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Development in the Kenyan art scene

“The art market is really developing,”

Wangechi Mutu – A Fantastic Journey at the Brooklyn Museum October 2013 – March 2014

“The art market is really developing,” said Eltayeb Dawelbait, a Sudanese artist who works in Kenya, when interviewed for a BBC programme on Kenyan art (East Africa’s Fast Evolving Art Scene) back in 2013. “There’s something happening in Europe where they’re now discovering East African art, the big companies here in Kenya are creating spaces for art and people are learning to differentiate between the quality of art being produced.”

Although East Africa has been evolving in the art scene in recent years, it has dragged behind South Africa and West Africa – which have had vibrant and dynamic art scenes for the past few decades. In fact, after much controversy over the scandal at the 56th Venice biennale where, for a second time, Kenya was being largely represented by Chinese and Italian artists, last year’s 57th Venice Biennale finally had Kenyan artists represented in the Kenyan pavilion.

The artists represented were Arlene Wandera, whose 3D artwork played around the themes of space and emotions; the artistic multimedia duo Mwangi Hutter, who reflect on changing social realities whilst also creating aesthetics of self-knowledge and inter-relationship; Paul Onditi, whose painted collages visualise an imaginative world of chaos and other nuances of urban and contemporary existence; Peterson Kamwathi, whose highly conceptual artworks explore the place, role, symbolism and meaning of processions within contemporary ceremonies and political protocol; and Richard Kimathi, whose paintings’ compositions and themes form simple narratives with philosophical depth and humour.

Other Kenyan artists to look out for would include Beatrice Wanjiku, whose expressionist artwork explores the realities surrounding us; Longinos Nagila, whose multimedia work explores the concept of industrialisation, mass production and urbanization; Wangechi Mutu, whose multimedia work explores self-image, gender constructs, cultural trauma and environmental destruction; Jimmy Ogonga, an artist and producer who curated the Kenyan pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale and whose work involves artistic practice as well as curatorial; Jim Chuchu, a filmmaker and visual artist and Michael Soi, whose hard-edged compositions speak about female issues in Africa.

Kenya is said to lack the infrastructure needed for artists but, despite many challenges, artists working in Kenya describe it as being an immensely stimulating and inspiring place in which to produce art. As a matter of fact, the Circle Art Gallery, which opened to the public in 2015 following an art auction organised in 2013 with the aim of developing a sustainable art market for Kenya, is all about building an art scene that is viable and not dependent on the generosity of foreign institutions such as the Alliance Francaise and the Goethe Institute which, up until now, have helped finance the production of art in Kenya.

While Kenyan artists are being inspired to create more art, the world looks on as they exhibit their work worldwide. A group exhibition at the Red Hill Art Gallery just outside Nairobi, which runs until 21 January, will feature the work of Beatrice Wanjiku, Peterson Kamwathi and Paul Onditi,amongst others. Peterson Kamwathi’s work will also be represented by Galerie Ernst Hilger at the Art Paris Fair 2018, whilst Mwangi Hutter will exhibit their Innocent of Black and White at Kunstverein Ludwigshafen, Germany, between 26 January and 22 April and Time Zone Equinox at the Sheppard Contemporary and University Galleries in Nevada, USA, from 15 March to 10 May.

Wangechi Mutu’s latest commission for the Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston, USA) will be exhibited at the Sandra and Gerald Fineberg Art Wall between 20 January and 31 December and Jim Chuchu’s exhibition Invocations runs until 24 June at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, USA.  

Attached image: Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey – 11 October 2013 to 9 March 2014 at the Brooklyn Museum.

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