Wambui Kamiru has never been someone who thinks small. Whether one sees her as a scholar (a graduate of Cambridge University in African history), a researcher or a conceptual artist, Wambui has always been fearless about finding ways to reach out, take risks and ask questions that others may not have dared consider or even think to ask.
For instance, when she decided to prepare her first conceptual art installation, she chose a theme that could encompass not only Kenya but the whole African and Pan-African region.
‘Harambee63’ was partially about Kenya achieving Independence in 1963; but her multimedia installation also interrogated Pan-African liberation struggles and their leaders — everyone from Franz Fanon and Martin Luther King Jr to Patrice Lumumba, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and a wide array of other freedom fighters who took stands for liberation, be it from colonialism, racism, exploitation or oppression of all kinds.
And when she teamed up with Xavier Verhoest to ask the question, ‘Who Are We?’ It was an issue she took all over Kenya to assorted communities to get people thinking more deeply about what it really means to be a Kenyan.
But as her first love is for the arts, Wambui has now ventured into another dimension of the contemporary Kenyan art world. Last Thursday night, she launched The Art Space just off Riverside Drive.
“I’d been thinking about setting up an art gallery for some time; but it was only after I’d decided to curate a sculpture exhibition for Gakunju Kaigwa that I realized there was a real need for more art spaces,” Wambui told Saturday Nation.
She had considered any number of places where local artists exhibit their work, but none suited her needs. “So I woke up one morning two months ago and decided the time had come to open an art space myself,” she said.
INSPIRED BY ELIMO NJAU
She says she was inspired by Elimo Njau, who co-founded Kenya’s first indigenous African art centre, Paa ya Paa, and Shine Tani, who also established his own commercial art gallery at Banana Hill.
The big difference between these ‘pioneers’ and Wambui is of course gender. She’s the first Kenyan woman who’s both an artist and an entrepreneur, as well as someone who says she plans to “stand toe to toe” with other gallerists in the country.
“Of course, we are still a work in progress,” she said a few days after opening The Art Space and her first exhibition entitled ‘In the coming year.’
But already she’s exhibiting 25 East African artists including more established artists like Dennis Muraguri, Cyrus Kabiru, Kepha Mosoti, Anne Mwiti and Kivutha Mbuno. She has also selected well-known local artists such as Kamal Shah, Shabu Mwangi, Yassir Ali, Rahab Shine, Zihan Kassam, Waweru Gichoka and Brian Omolo.
But one thing she is clearly pleased about is her new-found capacity to offer art space to lesser known regional and local artists like George Ngaruiya, James Njoroge, Reginald Mughanga, Aron Boruya, Fawaz El Said, Jude Kassanga and Saad Lukwago.
“One reason I wanted to set up an Art Space is to debunk the (hackneyed) view I heard someone say recently, which was that ‘there is no art in Kenya’, which is so patently untrue,” Wambui said. She has had a studio at Kuona Trust for the past three years and witnessed a thriving local arts community busy creating amazing original works.
“I’m not trying to compete with anybody,” she said. “What I’m really wanting to do is help to grow the art spaces in Kenya,” which in turn is bound to strengthen, illuminate and expand the regional art world.