting some excellent art and hope to have or exceed the success of the first one in 2013,” Jaroljmek said.

Jaroljmek acknowledges sponsor CFC Stanbic Bank and drinks sponsors, Kempinski, Ramara and Absolut. It appears that significant financial investment and many months of planning go in to these huge pop-ups.