The idea of developing a lucrative art industry in the region is nothing new. What is new to Nairobi is the way Circle Art has organized events like their pop-up art exhibitions which took place in surprisingly un-stuffy spots like people’s private homes and the wall space of an improbable furniture store.
That was before Circle Art Agency got its own gallery. But even starting up a membership ‘club’ (where only those who sign up and pay the set fee) was a smart idea insofar being a member means that one not only has access to more in-depth information about the regional and local art scene. Members are also likely to attend the annual Circle Art Modern and Contemporary East African Art Auction like the one just held last Tuesday night at the Villa Rosa Kempinski Hotel.

Modern and Contemporary East African Art Auctions. Circle Art Agency
Modern and Contemporary East African Art Auctions. Circle Art Agency

This was the third Art Auction organized by Circle Art and already it’s become an event highly anticipated well in advance of the actual evening both by artists and art-lovers alike.
And it’s not only because the champagne flows freely both before and during the actual auction, courtesy of Moet & Chandon. Nor is it just because of the sweet canapes provided by the Hotel which also opens up its grand ballroom for the auction night as well as for several days prior to it so the public can come see the art to be auctioned and ideally to place a bid before the big night.
Last Tuesday was especially ‘big’ for the artists whose works ultimately sold for a grand total of Ksh19.5 million after being auctioned off in style by the charismatic British auctioneer Dendy Easton, who formerly worked for both Sotheby’s and Bonham’s auction houses in London and now works with BBC’s Antique Roadshow.
This is the third time that Mr Easton has accepted Circle Art director Danda Jaroljmek’s invitation to come conduct her and her co-director Arvind Vohora’s annual event. The first year, 2013, he auctioned off KSh18.5 million and the second, 2014, he managed to auction KSh18.8 million.

Capacity crowd at Circle Art Agency's Modern and Contemporary East African Art Auction 2015 Nairobi
Capacity crowd at Circle Art Agency’s Modern and Contemporary East African Art Auction 2015 Nairobi

This year, he seemed more comfortable, even jovial with the ballroom-full audience, including the standing-room only people in the back of the substantial seating arrangement where the bulk of bidders were busier than ever, raising their numbered paddles high whenever they wanted to take a stab at owning one of the 51 artworks from five East African countries (plus Botswana) which had been collected over a period of months by the Circle Art staff.
What I found especially gratifying this year was seeing so many Kenyan artists’ works included in the auction, many of whom hadn’t been included in the two previous auctions.

Photo: Circle Art Agency
Photo: Circle Art Agency

For instance, we’d seen internationally acclaimed Kenyan artists like Peterson Kamwathi and Yony Waite included in past auctions. But we’d never seen the works of nearly 20 more Kenyans in the colorful catalogue before.
And if one added the regional artists who spent many years practicing and perfecting their art in this country, people like Uganda’s Theresa Musoke and Jak Katarikawe, South Africa’s Charles Sekano and even the British-born painter Timothy Brooke who moved to Kenya in his youth, then it’s over 20 artists from here whose works sold very well at auction this year.
Not surprising, the highest sales for a work of Kenyan art went to Kamwathi {at Ksh647,700] for his charcoal on paper painting, Peri-Urban Encounters. But not too far behind came Richard Onyango’s Salambo Night Trailer (selling for KSh528,300), Michael Wafula’ abstract expressionist work Political Affiliation (at Ksh469,600) and Yony Waite’s Migration (sold for ksh446,120).

Peterson Kamwathi (Kenyan, born 1980) Peri Urban Encounters II, circa 2012/13. Signed 'signature' (lower right) Charcoal on paper 151 x 183 cm. Photo: Circle Art Agency
Peterson Kamwathi (Kenyan, born 1980) Peri Urban Encounters II, circa 2012/13. Signed ‘signature’ (lower right) Charcoal on paper 151 x 183 cm. Photo: Circle Art Agency

This was the first year that Circle included the category of photography in the auction and both color images of Jacob Barua and Antony Kaminju sold relatively well. Barua’s Good Fences make for Good Neighbors sold for ksh164,360 while Kaminju’s Soweto Party for Ksh 211,320.
Several gems in the auction, all Kenyan, also did well as art lovers weren’t particularly put off by the smaller size of their art. For instance, Peter Elungat’s miniature painting, Great Times of Angelina went for ksh135,000 while Edward Njenga’s diminutive terracotta figurenes sold for a fabulous ksh469,600 and KSh410,900 respectively and even the delicate linocut print by Geraldine Robarts went for Ksh140,000.

Rashid Diab (Sudanese, born 1957) Out of Focus, 2015. Signed 'signature 2015' (centre) Acrylic on canvas 108 x 146 cm. Photo; Circle Art Agency
Rashid Diab (Sudanese, born 1957) Out of Focus, 2015. Signed ‘signature 2015’ (centre) Acrylic on canvas 108 x 146 cm. Photo; Circle Art Agency

But without doubt the four show stealers of the night were Rashid Diab’s Out of Focus and Geoffrey Mukasa’s At Home (both of whose works sold for KSh1,878,400 each), Eli Kyeyune’s Untitled beauty which sold for Ksh1,643,600 and Dawit Abebe’s Background which started off the night by garnering a good ksh1,291,400.
Meanwhile, the other Kenyans in the auction were not disappointed with the bids their works received. Artists like Samuel Githui, Beatrice Wanjiku, Dickens Otieno, Joseph Bertiers Mbatia and Justus Kyalo all did quite well, especially as it’s obvious that being a part of Circle Arts’ Auction is bound to improve one’s cultural cachet, which is why I feel the 2015 East African art auction was the best one we’ve seen so far in terms of growing Kenya burgeoning art industry in a major way.