Review by Phylis Luganda
Published January 27, 2008
In Kenya, artists are viewed as both social misfits and dreamers who live in a fantasy world of their own in an
attempt to escape from social reality. But why is this so? It is because they “do not give a damn” about what society views as “proper social values”, writes Njuguna Wakanyote in his introduction to Contemporary Art in Kenya coffee table magazine on a juried exhibition of paintings, sculptures, mixed media and urban art in Kenya that took place in Nairobi under the banner of French-German cultural cooperation on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty signed by General Charles de Gaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1963 to seal reconciliation and friendship between France and the Federal Republic of Germany. PHYLIS LUGANDA writes.
Held February 28-March 31, 2006 at both Goethe-Institut and Alliance Francaise, the juried exhibition-cum competition recognised excellence and achievement in paintings, sculptures, mixed media and new media art.
To celebrate the Franco-German friendship, artists were asked to create pieces of art using modern medium of urban art for public spaces between Goethe-Institut and Alliance Francaise that stand barely 50 metres apart in Nairobi CBD. Thus a special art category ‘Symbolink’ that was not judged was created.
Launched in December 2005, 450 entries from 180 artists were received out of which 112 artworks by 80 artists were selected following the criteria of originality, presentation, aesthetics/pictorial unity and skill of handling medium.
In a ceremony presided over by Hubert Fournier (Ambassador of France), Walter von den Driesch (a.i. Chargé d’affaires of Germany representing Germany as Ambassador Bernd Braun had just left Kenya) and Silverse Anami (Kenya’s Director of Culture) on February 28, 2006, Joseph Mbatia (Joseph Bertiers), whose Painting Cats received the jury prize, won a fully-paid two-week artistic stay in France and Germany. Samuel Githui (Best of Paintings), Maggie Otieno (Best of Sculptures) and Kamal Shah (Mixed Media) received cash awards while Beatrice Njoroge (Most Promising Female Artist) and Frederick Abuga (Most Promising Male Artist) were awarded Art Residences at Kuona Trust.
But the Contemporary Art in Kenya initiative was not just about Franco-German friendship, competition or exhibition. Wakanyote, a member of the jury, was asked to by Alliance Francaise to write this Contemporary Art in Kenya catalogue that we are reviewing.
Nani Croze’s floral, ‘Calling for Rain’, was part of the symbolink art painted on the ground between Goethe-Institut and Alliance Francaise
While 20% of the artists whose work was included in the exhibition are university-trained, more than 60% are self-taught.
In an easy-to-follow presentation, Wakanyote writes that the first major artistic effort after Kenya’s independence was the founding of Chemi Chemi Cultural Centre in Bahati, Nairobi, by South African Eskia Mphalele in 1963.
Other institutions he mentions include Paa ya Paa Art Centre (1965-), Creative Art Centre (1965-, YMCA Craft Training Centre (1966-), Buruburu Institute of Fine Arts (1993-), African Heritage Pan African Gallery (1972-2003), Banana Hill Art Studio (1992-), Ngecha Artists Association (1995-), Kuona Trust (1995-), The Go-Down Arts Centre (2003-), and Gallery of Contemporary East African Art (1985-).
Despite the fact that the art community in Kenya is growing, very few indigenous Kenyans buy art, thus making it difficult to live off art in the country.
Saying “the galleries worth writing home about are very few”, Wakanyote dismisses most establishments posing as galleries as “mere curio shops busy pandering to the taste of the tourist market for souvenirs.”
This gives the artist little option other than “to paint as the ‘Galleries’ demand and at a throwaway price to survive.”
Though the greedy shop owner is seen as exploitative while Kenyans do not buy art, Wakanyote contends, foreign buyers cannot be blamed for influencing the kind of art made in Kenya. After all “art, like any commodity, must obey the rules of supply and demand.”
Though the 36-page catalogue published in 2006 does not give a clear definition of what “contemporary art” is or how different it is from the “traditional art”, it carries brief biographies of the artists whose works are covered which is a commendable effort in documenting Kenyan artists. It also challenges other artists to work hard and produce quality work since they are able to realise that they are not at the top of their career but that there is stiff competition and only the best can hope to excel.
On the other hand, to open up local markets promote Kenyan art, the artists need to be more creative, great awareness in the communities by presenting interpretation of what their art are so that they can understand art and sell their work at affordable prices to the local buyers. They should also nurture the upcoming artists and those who desire to become artists by organising seminars and more exhibitions to motivate them exploit their talents and skills.
The catalogue also raises the question of whether the Kenyan government really supports art. If it does, it would have helped the artists start their own galleries to avoid being colonised in their own country through foreign cultural centres that are also taking art out of the country or it would have considered having a permanent collection of art through a well defined cultural policy.
The book will not only help Kenyans feel proud of their artists and promote their work but also foreigners who will not only feel happy snapping up any art but meaningful art work.
Though referred to as a catalogue, we have chosen to refer to this publication as a coffee table magazine because of its simplistic approach to art, a subject that should be treated with the seriousness it deserves.
A follow up exhibition on the artists who participated in the 2006 event is planned for March 2008 at Alliance Francaise. The CD-ROM version of the 2006 Contemporary Art in Kenya exhibition is planned for release during this follow up exhibition.