Article by: MARGARETTA WA GACHERU
The Nairobi art scene is definitely in transition, with centers like Kuona Trust in poor health financially.
In spite of the artists’ hope that they can continue to work there, the Trust is apparently preparing to shut down just as other important art centers have done in recent times.
Cynics who cite galleries like Art Space, Watatu and RaMoMa as “evidence” that the art scene is in decline need to look beneath the surface to appreciate the ongoing dynamism of the Nairobi art world.
So do not let anyone tell you the local art scene is losing ground because it is not! In transition, yes, but in place of the institutions, one is witnessing new art spaces opening up, like Dust Depo and Brush Tu Art Studios, The Attic (where Ehoodi Kichapi and Yassir Ali currently have a show), The Metta in Westlands and Ikigai (where “Hidden Stories from Egypt,” curated by GravitArt, is hosting a lovely group exhibition right now) and even upstairs at the Kenya National Theatre (where Anne Mwiti now has a one-woman show).
A whole range of local artists are moving out of institutional or communal settings, not because they do not like their fellow artists, but because they need room (both physically and mentally) to create new works. The best evidence of the burgeoning nature of the Nairobi art world is the myriad group and solo exhibitions which are running right now. Leaving aside the countless craft shows that are happening this month, in time for last-minute holiday shopping, there are group shows all over town.
They are everywhere from One Off Gallery (where all the art is “Blue”), Circle Art (having an end-of-year show) and Red Hill Gallery (entitled ‘Eclectic’) to the Nairobi National Museum (featuring the trio called BSQ, short for Bomb Squad in one gallery and TICAH’s Urembo show (which combines contemporary art and material culture) in another.
Group shows have also been on at the Polka Dot Gallery (for “affordable art” starting as low as Sh2,000), British Institute of East Africa (with Urban Perspectives curated by Craig Halliday), the Talisman Restaurant (to see artworks by Jemma Davies and Larissa Hoops), Dream Cona in Uhuru Gardens and The Mix (refugee art) at Kuona Trust.
Then there are several solo exhibitions as well, one at Banana Hill Gallery (by Sebastian Kiarie), another at Maasai Mbili (by Gomba Otieno) and still another at MatBronze Gallery showing Feather Art by Jasper Horsey.
What is more, a brand new online art gallery just came alive last week. Christine (aka Kui) Ng’ang’a just launched Kendi Art, which promises to offer Kenyan artists enhanced opportunities for exposure at a global as well as a local level. It also will offer the wider art-loving public a chance to see the vibrancy and diversity of the Kenyan art scene.
One special appeal of Kendi Art is that Kui has done extensive research on the issue of shipping artworks and has been able to solve and simplify that problem so that shipping is no longer something that keeps Kenyans from purchasing the art.
But Kendi Art is not the only online art gallery coming out of Nairobi. GravitArt has been operating and amassing artworks of mostly Kenyans since early this year.
Veronica P. also has a range of handiwork by artists based in Nairobi available to view on her website as well for sale. Those works are by artists from Southern Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda. Both Kendi Art and GravitArt offer new opportunities for East African artists to share and sell their work to worldwide audiences.
Finally, a further illustration of how dynamic our local art scene transpired early last week at Circle Art Gallery where a number of local artists had been invited by Danda Jaroljmek to speak about their recent experiences as they moved beyond Kenyan borders to attend various art-related events.
Some had attended art residencies; others had been to art fairs and workshops, while still others had been to the Venice Biennale.
Those who shared their experiences included Thom Ogonga, Beatrice Wanjiku, Longinos Nagila, Maral Bolouri, Jackie Karuti, Nyambura Waruingi, Joel Lubalo among others. Each of them gave inspiring accounts of their experience that encouraged other artists to explore further opportunities overseas.
In fact, the numbers of local artists who divide their time between art activities overseas and those here at home are many more than I can count.